A Path Towards Urban Renewal: Community

Urban renewal takes community. Now that’s a loaded phrase! The first question that comes to mind when I hear that is, “What in the world do you mean when you say ‘community’?” Everyone has a different idea of what community is, and for every idea of what community is, there are hundreds of different ways that each idea could be lived out.

So I am not going to give my opinion of my ideas of what community is supposed to look like; that task is impossible because of all the various contexts and cultures that exist. What I hope to do though, is to paint a mental ethos of community and lay a foundation of some of the earmarks of healthy communities.

Jean Vanier, a Catholic philosopher turned theologian, in 1964 founded a community called L’Arche in France. L’Arche communities are intentional places of living where those with intellectual disabilities are able to have a safe place to live and share life with others who have intellectual disabilities as well as those who do not.

A core ethos of L’Arche communities is for each community to display the “reality that persons with intellectual disabilities possess inherent qualities of welcome, wonderment, spirituality, and friendship.” They desire to explicitly display “the dignity of every human being by building inclusive communities of faith and friendship where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together.” (from the web: http://www.larcheusa.org/)

So as to not reinvent the wheel, I want to use the inherent qualities L’Arche values as a means to lay a foundation or a framework for healthy communities which is a vital element of urban renewal.

Welcome: an instance or manner of greeting someone with pleasure and approval.

Greeting someone with love and warmth is an acquired gift, especially when we’re greeting someone who is radically different than we are, and possibly offensive in the way they live. Community takes a welcoming spirit. I was a Young Life leader for 10 years and have been associated with Young Life at an intimate level since 1994.

Young Life leaders (in my area at least) are some of the best welcomers I know. The spirit that Young Life exudes to kids in jr. and sr. high is one that is opposite of our every day culture. Mainstream culture (Christian and non-Christian) typically says, “You can belong to our group once you behave a certain way and believe what we believe.” Young Life flips that cultural script and says, “You belong with us regardless of your behavior and beliefs.” This is risky business, but I believe it’s the right kind of business to be about.

For community to work and be healthy, it must start with a welcoming spirit that says, “You belong here, even though there are big difference between us.” Belonging precedes behavior and belief.

Wonderment: a state of awed admiration or respect.

In the Christian, Judaic, and Sufi Islam worldviews, all humans have inherent value and worth because of the belief that we are all created in God’s image, which was later coined in it’s Latin form as the “Imago Dei.” When this doctrine is properly understood and fully believed, self-righteousness, biases, judgements, and racism will eventually all fade away, and we will begin celebrating the beauty of our differences.

Being thrilled about the gifts we bring to one another and respecting and valuing the differences of ourselves and other people is an essential element of healthy community. It is easy for us to be in a state of judgement and criticalness of each other, but to begin to be awed and amazed at the uniqueness and diversity of humanity is a part of every thriving community. Wonderment ought to follow welcoming.

Spirituality: matters concerning the human soul (heart, mind).

To respect and admire someone and not care about the deeper parts of the heart and mind (the soul), are to not fully love and respect someone. As much as we can talk about being a community of welcoming and wonderment, we must not neglect being a community who cares for souls. With that said, welcoming people and finding wonder in our diversity is not an invitation to turn a blind eye to unhealthy living and destructive behavior.

It is in caring for the spirituality of a person and a community where the deep parts of our hearts and minds are changed in the midst of a welcoming community of wonder. It is in this context where behaviors are not coerced to get in proper formation, but challenged to promote peace and welfare for the individual and the whole. Caring for someone’s healing (body and soul) begins to be a natural corrective part of healthy communities, but this is also where many offenses come in to play.

Healthy communities labor towards minds being renewed, which leads to destructive habits and thoughts being challenged in love, and proper accountability that seeks the welfare of souls, individually and corporately. This might be the hardest value to embody in community, but we must labor towards this end, as spiritual realities always affects material realities. Indeed, God has made the body and soul a beautiful unity.

Friendship: a relationship of mutual affection between two or more people.

There are many forms of friendship that we could talk about, but at the most basic level, I take friendship to be a place where relationships are rooted, meaning, they do not run away after conflict and disappointments ensue, and they always will. In our culture, where cars can take us far away from our neighborhoods and friendships, we have lost the sense of being rooted and sticking it out with friends when trials comes.

In the local church context, it is easy with the advent of cars to find a new church community when friends and leaders stop giving us what we want, or stop serving our needs seen only through the lens of what’s best for me. Friendship inside neighborhoods seem to be difficult as well, since walking to stores and appointments isn’t part of our culture either. We get into our hollow metal shells and drive past neighbors daily, and most of our friends live a cars drive away.

A lack of rootedness in a particular place has made many friendships a shallow, social media type friendship that can cut you off if you offend me, rather than a friendship that stays when things blow up. Friendship in healthy communities ought to include affection, sympathy, empathy, honesty, selflessness, mutual submission, compassion, confrontation, and the ability to royally blow it without losing the friendship. Friendships both give and receive.

I believe urban renewal depends on healthy expressions of communities in particular places and neighborhoods. This is how fabrics of care can be created inside blighted hoods, as neighbors form communities to band together to care for one another and for the needs of the underserved. Renewal happens holistically, and until people know that there is a community to belong to, programs and organizations will not be able to have a sustainable impact in the urban core.

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