Getting to know your neighborhood and its assets: God’s command is like a triangle of love…

5 May

This reflection was given by Jill Shook on Thursday, May 4th for the seven churches participating in the Congregational Land Cohort. The churches are exploring the idea of providing affordable housing on their church campuses. Additionally, team leaders from Washington, Texas, Colorado, and N. California attended who are exploring starting teams like ours. Our Congregational Land Team has been meeting for four years and has helped 28 churches so far to effectively partner with an affordable housing developer. The goal for this second of our four sessions was “Getting to know your city/neighborhood: housing types and models, population served.”

In Luke 10, an expert in Jewish law asked Jesus, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Answer? “To love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul, and to love your neighbor as yourself.”

Then the seeking to trick Jesus he asked, who is my neighbor?

Answer: Jesus told the famous parable of the Good Samaritan—where the one on the side of the road was ignored by the priest and Levite (and by too many of us because we are in a hurry to get to church on time, or to teach on this story.

A famous study in 1973 by Darley and Batson’s Good Samaritan, testing how seminarians responded to someone in need on their way to class. This “test” revealed that only 10% stopped to help.

I am always so amazed and challenged by Jesus, who never seemed to be in a hurry and allowed himself to be interrupted, usually with much grace.

Loving our neighbors takes time. And it changes our priorities. When I bought my home in a primarily African American neighborhood in Pasadena in 1994 for only $143,000—I took time to get to know all the neighbors before I moved in, and once I got settled in and all the things fixed, my priority turned to my neighbors. For several years I walked the block and got to know families and invited the young children to come to my home every Friday to make cookies and learn scripture. The youth chose the verses they wanted to memorize and became the teachers by writing out the passage on a chalk board, then asking others to erase one word at a time, repeating the verse each time another word was erased. Soon they could say the verse by heart. They earned a cookie for each verse and often they left with stacks of cookies.

But that was in 1995-1997, and as I improved my home, and my property values rose, and I saw some of my African American neighbors move due to rising rents. I had become part of the problem. I wanted to be a good neighbor, but I also unwittingly became a gentrifier. This has motivated me to do all I can to help to make stable and affordable housing to create mixed income neighborhoods.

But back to my story about the children— sadly, the most unresponsive neighbors were often those who were part of a church and so busy with church activities, that they didn’t have time to be involved with their neighbors.

Loving neighbors challenges us to love God in new ways. When we love children and those in need, as Jesus says in Matthew 18 and 25, we are caring for Jesus himself.  We often enjoy worship on Sunday morning to demonstrate our love for God, but often we are on auto pilot with our activities and forget to trust God with our time and become more flexible like Jesus was.

In fact, it’s hard to become flexible without working on ourselves—it takes a lot of internal resources for us to be open, vulnerable, and present when we are distracted by other priorities, so we must be intentional about our priorities.

One tool that some churches and organizations have used to become more intentional about loving their neighbors and their community is called Asset Mapping.

Asset mapping is a process whereby a community’s assets are specifically identified, and described with the purpose of discovering the strengths and resources of a community which can help to uncover solutions.

I’m going to share an example that Phil Burns and I learned about in Madison, WI about a month ago.

We went to a Lutheran church in N Madison that had been in fellowship with a Moravian Church. They so appreciated each other that they eventually merged. They keep their separate identities and denominations but share the same worship service with combined congregations.

They became aware of the need for affordable housing and began to explore this. So, the church began to talk with their neighbors. They met with the school next door. The school supported the idea of housing but also said that their students needed a store to buy snacks and school supplies. So, they began to incorporate this idea into their vison for housing. They met with their local City Council representative, and he suggested that they look beyond just this triangle lot that they owned, and he would seek to vacate the little used street to make the project larger. Then he realized that there was some storm drain land that was unused next the street, and that this land was no longer needed for storm drainage, so he offered this as well. Soon what was to be about a ¾ acre project became several acers.

Assets were discovered by intentionally listening to the community and by doing so, the larger footprint was making the project feasible.

We never know how God may open surprising doors when we get to know the assets and needs in a community.

In summary, I want to remind myself and all of us of the great command: to love God and neighbor and self… it’s like a triangle with God, neighbor, and Self at each of its points. We can’t really love God without loving our neighbor, and we can’t really love neighbor without loving God. And to love neighbor you may need a good dose of God’s love. And to genuinely love neighbor we must love and care for ourselves to be authentic and slow down enough to be truly present. To love ourselves we need God’s grace and forgiveness. We need to feel loved by God and trust God with our time and all we need to be wholehearted, to live with all our strength, mind, and soul. Each part of the triangle is dependent on the other – all are needed.  And all can be in balance by God’s grace and God’s loving Spirit in our lives.

Loving God, loving neighbor and self is repeated over and over in the Bible (Deut. 6:5; 10:12; 11:13; 13:3; 30:6; Josh 22:5; Matt.22:37; Mark 12:30; and Luke 10:27. God knew we needed to hear it more than once.

Which part of this command to love is the most important? All three. A beautiful triangle of love that will serve to transform us and our neighborhoods and our world.

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