I sat at the table with the four of them. They were optimistic, smart, creative and educated. And they wanted to help provide housing for the homeless. They had contacted me to see if The Episcopal Church of the Advocate (Chapel Hill, NC) might be open to the possibility of allowing a cluster of “tiny houses” to be built our land. They had creative ideas for funding, design, and development. They had thought through many dimensions of the project, but were open to questions and ideas, open to making adjustments. In other words, they were open to collaboration.
I sat at another table, this time with two university administrators who had gone by our church site on a Saturday bike ride and spotted at an old barn located on our property. The Advocate had acquired it when we bought our land, but over the years, it was deteriorating to the point of becoming a liability.
But it was perfect for the program these men had in mind. They were looking for old barns throughout the county that could, with the owner’s permission and outside funding, be taken apart, board by board. High school students would be brought on field trips to learn local history and construction processes. Weathered old boards would be offered to local artists. Beams and rafters would be salvaged for adaptive re-use, made into furniture or sold to local builders for use in new construction. Though they had ideas and a well-developed plan, they were open to questions and other ideas. They, too, were open to collaboration.
We live in a time of innovation and collaboration. People, institutions and organizations are coming together to create systems and businesses that improve our environment, our democratic processes, and the lives of the poor in our communities and in our world.
Much of this work comes under the umbrella of “social entrepreneurship”. It includes a business plan that would allow for some profit, but not a lot; the motivations more for societal gain than for material gain. Projects are designed to be “scalable,” to be adjusted and applied in a variety of settings. Sometimes these efforts include local governments, sometime they emerge despite local governments.
Often, they happen without the church.
More people are acting for good
Christ transforms culture with or without the Church. Concurrent with a decline in institutional church attendance, there is an increase in the number of people who are choosing a simpler life, eschewing greed and acquisition, finding ways to work with others and help others, within their own community and beyond. The “Buy Local” movement is part of it; adaptive re-use of structures and support for the arts are, too. Social media allows for grassroots fundraising and investment in small businesses near and far.
Certainly not a prevailing trend, but increasingly, individuals, organizations, and institutions are doing good and philanthropic work in the world. Those outside of faith traditions are finding ways to honor the dignity of others, to bring about social justice and societal change, what Jews call “the repair of the world.” While often local and small scale, this change is not just happening with a handful of optimistic young adults like those who came to speak with me about tiny houses for the homeless and barn wood for local use.
Urban Habitat in Oakland, California, collaborates with stakeholders of every level to improve public transportation, gain housing justice and climate justice, and train prospective board and council members in the ways of effective local government participation. The California Community Foundation in Los Angeles creatively funds projects from a cache of more than a billion dollars. Pay for Success and Social Impact Bonds are working to reduce youth recidivism, expand early childhood education, and address homelessness.
Each of these projects is learning as it goes, emerging, evolving and finding ways to collaborate with others, assessing resources at hand and using those resources in order to have a positive and caring impact on quality of life of others.
Implementing the concept of tiny houses for the homeless on the campus of the Advocate would require the participation of visionaries, for sure, and also financiers who would explore and provide sources of money…local government whose rules and fees would need to be upheld or exempted…social workers…local businesses. And the Church.
I wonder what would happen if other churches – churches of every size and in every community – committed to discern whether God might be calling them to engage with a changing world in new and collaborative ways, to join or create efforts with nonprofits, for-profits, government, non-government, academic and philanthropic agencies to improve the lives of people, particularly the poor and those on the margins of our society.
I wonder what would happen if churches then assessed the resources we have been given, from people to buildings to land to endowments, and considered how we might leverage them in order to engage with those outside the church who are finding creative and energizing ways to do good in society and in our world.
Along the way, we would need to explore how the structures of our own denominations and judicatories help and hinder us for such collaborations. We would need to examine our attitudes, our pride, our theology, about profit and non-profit, about collaborating with those who do not share our faith, about compromise. We would need to have conversations and prayer, discovering, cultivating, and assessing ways for the Church to be a part of such innovative conversations and solutions.
It can certainly be said, and I would argue, that to engage with so-called “secular” institutions and organizations is not without evangelism. Ensuing relationships can and will transform the way the faith and the church is seen and known in the minds of individuals, communities, and generations. Some will be inspired to seek God and a deeper knowledge and love of God. And many will be given eyes to behold God’s justice, God’s mercy, God’s love.
Reimagining the Church’s role
Christians have a clear mandate from Jesus to give food to the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and those in prison. These things are fundamental to the life and work of the church. They are our baseline. But church volunteers are harder to find — and even the best non-profits spend too much of their time and effort seeking — the funds needed to keep organizations afloat. There is more that can be done, that needs to be done.
New occasions teach new duties. In Jesus’ day, there were poor and outcast, just as there are today. Like today, there were the politically powerful and the elite. Jesus had a lot to say to them about power and money. And he had a lot to say to villagers and city dwellers alike, about being fair in their dealings, about tending to the poor, about taking down the walls that divide human beings one from another. Many aspects of human existence are unchanged since Jesus’ day, and Gospel lessons still challenge.
But some things have changed, and how the faithful best respond to the poor and to the injustices of our world may be changing, too. The capacity to choose a lifestyle, a middle class with discretionary income to hold or to release, a capitalist system that not only allows for but is based upon the prospect of profit margins, all this is new since Jesus walked the dusty roads of Galilee.
The 21st century dawned with a clarion call for Christians, Muslims and Jews to find new ways to co-exist, to embrace one another. Rabbi Jonathan Sachs’ book, The Dignity of Difference gave us a blueprint, not to water down or put down our differences, but to respect and honor them. It is starting to happen. Collaborative sustainable ministries are gaining traction in churches and towns here and there across the country.
It is possible, perhaps even probable, that God is calling the Church to transform the way in which we engage in and with the world to respond to the cry of the poor. Sometimes we will invite others to our table.
But for the most part, I suspect, we will be asking if we can have a place at the table that is being prepared.
The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck is the founding Vicar of The Church of the Advocate, an Episcopal Mission in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.