Today, I'm sitting in one of my new favorite places, Three Layers in Springfield (an urban neighborhood in Jacksonville). Some of you know that Springfield has surfaced as one of the communities I am exploring as I start a new faith community. Three Layers is a coffee shop/cafe/bar that draws a variety of people, some of whom live in the community and some who are just passing through. (By the way, they have great coffee, wonderful chicken salad and good music!) As I sit here reading and preparing for Sunday's sermon at Church in the Meadows, I can't stop looking out the window and noting the changes that have taken place in this neighborhood.
Growing up, Springfield had a reputation for being overrun with drugs, violence and prostitution. In fact, the only time I remember visiting Springfield was when I attended the funeral of a friend's dad who had pastored a church in the neighborhood. Today, incredible work is being done to revitalize community and to maintain the economic diversity that contributes to its rich heritage. There are new businesses moving in, non-profits enabling people to care for themselves and their neighborhood, and residents restoring beautiful old Victorian homes. If you want to read more about historic Springfield, check out http://www.myspringfield.org/.
Even with all the new life that is emerging, there are still many residents who struggle in poverty, joblessness, lack of education, mental illness and addiction. Conversation with community leaders has revealed that many churches have moved into the neighborhood to offer charity to those in need. Charity, however, does not typically generate self-sufficiency and has done little to contribute to long-term quality of life. Charity often creates a one-way relationship in which the giver says, "I have what you need and you have nothing to offer me". Sometimes charity is not the appropriate response, yet it's how we as Christians have been taught to offer care (and I believe our motivations are not ill-intentioned at all!). We are comfortable giving, but have much more difficulty engaging in the difficult and long-term work of friendship and empowerment.
As I consider fostering a faith community in Springfield, I wonder how inviting people into "friendship" instead of extending charity might make a difference. According to Robert Lupton in Compassion, Justice and the Christian Life, "Friends are people who know each other, who care, respect, struggle, and are committed through time." Friends look one another in the eye and see not only their differences, but their similarities. While this sounds wonderful, you and I both know that friendship is not easy, particularly when we each carry with us a set of ideas and experiences that impact the way we perceive the other.
How might church be different if it began with friendship? What would it look like to have rich, poor, white, black, straight, gay gathered together to worship the God who created us all and invites us all to participate in God's kingdom? What would it look like if we could unite around our common faith in God and our common desire to transform a neighborhood? My prayer is that these kinds of communities will continue to take root all around us, and that they will allow us to see and experience God's kingdom in our midst.