Monday, September 17, 2007

Guest Blogger: Kevin Little, "Walking the Walk"

In his book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, writer Ron Sider says "too much Christian social action is ineffective because Christian leaders call on government to legislate what they cannot persuade their church members to live." When I worked with politicians, we knew that petitions or motions passed with no follow-up meant nothing. However, if an organization sent evidence of its positive work in the community and asked for government funding, that always provoked a serious response.

Michael Poworoznyk, executive director of Metro Turning Point Centre, challenged 34 Christians (half from St. Luke’s United in Upper Tantallon and half friends of ours who wanted this experience) who walked the streets of Halifax’s inner city last Friday to consider what we would do if we had found our way to the city at age 15, having been sexually abused, distrusting authority, feeling angry and lost. We walked the streets together, asking ourselves: Where would we go? What would we do?

There are a range of services for the poor in Halifax’s uptown core. Often, these are poorly co-ordinated, underfunded and squeezed into one small section of our city. If we Christians see ourselves as disciples living out our witness, it is easy to see our current power structures as an empire, institutionally biased to protect the status quo.

But how do we confront that empire, the system that maintains an unequal distribution of wealth and power? After all, wasn’t it only a few weeks ago that North America’s leaders met behind closed doors with wealthy elites to discuss how this empire should go forward?

Christians are called to be prophets and advocates for the poor, the marginalized and the oppressed. There are more verses in the Bible on wealth than almost any other topic. Yet most sermons preached in our North American churches deal with sexual morality (fundamentalists), personal piety (traditionalists) or sentimental narcissism (liberals).

But surely we are called to confront not only governments and their policies (for starters, raising the level of social assistance and the national child benefit, and providing more social housing), but also to do as Sider suggests: lead by example. I know several Canadian churches that used their parking lots to create social housing units. St. George’s Anglican Church runs the amazing "Humanities 101." These actions make a statement to the general public and the government of the day. They prove that solidarity can and does work.

Some might suggest these approaches let the government off the hook. That may be true for passive supports; but my sense is the more Christians are directly involved in transformational ministry with the marginalized, the more governments can see positive results and feel compelled to join in. What social activists often fail to understand is that advocacy that is primarily confined to the call for entitlement programs does not address what is at the core of Christian and government inaction: a sense of hopelessness.

As long as people think the quest to reduce poverty is hopeless, they will fail to act, personally or collectively. Activists wring their hands and point to perpetual injustice; the middle-class gate their communities and quietly say to themselves, "Nothing will ever change." To break free from this, we need stories of solidarity, of liberation, or the momentum for justice can never get traction. Faith leads to imagination, which leads to sharing, which leads to a plan, which leads to action, which leads to transformation, which leads to hope.

Everywhere we walked Friday night, there was evidence of banks, grocery chains, and now even churches abandoning this neighbourhood. Churches with deep pockets and trust funds can continue on in spite of buildings that are nine-tenths empty, but churches here cannot.

I am sure the people I serve are tired of hearing that church is about mission, not buildings. We have a wonderful multi-purpose sanctuary, one that we gladly share with another denomination. But the bottom line is that the strength of our witness is less about that splendid structure and more about the call to transform the community we live in.

My own denomination’s transformational opportunity is Brunswick Street Mission. One morning a week at the 6 a.m. breakfast, I look forward to the relationships I share with the guests and volunteers. After breakfast, we gather in a garden created and cared for by these men and women, and we pray. Later, some of us study the Bible. Here we resolve to be agents of transformation in a broken world.

One way to financially assist the Mission with its work is to join The St. Luke’s Players, our youth drama team, as they perform The Cotton Patch Gospel on Friday, Sept. 14, at 7 p.m. at Brunswick Street United Church. The musical asks the question: What if Jesus came to the southern states in the 1950s? What would that look like? It’s edgy, fun and, most of all, the music soars.

Some of the cast walked with us last Friday. Most have spent their lives in the suburbs. The context Michael provided will no doubt ground their performance. But more than that, each of us saw on that evening what Michael and his staff offer the 65 people who sleep every night at the Turning Point: advocacy, solidarity, respect, dignity, hope. These are qualities we seek to persuade our fellow church members to live.

Kevin Little is a United Church minister living in the Halifax Regional Municipality.

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