“God did not call me to be a property manager.”
While I may not have spoken these words out loud, almost ten years ago they were definitely in my head! The words come from the time early in my career with Center for Transforming Communities (CTC) when I was fully resistant to any suggestion that my emerging role with the organization should include the oversight of an old church building.
In 2008, I had been on a ten-year journey to claim the vocation that I felt God had given me. It was (and is) a vocation to work for social justice, especially around issues of race, gender and class. My new role as Executive Director (ED) of CTC was going to give me the chance to do this alongside neighborhoods across Memphis. The problem was that the job came with an old Methodist church building - one with a leaky roof, monthly expenses that exceeded monthly income, and a handful of tenants who had little contact with each other, often leading to frustration and conflict over their shared use of the building.
After about a year of both avoiding the building (letting someone else worry about it) and attempting to get rid of it (often suggesting to board members that the building was not part of CTC’s mission), I had a strange warming of my heart toward the place. (Plus with no real interest from the board to consider getting rid of it, I wasn’t going to be able to avoid it forever.) So, I began asking questions about the building and its occupants and their missions, and soon new possibilities began to emerge.
I invited all of the groups who shared the building to meet together over a meal. We began doing this monthly and soon the groups were finding ways to support and encourage each other. Instead of operating in silos, the groups were now collaborating and cooperating.
We still had the issue of our expenses exceeding our income, so I met each group with an invitation to increase their monthly contribution in an amount proportionate to the amount of space they occupied. Every single group was open to being part of the solution and helping to sustain the building! Every group agreed to increase their monthly payment!
During this first year, I also learned a lot about letting go of my need to be in control. It was not going to be possible for me to be in control of every corner of the building with 15 groups sharing it 7 days a week. But what I could do was invite the building partners to develop a shared vision for the building and shared values around how we wanted to occupy and share the space. With a growing culture of trust and community, there was no longer a need for a single person to be in command and control of the building. It was also at about this point in time that the building partners, together, decided to call the building The Commons on Merton.
This growing culture of trust, community and collaboration attracted additional building partners, and within a year or two, we had reached capacity. The building also began to become the center of several different communities – a community of refugees in Memphis, a community of gardeners across Memphis, and a place of community for the Binghampton neighborhood.
Over the years, I have witnessed how The Commons has also served as a hub for people and groups working toward a more just and equitable Memphis. This has come in many forms including small group discussions to promote racial reconciliation hosted by the Memphis School of Servant Leadership, one-on-one legal services provided to recent immigrants by Mid-South Immigration Advocates, large group discussions about peace and justice inspired by art, and much, much more.
I always smile with a slight chuckle (and imagine God chuckling with me) when I remember the certainty with which I felt ten years ago that the old Methodist church was not a part of my call nor a part of the mission of CTC. Today, The Commons is at the heart of Center for Transforming Communities. It gives CTC’s work in neighborhoods across Memphis integrity. It is the place where we can practice and learn what we teach and share with others. Regarding my own social justice vocation, more social justice work has taken place at The Commons in ten years than I could have ever hoped to be a part of in my lifetime!
While I still have doubts that God is calling me to be a property manager, I am so glad that God called me to be a part of The Commons.
On September 29, 2017 from 6:00pm to 8:00pm, we will celebrate the 10th anniversary of The Commons on Merton. Please come celebrate with us! You can register for the event by clicking here.