“I was inspired by a faith community, by mostly Christian churches, who’ve decided to extend their property line to include the neighborhood and their local community.”
That is how thought leader Peter Block says he left a gathering of about 300 Memphis residents who had come together to discover the resources and wisdom already existing in their neighborhoods and how those can be connected for greater productivity.
The gathering was facilitated by the Center for Transforming Communities (CTC), which has been working primarily with faith congregations to have similar conversations on a smaller scale across the city.
“The idea that the churches are forgetting about their certainties and instead asking the question, ‘How can we engage everyone in a neighborhood, regardless of their religion, regardless of their beliefs or their economic situation; how can we create a social fabric in this place?’ I think brings a Christian message into the world as strongly as all the preaching and broadcasting and missionary work in the world,” says Peter.
“Instead of saying we’re going to send missionaries out to expose people and bring them into the fold they’re saying, ‘We, as a church, are going to live out our beliefs or Christ’s message, since they’re mostly Christian, by embracing and just being connected and getting to know the people in our neighborhood’ — and that’s very inspiring.
“That creates space for every belief system and it creates space for the work of the faith community, I think, at its best.”
Peter was invited by the CTC to join the event, along with John McKnight and Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann. Each brought a unique gift to the conversation: John’s lifetime of experience making sense of how community can care for itself, Walter’s years of work reinterpreting the Bible and Peter’s commitment to the idea that if there is a gathering then it is possible to create the future in that room.
In addition to being inspired, Peter says he learned a few things, including the power of connectors, such as Amy Moritz, executive director of CTC, who has now been part of eight neighborhoods across the city that have begun actively creating a new future for themselves together.
He also observed a phenomenon he has seen in second-tier cities across the U.S., which is a desire to “win the race for what’s wrong with us,” an observation he says he is still uncertain of what to do with, but it dawns on him that it reconfirms that a city is its narrative.
“It’s not so much its geography or its built environment or its historical development.
“Basically what’s decisive is the story a city tells itself, and every second-tier city in this country is competing to have the most problems, which tells me it’s not accurate. It’s just story.”
The CTC and its extended community are looking to help change that story, with these conversations being a key part in that.
Amongst the work — inviting people to identify four capacities they have, including their gifts, their skills, their passions and what they can teach.
The premise in this — never take labels seriously for people; discover what they have to contribute to their community, and people who seem useless or problematic will step up to make a difference.
“Our research indicates that what makes strong neighborhoods is when what people have to contribute is made visible — which is what we were doing that day — and then connected to become productive,” says John.
“It’s the identification of gifts and their connection for a better life.”
While connections were certainly sparked on that day and gifts made visible, and the commitment of the people shone through very clearly — nobody, for instance, was paid to be there — Peter says he sensed the crossroads the community now faces is finding its voice.
“What got me is that they had some very strong leadership from the community there and I just felt that their commitment to that place and caring for that place was bedrock.
“I just don’t know if they’ve found their voices or their energy yet to know that they can create an alternative future.”