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Faith and the Great Transition - Interview with Jay Van Groningen, Communities First Association

We’re hearing more and more of this economic and social shift afoot, what some are calling the great transition or the great turning. A critical field of action some have identified in this shift is that of what might be called the faith community or faith system. Axiom News, through its work with the Center for Transforming Communities (CTC), spoke withCommunities First Association executive director Jay Van Groningen recently on the question of a possible new role for faith given this transition. CTC is an affiliate of Communities First, which represents about 300 neighborhoods across the U.S. where local residents are beginning to see their gifts, committing to work together and taking ownership for their communities.

What do you see as the possible new role of faith in broader society, especially given some of the significant economic and social shifts/upheaval happening right now?

Jay: I don’t think that’s new at all. If you look back at the reformers, John Calvin (1509-1564), for example, had as part of his imagination that the city of Geneva would be restored because the people of faith, that is, folks who were followers of a sovereign God, would become co-reigners with him, making all things new.

Calvin had a theology and a practice of trying to develop leadership and programs and activities that literally brought prosperity, and he really promoted the common good as an essential component of the work of the church. Calvin even created an office within the church, the office of deacon, which had as its primary focus mercy and justice. How do you address the systems that perpetuate poverty, and how do you respond to folks who are poor in a way that leads to them not being poor any longer?

I think back also to Martin Luther (1483-1564) and his emphasis on Christian education. It was all around the idea of needing to equip people so that as Christian thinkers/leaders they bring a transforming power to their business, to whatever endeavor they get into. It was a desire to be a contributor to the common good, the redemption of all things, to be contributing to the kind of world that God smiles on, as opposed to the kind of world that God has to come and pour relief on.

So I would say this is not new at all. I would say that in fairly recent history the church has been abdicating its role as an agent, among other agents, of change towards the common good in community.

But I don’t agree with the premise that it’s new; I think we’re rediscovering what historically has been a big part of the role of church in society.

I’ve been raised in an environment that says the Earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof, so if he is the God who reigns, then let’s co-operate with him in making all things fruitful and good.

It is true that many churches have abdicated faith to kind of a private realm that doesn’t have influence outside my own private life, me-and-Jesus kind of thing.

But honestly that ignores a whole religious tradition that has historically believed you can’t isolate religion. If religion counts, it counts because it is a transforming force, that is, it is a force that has the world and its renewal as the heart of the theology.

So you say you see a recent reawakening and rediscovery of this original calling. Any thoughts on what’s provoking that? Jay: There are several things that are provoking that. The younger generation for one has grown very disaffected with the religion of their parents, because it is a religion that doesn’t seem to have influence. It seems to have been so privatized that it doesn’t matter.

Younger folks today are demanding a kind of religion that has a power to transform, a power to contribute to the common good, a power to have a redemptive imprint.

So that’s one piece.

A second piece is that there is a growing awareness that in the impoverished communities there is no lack of churches.

Just as one example, my wife and I sold our house in suburbia and moved to a declining neighborhood in the city we live. In this declining neighborhood of 1,500 households, there are no fewer than 11 church buildings and 11 places where on a Sunday or Wednesday night there are active worshipping communities. And these 11 churches have so little influence on the place they occupy that the neighborhood continues to go down and down.

We’re now at a 60 to 40 ratio of owner versus rental. The middle class has virtually left.

Some of these churches have become commuter-based institutions that gather for the holy huddle on a Sunday.

What I’m getting at here is that there is a growing awareness that these 11 churches by and large in their recent history have been inoculated against owning responsibility for what happens to the neighborhood story; they’ve been so disconnected from it, and they don’t accept that as their role any longer.

They know that the kind of religion that doesn’t leave a redemptive imprint is in some respects a gutted religion.

So there is a growing awareness that you can occupy a space, but if you don’t see any influence on that space, what good is it?

There’s a growing dissatisfaction with a theology that doesn’t connect with God’s ongoing restorative presence in his world.

Maybe there is a third influence, and that is these mega-churches. Some of the leadership in these mega-churches have been brought to a place of repentance because while on the one hand they can fill many, many pews and testify to many, many personal relationships with Jesus, they are beginning to understand the isolation of their own members in the world.

In a way they’ve been feeding a privatized Christianity that doesn’t have impact. Some of those networks are now really focusing on mercy and justice in impactful ways in the world. They’re starting to address some of these questions.

Do you have any stories to tell of where you’ve seen this impact being made particularly powerfully?

Jay: My purview really is the 300 neighborhoods (connected to Communities First Association) where this inside out, this asset-based approach, is being worked.

Out of the 300, we have currently 60 of those neighborhoods where residents now literally respond to anything that affects them and their neighborhood; they literally have created their own citizen power and capacity to tackle anything they want together.

They’ve created a culture of “together we can.”

So that’s been remarkable.

What does that look like?

In one neighborhood, everybody is on welfare; that is, they live below the poverty line and they’re eligible for public support. And in this neighborhood there is an abnormally high incidence of residents who are receiving services from community mental-health agencies, which means there is an abnormally high presence of people with disabilities — mental, social, physical disability.

And in this neighborhood there is a higher-than-usual single parent heads of households ratio, and this neighborhood used to be one of the highest crime neighborhoods in the city.

A young Christian woman graduated from a Christian college with a strong sense of calling to go and live among the poor. Her name is Tracy, and she moved into this neighborhood and spent six months doing nothing but getting to know the first and last names of her neighbors, and asking questions such as, “If they could wave a magic wand and make one thing better, what would they like to see better?”

She was having conversations about things like, do they like this neighborhood or don’t they? What do they like about it? And if they could make it better, what would they want to work on?

And so now I’m going to advance the story six years.

Today Tracy is the executive director of a small non-profit in this neighborhood and she has formed a neighborhood council made up entirely of the residents themselves.

It’s called SOAR, which is the first initials of four of the streets of that neighborhood. What that says is, to be a member of this council you have to live here.

In the springtime they do spring cleanup together in their neighborhood. Mind you, every single resident, but one, out of maybe 1,200 households, is a renter.

But they take responsibility for the condition of the neighborhood. They do spring cleanup; they do flower planting together; they do community breakfasts. Out of their meager incomes they rent an apartment at a community center; they had to go to the city to get an ordinance variance in order to do that. So they know how to approach the city around zoning.

They had traffic problems and the city wouldn’t listen to them. So finally they organized to the point where they were able to literally change the geographic landscape and the traffic flow so it wasn’t dangerous for the kids in their neighborhood any longer.

There was a group of residents outside the neighborhood who didn’t like the high crime at one time, so they were trying to block off the street access into their adjacent neighborhood. Well, this committee said you don’t get to do that, we’re public, too. And so they were able to fight or ward off this attempt to literally fence their neighborhood in so there was only one in and one way out.

Anything that affects their neighborhood, they’re now able to take responsibility for themselves.

The most recent thing I heard out of this neighborhood was that there is more public transportation out of there than any other neighborhood, but it didn’t have its own shelter. The council was able to work with the city and the bus company, and now they’ve got their own shelter.

So they get to do life together. They name what they want to work on, and then they work on it together and they succeed at what they do.

There were residents in that neighborhood when Tracy first did her listening who said my only dream is to get out of this neighborhood.

Today some of those same residents say you couldn’t pull me out of here with anything. This has become a community of co-operation and care and mutual gift-giving for the common good. It’s so strong, residents choose to live there today.

Every neighborhood is different, of course, but what I’m telling you is we’re literally building citizen power and capacity to act on what the neighbors care about together; making life better.

How do you define faith when there are a number of belief systems at work, a variety of denominations and takes on faith?

So, do I dare to believe that there is a God — and I’m comfortable saying “God as you know him or her” — do I dare to believe that there is a God, and does that God continue to have a relationship with this world? And can I believe that that God is a generous God, generous enough to allow us a fruitful life, if we choose to live it together?

So, for me, faith is believing in the kind of God who says, “I’m still an active God in this world and I choose good things for you, my children, if you will also choose them.”

For me, faith is having a personal relationship with that kind of a God, and choosing to partner with God in the things that would please God.

What kind of premise are you working with in saying that?

For me, the premise is the Holy Bible; that’s where I’m rooted and I know that in other faith traditions they also have their equivalent standards and I think there is a great deal of commonality that can be found among them.

But I don’t know how else to answer that; again, for me, the Bible is my standard.

I accept that others have their standards and I’m not really that interested in going in too much depth or particularity in terms of working together for the common good, around what’s your standard?

What I’m really trying to find is, do you care enough to act?

And then we can have conversations around where is that care rooted, where do you draw that care from? So those kinds of questions draw us back to some of those discussions about standards and belief systems and systems of faith.

Right, but it begins with caring enough to act.

Exactly, and that’s the asset-based community theory — discover who cares enough to act, who cares enough about being part of a communal story and let’s do life together.

Religion doesn’t have to be the thing that tears us apart; it can actually be the motivating force that draws us together.

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