At Center for Transforming Communities (CTC), we are always learning. But for the last two weeks, we’ve been doing a lot of learning. On June 15 and 16, we hosted DeAmon Harges – the original “roving listener” – who spent time with CTC’s three Neighborhood Connectors and offered a special workshop open to the Shalom Zones and the broader public. Then, earlier this week, CTC partnered with the Turner Center at Vanderbilt Divinity School and nine churches from west and middle Tennessee and took a road trip to visit DeAmon in his community – centered around Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis.
Both of these experiences – having DeAmon visit us in Memphis, then visiting him in Indianapolis – led to new insights about relationships, community, church, and the practice of Assets Based Community Development (ABCD). We’re eager to integrate some of these insights into our work at CTC, and we’re also eager to share them with others in Memphis. Starting right now.
We hope this will be the first in a series of blog posts we’re calling “Lessons from Broadway.” If you’re unfamiliar with the story of Broadway UMC, you might take a minute to read this article as a brief introduction. Broadway is a remarkable church that has dramatically reinvented itself over the last decade, striving to embrace and celebrate the gifts and passions of those living nearby. They have adopted a set of principles and practices that have helped them do this, and we’ll draw from those principles and practices for this blog series.
Lesson #1 – Look Intently
Both DeAmon and his pastor and friend, Mike Mathers, draw inspiration from a particular story from the Acts of the Apostles. You’ll probably recognize the story. At the beginning of Acts 3, Peter and John visit the temple one afternoon just as a man “lame from birth” is being carried toward one of the temple gates. Acts tells us that this man’s friends would carry him there every day so that he could beg alms of people entering the temple. It’s no surprise, then, that as Peter and John walk towards the temple, the man stops them and asks for money. But it’s interesting how Peter and John respond:
“When the man saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, ‘Look at us.’ And he fixed his attention on them…” (Acts 3: 1-5)
It’s this act of “looking intently” at each other that inspires DeAmon and Mike. You can imagine that most people passing through the temple gates likely tried to avoid looking at the begging man. And for the people who did stop to look, you can imagine they probably didn’t spend much time looking: They summed him up quickly, realized he was a crippled beggar, tossed him some spare change, and moved on.
We do this all the time, and not just with panhandlers. We meet others and judge them quickly and superficially. We often base our judgements on our assumptions about their needs. We tend to use labels like “poor,” “homeless,” “refugee,” or “drug addict” and we allow those labels to become all that we know of them, and all that we care to know. We do the same with neighborhoods. A quick glance tells us this is a “bad” neighborhood, a “ghetto,” an “unsafe” neighborhood. We allow those labels to dictate how we relate to a neighborhood, if we choose to relate to it at all.
Instead of a quick glance, Acts tells us that Peter and John “look intently” at the man. They see past his label – "the crippled beggar” – and see the man as a man. They invite him to look back at them, to make a real human connection. And only then does the healing occur:
“…he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, ‘I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.’ And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. All the people saw him walking and praising God, and they recognized him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him” (Acts 3:5-10)
DeAmon’s role as a roving listener is to see past the labels we give others and to really look at them, to listen to them, to know their gifts and passions, to celebrate and bless them, and to make real human connections. In Memphis, he challenged us to do the same. In Indianapolis, we saw how he gathered groups of neighbors around common gifts – artists, photographers, cooks – to form communities of mutual acknowledgement, celebration, and encouragement; communities that used their gifts to radically transform their neighborhoods through art and hospitality and friendship.
Next up: Lesson #2 – You can't revitalize something that isn't already vital