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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The first principle of Christian Community Development is Relocation. There is some talk among leaders in the CCDA about renaming it "incarnational ministry." The original term, coined by John Perkins, is the scandalous claim that our calling is not irrelevant to our street address, to our geographical location. The latter term gives more traditional theological language to the principle, but lacks its specificity.

As a principle of incarnational ministry, relocation insists that a calling to serve people is a calling to live among them. The Gospel of John says that the Word Made Flesh dwelt ("tabernacled," pitched a tent) among us. I like to say it this way: the Word became flesh and moved in next door. Jesus came to all the world, but he did so in one place, among one people. Lacking his own home, perhaps we should say that the Word became flesh and slept on a pallette in our spare room.

Why is relocation important? It is not merely an answer to WWJD. It is also built on sociological observation. It has to do with race and class analysis. It has to do with our social psychology. We tend to act on things that directly affect us. If there is a pothole in the street near your driveway, you are the one who is most likely to raise some noise to try to get it fixed. If there are dozens of potholes in another neighborhood where you do not live and where you never drive, it is very unlikely that you will even be aware of them. You are almost guaranteed not to become an activist over those potholes. Our residence affects what problems drive us to act.

This sort of analysis provides a lens through which to observe the mission habits of churches. A church full of middle-class people in a middle-class neighborhood may have some pangs of conscience about the plight of the poor. A predominately white congregation may be troubled by the situation of black people in their city. In both cases, a church may organize for missions by planning a clean-up day at a low-income housing project. They may hold a joint worship with a church "in the hood" and provide some financial support to the congregation. They may bring food boxes into the remote poor neighborhood at Thanksgiving, using a list of families received from a social service agency. All of these actions show a response to real needs which can be traced to an understanding of the love of God poured out to all people.

The structural and systemic issues which perpetuate racial division, poverty, and the nexus of race and class, are complex and difficult to face. Part of the problem is geographical. If I live in a middle-classs neighborhood, I don't have to deal with the kinds of problems that affect the lives of the poor. If I have to face a drug problem in my neighborhood, it is likely as a parent or spouse trying to help someone overcome an addiction. In the poor neighborhood, they have to deal with an underground drug economy which sometimes entails violent forms of competition. They may deal with addictions, often of parents who cannot hold a job because their addictions have spun in a downward spiral of personal, familial, and economic degradation. They do not have access to expensive recovery programs. Others are trying to pick up the pieces of what to do about the children or their criminal activity to support their habits. All the while, the middle-class drug abusers are perpetuating the drug economy when they buy their drugs in the poor neighborhood. The residents of that neighborhood keep having to deal with their children's temptations to become drug dealers, the only people they see who have money.

Drugs may be a problem in both neighborhoods, but they do not affect both neighborhoods in the same way. In the middle class neighborhood, I am likely to see the problems of drugs very differently, and if I get active about it, I am very unlikely to address the systemic and structural issues. I probably want to jail the drug dealers and keep my kids from associating with kids in the poor neighborhoods. I want to keep my distance from a problem in another neighborhood.

If I am a pastor of a church but I don't live in the neighborhood where the church's building stands and where the church meetings occur, then I am mostly a visitor to the neighborhood. I may spend many hours in the building, working in an office, having meetings with others who drive to the church from across town to attend meetings, and strategizing about the church's work. At key times of the week, I lead and participate in large gatherings for worship, study, and fellowship, and after two or three hours I lock up and go home. If I think about the neighborhood, it may be focused on how the adjoining properties could become part of a larger church plant, or about how the look of the neighborhood buildings and people might make people nervous about attending the church.

If I am listening to the call of Jesus, my priority for ministry is to proclaim good news to the poor. If I look at the life of Jesus, then I see him ministering among the poor and outcast. I see him taking sides with the poor in public disputes with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians. I see him ministering to the marginalized, the sick, widows, the blind, the lame, lepers, and others whose life circumstances push them into poverty. If I am going to follow Jesus, I ought to be following him into ministry in this direction.

Perkins has argued that if I live where my church and ministry are, I have a more complete understanding of how that ministry should unfold. The problems and needs of that neighborhood become my problems and needs. If there is a crime problem, it is my crime problem, motivating me to work with the neighbors on finding solutions. If there is a police problem, it is my police problem. If there is a racial profiling problem, my friends and I are affected by the racial profiling. If there are problems finding jobs, my neighbors are the ones looking for the jobs. If there is a problem with transporatation, youth activities, schools, health care, distance to grocery stores or pharmacies, or anything else, it becomes my problem. Latin American theologians called this sharing the life of the poor. The poor's problems should become my problem.

This principle of Relocation has been the most controversial and most difficult of John Perkins's teachings. I have often heard him asked about it, and he does not want to back down on its importance. On the other hand, I have heard him talk to people who have asked about what relocation means for them and give varied advice about the specific ways they might live this principle.

The New Monasticism movement has discussed this principle in a couple of ways: relocation to the abandoned places of empire, and the importance of geographical proximity for community. The priority of serving among those who are abandoned and thrown away by the systems and structures of society is an inescapable calling for those who seek a gospel-based discipleship. The calling to community is greatly undermined by our scattered church memberships who commute to see each other for an hour a week. Reading blogs is no substitute for flesh and blood communication.

There are eight principles of the Christian Community Development Association. I will continue to post on these principles as a way to work through some of my musings about the relationship of this movement to the theological winds which have turned the windmill of my research and writing.


haitianministries said...

Thanks for posting this, Mike! I've linked to this and posted my own brief reply at Doing Theology from the Caribbean. I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

Andrew Tatum said...

Very informative and interesting post. I'm glad more people are blogging about things like the CCDA. However, I believe it was Clarence Jordan (founder of Koinonia Partners) who coined the phrase "incarnational ministry" back in the mid-1940's. Certainly he wasn't the first one to practice it (I'm thinking of Jesus and the Apostles here) but, unless I'm mistaken, it was Jordan not Perkins who first used this term in this type of context. But hey, what do I know...I'm just picky.

Mike Broadway said...

Thanks for the comment. I did not intend to imply that Perkins coined the phrase. I only meant to say that it has become a widely used phrase. I would not be surprise to find that Jordan had introduced the term. His work is another example of the creative and disciplined approaches to ministry that I admire. So many of my teachers and mentors were greatly affected by knowing Jordan.

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