In our baptism we are entrusted with a vocational call that includes the proclamation of the Good News, service to and among one another, and the work of justice and peace. This latter call, to strive for a just world, is one that many of our congregations have been wrestling with in new and meaningful ways over the last handful of years. The pandemic shined a light on many of the economic and healthcare inequities that have been operating for decades. And the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery renewed our country’s movements for racial justice and an end to police violence.
Congregations I know have learned the skills of organized direct action and community organizing. They’ve participated in anti-racism training and intercultural development. And they have been intentional about sharing resources with organizations who are on the frontlines of racial and economic justice movements.
This is good and holy work, and I am so happy to see congregations thinking critically about their role in movements for justice. But I also want to invite us to think about where churches have the greatest potential for impact.
I am a big believer in congregations as place-based communities, who live as neighbors and residents in a particular geography, and who accompany their neighbors in their life together. In my opinion, the work of justice for faith communities is most powerfully grounded in the neighborhood or community in which the church is located. God has called us to be Good News in a particular place, among a particular people. And if we are serious about striving for justice and peace, I believe we must begin in our communities.
Far too often our focus as churches can over-emphasize broad issues of national injustice, while stepping over the “less interesting” and more concrete injustices operating in the few blocks or miles around our buildings. Policing, affordable housing, access to education and health care—most of this hits hardest in our neighborhoods, and our call as people of the Crucified One, is to step into the places where God has put us, and to live justly among our neighbors.
Additionally, our justice work often focuses on issues and problems, rather than on people and capacities. We see our neighborhoods and our cities as networks of need, rather than networks of gifts and strengths. So, we engage our neighbors as folks in need of our service and retain a position of disconnection and paternalism. This keeps our justice work grounded in our own self-interest and desire, rather than in the lived experience of our neighbors.
Any community organizer worth their salt will tell you that social change is rooted in strong communities, shared self-interest, and trust. Just and healthy communities are connected communities, and in my opinion a big part of our call to strive for justice and peace is to build the kind of sustainable and accompanying relationships with our neighbors that can nurture trustful movements. Churches are uniquely set up to excel in this connector role.
This work is slow and simple. It is not sexy, and it will not result in swift change. It is the slow and steady work of building relationships person by person. It means finding ways for your congregation to spend intentional time together in your neighborhood, outside of your building. It means developing the art of small talk and informal chats. It means practicing the ministry of presence, developing the humility and curiosity to see our neighbors as Beloved, and investing in those simple community development practices like shared meals and asset-mapping.
I’ve written previously about some of these practices on the Sparkhouse Blog, and there are plenty of resources available for communities seeking to learn more about asset-based community development. But, in my mind, the best resource is your neighborhood. So, gather some of your congregation members and take a walk. Introduce yourselves to your neighbors. Show up when your community gathers. Be a good and trustworthy neighbor. Remember, God is already at work in our communities, and we have been invited to participate in God’s justice right here—right now. Thanks be to God.