I have been so encouraged by the many faith communities seeking new and meaningful ways to be in relationship with their communities following the events of the last two years. A global pandemic and the movement for racial justice have had a significant impact on our communities of faith and on our understanding of mission and vision.
I know congregations who are collaborating with partners to develop intercultural capacities, to learn the practices of faith-based community organizing, and to re-examine policies and practices through an equity and anti-racist lens. This is an incredible time to be the church!
And, as someone leading and educating congregations in the work of community engagement, I want to encourage us to stay grounded in our faith and in those practices that sustain our relationship with God. In particular, I believe a strong practice of community engagement is fundamentally rooted in communal prayer.
Prayer is often the first spiritual discipline to fall by the wayside whenever the church seeks to be strategic and effective. For many of us, we were socialized to believe that prayer is a passive practice that benefits the pray-er, and when we think about collective action and justice, we can be tempted to relegate prayer to the time left over from our busyness and our good work.
But I would argue that making space for prayer as our first work and our first steps towards healthy relationships with our neighbor will both keep us rooted in the Good News of Jesus and animate our action with a Spirit of justice and mercy. Furthermore, in our baptism and our obedience in prayer we are swept up into the story of God. We begin to see the world and our neighbor, not as contexts and others that are a part of our lives, but as people with their own stories and settings within the powerful story of a liberating God.
Dirk Lange, in his book Today Everything Is Different, says, “The unique characteristic of this baptismal discipline or practice is not that it forms the baptized over time into a particular model of Christian, but that it incorporates them into God’s plan of death and life, over which, of course, they have little control.”
Prayer keeps our community engagement rooted in the narrative of God’s mercy and the coming Beloved Community and confronts our tendencies to rely on our own action and our own ability. Prayer does not transform our character within the story of our neighborhood but transforms the way we see our neighborhood by situating it within the redeeming story of God, where it has been all along.
Maybe this seems like an overstatement, or maybe you’re thinking that I’m overestimating the power of prayer, but in my experience it’s the simple things that have the greatest impact on our relationships. And the simple act of offering and participating in communal prayer will have the single greatest impact on our relationship to the community.
So, as you gather to plan out your strategies for community engagement, be sure to begin with a time of prayer. Cry out to God for justice and mercy. Call on God to animate the work of your hands. Trust that in prayer you and the community you live in are being swept up, again and again, into the liberating story of a merciful God. Amen.