Now that Katrina’s initial onslaught is past us and local evacuees are settling in as our new neighbors, churches are calling to ask, “What now?”
It is a wise question.
One extremely involved leader told me in a recent email, “Something tells me that driving a bus out to pick up our new friends and bring them to church is really not the answer for us. What should we do now? How do we know what is needed and wanted by these folks?”
Going deeper with people who are trying to craft and re-make life in extremely challenging situations is exactly what is required.
But, it is not easy.
The pathway is not self-evident to people who understand compassion and charity, but have never considered what long-term equity in a community populated by the poor will mean or look like.
Congregations of all sorts stepped up to provide aid, shelter and a helping hand to thousands of evacuees after Katrina and Rita blew through. The response amazed me and, I know, gratified everyone involved.
Now these active groups have an opportunity to take next steps—steps that could be even more important than the acts of charity that have brought them to this point.
For most groups though, this next phase is largely uncharted territory.
Talk about an exciting opportunity.
But, where to begin?
Here are a few ideas that emerge from our experience with low-income friends who live in inner city neighborhoods here in Dallas.
First, everyone needs to continue to work on becoming genuine friends. It is one thing to assume the much-needed role of Good Samaritan in a crisis. It is quite another to become a true friend.
Friends listen to each other. They work hard at understanding one another.
The blessings of friendship flow in at least two directions rather than in just one. Material assistance in one form or another helped establish these new relationships. Now other factors and resources need to be valued and added to the mix.
Time together that is “non-programmatic” is essential to building genuine friendships. It will be a bit awkward at first, but with honest communication and a commitment to stay at it, amazing things can happen.
Second, times for intentional conversation about the issues involved need to be planned and executed. Learning circles or focus groups should become a part of the plan for going forward. While planned and intentional, these experiences need to be informal and natural.
The honest question, “What now?” needs to be discussed in-depth among the partners involved.
Personal stories should be shared.
Honesty will be essential.
Asking new friends what they hope for, what they want to achieve and what they face will be important.
Likewise, those who are positioned at a lower place economically need to ask questions of their wealthier new friends. The exchange of information needs to flow back and forth.
The use of “house meetings” where one-on-one or family-to-family conversations and fellowship could be enjoyed will be essential. In private, relationship-building visits, people become better acquainted with one another. At the same time, community and individual problems can be identified for the larger group to tackle together.
No doubt, individual issues of a more personal nature will manifest themselves.
A sign that real community is forming will be when the “host” participants begin to lay out their personal and family issues to the newcomers. As with resources, so vulnerability and need should be expressed by everyone involved.
Third, small groups could be formed for on-going work. Issues such as difficulties finding work, effective entry into new public schools, adequate housing resources, health care concerns, transportation and child care—these will be the subjects that will most likely come up as real communications begin.
As the new community—those who have been here for years and those who are recently arrived—develops, the pressing realities of shared life will suggest various actions, some within the community and some outside in the public square.
Fourth, in the public gatherings of the larger congregation, newcomers should be invited to participate publicly and in ways that have nothing to do with the disaster that brought the two groups together originally. The new friends should be invited to share faith and worship and service as their contribution to their new community.
The older, host group must come to genuinely value and depend on the contributions of their new brothers and sisters. Until and unless this transition occurs, no real sense of community will exist and participants will remain in a "charity mode" that will eventually end in a very unsatisfying manner.
What is needed is a simple commitment to share life together as fellow travelers who recognize that everyone has something important to contribute to the process.
Along the way the strengthened and empowered new family will find exciting and fresh ways to express shared faith—politically, socially, theologically, and personally.