Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Community and conflict

Years ago, when I was a very young minister, I had a conversation with a much older minister friend.  During our visit, my older colleague counseled me that "there was never a reason or a justification for creating division in a church."  On the surface that sounds like good, sound, common sense advice. 

However, the subject of our discussion that day was racism. 

I had described how I was challenging racist attitudes inside my congregation in Shreveport, Louisiana (1973-1975) and how my sermons created tension and some discord among the members of the church.  My friend's response was to counsel me to avoid any subject that might lead to division, including racism. 

I disagreed with him strongly at the time. 

I've heard that same advice applied to any number of issues many times since those early days of my ministry. 

I heard them again just a couple of weeks ago here in Dallas. 

On this occasion the subject had to do with how a community provides adequate housing resources for the poorest among our neighbors.  Our discussion related to where such housing could be/should be located.  The problems of site selection for housing developments for the formerly homeless always come up whenever a project is suggested or being planned.  Usually such projects face stiff opposition from neighborhood groups no matter where they are located. 

My friend, a minister in Dallas, shared with me that he and his church were all about "building community."  He told me that a plan they had developed for housing the homeless met with a great deal of opposition in the community where they intended to build it.  Once they were aware of the opposition, they "backed off" out of their "commitment to building community."  Frankly, I'm not sure what the church's responsibility should be in "building community" among those who oppose basic human rights among the poorest of our fellow citizens.  But, that's what he said. 

Of course, my question had to do with who speaks for the unorganized, extremely poor who live in our city without the benefit of housing or, even more importantly, voice.

What about the community enjoyed by or denied the poorest among us?  What about battling the self-interested, well-housed on behalf of and alongside the marginalized, ill-housed out of compassion and a well-developed sense of fairness, equity and justice?

It's the same question I began with almost forty years ago now.  The particular subject matter of my conversations change, but the call to stand with those who are isolated and so easily dismissed remains the same, at least to my way of thinking.

Is a community organized and standing against the weak, the minority and the excluded one that I need to regard with deference, let alone respect?  I don't think so.  If you stand against basic human rights, I'm no longer obligated to support your claims no matter who doesn't like it or what part of the community descents. 

How do you see it?


Jim Woodell said...

Aren't you raising two different questions? It seems to me that "racism" is a matter of the heart and has to do with prejudice and ungodliness. This needs to be preached against and repented of. Where to house the poor and homeless is a matter of practicality, as I see it. Placing low rent or no rent housing in an upscale neighborhood is not practical. In Little Rock we have spent six years finding a suitable location for a Day Resource Center for the homeless because of community opposition. Issues like this have to pass through the political system and there is always push back. I don't believe you can resolve issues like this without community conflict, so we work through the system. Sometimes we are successful. Sometimes we have to back up and run at it from a different direction.

Larry James said...

Thanks for the post, Jim. Hope you are doing well. To your question, I'd say no, not really. I've noted across the years that the poor and the underrepresented always get the short straw. And, sadly, supposed property rights/ownership trumps human rights/citizenship again and again. You are correct that my example from Shreveport displays a failure of heart and morality. In many cases I see the same failure re housing my homeless friends and neighbors. By the way, as we've travelled across the nation looking at permanent supportive housing developments, we've seen a number located in rebounding and "hip" downtown communities. Most, in spite of initial opposition, when built, tend to silence critics. Once the homeless find homes they are no longer homeless! I guess my real point is at times, while working in the system, we have to push back on behalf of the rights of all even if it creates community conflict and some division.

Anonymous said...

It's pretty amazing how many times Jesus risked and/or fractured "community" by eating with the poor and outcast, and how many times he allowed the crowds to walk away by teaching a hard message that challenged people to move beyond their created social boundaries. "Community" too often functions as a code-word for social and economic homogeneity and exclusion. Sadly, much "church growth" literature encourages this form of ministry.

It is true that a common need in our individualistic culture is to create communities of love and care, but these communities, when Christian, are supposed to push us beyond the social barriers given us by our society. It seems to me being the neighbors of the homeless is a pretty good way to get there. Of course, then we'd have set folks up to be the rich man to our Lazarus's, and nobody wants to deal with that teaching of Jesus everyday...