Sunday, April 02, 2017

Living the Dream

Our intention was to hear from Mennonite Central Committee today. I am not familiar enough with the ministries of MCC—except in the general way that most of us are—to speak directly about them, but I can lift up the desire to respond to human need in the name of Christ that lies at the centre of MCC’s identity. With that in mind, I want to reflect on the experience of our son and daughter-in-law in South Bend, Indiana. They are students at Notre Dame, finishing their graduate studies (we hope) over the coming year. For the past five and a half years they have made their home in the Near-Northwest Neighborhood of South Bend. I want to tell you a little bit of what has been happening over the past 20+ years in this part of South Bend.

We read Psalm 130 this morning. The psalmist calls on God for help because life is hard. “Out of the depths I cry to you, O God.” The psalmist expects God to answer: “I wait for the LORD, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope. I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.” The Psalmist encourages all Israel to expect God to answer: “Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption. He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.”

We also, and many people around us, are in trouble. We also call on God for help. We also can expect God to help us, as indeed God saved the Psalmist from his trouble, and God redeemed all Israel from their sins and from the consequences of their sins. Sometimes we think that this whole process is purely spiritual, but of course it involves the whole person, spiritual and physical. Sometimes we think that God acts only directly on the individual, but of course God acts directly and indirectly, directly on the person and indirectly through God’s people. Further, it is always God who helps us—whether directly or indirectly. Just as only God could raise Lazarus from the dead, and just as only God could redeem Israel, God is the author of our salvation, even when all we see is a friend coming to help us out of a jam.

Jesus’ well-known parable of the Good Samaritan makes the point that our love for God and our love for each other are bound up together. We love God by loving and helping each other, and we receive God’s salvation from God and through other people. The story of the Near Northwest Neighborhood is a story of God’s work in this world, through God’s people acting as the hands and feet of Christ.

Some History
You can read about this area of South Bend in more detail by googling “Near Northwest Neighborhood South Bend” and following the results to their home page. As I looked through their web site, I found a PDF of the NNN’s goal in revitalizing the area. Here is an excerpt:
In 1974, neighbors got together to discuss the formation of an association to promote and stabilize home ownership in the near northwest neighborhood of South Bend. They formed the South Bend Homeowners of the Near Northwest, Inc. In 1994, the neighborhood association was transformed into a Community Development Corporation, with an executive director, paid staff members and the ability to buy homes it could rehabilitate and resell. Today, the Near Northwest Neighborhood, Inc. is the descendant of this early organization.

As a Community Development Corporation (CDC), the Near Northwest Neighborhood, Inc.’s primary focus is the acquisition, rehabilitation, and sale of homes to low-moderate income buyers—in order to revitalize the urban community while also increasing home ownership. However, the NNN, Inc. would be remiss if it did not also promote neighborhood leadership and the interests of the current residents through inviting the community to participate in a variety of social and environmental programs. There have been many accomplishments including Adopt-a-Block litter reduction campaigns, standardized trash container implementation, voter registration drives, community oriented policing initiatives and the organizing of activities to promote the neighborhood such as the Arts Cafe. Leadership has remained in the hands of the neighborhood residents through a board of directors and a committee structure to carry out the work.

This excerpt hints at something that the web page does not say explicitly: That is, that the neighbourhood had become particularly rundown and prone to crime. Drug dealers and drug addicts had moved into an historic South Bend district, and the area was well on the way to becoming a ghetto area within South Bend. In that context, the actions of the NNN and the CDC take on greater significance.

Our Connection: The NNN today
We learned about the Near Northwest Neighborhood when Nevin and Alison were looking for a home to buy. They had moved to South Bend to study at Notre Dame, and they did not want to continue renting, so they entered the housing market.

They learned about the NNN, close to the university, a place where abandoned houses were being reconditioned and sold to people entering the housing market. The basic process is as follows. Houses in the ghetto were abandoned, and drug dealers and addicts would use them for deals and for shooting up. Long-time residents learned to keep their heads down and see as little as possible. Many of them were good people, but they could not stop a deteriorating situation.

The development corporation responded to this growing area of rundown housing, which was moving from the south to the north in the neighbourhood, by identifying abandoned houses, buying them, and then either tearing them down, or reconditioning them for sale. They would gut a house whose structure was fundamentally sound, and then put in new wiring and new heating and cooling. The result is a 100-year old house that you can insure at new housing rates!

I remember a conversation with Nevin and Alison in which Ali observed that one could track the building by observing crime statistics in the area. As houses were rebuilt and new owners moved in, crime moved west beyond the area that had been reclaimed. They ended up buying a house in which they have now lived for almost six years. The problems of the inner city are nearby, but they have watched as the area comes back to life. They have seen gradual changes. The house across the alley from them was vacant, and at one point they saw drugs being sold on its front porch. Now that house also has been renovated and sold.

There are a variety of other aspects to the renewal of this part of town. The NNN web page refers to one of these, The Local Cup. Here is how the web page describes it:
Join your fellow neighbors for coffee, tea, cocoa, delicious muffins, and friendly conversation. The coffee shop runs on a pay-it-forward model, so your coffee will have already been paid for by a generous neighbor! Want to pay it forward in return? Buy another neighbor’s coffee! It’s a new way to pay, but don’t worry, we make it simple. Best of all, we are building community, gratitude and generosity. We look forward to serving you! The coffee shop aims to support local producers. We use locally roasted Zen Coffee, Scherf’s Farm milk and Cyn’s Fruitful Muffins.

Community Meals
There is one other piece to this story, and this is the part that connects to the way that I understand the work of MCC.

One of the first couples (members of Kern Road Mennonite Church) to move in to the Near Northwest Neighborhood under the development program had a strong commitment to peace and justice, which they lived out in a simple and practical way. They decided to have a potluck meal with several other families in the neighbourhood, also from Kern Road Mennonite Church.

Over time they invited other families, and eventually opened it up to anyone in the neighbourhood. Every other Friday evening anyone who wants to from the neighbourhood joins in a “community potluck meal”. They rotate the host home through those wishing to take part, and anyone who wants to join in comes along, carrying in whatever they bring for the community to share a meal together. Over 20 years later, families from the NNN continue to share a community meal together every other Friday evening.

This simple step, eating together, has helped transform an area of town into a real community of people who care for each other as well as live in the same area. One result has been to create the space within which neighbours watch each other’s homes and call the police when someone tries to break in. we heard of one woman whose house was broken into while she was at work. She lost one small portable TV because a neighbour saw the break-in and called the police. In the past she would have lost much more.

Another result has been to nurture relationships so that when we walk down the street with Nevin and Alison, they talk to various people we pass. When we visit them at Christmas, we normally find ourselves in another neighbour’s house, singing Christmas carols together. This is another consequence of the growth of relationships within a place once known for becoming like a ghetto. They have become a “front-porch neighbourhood”.

The Point
We don’t need to see the story I am telling as an idealistic romance, pretending that the normal problems of human living disappear when we just care for each other and eat together. The usual problems of life continue. Indeed, in a way they are made deeper. When a neighbour’s four-year old daughter was hit by a car recently, the whole community immediately gathered round and began the process of walking through her recovery together. She was crossing the street to the Friday evening community meal when she was hit. Being together in community gives us greater reserves to draw on; it also means that we suffer with and for others.

[If you don’t want that, you can sing Paul Simon’s song, “I am a rock”; but you will have to leave life and love behind.]

The actions of the NNN and the CDC do not simply fix everything about the area. Common meals do not solve all the problems of life. Problems remain, of course, but these actions do illustrate what it means to live as God’s people in this world. We see people around us and we become Christ’s hands and feet for them. We “give them a cup of cold water in Christ’s name”, and God begins the process of transforming our lives. We do this far away—in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, and we do this next door—in South Bend and Winnipeg. We do this here at home in Steinbach.

As we do this, the words of Psalm 130 come alive.
Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.
If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.
I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope.
I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.

We discover that God is indeed present in all of our lives, and most especially present in our troubles, as we turn to God and as we turn towards each other. We love God, and we love each other. And in our common meals and restored houses God’s Spirit moves, creating the kind of community that reflects the reign of God.

Steinbach Mennonite Church
2 April 2017


KGMom said...

Sounds as though the discipline of preaching with short notice works well for you. At least, this once. No doubt it would wear over time were it to happen frequently.
I recall how the preachers of my childhood (say at revival meetings) completely eschewed preparation and spoke on what "the Lord had laid on my heart" that day or night. I never liked those sermons.
I am always fascinated to see how the same lectionary passages get a variety of workings depending on who is preaching.

Climenheise said...

Of course on this occasion the lectionary went out the window and I followed what "the Lord laid on my heart." Actually, I looked for a way to speak about the kind of integration of faith and life exemplified by MCC.

I believe you would know the couple who began the Friday evening community meals. I haven't asked them if I may name them, so I didn't.