Community Building
The Church in the Heart of the City
Second in the Series

Introduction

In 2006 and before he was elected President, Barrack Obama wrote

each day thousands of Americans are going about their daily rounds-dropping off the kids at school, driving to the office, flying to a business meeting, shopping at the mall, trying to stay on their diets- and coming to the realization that something is missing.

They are deciding that their work, their possessions, their diversions, their sheer busyness are not enough. They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives, something that will relieve a chronic loneliness to lift them above the exhausting, relentless toll of daily life.

They need an assurance that somebody out there cares about them, is listening to them- that they are not just destined to travel down a long highway towards nothingness. (The Audacity of Hope, page 202 Barrack Obama 2006).

This observation on the lives of ordinary US citizens leads us to think about the meaning of the daily routine of middle class Australians. In this first decades of the 21st century many well off citizens are marked by success, achievement, wealth, security with a comfortable life style based on freedom to choose. And yet for many Australians too there is the hunger for something more.  

I read some time ago about the profile of those wanting to travel the Kokoda track.  Trekkers at risk are mostly men in their 50s who have made it; well off from working hard and now looking for something more, a challenge and an opportunity for adventure.

Along with many other western nations Australian community leaders have championed and talked up the advantages of the free market economy and the values of a competitive ethos. I heard recently of one family with young children who have banned the words I want and I need. Many are questioning the assumption that life is all about me and what I want. We know of families, parents and young people who are continuously exposed to a relentless call to find happiness in spending more. This is the assumption of the entertainment and advertising industry; that our lives are fulfilled and satisfied only when we are distracted and that the empty hole in our hearts can be filled when we acquire more things.

We also have accepted policies which take advantage of our seemly unlimited natural resources and the arrival of the post industrial age. Up until the recent budget we have assumed that governments will not only regulate and act to ensure a competitive economic climate but balance that with a high level of support for social benefits including universal health care, free education, a safety net for the unemployed and security in retirement. Maintaining this Australian tradition creates social cohesion, pride and grows a commitment to volunteerism. It also provides a setting encouraging citizens to “give something back” helping to build a civil society and work for the common good.

 Sense of belonging

The church in any decade or place has the responsibility to read the signs of the times, to reflect on what is happening in people’s lives, to listen and hear what people are saying and feeling. We are called to a vocation which invites us to think about how the Gospel, the good news, speaks to our particular situations, the times and the places where we find ourselves. It goes without saying that we are dealing with attitudes and values which are very different from the pearly post war years those safe suburban and rural communities where many of us grew up, were nurtured and cared for by an extended community through the local church.

City and inner urban areas are different from secure and stable suburban suburbs as they are places where we first see and observe changes in the mood, ethos and values of community life. City, CBD and churches on Main Streets are confronted by these new realties and become aware of the challenges in responding to the social and cultural changes taking place in the wider society. 

One dominant feature of our urban life today is social diversity and the city expresses this reality. Many years ago a social historian, Lewis Munford, noted that

the city brings together all the diversity of humanity and a great variety of sub cultures. At least in token quantities we can experience the typical cuisines, languages and customs which express those traditions. Here in the urban landscape the representatives of humankind met face to face on neutral ground and the city represents the complexity and variety of the global community. The city by reason of its breadth and its past incorporates various examples of cultural life. Every variety of human function, every experiment in human association, every technological process, every mode of architecture and planning can be found within its crowed area. (Adapted from L Mumford, the City in History).

In the urban world we are confronted with very diverse, pluralistic world; citizens are highly mobile, short of time, pressured, but also fearful. Security companies are making big money and fortress type urban development isolates us from neighbours.

Churches on Main Street with a commitment to ministry in the public square witness daily the consequences of social isolation, the decline of social capital and the widening divide between those on high and low income. These trends erode the ingredients of human relationships that bind people together and creative healthy compassionate communities. People easily lose their way in anonymous urban settlements and social isolation grows the numbers of those losing their resilience and capacity to cope. Anger, resentment and fear develop when social contact is minimised and people become marginalised and find themselves on the periphery.

I remember the day when one of our regular customers called in at the Uniting Church’s Wayside Centre at Sunshine, a former industrial suburb in the heart of the western region of Melbourne. He came to collect his food parcel and those at the counter were busy filling in the forms and attending to the administrative requirements. That week we decided to conduct a survey and ask a series of general questions to help our service become more efficient. The simple survey questions were about why people were calling in and how they heard about us. On that day we heard a word which helped us refocus our priorities and our ministry of hospitality. Our middle aged and somewhat broken down man replied, yes I come for the food parcel but that’s really incidental.  I live alone and this centre gives me at least one chance in the day to stop and talk with someone in a safe place!

As we developed plans for the future we heard about other similar regions that were working to respond to this growing feature of urban life. Within a few years men’s sheds became a major focus for churches and UnitingCare agencies across Australia.

Churches involved in building community

There are many Australian stories of churches where ministry is focussed on engaging with partners and building bridges with others in their community. Churches are finding ways to share their experiences but are often overlooked or take for granted the contribution they are making to community bonding and building relationships in neighbourhoods. When this happens these are sacred and life giving moments. Congregations become instruments for building social capital by inviting people into partnerships, creating and building community, by ensuring that places and programs provide a place to belong, knowing that someone cares, that there are qualities and gifts which all people can bring contribute and share to community.

Over the past forty years I have followed with interest the mission activity of a small congregation based in the inner city of Sydney, the South Sydney Parish. Members became fed up with the biased reporting and dearth of a good public newspaper. Initially the church felt it was important to cover some of the major issues affecting community life and began to produce a free photocopied newsletter. This ministry has grown and they now distribute a monthly broadsheet local newspaper, the South Sydney Herald, to 25,000 households. Their current minister, Andrew has a background in journalism and has expanded this ministry thorough the monthly paper The South Sydney Herald.

Many of our UC congregations are working hard at being a home for social contact.  One of many in the inner suburban ring within a 5 km radius of Adelaide has developed programs for supporting parents, helping both young fathers and mothers deal with stress and values for family life. Called the Effective Living Centre in the suburb of Wayville, the centre provides courses on parenting, hosts multi faith dinners, promotes forums on justice issues, holds poetry nights and promotes community arts. (www.effectiveliving.org). The centre also supports the SA branch of the Progressive Christianity movement.

Some years ago, at the height of the refugee crisis, many of these congregations in SA supported the formation of circles of friends and these groups were to the fore in providing hospitality and campaigning to change government policies. Pilgrim Uniting Church in the city has a range of commitments connecting them to the street and their neighbourhood just off Victoria Square.

For the past year or two Uniting Communities, an agency of the UCA in SA, has developed a support programme for churches committed to asset based community development (ABCD) forms of ministry. Check out their recent invitation and follow the links to a number of workshops and training events.

Some of these other congregations belong to the Urban Mission Network within the Presbytery of South Australia and the UMN is made up of small and large, urban and rural congregations (www.urbannetwork.org.au). The stories of these congregations represent the varied responses churches have made to building and strengthening community life. These ministries are based on a theology of service (diaconal) do not use conventional forms of evangelism for church growth purposes and are not an undercover attempt to convert people and congregations have become livelier, have “re-traditioned” their ministry and have welcomed new members over the past 10 years.  (Other examples are included in the 2011 report, “Action Research Project 2010-2011 Western Region Adelaide” by Dean Eland).

 A city church contributes to a sense of place

 A sense of belonging is reinforced by a sense of place. Historic or first or public churches provide continuity and represent community memory. While governments come and go and trends and fashions change, over the years city churches remain centres where social bonds of trust and partnerships can flourish. There is role for the much maligned heritage listed buildings!

The congregations that meet on these sites discover that their liturgies, songs and prayers become a response to their setting. As an extension of its liturgical ministry to the city, Pilgrim UC in Flinders St Adelaide conducts a Holy Thursday walk around Victoria square. On these walks pilgrims are invited to view the city landscape, connect their week by week liturgy with their built environment and the social pathways of association, networks and communities of trust.

 We ask, what are the powers presented here?  What symbols and signs dominate and do they evoke common bonds and social cohesion? The liturgy reminds us that, here people travel their social rounds, pathways connecting them with others and it is here that city people construct durable and dependable networks of association. Together these networks make up the social order of the city.

Victoria Square is home to those powers and authorities of the state elected to represent the welfare of the city and to serve the common good. These institutions include government and the law, commercial interests, educationalists and the voluntary sector, people with different values and priorities who occupy common ground and take responsibility for decisions affecting the future. In reading the passion story against the backdrop of the Supreme Court, the Catholic Cathedral, the central market or the office of the Premier we are reminded of the parallels between that first century event and the principalities and powers of our own day.

The minister of this congregation in the eighties, Bruce Prewer made a significant contribution to an Australian prayer tradition by his poems and liturgies. The congregation has produced series of song books, “Songs for the People of God” over 40 years and have produced a new edition this month.

Other examples of Australian urban liturgies were developed by Dorothy McRae-McMahon, former minister of the UC 264 Pitt St Sydney. Songs by the late Ross Langmead (On the Road, 1986) from the Westgate Baptist community Melbourne expressed the challenges of being an incarnate community. Many of these songs and liturgies were celebrated at a series of national conferences organised by the Australian Association for Urban Mission in the eighties and early nineties.

The North Tce neighbourhood of Scots Church Adelaide (www.scotschurch.org) represents the cultural and educational institutions of a civil society, a focus on cultural, heritage, arts and voluntary character of the city. A similar and adapted liturgy would be a response to this precinct and assist in articulating its commitment to city ministry. 

Working with a coherent and consistent narrative

As city congregations respond to the challenge of the gospel today many are finding new ways to work intentionally and redemptively with the city’s narrative, the dominant stories of the places they inhabit. A narrative sums up a people’s self-understanding; what has happened here, the implications of the changes taking place and the kind of community we want to become. Sharing these concerns in civic and public life give rise to and identify common concerns, possibilities and relationships, an opportunity for developing a trustworthy place of conversation and community dialogue. (Alban Institute Weekly Bulletin December 2008).

Through reflection and discernment churches also are called to use their spiritual, theological and biblical heritage to develop images affirming the heart or the soul of place. These themes are often uncovered in the story and the characteristic features that are central to a city’s own uniqueness. The vision of the city provides a powerful source of energy for the engagement of faith groups within the urban contexts. (Beaumont and Baker 2011).  Images, songs and liturgies composed by city churches reflect their approach to ministry, their contextual theology and express commitment.

Drawing on these sources congregations become counter cultural, no longer a city of despair, a place of hopelessness and brokenness but an imagined city, a place of hope (New Jerusalem) founded on vision of possibility. The call to justice, making and “working for the welfare (common good) of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7) becomes our vocation and calling.

Rev Dr Dean Eland - June 2014

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