Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Bridges, Barriers and Bombs

Yesterday, I was the invited speaker at the Roanoke City Public Schools "Faith Community" event. My purpose was to encourage Roanoke City congregations to see partnering with local elementary schools as part of their overall outreach. The following is the text of my message . . .

One of the critical questions the faith community needs to answer in this generation is "how will we define our relationship to those who are not part of our faith communities?" It might be with those who do not attend our worship services—or anyone’s worship services. Or it might be toward institutions like the local school system. Either way, how will our various faith communities define our relationships with those outside of our four walls?

When I look at the world, I see three options currently vying for our imaginations: bridges, barriers, and bombs. If you give this issue a moment of thought, you can easily see illustrations of all three.

Bombs is the metaphor that makes the nightly news: the extremists’ car bomb on a roadside in Iraq; the bullet that murdered Martin Luther King, Jr. at a Memphis hotel; the arsonists torch burning church buildings in Texas. The problem of those who resort to the bombs of violence to relate to the world around them is a necessary challenge for our faith communities to deal with; it does, however, take us too far afield this afternoon.

The metaphor of barriers is a more likely option for faith communities, and in some regards it is the prevailing metaphor of church-state relations in the United States. The doctrine of "separation of church and state" seems to establish an impregnable barrier between the faith community and the communities around us. Even though we walk the same streets, shop at the same stores, have children who walk in both spheres, the barrier of law would seem to say that these two communities cannot—and perhaps ought not—come together for any purpose.

Ironically, you will find those on both sides of the barrier who affirm this separation. Some on the faith side see involvement in the community as a either a compromise of their message or an abrogation of their duty; those on the state side see involvement with the faith community as meddling in things that are a personal choice.

But might it be time for a new metaphor to capture our imagination? We reject the metaphor of bombs outright; we understand the metaphor of barriers, but can we hope for something better?

The nine congregations that make up Old Southwest Congregations in Action, in fact, employ a different metaphor for their work. We have chosen bridges as our way of relating to the communities around us.

Jeremiah 29:7 is an important text for understanding this metaphor. The Israelite people are in exile in Babylon, and are sorely tempted to retreat within their walls and erect a barrier between them and everyone around them. But then the prophet Jeremiah sends a message:

But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. Jeremiah 29:7

We may not be in exile. In fact, Roanoke is our home. But the message is no different. We are connected to the people around us, and it is imperative that the faith community of Roanoke get the tool box out of the workshop and build more bridges in this city.

What will the faith community say to the fact that there are hungry children within an arms length of our meeting houses?

. . . When the needs for future prison space is predicted based on the 3rd grade reading level of the community, what story will be told of Roanoke, VA?

. . . When the budget gets cut and teachers are laid off and recent academic advancement is put at risk, can the faith community stand up and say, "not on our watch! We’ll be there."

Congregations in Action builds bridges with our elementary schools. Right now, a total of 25 bridges into six elementary schools. Specifically, we ask members of our congregations to give 30 minutes - 1 hour of their time every week or two to . . .

* Read to a classroom of students, then go to lunch with them
* Tutor a child struggling in math or reading
* Provide scholarships for field trips.
* Go shopping at the food bank for the backpack meal program,
enabling hungry children to eat a bit better on the weekends.
* Mentor a child, being a reliable, steady friend for them
* Bring a meal to the teachers
* Volunteer at the annual fun day
* Provide school supplies in the fall

We serve because we understand there is a need. And there is. We cannot be blind to the fact that Jeremiah’s message is correct, regardless of your faith persuasion. Our welfare depends on one another. We are more than a random collection of individuals who happen to call Roanoke home. Our welfare as a community will be enhanced when all have opportunity to share in the common opportunities and possibilities of this time and place.

But this is more than just a one-way relationship. It’s not just the about a first grader who has someone to read to him or her, or a fifth grader who passes the math SOL in part because someone was there each week to tutor them. Our volunteers benefit as well. We become aware of the amazing children who live near us, and the potential they have to do some magnificent things in the future, if someone will give them a little extra help along the way. Best of all, our volunteers fall in love with these children. The children aren’t statistics anymore; they’re persons, with a name, and a smile, and a story. Love is a common welfare that will never be measured in dollars and cents.

There is a tremendous need for this kind of bridge building, and I want to take this opportunity to challenge you to get involved as well. Our congregations know that "CIA" is not the only show in town; we’re not the only people volunteering in schools. But what we can do is help coalitions of congregations come together to do more than any one of us can do on our own. We are not the only model, but we are a model that works.

My promise to you is that if you are interested; if you will go back to your congregation and get one or two people from your congregation—and even better, one or two more congregations—one of us will come and visit with you, and help you get started. I want to challenge you to commit today. There are brochures and a sign up sheet on the back table. Go back there and find out more. Come talk to me afterwards, and lets talk. Friends, our community needs us.Loosely translated, God says, "Build bridges. Like it or not, you are connected with the people around you. Get up and get to work."

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