The author, who leads an intentional Christian community in Charlotte, N.C., attended the recent annual national conference of the Christian Community Development Association, a network of Christians committed to wholistic restoration for communities spiritually, emotionally, physically, economically and socially. This is the third of several reflections by him on the event.
By Greg Jarrell
In his sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington on March 31, 1968 — only four days prior to his assassination — Martin Luther King, Jr. began by recalling Washington Irving’s story, Rip Van Winkle. He notes that the story is typically remembered for how long Rip slept — 20 years! King notes, however, that the story turns not on how long Rip slept, but what he slept through — the American Revolution.
Retreating to a cozy spot in the mountains, Rip snoozes right on through the making of history, so that when he returns home, he is lost in a world that has changed around him while he was sleeping. The markers that showed him where he was had changed. King went on to suggest that without developing the new attitudes and the new thinking that the changing world demands, we can effectively sleep through a revolution.
Look: If Rip Van Winkle hadn’t left town to catch his nap, the revolution would have woken him up.
The Christian Community Development Association puts forth eight guiding principles for the work of practitioners around the country. The first of those is relocation. The idea is this: where I put my body matters. This is true for us because it was true for Jesus. In Eugene Peterson’s memorable rendering of John 1, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved to the neighborhood.” His relocation strategy was to be among the people, especially among God’s beloved poor. If you want to find Jesus, best to start among the dispossessed and the demon-oppressed.
One of CCDA’s founders, Wayne Gordon, often frames relocation in terms of a theology of presence. A theology of presence is essentially a question of grammar: which pronouns do you use? It is easy to pontificate about the problems in their children’s schools from across town. Send your own children to those same schools and they become our children’s schools — the ones where now you’re volunteering three days a week and advocating for at the school board meeting.
At QC Family Tree, we see this language shift happen with our apprentices entering for the first time. Initially they’ll ask, “How do y’all do this task?” Or they’ll observe, “Those children are really bright.” It doesn’t take too long for their pronouns to change: “How are we going to get this done?” or “Our children and youth really challenged me today.” I always smile when I hear this happen. I know the Spirit is working on us. The poor are ministering to us. We’re all getting born again as God knits this quirky family together.
Listen: Jesus teaches us to pray “Our Father.” The family is bigger than we usually think.
The disciples gathered in Jerusalem 50 days after the Passover. While they were together something strange happened. A rush of wind. Tongues of fire. The Jesus-followers started talking in every language. Those around them, from every place and every ethnicity of that region, heard and understood. They were so astounded that they only way they could make sense of it was to say the disciples were drunk.
Peter, with fire in his belly, stood up to tell them what was happening. He preached the Good News, which was that the community around Jesus, the poor one, the crucified one, was becoming a new family in his name. And those within earshot could join, too.
Three thousand did join that Pentecost day. Joining did not mean saying the right words or thinking the right thoughts about Jesus. It meant moving their bodies to be near each other – in one another’s houses, praying in the temple together, eating their meals together and using their gifts and possessions to make sure that no one else in this family had need. Joining the family was relocating. It was being present in the fullest sense: emotionally, spiritually and physically aware and together with their brothers and sisters.
Look: Pentecost ain’t over.
The Holy Spirit is just as alive and active today as ever. Even now, the Spirit is drawing brothers and sisters together across the distinctions of language, class, border and ethnicity. The closer we get to the disinherited, the more clearly we see how powerfully the Spirit is moving in little, out of the way places. Remarkable hospitality is taking place. Incredible generosity is going on from people who choose “not to worry about tomorrow, since each day has enough trouble of its own.”
Right now, our hospitality houses have as much as we can handle, but a beloved brother is coming home from prison this week. So, another neighbor, without a second thought, is taking him in. He has no money and works long hours for barely enough to make the rent. He is thrilled to be able to host this vulnerable one as though he were Christ himself. We’ll be celebrating a little Pentecost this week as the Spirit is helping us make room for this child of God. We will work together to figure out the challenges and recognize the gifts one day at a time.
I relocated to be with the poor and oppressed expecting to do good. I showed up with some education that had told me I could “be the presence of Christ” in places of need. Nonsense. Jesus has been in the business of seating the poor at the head table since way before I showed up. I’d been sitting in the wrong room. Didn’t know the banquet was already going on.
When the believers on that first Pentecost caught the Spirit, they started eating of God’s great banquet together. This was not figurative. They actually sat down at tables together. They shared their food with each other. As they transgressed the boundaries of rich and poor, language and country of origin, they earned “the goodwill of all the people.” By their boundary-breaking witness, “the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).
Listen: Wake up, Church. Pentecost still happens, but you have to be in earshot to hear the sermon.