Written By Scott Colburn
The Christian Community Development Association is a movement of diverse, socially progressive evangelicals. Its annual conference offers a lot of talks and workshops, on social justice and the "Matthew 25" works of mercy that are central to a life of discipleship. Plus, lots of awesome worship led by a diverse music ministry. Most of the UCG staff went to this year's conference, "Resilience," in Detroit in October.
I went to two workshops on Thursday that focused on using sociology to inform and guide ministry. I love this subject. Using observation and data to see patterns of behavior in society and to see the actual, rather than the stated, ideals and goals of a nation, has deepened my efforts as an urban missionary and evangelist with a strong love of the arts. I have to live with and try to understand people before I can effectively minister to them.
The first workshop looked at the use of data to identify community realities and needs. Knowing who is in your community, and what their needs are, is a first step to ministry. The presenter showed us data sources that show everything from how poor people are being pushed from the "inner city" that has gentrified, and to the near suburban margins, to the allocation of public and semi-public resources like parks, playgrounds, public transportation and grocery stores. He said that data helps us to answer questions like "Are veterans underserved and at risk in this town?" or "Do teenagers have anywhere to go and anything to do in our community?" Having specific data allows us to shape ministry responses and use our probably limited resources effectively. The presenter showed us a number of websites that provide this data.
The second workshop, "Crossing The Street," was about how gracefully to work across ethnic and class lines. The presenter was an Urban Studies professor in Seattle, a Chinese-American man who was really enthusiastic about the need for diversity in Christian Community. He told about Rainier Avenue, a Seattle street that is a dividing line between the "nice" and the "bad" parts of Seattle. His church is on that avenue, and it transitioned from a typical "white church" to a multi-ethnic church because older white parishioners stayed, instead of fleeing to churches in the suburbs, and welcomed Asian, African and Hispanic newcomers. He talked about a lot of the issues that face us at UCG--the need to "Cultivate a community of belonging" and to practice "radical hospitality." He said that those of us who are white, especially "professional Christians," need to join, not start, community transformation, and to seek creative partnerships with people in the neighborhoods we serve.
A big theme of the plenary sessions was weariness. For many in the diverse conference, the work of community transformation and social justice for the sake of the Gospel is an uphill struggle, especially in the past couple years of a bitterly divided America and with the continued threats of injustice, the Alt-right, and economic disparities that continue to harm the most vulnerable. There were some great, impassioned speakers, and while they voiced a lot of frustration and weariness, they had stories of hope and progress too.
Detroit is a city that is showing resilience, though that story isn't being as well covered as the story of the city's collapse and bankruptcy was. I was able to see a little of it, and even rented a bicycle on one of those credit-card operated bike rack kiosks for a mad ride from the big Art museum back to our hotel during rush hour.
A last note--on the way out of Detroit we stopped at a cowboy boot and western wear store called "Scott Colburn's Western wear." I felt like a celebrity, and had a nice visit with owner Sarah Colburn, the daughter of the founder. We may be 11th cousins, at best, but had some similar family stories. However, I realized that the UCG gang I was traveling with was a lot more like a real family to me. As diverse as we are in ethnicity, culture, age, and point of view, we are one in our love of the Gospel and the people we serve in Beaver County. Conferences in distant cities are fun, but they bear fruit back home, in the daily work of pouring coffee, listening to friends talking about their lousy day, and praying for our own beaten-up but resilient city.