by The Rev. Greg Buffone
St. John the Divine is actively discerning how the parish can enter into a substantive, and sustained engagement with our community that, God willing, will result in an improved quality of life for individuals and families struggling to overcome inequity and generational poverty. The vision, constituted as the Community Engagement Project (CEP), is consistent with the church’s Biblical calling. What follows is a brief explanation of that calling, and why it is important that CEP is necessarily a corporate effort.
Understanding our Identity is foundational to being and acting in harmony and integrity with our deepest self, the God-defined reality for individuals, human community, and in particular the Church. The identity and significance of the Church is a focus of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, wherein he begins with the entire cosmos in view, every aspect of creation, but immediately narrows his focus to humanity and God’s plan for reconciliation and redemption in and through Christ; the central figure and unifying force through whom God is making all things new. God’s plan is awesome in its simplicity, but arresting in implication, particularly with regard to his intention to unify all peoples and nations through the agency of the Spirit working in and through the Church (Eph 3:9,10). Thus God’s plan, of necessity, calls for not only a complete transformation of the heart and mind of individuals, but also the creation of a new community, the Church. The distinctive witness of the Church, the alluring and compelling demonstration of God’s gracious gift in Christ for the sake of the world, is intrinsically linked to the Body of Christ manifesting a community life radically different from the world; a kingdom outpost, if you will. Clearly, we, the Body of Christ, have a high calling.
In the same epistle, Paul reminds us that we are to become imitators of God, and of Christ (Eph 5:1,2). And Jesus, in the act of humble service to his disciples, gives us a clear example of what it means to put on Christ (John 13:3-17). Jesus saw himself as one who serves: “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as ransom for many.” (Matt 20:28; Mark 10:45) Becoming one with Christ in Baptism means we embrace not only a new life in him, but a new way of being that reflects his life of sacrificial love and service to one another, and corporately, to the world.
With regard to transformation, it is worth considering the fact that education and knowledge are not transformation, and even more importantly, that the most effective way for knowledge to travel from the head to the heart is through the hands. In other words, it is in the act of serving others that we truly begin to understand what it means to offer ourselves in love to the other. It is in sacrificial service that we keep on becoming who we are meant to be as individuals, and as the church of Christ.
The Community Engagement Project is one means of collaborating with the Spirit and living into our mission, thus fulfilling our call and by becoming imitators of Christ.
St. John the Divine has a history of generous financial giving, and many of our members volunteer in leadership roles, as well as in other ways in our community. One then may ask, why are we considering an initiative that has the potential to transform not only individuals' lives but our common life?
To answer that question, it is helpful to recall Paul’s admonition to the church in seeking to fulfill its calling in the world: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Eph 6:12) If we intend to address the social ills that prevail in our community we inevitably must address systemic issues that exist and shape this postmodern culture. In his book, Wisdom Path, Richard Rohr speaks to the importance of corporate engagement in addressing social systems: "The hunger for meaning and the need for hope in this deconstructed society [no agreed-upon source of truth] cannot be satisfied by merely private choices . . . The issues [social ills] are too big and we cannot stand alone against such a dominant cultural collapse. Corporate evil can only be overcome by corporate good." If we are to stand for justice, compassion, and mercy in a world that cannot agree on truth and where the powerful seek to sustain their advantage at all cost, then we must stand together as the Body of Christ, not just as individuals, if we are to bring about change consistent with Kingdom values.
In that same vein, if we as a divine community are intent on creating and modeling new ways of being that reflect the Kingdom of God, it is of necessity a corporate effort. Quoting from Rohr again: “We have to create structures and institutions that think and therefore act differently. We have no past evidence to prove that gospel individuals alone can fully exemplify the Reign of God. This is the church's own form of individualism, while it often condemns individualism in the world. Until we question our very lifestyle, nothing truly new is going to happen - or as Jesus said in a perfect metaphor if we put 'new wine in old wineskins,' both will be lost (Mark 2:22) That's a rather clear statement about the need for gospel structures to support gospel individuals.”
Hopefully, this brief exposition has provided insight into the missional and corporate nature of the Community Engagement Project. During the discernment phase of the project, we are relying on three teams of parishioners currently gathering information and data related to housing, employment, and education, that will ultimately be used to formulate recommendations for the next phase of the project. Additional communications and information will be forthcoming.
Originally published August 31, 2021, in the Building Bridges blog