Original post at http://umclead.com/listen-to-your-community/
Last Friday Juan Huertas shared that listening is so simple and so hard to do. As I was reading I reflected on a time when I learned that same lesson when it came to missional living. While attending seminary I had the privilege of living at the Dietrich Bonhoeffer House. When we moved in October of 2010 we all thought that we would primarily work with the refugee community in East Dallas. This was because located directly next door to the Bonhoeffer House was the Refugee Services of North Texas. This seemed like a no brainer because they were literally our next-door neighbors. Plus, Grace UMC, our anchor church, had already been working with the organization for some years. The only problem with this vision was that as soon as we moved in we were notified that the Refugee Services would be moving to a new location the very next month.
As we sat in our house, unsure of what to do with this information, we decided to begin praying. Our daily prayer up until this point had mostly been extemporaneous but we soon discovered the prayer book Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. We began to pray not just as four people living in community but we began to pray with the saints and martyrs, our neighborhood, and brothers and sisters using the same liturgy around the nation. We prayed for guidance, we prayed for patience, and we prayed for the ability to listen.
One morning Jonathan, our house steward, went for a jog around the neighborhood. While running underneath I-20 he couldn’t help but notice there were clothes, sleeping bags, and other random objects under the overpass. It didn’t take long for these four grad students to deduce that there were homeless people living in our neighborhood. When you think neighbors you think of the people who live in the houses in your neighborhood yet we found out that some of our neighbors did not have houses, did not have enough food, and some did not have a community. This time, rather than decide then and there that our new mission field would be our brothers and sisters living on the street, we continued to listen. We got connected with area shelters, food pantries, soup kitchens, and anyone who knew anything about our neighborhood or about life on the streets. This continued for some time until little by little we began making friends with these organizations and the people they were in ministry with. We began to see our neighborhood not merely as a mission field but as . . . well . . . our neighborhood.
It took a few years of living in East Dallas before we really found a good solid rhythm. In our first year I’m not sure we had more than eight or nine people around our dinner table for community meals and by the time I left last summer there was not a single meal where there were fewer than eight or nine people around the dinner table. We began to learn about people’s stories, their joys, and their pains. We began to love our brothers and sisters not for who we wanted them to be but for who they were. I still keep in touch with the guys at the Bonhoeffer House and I am always excited to see the way that the ministry continues to change after I’ve left. I’m not sure where the ministry would have ended up had we not learned in those early years that you must be willing to listen to the Spirit in your midst.
When we arrived at the house we thought we knew exactly what kind of ministry we would be doing in East Dallas. I can tell you right now if you think you know exactly what kind of ministry you will be doing ANYWHERE, but especially with missional community living, you are wrong. In case you still think you know exactly what kind of ministry you will be doing, allow me to repeat myself. You…are…wrong (I like to repeat this to myself in the mirror occasionally, you’re welcome to borrow that practice). The sooner you realize that, shut up, and listen to the Holy Spirit the sooner you will actually be able to partake in vital ministry. Listen to the Holy Spirit in your prayer, your conversations, your daily commute. Take walks around your neighborhood, ask questions, knock on doors, and make yourself vulnerable. It is only through listening to your community context and being a part of the community that you can really learn what ministry needs to be done there. As John Perkins shares, you must learn the felt needs, not merely the perceived needs. A felt need means you become such a part of the community that you realize your neighbors needs are now tied up in yours. Meeting felt needs is an act of love. A perceived need, however, means you remain separate from your neighbor and meet the needs you project on them. Meeting perceived needs in patronizing. I pray we are willing to admit we do not know the needs of others. I pray we are willing to listen. I pray we will take on felt needs.
Photo from Flickr user highersights, used under Creative Commons license.