By Dan Crain, Pastor and Connector in a series from the Loving Freely training.
“Are you from the church?” This question startled me as I had been in the trailer park for only a few hours. I knew a bit of the context to this question, so I answered the best I could: “Yes, but it depends on what you mean.”
This question was asked by a resident, who soon became a friend at The Palms Trailer Park in Orlando, FL. The trailer park had a lot going on in terms of “issues,” but it also had some of the most loving and faithful neighbors in the city. They took care of each other and after getting to know them, took care of me. I had recently started working for Polis Institute, a Christian non-profit, which wrote Dignity Serves and I was in the early stages of learning a new way of loving those in distress through what I have come to learn are called “dignified interdependent relationships.”
A few years before the woman asked this question, a large church in Orlando, FL sent more than three hundred volunteers into The Palms to clean up the trailer park. Many of the residents had their possessions thrown away because the volunteers deemed the neighbors goods to be not worth keeping around. It was painful for the owners of the trashed property and it hurt the reputation of the Church – and of Jesus. It was a mistake. A huge one.
Since that incident, the church has apologized, and they have been on a journey of learning to love their community well. We all begin somewhere and we learn through trial and error that, “Passion without knowledge is not good, how much more will hasty feet miss they way?” (Proverbs 19:2)
But one of the core problems of churches that want to serve our neighbors in marginalized places is that they still want the power in the relationship. Bob Lupton writes in Compassion, Justice and the Christian Life; “There is blessedness in this kind of giving, to be sure. But there is also power in it—which can be dangerous. Giving allows me to retain control. Retaining the helping position protects me from the humiliation of appearing to need help. And, even more sobering, I condemn those whom I would help to the permanent, pride less role of recipient.”
The false self loves to have control over others when serving, thus retaining power over those we deem need our help. Having control over others feeds the false self and gives us a sense of superiority that we are the hero of the relationship, allowing us to get the glory rather than Christ. Robert Mulholland in The Deeper Journey says, “My false self, like most false selves, is a control freak that manipulates people and situations to protect it from disturbances to its status quo.”
Loving Freely is about giving up control to those that we serve, particularly our friends in marginalized places and listening to and following their input. A lot of interior work is needed to be done by the giver to come to this place of receiving. It means dealing with the need to be in control of relationships. My counselor said to me years ago, “When you feel internally out of control, you control the externals.”
Pete Scazzero says in his book, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, “By failing to let others be themselves before God and move at their own pace, we inevitably project onto them our own discomfort with their choice to live life differently than we do.”
The question then becomes, what is disconnected in me that I need to be in control? There’s something lacking in our family of origin where we feel the need to constantly be in control of the relationship. “Our wounds fuel our sin.” (Dignity Serves, P. Hissom) This is why it’s important to journey to the past in order to name what’s driving the false self’s desire to be in control.”
It’s easy to walk into a place of distress or see someone that’s vulnerable and take over. I had to fight the urge of my false self to constantly do this. I am a doer. I like to get things done. My friend and mentor, Phil Hissom, the director Polis and author of Dignity Serves, took a different approach. He waited and was patient as he began to build dignified interdependent relationships with our new friends in the Trailer Park.
This is the main idea behind the Asset Based Community Development concept, you listen and given up power and control to the community we desire to serve. As I watched Phil live out interdependent relationships we saw the community completely transform from the inside out, as the residents owned what needed to happen in the community.
“Gentrification doesn’t have to be a net loss for those who didn’t leave if newcomers move with a sense of obligation to learn and build relationships with existing residents. This means when moving into a neighborhood, identify stakeholders. Ask the question “what are these neighbors doing?” or “what do they need?” If you move into a gentrifying neighborhood, and your first desire is to see a Pilates studio and a coffee shop built, it may be time to subordinate your agenda to your neighbors’ more pressing concerns—possibly reducing police brutality and improving housing and education. This means that both the gentrifiers and the gentrified coalesce in communities where trust is engendered and alternatives can be created.”
“Are you from the church?” This question intrigued me eight years ago and it still resonates in my heart. What should a church be in a community? What should they do and not do? Are they a helper, a hero, an enabler, a supporter, a student? What should their posture be toward communities that are visibly in distress? How should the church respond to the call of our Savior to serve and love a community without our service and love looking like another version of the judgment that many have experienced from previous, well-meaning Christians?
The residents of this particular community had built up so much resistance to the “church” that they didn’t want the church among them. Their experience was that way too many churches had come into the community over the years to “fix” them. Those churches likely saw the visible needs and wanting to be like the Good Samaritan and as Jesus commands, they jumped in by playing the default roles of “hero” and “fixer.” Many pastors and Christian leaders tried unsuccessfully to “convert the pagans” living in this trailer park. Who wants to be viewed as (and maybe even called behind closed doors) a pagan? Not me.
The same things happens with people caught in the world of sex trafficking. A close friend, Leroy Lamar that has been living out reconciliation with sex workers on Fulton Industrial Boulevard here in Atlanta informed me that his community feels the same way about outside groups. Over the years he’s asked his friends, “What do you need?” They’ve responded with, “I need you to stay. Church groups come in all the time and try to say, ‘If you’re ready to leave this life, jump in our van and we will rescue you.’ You know nothing of me. What we need is for you to come and just be present. I am not a project for you to be solved, but for someone to be loved.”
When we allow Christ to a deep work in the interior parts of our lives, we no longer need to be in control when we love and serve others. As Paul says in Galatians 5, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” Christ has set us free in the deep interior part of our lives so that we can now love freely. When we see a problem, we don’t need to jump in and fix it and feel the sense of being a hero. We can be patient, build relationships based on humility, listen to people, and then develop a plan of action together as the Holy Spirit guides the process.