Quenching the Fire with Neighborliness

This fall, California has been on fire. Wide swaths of the state have been burned to the ground. Homes have been destroyed. Schools and hospitals shut down. This, after a summer of drought, a spring of hurricanes—each natural disaster piling upon the next.

There is an political and social firestorm as well. We live in a country where deep divisions are being pressed, exploited and used to divide us.

Still, some of the best stories of our humanity come out of times of difficulty, loss, and tragedy through expressions of neighborliness—practices of connection and responsibility that generate and renew hope.

Why is this?

Perhaps it is because it is as Rebecca Solnit, author of Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, explains:

Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal … To hope is to give yourself to the future —and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.”

Perhaps it is because is desperate times, as Barbara Brown Taylor suggests, “All our idols are smashed.”

But what can emerge through difficulty, hardship and tragedy can transform us.

It was the great San Francisco earthquake and fire that changed the life of Dorothy Day. Having grown up in Oakland, CA as a witness to unimaginable destruction, Day was dumbfounded by how those around her—friends and strangers alike—came together in a way she had never witnessed before. She wondered, “Why can’t we live this way all the time?” That experience created an essential question her life that not only shaped her but lead to the creation of the Catholic Worker Movement.

“Why can’t we live this way all the time?” The Church of the twenty-first century has to ask similar questions as our world faces disasters both ecological and ideological[a]. And those questions will inform and shape our mission and ministry.

Indeed, from where I sit, in one real sense, such efforts have long been the work of the church at its best.

Eric Klinenberg, author of Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civil Life, tells us that churches—even our declining congregations— along with libraries, gardening groups, and other safe spaces are the glue that holds society together.

Why? Because they provide places where people can gather and build relationships. Klinenberg writes,

Social infrastructure is not “social capital”—a concept commonly used to measure people’s relationships and interpersonal networks—but the physical conditions that determine whether social capital develops. When social infrastructure is robust, it fosters contact, mutual support, and collaboration among friends and neighbors; when degraded, it inhibits social activity, leaving families and individuals to fend for themselves. Social infrastructure is crucially important, because local, face-to-face interactions—at the school, the playground, and the corner diner are the building blocks of all public life. People forge bonds in places that have healthy social infrastructures—not because they set out to build community, but because when people engage in sustained, recurrent interaction, particularly while doing things they enjoy, relationships inevitably grow.

Klinenberg’s “social infrastructure” is what I think of more simply of as “neighborliness.” What can the church do to encourage deeper neighborliness?
Recently, I was listening to a snippet of a video by Walter Brueggemann through workofthepeople.com. In it, Brueggemann suggested that the church needs to attend to four things: truth telling, generosity, hospitality, and forgiveness. I’d add one more thing: community organizing. With my addition, let’s go through Brueggemann’s list.

First, the church is called to tell the truth as it is found in the gospel. This is more than just “speaking truth to power.” It is, rather, making clear that the church is aligned with God’s purposes for the world where the poor and marginalized are set free from systems of oppression. Such speech is nothing short of scandalous!

Second on Brueggemann’s list is generosity, If we can uncouple ourselves from the status quo, if we can uncouple ourselves from a frightened sense of scarcity, we can practice generosity as an essential aspect of Christian community. Right now we live in an age of tremendous parsimony, where the common good is considered just another tax. We need not live this way. Our text teaches us that generosity is a sign of being a child of God.

Finally, Brueggemann argues that forgiveness and nonviolent social action are two critical disciplines that not only go hand-in-glove but are deeply relevant to the church in this century. Brueggemann, writes in A Gospel of Hope,

Forgiveness is first of all an economic transaction and the big forgiveness concerns debts. … And we are sent, by Jesus, to break the vicious cycles of debt and to restore folk to full societal participation, by charity, by attentive neighborliness, and by policy. This is the most radical thing the church can do, as it was the most radical thing that Jesus did. The church can be active in breaking the various patterns of debt and the hopeless attitudes of resentment toward the poor and the lethal assumption that if you are on top, you deserve it, and let the others fall out because, who cares? Forgiveness is the recalculating of society for the participation of all its members.

Hospitality, generosity, forgiveness, and community organizing for nonviolent social action: all of this leads to an alternative way of living in the world.

This is no simple task. As Frederick Douglass famously said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” The unjust systems of the world will not turn over by themselves nor can we simply pray our way into the reign of God. This leads to my addition to Brueggemann’s list: community organizing for social justice. What is needed is nonviolent social action; the kind that makes demands on the powers of this world for a just and life-giving world for all of God’s creatures.

In my own congregation, we have begun this work with surprising results: We have found that young people in their thirties are eager to participate in the life of our congregation. Some of them drive as far away as fifty miles one way for a Sunday morning. When asked why, I was told: “I want to be a part of a church that is actively seeking to change this world for the better. I and others like me are looking around for a church like this.”

The good news was meant to be lived and shared, and the church must care because God cares. As the old hymn goes, “Neighbors are rich and poor, neighbors are black and white, neighbors are nearby and far away,” are all meant to be subjects of our concern. And, as our animal friends remind us, neighbors have paws, and hooves, and fins ,and remind us that God delights in all.

Hospitality, generosity, forgiveness, and community organizing for nonviolent social action: all of this leads to an alternative way of living in the world. These practices help us to instruct community leaders and public policy makers on what makes for neighborliness. This is what snuffs out the ignorance, anger, and animosity that has set so much of our lives ablaze.

Barbara Brown Taylow, community organizing, Eric Klinenber, Frederick Douglass, Hope, neighborliness, Rebecca Solnit, social justice, Walter Brueggmann

Ronald D. Culmer

The Reverend Ronald D. Culmer is married and has two children, two dogs, and one goldfish in a house small on size but big on love. Ron served in the United States Air Force, and was stationed at Altus AFB in Oklahoma. He has BA from California Lutheran University and a Master of Divinity from The Church Divinity School of the Pacific. Reverend Culmer is the Rector of St. Clare’s Episcopal Church and School in Pleasanton, California and is enrolled in the joint D.Min. program in Congregational Development at Bexley-Seabury and CDSP and expects to finish his dissertation in June of 2018. Find him on Twitter at @onebreadonecup.

Featured Image: Michael Held, Untitled (September 7, 2016). Via Unsplash. Cc2.0 license.

Body Image 1: Elijah O’Donnell, “Man’s Dirty Hand Holds Beautiful Butterfly” (June 26, 2018). Via Unsplash. Cc2.0 license. Cropped.

Body Image 2: Nina Strehl, “LoveYourNeighbor.ch” (September 23, 2016). Via Unsplash. Cc2.0 license. Cropped.