On breaking our arm patting our own back

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I was re-reading today the story of the Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis.

If you haven’t read this delightful, challenging and honest story (from whence the title of this blog was taken) then I encourage you to click HERE immediately and sink your teeth into it.

It is the story of a Church who, boots and all, gave up its charitable work which it came to see as “a one-way compensatory activity that never changes anything.”

Which is a hugely confronting phrase to read but as the Rev. Mike Mather saw it:

“The church, and me in particular,”  Mather said, “has done a lot of work where we have treated the people around us as if, at worst, they are a different species and, at best, as if they are people to be pitied and helped by us.”

As I wander around Church-land myself I think there is a lot of truth in this statement especially in the language we use when we speak of our communities.

But I also see a number of Churches taking brave steps to reform and even “kill off” their charitable activities in favour of real and equal relationships with their neighbours.

In Mt Barker, for example, the Baptist Church have been home to a soup kitchen as Pastor Leigh Philp describes it:

“On Tuesdays and Thursdays at Mount Barker Baptist we feed local needy people. Called “Hills Hot meals”, it was triggered by a couple of caring local women, not from a faith background, who came across a homeless man, and who then partnered with the church. From 5pm – 6pm, we offer home-cooked meals to up to 20 people from various backgrounds and circumstances.”

But Rev. Philp has been challenged in a similar way to Mather and is looking at the downsides of this kind of charitable activity.  In its current model the middle-class volunteers hold all the cards.  Rev. Philp wonders what it might take to turn this on its head.  To allow those who participate to cook, create and contribute.  As a first step Pastor Philp is looking at increasing relational proximity in the program:

“In recent weeks there has been a subtle shift in the mindset of the ministry, realising that just feeding as a charitable act was [at best] only a part of the story. We are now encouraging church members to… be present to share their evening meal with our friends as an act of fellowship, with a view to growing a meaningful community, not just an act of charity.”

This slower process of bringing all on board presents a different approach to that cut and burn approach of Broadway.

I can appreciate both.  These kinds of transitions are difficult for communities with histories like Churches.  Most, like Broadway, “came to its charitable ways honestly, and with the best of intentions.” And to question the program/process is to question the intention of many a dedicated, loyal and sacrificial volunteer.

But we must, likewise, consider the broader implications of remaining charitable in a way that puts us at risk of breaking our own arms patting ourselves on the back.

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