Saturday, February 13, 2010

Making our Mark

While living in Toronto I heard a very memorable sermon at the Church of the Resurrection. During the sermon my rector showed us some PowerPoint slides. He explained that what looked like pictures of simple graffiti to most of us were actually turf markers for gangs. These markers signified that particular areas were claimed by particular groups for dealing drugs and other activities. After flipping through several slides, he asked us these questions: "Where are our markings in this parish? How do we show to the community around our Church that we have claimed this area for Christ? What does that even look like?"

I was reminded of that sermon when came upon a Celtic Cross during a walk this past week. It is located on the corner between Water St. and Prince William St. My initial thought was, how beautiful it was and how it could serve as a natural meeting point for people to come together to pray. As I went closer I read the inscription and learned that this cross is a replica of the cross located on Partridge Island that was erected in memory of the 2000 or so Irish emigrants who came to New Brunswick and died. Being of Irish descent, I was disappointed- but for a different reason altogether. Instead of being a symbol of God's perfect and unending love - this cross was just a reminder of death. Such a mark just won't cut it; neither will graffiti for that matter.

So what kind of markings will adequately and effectively express the presence and love of God in the South End? I'm reminded of the four attributes of the kingdom described in N.T. Wright's Simply Christian. They are, if memory serves, Justice, Spirituality, Relationship and Beauty. These are the hallmarks of God's Kingdom. These are the ways we are called to leave our mark.

I've learned of some really exciting things that are happening or have happened in the South End. One of these is the Food Club operating out of Centenary-Queen Square United Church. This is a system that will allow people to order inexpensive Fresh Produce once a month. Members place their order at the beginning of the month and it arrives in the third week of the month, allowing people with a limited income to enjoy fresh produce.

Another church in the area has hosted community parties in Queen Square. These parties bring lots of people together for food, games, live entertainment and even bouncing castles for the children. These parties provide the means for starting relationships between the church and the community as well as encouraging a more closely connected neighbourhood. According to a survey done by Vibrant Communities, South End residents recognize these kinds of community events as vital for the health of the community. We could use more of these.

What are some other ways we could leave our mark in the South End? Perhaps through art and music fairs in which people could have access to instruments and art supplies? How can the Church work together to promote kingdom values rather than denominational ones?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Connection Points

Over the past few days I have been reflecting on two very different perspectives of ministry for the South End. The first focuses entirely on social issues and it stresses the need to advocate for the oppressed against dismissive powers (i.e. businesses and governments) that are failing to meet real needs. The second perspective stresses that for a community to change it must be the result of individual transformation. Poverty and injustice are problems of the heart. According to this perspective what is needed is transforming love through relationships.

I find myself tempted to focus solely on meeting social needs. The questions I ask people are socially based. My conversations are socially based. But, if I were to focus solely on these issues, why am I doing it in the name of Christ? Don't get me wrong, I know Jesus cares about justice, and the preservation of each person's dignity - but He addressed these issues through personal relationships. People realized their worth because Jesus valued them. Jesus' revolution was based on people not causes.

The danger of focusing solely on causes is that they will not carry you far. Rather they can lead to a lot of frustration. To lose the perspective that the best thing we can do for people is to love as Christ does is a fatal flaw. It makes any effort seem bland and lifeless.

On the other hand, I do believe that people's lives would be enriched by encountering Jesus. Christians are called to embody Christ's love and in so doing to be the living expression of Jesus' healing care. Advocacy for people's rights begins with intimacy. Intimacy with Jesus and intimacy with others. As I realized in a conversation with a local clergy person, such intimacy produces patience and hope as Jesus' transformative power is observed personally and in the lives of others.

As I think about this, I realize that I cannot be looking for a way to provide for a social need or cause only. Rather, I will view such causes and needs as connection points. These are ways of expressing God's love that will allow for a connection between the people I want to serve (and who will also serve me) and the Spirit of Christ Jesus. This may be a simple thing, but the difference between this and a sole focus on advocating for justice issues is profound.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Ever Wonder how a French Explorer Ended up in the Centre of the Union Jack?

I wonder what Samuel de Champlain would say if he saw his statue in the middle of Queen Square, which just so happens to be laid out in the pattern of the Union Jack. Would an experienced explorer such as himself be surprised? Or, would his adventurous journeys cause him to accept this bizarre honour quietly? After all, what kind of exploration would it be if the destination was already determined?

I have been living in the South End of Saint John for one month now. Like any true explorer I’m not sure what my destination is exactly. (Sammy would be proud). My mandate has been to discover what is happening in the Lower South End (The area South of Duke St) in terms of justice issues and anti-poverty initiatives. My aim is to discover what needs are being met now by churches and other groups, and how the Church may participate by either supporting these initiatives or by addressing needs that have yet to be met. God-willing, by the end of 2010 I'll be able to identify the needs of the Lower South End and have a proposed vision and strategy to address this need.

So far, I have met with a number of clergy and other people and groups in the area who are working to make the South End a better place to live. It has been an eye-opening experience and a humbling one as well. In fact, I am hesitant to record my thoughts at this point as I am certain that a few months down the road I will look back at my first blogs and realize how little I knew.

So far, through various discussions, I have identified one main need. That of an emergency shelter. Such a shelter is important not only for when the temperature drops, but also for people who want to be treated at the methadone clinic. As I understand, such persons must have a residence in order to obtain treatment. The question is: how can we meet this need?

My hope is to record my thoughts and reflections weekly. I would highly value any feed back you could offer. One thing that I would like to have established by the Spring is set Prayer-Walk-Routes throughout the Lower South End. My hope is that Christians from all over the city will sign up and pray for the families, individuals, schools, businesses and churches throughout the area.

Well, these are my thoughts so far. Please keep me and all of the residents of the Lower South End in prayer. God bless you all.

Paul Ranson

- Lower South End Area Minister -