• A Brief Reflection from NEXT Church Training: Church? Really?
    by The Center Baltimore on January 14, 2019 at 9:40 pm

    In October, Mel and I were able to attend the NEXT Church community organizer training here in Baltimore! It was a weeklong experience in which leaders from the Industrial Area Foundation’s Baltimore chapter, BUILD, led programming on community organizing from a congregationally-centered perspective. The days were long and full, rewarding and challenging, comforting and alarming. As we discussed the foundational principles of organizing during the week: power, relational meetings, asking for money, running actions, examining one’s own self-interest, I felt at home. I mean, I love this stuff. I’ve had some practice using these skills before! I was feeling pretty good about myself, nice and comfortable. But, as we were asked to consider how we might apply these skills in our congregations when we return home after the training, I felt a pretty pressing sense of fright arise. It went something along these lines:I don’t have a home congregation! I’m new here! OMG, I’m so new here, how do I become un-new here? How do you even organize in a place that doesn’t trust you yet? And oh my word do I not want to be a pastor. That desire sits at a very solid, very heavy zero. But do I have to be a Rev. in order to organize within the structure of the church? What is my role in this church of ours, anyway? Do I even know anyone here? Who is God? So, welcome to my brain during (and still sorta after) NEXT training. Things tend to amp up rather quickly! Now, of course, part of my feeling adrift was because the training was designed specifically for clergy people and my status as a lay person still new to her area and still working to solidify her church home made answering some of the questions as they were posed rather difficult. Even still, a lot of the above anxiety is founded in genuine curiosity about what my role and relationship with church will evolve to look like-- both personally and professionally. I know myself to be an organizer and I feel increasingly at home in that role. But what about my identity as a person of faith? Do I feel increasingly at home in that identity? In summary, I suppose the big question I’m forever trying to answer is, “Why am I so committed to organizing within the context of church?” Full disclosure, sometimes I’m surprised at myself for so ardently committing to church. I mean, I don’t think it takes away from my credibility to own the fact that I’ve got lots (!) of questions about this ole’ church of ours. I’ve spent a fair amount of time disappointed with decisions the church has made and the way it’s elected to treat all types of hurting people. In my peak pastor’s kid angst days, I was mad at the church on a personal level-- I felt I’d been allowed a look behind the curtain and was not impressed with the way the structure of the church treated ministers and their families. And, yikes, do I even believe all of this bible stuff? NEXT training made these questions more clear and tangible but not necessarily their complementary answers. Rude. So, honestly, that’s where I am right now. Lots of questions about why my organizer self can never quite escape church and how my community-organizer-self and my person-of-faith self inform one another. Holy Spirit? Does she have something to do with this? Is this all her doing? Sneaky! Someone get me her number.-Liv , Hands and Feet Fellow […]

  • Hands and Feet
    by The Center Baltimore on January 14, 2019 at 9:36 pm

    For those who have begun following the adventures of Liv and I here in Baltimore we thank you for the support of giving our stories time and attention. As we wrap up the first 60 days of being official Hands and Feet Fellows, you can probably tell that the work is broad in its reach and makes for long days and short months. We have not stopped moving so to speak, but we have gotten days off and moments to steal away and do fun things. We also get along and have established a friendship, so the home life is fun and conversational as well. But, who are we and what is this Hands and Feet Initiative about really? By day 45 I finally felt like I knew what my job was really about. After completing a community organizing intensive training through NextChurch I realized the dual focus in the work that I do. One is to be the Hands and Feet Fellow as part of the Office of the General Assembly (OGA). An initiative that is really forward thinking for how the Presbyterian Church (USA) as a denomination engages with the communities where our churches reside and the cities we visit for large denominational meetings. This incite to intentionally build our local engagement and support of the ministries, work, and lives of those who are members of this denomination; and through ecumenical and civic partnership is huge. It is the Gospel of engagement, literally! The second focus of our work is to be the Hands and Feet Fellows for The Center. Liv and I get to be deeply involved with Churches within the Presbytery of Baltimore. We have begun this work by meeting with the congregations that are/or have partnered with The Center recently. We are moving towards reaching out to churches who have expressed some interest in partnership and/or are part of the Presbytery that we have yet to meet.  The Center’s focus on mission informs the depth and breadth of this OGA Initiative. The Center uses the concept of mission to empower local churches to engage with their surrounding communities. To function as not a separate organization, but to build and establish relationships with residents and other area organizations (if any) situated within the church’s radius. The Presbytery has set up its churches into ministry groups which broadens an individual church’s reach because the relationship with a community organization might be established with a sister congregation within the ministry group. Thus, some of the local churches have used their ministry group as a cohort to provide programming during the summer for kids in a centralized area. Some churches have partnered with other religious denominations and institutions within the area to provide activities and opportunities that support the needs of residents around the neighborhood. The work at The Center and with our partnering churches and local organizations varies from area to area. As you have seen in past posts, we have done many things: gardening, we have played kickball and have assisted in providing meals. As Hands and Feet Fellows Liv and I are part of organizing and building relationships through listening to partners and people we are meeting along the way. We have both started finding ways to get out the house beyond work that also builds and feeds our personal needs and interests, but is rooting us into Baltimore as residents. These moments also provide for new connections and places to network. For me they have been educational and conversational in nature. I realized that as a black woman I am coming into a new community that already has a heightened awareness of what it means to live in America that recognizes you as citizen second. I also knew that Baltimore is unlike any other city I have lived, and want to do my diligence to learn about this city and the underlying tensions. As you have seen in other posts there are many layers to Baltimore and its history. I am not a tourist that gets to step in and out of spaces with my captured Instagram memories. I am fastly invested in who are the residents I call neighbor, the neighborhoods that hold landmarks to help me navigate movement, and the policies that impact me just as much as the next person. I am a resident of the city working for both city and county based congregations. In Baltimore and in Maryland that means something to distinguish where you live. My past work and education is starting to integrate into my understanding of this work. Coming out of the organizer training I feel more confident that I am on the right path of seeing how my faith and passion work together. As I work through the layers of Baltimore, God is causing my own layers to be examined. It is exciting and vulnerable. I am grateful for this year and for what has already begun to change in my life in just the last 60+ days in Baltimore. I am excited to be part of this Initiative and to have a practical hands on role in it manifesting throughout the denomination. It is work that we have all been called to by accepting Jesus and baptizing ourselves into the Christian community, but it is work few are willing to accept and are hesitant to engage. I am grateful that I am charged to come alongside and meet them where they are and help them to meet their neighbors where they are as well. -Mel, Hands and Feet Fellow […]

  • The Honeymoon is Over
    by The Center Baltimore on November 12, 2018 at 5:00 pm

    Layers of Baltimore 2As quickly as it started the honeymoon ended just as suddenly. I was ready for the moment, but I was not prepared for the impact. I started an anti-racism course for People of Color at the Baltimore Racial Justice Action (BRJA) after work on Wednesdays. Though I have taken anti-racism training before, I thought it important to take this course to help me understand Baltimore better. From the news and being an outsider I heard that the racial tensions in Baltimore were prevalent. The first 29 days did not reveal such understandings as depicted by news media, but on the eve of the 30th day that layer was revealed. I was returning home from class and as I stated in my early post the neighborhood where Liv and I stay in is gentrifying. After about 5 pm parking is a complete nightmare. So, after circling the blocks (literally multiple blocks were driven) I came back to the block just above the house to find an empty space. Praise the Lord!!! There was a man on a bike looking at his cell phone so I figured he moved to the side to be safe in the darkness. I pulled up preparing to master a smooth parallel park, rolled down the window and asked if he would kindly move. Now, my Chicago living taught me that people put random objects to save parking spaces during the winter so I am used to the behavior. Be mindful that it was closer to mid-July than the depths of winter in Baltimore, so I was not in the mindset to hear this man inform me that he was not being safe on his bike and just randomly on the phone, but saving the spot for his wife who is coming up the block. I uttered my thoughts of unfairness to him and sat there in my car to see how long it would take his wife to arrive. She arrived a few minutes later, but my disbelief and frustration at possibly taking a few more turns around the block had me stuck. I sat there until she parked. I sat there until they walked together across the street into their house. I sat for a few more seconds until I realized that I still needed to find a spot and get home. As I sat, there were emotions building up inside that I had not felt in a while. I felt alone. I felt extreme sadness and hurt. I felt lost and I started to feel angry. I moved up the street slowly and sure enough I found a potential spot at the other end of the same block. I looked around for the signs to tell me if it was legal or not. I backed in as far as possible to ensure that I wasn’t crossing too far over the line into the walkway. As I parked I prayed that this spot was safe. I sat as a few cars came to the intersection and turned. I moved the car a few more times to ensure I was close to the sidewalk and out of the way from the corner. Then I sat there for a while longer. I wanted to cry. I wanted to go back to Georgia. I wanted to walk into my parent’s house knowing my car was safe in the driveway. I wanted this feeling of being defeated and helpless to go away. I got out the car still looking for signs to ensure that I would not wake up to a ticket or a towed car. So where was the tension? It was internal. The incident itself had nothing to do with race, but I realized that the feelings I had was my awareness of blackness that I had not had to face in this way in a long time. When I was just starting the workforce I had an older white man tell a client that I had no international experience (though I had traveled several times outside the continental states at that time). He deflated who I was based on assumptions rooted in racism. In this moment those feelings returned.  Feelings that there was no way for me to defend myself or insist that the man saving the parking spot was truly unfair. There was no way for me to be assertive and confident that if anything escalated between me and ‘my neighbor’ that I would be treated equally. I realized that I was a Black woman in Baltimore, where tensions between Police and Black citizens is not on the best terms. That evening my mind began to understand what my body and soul already knew. I was not some new resident from Georgia, to my neighbor and to those who I encounter I am a Black woman from Baltimore. My race and my gender precede any other information or knowledge one might gather in our interactions. I uncovered another layer of Baltimore--internalized oppression covered in white privilege. Update: I had another almost similar incident that ended up in a $50 parking ticket because the spot was not legal. With only 15 days to pay before penalty I understand the reason many get jammed up with parking fines. I am fortunate to have a few surplus dollars to handle surprise expenses, but for many this is another layer in the battle. -Melva, Hands and Feet Fellow […]

  • What Am I Doing Here?
    by The Center Baltimore on October 30, 2018 at 2:08 am

    Second only to “Now, if you’re from Baton Rouge, where is your Southern accent?” the question I’ve been faced with most since moving to Baltimore has been the plain-spoken, “Why are you here in Baltimore doing community organizing?”  Mel and Liv at the October community organizing training in Baltimore, sponsored by Johnson C. Smith Seminary, Metro IAF, and NEXT Church. I think my answer to this--why, Liv, are you called to community organizing?--is largely dependent upon who asks the question and what is presently aflame in the world. I’ve wondered a while whether there’s something disingenuous about maintaining a sugary-cereal-aisle volume of responses that I can pluck from and tailor dependent upon the identity of the person asking, the most recent failing of the government, or the latest affront to justice of which I’ve recently become aware. I’ve decided, for now, that having different responses for different days and different people is alright as long as each response is as true as the next. As long as I can position each “why community organizing” response in relationship to the others, trying always to keep track of the largest narrative, this cereal aisle can be as big as it needs. In no way is one response that I cite, one reason for acting publically to transform the world, entirely unique, each bears a plane that somehow connects it to the others. From what I can tell, there seem to be three threads that connect all of my reasons for seeking to organize to one another. So, I’ll tell you three of them. One about public crying, one about a cafeteria epiphany, and something about God and organizing. First, I am here because I’m a pretty big purveyor of public tears. I’m telling you... music, beautiful or difficult pieces of artwork, word of injustice here or there, a good story, a sappy segment on the news, films-- you can bet I’ll weep! A homegoods store, a church service, while exercising, walking from point A to point B, I’ll cry right then and there! Now, for a while my tears were something I was embarrassed about. I had practiced all sorts of ways to suppress the tears, to coax them back up my cheeks and back into my eyes. I didn’t want people to know that I was such a softie, crying about something they didn’t seem so moved by. I’ve come to appreciate my tears as external indicators that I’m listening and that I’m called to feel and to find means to metabolize that feeling into productive action and productive lament. I’m here because I’ve found myself with plenty to cry about lately and I’ve got to let these tears be seen and put these tears to work. Second, I’m here because I think of myself as the most privileged lady there ever was. For whatever reason, this realization came to me as I hurriedly ran across campus one day a couple of years ago on my way to grab some astoundingly subpar food form my school’s cafeteria. I had been thinking about how hard it felt to talk to some people in my life about Trump’s election. Why couldn’t they see everything I saw? How this news would affect minorities, how the wealth gap would likely increase, how this couldn’t be good news for our environment. I then wondered why I could see and feel all of the looming doom and why, of all times, I was most troubled by it during the middle of my time at a very cushy and elite college. Making my way toward an unsatisfying meal, it hit me that the very reason I felt a strange sort of ease and clarity in understanding what Trump’s election meant for the marginalized was the exact same reason other’s saw their way of life under fire and felt no problem with the election of an explicitly bigoted individual. Because I’ve practiced seeing things from the margins, I’ve been primed to see structures of power a certain way given my identity and the circumstances surrounding my upbringing. I know and feel and, to a certain degree, understand the mechanics of oppression because, as a queer lady, I’ve sometimes felt small and forgotten and like the mechanisms of society weren’t built with me in mind. I have been permitted behind the curtain to know and feel othering in my body. Yet, this experience in itself made a privilege because the other pieces of my identity-- my whiteness, my able-bodiedness, my education-- prevent the totality of my experience from being one in which I am rendered entirely immobile by the manifestations of said marginalization. I am here because I have felt some of the ways in which exploitation and discrimination hurt but have privilege yet to make use of. Third, while I’m a ways away from piecing together anything resembling a complete statement of faith, I am here because I know at least one thing to be true: the work of the church and the work of the community organizer are one and the same. The just world that God calls me to believe and act toward, rooted in the hopeful ethic of Christianity, is brought into being with the skillset of the community organizer. It is my belief in the efficacy of community organizing that bolsters my hope in what the church and what Christianity can be. And, it is my faith in God and the ever-courageous presence of the Holy Spirit that tells me that there remains a more just world that is worth organizing toward. -Liv Thomas, Hands and Feet Fellow […]

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