Have you ever had this experience: you know something is true, you even have experiences that affirm your knowledge, but you struggle to find the right words and then BAM you read a book/have a conversation/watch a video that gives you the words you have been searching for all along.
If you can relate to that description, then you can relate to the journey of the SoCe Neighborhood Action Foundation. SoCe NAF was borne from the experience of five individuals: Adam and Ashley Barlow-Thompson, Myrna Craig, Catherine Johnson and myself (Matt Johnson). We have been meeting on a weekly basis since March of 2014. During that time we have felt led by the Holy Spirit to work in the South Central Neighborhood (hence our name: SoCe...get it? South Central). We weren’t sure what work we needed to do, we just knew where we needed to be. We also knew that our way of looking at the neighborhood was odd, because while many people look at SoCe as a hotbed of drugs, crime, prostitution and homelessness; we saw our neighbors here as gifted and generous people who have a lot to teach the world. Hmm.
Also, since we’ve been meeting we have felt an uneasiness with how “church-as-usual” works. It isn’t that church is bad (Adam and Ashley both work in churches, and I did as well for 15 years). We just saw that as our society continues to change in dramatic ways, the old model of church is not going to be as effective. It is time to begin experimenting with how the church interacts with the community, and perhaps time to redefine the role of the church in the world. And we especially wanted to work on this with college students who are feeling called into ministry, because the church they are being trained to lead may not even exist by the time they are ordained or employed by the church!
So, we had all these thoughts and feelings and we struggled to express them...UNTIL...one day I stumbled across an article (or was I led to it?) that talked about Asset Based Community Development, or ABCD. It was that moment when we found words to describe what we had been feeling for so long. ABCD doesn’t start with a neighborhood’s brokenness, it starts with the assets (talents and skills) of the neighbors. And ABCD doesn’t start with massive institutions that are meant to fix everything, but instead it starts with relationships between the individuals and families that make up a neighborhood.
And what we immediately saw was a correlation between ABCD and the gospel message. For example, ABCD views every resident in the neighborhood as someone with gifts to share--regardless of their age or “label.” Doesn’t that sound like Jesus, blessing the fishes and loaves of a child to feed a multitude; or celebrating the generosity of the widow who gives a gift the world easily overlooks?
Another example is that ABCD does not restrict people to the label the world has placed on them: such as sex offender, drug addict, old, sinner, unemployable, etc. Instead, ABCD sees people as gifted and able to contribute to the good of the community. Doesn’t that sound like Jesus, hanging out with tax collectors and sinners, ignoring Peter’s plea to get away from him, or failing to throw stones at the woman caught in adultery? Jesus came to give us a new identity and then teach us to live from that new identity. We hope to help our friends and neighbors discover their deeper identity in God as a beloved and gifted child, and create space where they can live from that deeper (and unchanging) identity.
And what about the college students we want to encourage along their journey? Once we began to understand ABCD and how it is an expression of the gospel, then we realized we needed to start bringing students into our neighborhood to learn about ABCD and how it can be lived out in any context. We want to immerse them in this mind-set and view of the world, so Catherine and I have converted our house into a small dormitory where a handful of students can stay for a week at a time and learn what we are doing and help us with this work. We call this immersion “The Good and Beautiful World” because we believe God is calling the church to reach out to the world in this very way. We hope the students will take our ideas and run with them and build upon them, and begin transforming the relationship between the church and the world.