Part one of a two-part community building series, adapted from The Practical Minister
Sometimes, it can seem as if the problems in our communities are too big, that our individual impact is too small in comparison. One of the most important lessons that many years of pastoral ministry and non-profit community outreach have taught me is that building an engaged community of service takes patience and a willingness to persevere.
Learning is part of the process, mistakes are inevitable, and there is no “map” for success — but if we recognize that every person and community is unique, the following strategies (gained through trial and error) might help others who seek to build caring, engaged communities based on hospitality and service.
First, begin where you are.
We can’t tackle all of society’s problems or support every worthy organization with our money and efforts. One of the most important discoveries I made was that we need to begin where we are. Many organizations in our community are working to address problems and injustices, and they all need financial and volunteer support. But we can’t do it all.
For instance, our parish Outreach Commission at Church of the Gesu knew we could not be everyone’s partner, so we developed guidelines to direct our efforts. As a result, we decided to donate money only to organizations where parishioners were also volunteering their time and efforts. That gave us a place to begin.
Presbyterian theologian Frederick Buechner defined one’s calling as the place where one’s deep joy meets the world’s deep hunger. Look for that place: Assess your talents, strengths, and interests. What do you do well, individually and as a collective? What is manageable for the size and population of your group? What would you find joy in doing?
Identify the needs in your community. If a problem is being addressed by others, don’t replicate that work. (Of course, you may find opportunities to collaborate if you can do so meaningfully.) Identify issues that need to be tackled; you can then decide how your skills, strengths, and interests would be of most use.
Look around your community, and listen. Sometimes, we discover ways to serve simply by paying attention to those around us. For instance, one of our parish partnerships came about because a child remarked to our pastor that his mother had forgotten his birthday. Although we could not help that particular child, his remark prompted our Outreach Commission to organize quarterly birthday parties for the children in a nearby housing complex. A couple of years later–again because our pastor paid attention and listened–he addressed an ongoing need in our parish for services for seniors and handicapped individuals. He called together a number of parish groups who eventually formed a new service organization to recruit and train volunteers willing to provide rides, run errands, and visit homebound individuals.
Ask people what they need and how you can best be of service. It is easy to impose what we think another individual or community needs, but standing with those in need does not mean making decisions for them.
At Church of the Gesu, we learned the importance of asking because, like many parishes, we partner with an organization in the developing world. Parishioners travel twice a year to Honduras to work with Sociedad Amigos de los Ninos on construction and painting projects, medical and dental brigades, as well as to simply be with the community.
One of the jobs undertaken by Honduran workers and volunteers is making cement by hand (which I can confirm is a relatively slow, labor-intensive task). During one of the trips, a parishioner devised a plan to raise funds back in the U.S. to purchase a cement mixer to make the work easier.
However, subsequent discussions with the Honduran project leaders revealed that a dump truck would be far more useful. A truck would allow workers to transport people and bricks from one job site to another. More importantly, a truck would not put men out of work as a cement mixer would–something the volunteers had not considered. Fortunately, they asked and then listened. Money was raised; the dump truck was bought, shipped, and christened; it continues to serve many purposes. As far as I know, cement is still made by hand.
Show up and stand with those in need.
Return again and again to build relationships. Often, a ministry of presence is all we can do. Show up. Then do it again.
Our parish organized a number of service projects that failed initially, but because volunteers and organizers persevered, we established relationships with a number of Cleveland-area social agencies and nonprofits. One of our partners was the city’s largest men’s shelter, where we committed to cook and serve dinner a few times a year. On one such occasion, only the parishioner organizing the dinner showed up. Luckily, I was able to find one other individual to join her and the men from the shelter who worked in the kitchen, but before the next scheduled meal, we bulked up on volunteers. We organized our efforts, and we showed up.
All projects are not slam dunks. Some run their natural and shorter course. Sometimes we learn that what we thought was a need is not. Other times, despite our best efforts and a real need, it might not work out, either initially or in the long run. There may not be enough interest or money or time or volunteers. But a failed effort does not mean we should quit trying.
Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ, founder of Homeboy Industries (which provides training and support to former gang members), noted in his book, Tattoos on the Heart, that if we focus mainly on results, we might choose to work only with those who give us good ones (178). Focus on the need.
If you connect with one person, it is enough.
Connecting with one individual is not an insignificant act. The work of engaged community members includes serving, fostering community, and effecting change. At the heart of that is building and maintaining relationships with people, one person at a time.