Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Not half empty! - some notes on the Asset Based Community Development conversation

Today I was a delighted member of a group of church leaders meeting in the Forest of Dean.
On a beautiful morning, the drive there was pleasure enough - but the arrival was even better.
You see, we met at the headquarters of the Salvation Army in the Forest - a former pub that is now a welcoming community cafe and shop - inspiring in itself, before even the conversation started.

But the conversation was what I had come for.
Last summer I met Aidan, working with the Barnwood Trust to encourage community development across Gloucestershire...and he'd shared with me a philosophy that seemed to speak directly into the needs of my slightly run-down, none-too-confident parish.
I was excited but couldn't quite see how to pursue it - til I read mentions of the same approach on twitter. Further meetings & conversations, including a brilliant day in Birmingham, reinforced my conviction that Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) makes the best sense - whatever your context...

Let me explain.
 When working with a struggling community - or indeed a struggling church - it's very tempting to start by lamenting what cannot be done...The glass is half empty....This community's shortcomings are the most important thing about it...and it needs rescuing, probably by a paid expert outsider.

We've all seen examples of this approach...the "hit and run" development worker who arrives full of initiatives to address the perceived needs of a community, works with them, creating a new layer of dependence, til the funding runs out, - and then disappears, leaving them pretty much exactly where they were before.
Living in what has been very much a "done to" neighbourhood, I can vouch for the disabling effect of this approach - as ineffective in bringing about long-term transformation as the "Father knows best" school of ministry has been in building churches full of engaged and active Christians.

But suppose you look at it the other way.
Focus not on the top half of that glass but the bottom.
The glass is half full.
In every community, regardless of its perceived deprivation, there are people with unique talents and gifts - of the head, the hand or the heart
People who have strengths they could contribute, if we could only engage them - for to foster a genuine community, we need the gifts of all.

Two decades ago, in the early days of Local Ministry I read 
"God has already planted in your church all that it needs to BE church for your community" - so this approach felt very much like coming home - to a place where instead of service users/consumers the focus is on gift-givers, collaborators in building community (and, by God's grace, the kingdom too)

We were a group from a huge range of different churches - some more concerned with evangelism, others intent on service, pure and simple.
Of course, even service can be counter-productive...for it's all too easy to decide 
"What YOU need is......." but ABCD is all about working as partners, a slower process but one that has a strength that the quick-fix "let me do it for you" will never match.

Effective community-building depends on deep listening to the community...on celebrating its strengths and recognising its passions, on asking again and again what each individual cares about so much that they will DO something.
"Where your treasure is, there is your heart also..." and indeed the reverse "Where your heart is, there is your treasure"...for the passionate energy that lights up the true enthusiast is the greatest gift in uniting disparate individuals to form community.
There's no place for a superhero flying in to the rescue...a challenge for church leaders, so often outsiders placed in a community in order to make things happen - and often with a quite specific brief or expectation of what those things might be.
That's where the story behind the Sally Army presence in the Forest was specially inspiring as Viv explained just how much of the SA's traditions they had had to set aside in order to follow the dream that God had given them, told us of a chain of unlikely prompts and off-the-wall connections that came together with wonderful results.
Of course it's risky - but, Viv stressed, there are no failures...for the things that don't fly are no less valuable as learning experiences and nothing is ever wasted.
"Will you go where you don't know and never be the same?" 
Those serious about Kingdom building can expect to be changed in the process...and there's no possibility of half measures...of partial involvement, going home to somewhere more salubrious at the end of a working day. This is deeply incarnational
"The Word became flesh and moved into the neighbourhood"

To deliver a package of "help" with predetermined boundaries is one thing; to explore together what might focus life and energy in that community is quite another - but you know, God really is quite busily at work outside the churches and our well-intentioned programmes! 
ABCD resonates splendidly with the Mission Shaped Church agenda
"See what God is up to and join in"
Rather than imposing a solution to imagined problems, it seeks to celebrate what is already there and build on that.

So - here's my story of a step on the way towards Kingdom building...a story of riches discovered where I'd expected misery and want. It's proof that we are, each one of us, both half-full and half-empty....with a balance of strength and weakness that needs must propel us into working together so that we can both share our gifts and receive, joyfully, the gifts of others.

Six years ago, in Bangalore, I found myself enthralled and inspired by the CSI projects for street children. Before I visited, I had expected to have my heart wrung, to be full of pity for these children, growing up in abject poverty.
I was sure that I would long to bring each and every one of them home!
That was the only thing I got right!
Those children were so full of joy, and their grasp of what is truly important was so clear and compelling that  I found myself envying them.
I did indeed long to bring them home - because I wanted everyone I knew, but most specially the young people of my church, to learn from them, to connect with that deep delight in the gift of life, that gratitude for each day as it comes, that ability to celebrate the present moment.
Til I went there, I had imaged their glass must be half empty....but for all their desperate poverty, they were rich beyond my imaginings and their glass was not just half full, but truly overflowing.

1 comment:

Still Breathing said...

That glass even has room for growth.