Community Catalysts

I am currently on a journey with my wife and youngest daughter. We are immersing ourselves into different expressions of Christian community in the UK and US. We’ve stayed in many different homes and enjoyed the amazing privilege of being housed and fed by some great people, many of whom we had never met before showing up on their doorstep. People have received us warmly solely on the basis of our common faith (and numerous emails).
In the last place we stayed, the community prayed us out and on our way. One person expressed it well in their prayer calling us foraging pilgrims.
The idea of foraging has stuck with me. We are simply wandering through the landscape and gathering up some of the produce we find growing naturally in the wild. Over the next couple of months I will post some of the “wild” things we are tasting. The one I want to focus on in this post has to do with the flavor (or flavour if you’re here in the UK) of a catalyst.
Most of the communities with whom we’ve stayed have been inspired by the incarnation. That is to say that there is something about God becoming human in the person of Christ - planted firmly in the mess of human suffering, limitation, joy and possibility - which animates their relationship to the communities where they have put down roots. Christ became like us … more than that, he became one of us so that we could become like him.
The thing I am noticing on this journey, however, is not the “likeness” of the incarnational community to the community in which they are rooted, but their “differentness.”
Some of the incarnational communities with whom we’ve stayed are made up of people of privilege who have moved into areas suffering under the weight of poverty, neglect and injustice. Since people of privilege cannot completely divorce themselves from that privilege, their task is to war against the patron-client relationship which is so near to the surface when poor and non-poor come into relationship. It can be a long-term struggle for both to overcome. But authentic, interdependent relationship between the over-privileged and the under-privileged is possible and we have seen it succeed.
Humility is a critical elements for incarnational communities of people who have relocated and the inclusion of people from the wider community into the community of relocators can be important. But the thing that makes communities catalytic is not that they become the same as the surrounding community, but that they remain distictive.
A catalyst changes things, not because it is identical to the other elements in a reaction, but precisely because it is different. In fact a very small amount of catalyst can dramatically promote or inhibit a reaction. The presence of a catalyst changes an environment.
When Christians who are passionate about the environment live and work together in a Punjabi section of urban London (see A Rocha), a park grows up in an empty lot where garbage once accumulated. It was certain aspects of their differentness from the community around them that catalyzed change.
When people who’ve grown up with a view of the future that encourages them to save and invest or who believe that Jesus’ Kingdom brings human flourishing move into neighborhoods where instant gratification and hand-to-mouth existence is the norm, where hope has died and despair rules, change can be catalyzed. Communities working with Servants, Eden Network, and the Salvation Army’s 614 have witnessed some pretty remarkable changes in some of the neighborhoods into which they have made their homes.
When a community of sacrificial prayer and mission like the Guildford Boiler Room plants themselves in a city of great wealth and self absorption, when they live simply and give generously, they foster a catalytic dynamic which begins to change things.
These communities often live prophetically - becoming the change needed in an area, but they rarely really look much like the community in which they are planted.
I used to be cautious about incarnational communities that stood out because of their differences with the neighborhood. I am becoming less so as I forage around the UK. For sure our ethnic, class, and power differences need to be viewed with a healthy dose of caution. We must be vigilant in addressing the messianic complex which can accompany groups who choose a life of incarnational mission. We must live lives of reconciliation in every place humans have put up walls. But I can no longer dismiss a community automatically just because it doesn’t look just like the neighborhood in which it lives.
In the presence of humility, reconciliation, grace and peace – differences can be catalytic.

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