Sermons

Discipleship Matters Blog from Forward Movement
The Rev. Erika Meyer, July 2017
Serving our Neighbors
I serve in a complicated and challenging neighborhood.  The Church of the Good Shepherd is small (ASA=45) and ageing but with a rich ethnic variety of members reflecting the melting pot of New York City and our proximity to the United Nations in midtown Manhattan.  The surrounding neighborhood has hyper- gentrified and is marked by spiraling rents and transient households.  Many seniors in the community hold on to their apartments through mandated rent protections but younger residents are at the mercy of the market.  Families and younger renters often cannot afford to stay here long term.  Add to this the presence of the largest homeless shelter for men in the country (800 beds), and you have a dense and uncomfortable mix of the well-off and the destitute and the rest of us sandwiched thinly in between.
No surprise that one of the issues in the neighborhood is a sense of isolation.  Neighbors can easily feel like strangers to each other.  I have lived next to the church in the rectory in a visible role as the rector for eight years and I am still meeting long-time residents on my block for the first time.
But recently something has changed.  I have found my own sense of isolation subsiding and a new sense of connection growing.   I recently stood with an African-American tenant leader as he coaxed white police officers out of their vehicle to take selfies at a local housing project.  We have received a student delegation from our public elementary school that brought nine hundred pairs of new, donated socks to the church for kids living in a nearby family shelter.  I have welcomed over seventy neighbors into our sanctuary, most for the first time, to meet with our local police officials.  Last month, the parish was asked to host an inter-faith music celebration by a Jewish neighbor who is running for City Council.   A neighborhood couple, at my prompting, opened their home for a fundraiser for the City Council candidate and now I am planning an informal service at a beach for this same couple to remember a tragic family loss from several years ago.
The neighborhood has opened to me and the parish in striking ways that I had only experienced fleetingly in the first five years of my ministry here. Even our long term viability as a parish now seems to be a community matter!   What changed?  Besides a lot of trial and error, I believe that I and the congregation turned a corner developmentally through participating in the RenewalWorks program from Forward Movement.
In 2015, the congregation joined in the first cohort of parishes in the Diocese of New York to participate in RenewalWorks.  Almost every parish member agreed to take an in-depth individual spiritual practices inventory.  I specifically tasked the vestry with taking and promoting the survey.  I also stressed publicly that the Bishop would be especially interested how we were doing and that we had a goal of a ninety percent participation rate.  Taking the survey together created a sense of alignment inside the parish.  We now had common language about our purpose as a congregation:  to help our members grow spiritually in their love of God and love of neighbor.
Along with this new alignment of our members, RenewalWorks required the creation of a large team (a minimum of nine persons).  The team had to analyze the results of the survey and follow up with implementing a set of principles at work in especially effective congregations.   One of these principles was “to pastor the neighborhood.”   We assumed that many people outside our doors were unhappy with the status quo of isolation, but how to reach them?  We wondered if we needed to give our neighbors an excuse to connect to each other and if we could turn strangers into neighbors through shared community service.
But there was one more perspective I knew that we needed to integrate into the mix, (which, coincidentally, was also another principle from RenewalWorks).   In the past, we had tried inviting folks to join with us on service projects to no real lasting effect.  What we had not done, however, was to create a means for folks outside the congregation to have a sense of influence and ownership for our initiatives; instead, they were being invited to join us in what we had already decided to do.   RenewalWorks reminded us that people were much more likely to become invested in a project if they felt that they had a say.  This second principle was: “create ownership.”
The marriage of these two principles: “pastor the neighborhood” and “create ownership” led us to an outreach project in the summer of 2016.  I asked members of the church to survey their friends, neighbors and associates about what they valued about living here and what they wanted to experience more of.  The survey gave us an excuse to talk to our neighbors.  We also invited community residents to a bagel brunch to discuss the issues identified in the survey.
One Saturday morning in September 2016, we opened our parish hall for the brunch.  I was very nervous that we would not have much turnout.  I would have been happy with a dozen people but over twenty people came, half from the congregation and half from outside.  We broke into pairs for more interviews and then reported back to the group.  We identified two areas of concern and created a working group of neighbors and members to continue meeting and planning joint projects.  In time, we dubbed our new group, “Neighbors in Action.”
“Neighbors in Action” was the fruit of the RenewalWorks program at Good Shepherd.  It has not solved all our problems of growth and viability, but it has given us some new cards to play, new energy, and we are making new friends and allies, and even some new parishioners.   It has made a complicated and challenging neighborhood a bit more connected and friendly.   It has changed strangers into neighbors and neighbors into friends and this has been a blessing for us all.

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