John Perkins is a name that many involved in the Christian community development movement. His of his great contributions includes the Three R’s of Community Development: relocation, reconciliation and redistribution. There has long been a divide in practice for urban ministry and service in regards to the question of relocation. Some believe that ministry and service can be provided in a "commuter context" or when the service provider is from a community other than the one they serve. On the other hand, those who adhere to Perkins and the Christian Community Development Association’s principles believe that relocation is vital to providing effective ministry and service.
During a short-term mission trip, my ministry team provided a children’s bible camp in Brooklyn. For years I interpreted my experience there in a negative way, but now, through the lens of relocation, I understand. When my team, a group of white teens and young adults, tramped through a Brooklyn neighborhood towards the park where we would provide the camp, people in the street started to yell at us, “Go back home.” Originally, I felt angry that this community did not want our help, but now I realize that this was a community wounded by many experiences of short term service projects, there to help for a little while and then to leave. They were tired of being abandoned.
I see what I will call “commuter services” in the same light as my experience; people coming to a community they don’t know, providing their services without fully committing to the community. There are many flaws in this practice, starting with the idea that an outsider can determine the needs of a community without ever entering the community.
Relocation is a scary word for anyone like me who is terrified of adapting to a new place. I’ve lived in a variety of places throughout the last six years in rural, suburban and urban areas. With every move, I have experienced the anxiety of “now what?” “How do I truly become a part of the community?” It was at these times that I was most grateful for my understanding of the field of Urban Studies and its use of Anthropology.
Judith Lingenfelter wrote a helpful article entitle, Getting to Know your New City, which highlights many insights that have helped me with relocation and to really become “a part” of the community. It is also helpful in properly introducing your new ministry or service to a community. Starting with the time you enter the community, here are some things to keep in mind: maintain a Learner-centered focus, recognizing the community member as your teacher, and participant observation (Lingenfelter). All of these tips are aspects of Anthropology’s ethnographic method.
When entering a community, assumptions are dangerous: assumptions about the people, community dynamics, and community problems. When we engage communities within the context of our own assumptions, we are acting from a framework of ethnocentricity or seeing the world from just our own cultural context. If you are serious about effectively serving your community, you need to remove this mindset. According to the ethnographic method, you are an observer and learner in the community the only ideas you should develop are that established through observation and interactions. Your neighbors are the experts of the community.
When my husband and I first moved into our current community, we took the role of silent observer. We watched the neighbors interact, saw where the kids hung out in the community, saw who were people of authority in the community, and learned where community members would meet together. This is participant observation: watching to identify the community routines and structure. Lingenfelter considers identifying important meeting places in the community a vital first step. After you identify meeting places, you can start to place yourself in situations to meet community members. In my community, we soon found that the most important meeting place in the community was the street.
After living in the community for 3 months, the first snow storm came, and this is when my husband and I broke the silence. We got to meet many of our neighbors in the street shoveling out our cars. We moved into a new phase that I feel we are still meandering around, almost a year and half later: Interviewing or what I consider engaging the stories of the community.
Our community is made of a strong native presence, as many neighbors are older and have been in the community their entire lives. It did not take us long to figure out that these were key community members, so we engaged them about the community’s history, patterns, and changes. Identifying a community’s key players is important to establish your legitimacy and identifying community needs. Your position in the community will not be recognized without legitimacy, and your ministry or service will not been as necessary or authentic if certain important players are not supportive. The support of these members give you legitimacy. In turn, you will be introduced to other community members, which will ultimately help you create an accurate picture of community dynamics and needs. Once you have accomplished these steps, you will be on your way to positive presence in the community.
What do you think about relocation? Are “commuter services” ever effective? What are some additional tips you would give someone getting to know a new community?