I remember when I left the United States for England I was worried about where I would ‘go’ to church. I wondered if they would worship in the same manner I was used to and if the church would be easily accessible from where I was living in Birmingham. Ten months later, as I look back, I realize that my views on church have changed, significantly. What I learned was that I don’t ‘go’ to church because I am the church. I don’t worship once a week on a Sunday morning, but rather worship all week long as I am living alongside and loving my neighbors. I learned that church can occur anywhere. This realization has been liberating. Jesus modeled for us what it looked like to be the living and breathing embodiment of the church. I love that through the work being done in Birmingham for God's global church, we are able to live this out and share the truth of God with others.
Each Tuesday morning, I do church at a local coffee morning. I worship Christ by loving those in attendance: atheist, agnostic, Muslim, and Christian. Through love and respect, I have had the opportunity to share the love of Christ with people at the coffee morning in ways I never did when I viewed the church as merely a brick and mortar place of worship. When I embody the Companions for Hope tagline of being a neighbor on purpose, the city of Birmingham becomes my church. It becomes a church that welcomes and loves everyone. And it becomes a church that proclaims to all that God loves them and has created a path for their redemption. It is a church I love attending.
Companions for Hope is our missional community focused on Summerfield, just a few minutes from Birmingham city centre. This area is incredibly diverse with asylum seekers, immigrants, refugees, and residents from around the globe. Some have been trafficked or have fled persecution, others have sought economic opportunity and a better life for their children. And some have lived here all their lives.
Within a radius of 5 miles, we have the UK’s largest Hindu temple, the largest Sikh Gurdwara (one of many!), multiple mosques and madrassas, and a Buddhist temple. There are spiritual centers for meditation and, of course, church buildings and congregations. The experts describe the area around us as ‘super-diverse’ where there really isn’t a ‘majority’ population.
What is a Missional Community? A missional community is a group of people apprenticed to Jesus, joining God in what he is already doing in this place. Enabled and empowered by the Holy Spirit we have covenanted together to intentionally and creatively demonstrate the good news of the Kingdom of God in the neighbourhood. The way we mutually describe this, given the place in which we live, is that we want to ‘cultivate abundant community from the ground up by being neighbours on purpose’.
Sam’s recent blog posts highlighted this same statement using metaphors of ‘dance’ and ‘song’ and ‘choir’ and ‘jazz band,’ all rich and descriptive and helpful to describe life in the neighbourhood. In this blog, I want to briefly highlight the biblical roots from which this phrase we’ve coined has derived. And yes, we had some of these in mind, but not all of them! I can only highlight them here.
I’ll start with ‘abundant community’ – the idea of abundance brings to mind what Jesus said: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10.10, ESV). The context of the chapter speaks to the kind of intimate life he wanted with his followers, a life lived and experienced to the full, but which cannot be experienced without him. In fact, he says that to try to do so (without him – see John 15) accomplishes nothing in the end. Moreover, it is not a solitary experience apart from others; it has to be with others. For a culture which focuses on scarcity (competition for limited resources), living in an abundance mindset is revolutionary!
There is mystery in this. What we’ve found is that we cannot contrive or create community, abundant or otherwise. Speaking biotically, no one can ‘make’ something grow, hence the use of the word ‘cultivate’ which speaks to the work we (people / apprentices to Jesus) can do to plant, water, fertilize, and weed around that which we want to be abundantly fruitful. There is even more mystery in a seed which ‘dies’ and gets inserted in the soil out of sight and life happens. What we’ve learned, and to which Jesus refers in John 10 of his own death, burial, and resurrection, is that ‘dying to one’s self’ is essential and non-negotiable for life that is abundant and meaningful. Abundant community is the wonderful ‘by-product’ of indirect action on those things I can control or for which I am responsible.
How do we do this? By being ‘neighbours on purpose.’ This is where energy and effort are combined with intent; it is love in action. This is an expression of what Jesus said sums up the teaching of the Bible – love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbour as yourself (Mark 12.28ff). This is more than mere sentimentality or romantic notions of physical attraction. In fact, a decision to love pushes past sentimentality when a person or people are unattractive by the usual societal or cultural forms of measurement.
The Christian philosopher and spiritual writer Dallas Willard introduced a view of this he called the VIM paradigm – VIM being shorthand for vision, intention, and means. What is in view by our little saying cultivating abundant community from the ground up by being neighbours on purpose is a preferred future (vision) where Summerfield in all its diversity and differences works together for something beyond the individual or their simple aggregation – a kind of people and place which mirrors the Kingdom of Heaven on earth where goodness, justice, mercy, truth, and grace are experienced and expressed to one another together.
Wanting to be the kind of person and people who both ‘be and do’ these things is what Willard calls ‘intention,’ and it is not enough. We need ways or ‘means’ to be and become this kind of person and this kind of people. ‘Being neighbours on purpose’ is the Companions for Hope way of saying the means for seeing this fullness of life in Summerfield requires commitment in the actions of helping, serving, coming alongside, and humbling ourselves before those in our immediate proximity. One day this involves taking flowers and a card to a woman with cancer. Another day it is praying with and comforting a Muslim mum and kids feeling threatened by the recent so-called ‘punish a Muslim day.’ On another day it finds expression in litter-picking a street, gathering people together for a meal, or sponsoring a community event with other local groups. On another day it shows in writing a supporting letter to the Home Office about a couple claiming asylum.
All of this is rooted in an apprenticeship to Jesus where we, as Companions for Hope, want to increasingly do the kind of things Jesus would do if he were living in our personal and corporate context. The way he relied on and loved his Father, the way he loved his first followers, and the way he loved people along the course of his literal journey across the towns and villages of the land and his journey to the cross and crucifixion.
Recently, we prayed with others across Great Britain what Jesus shared with his followers. It expresses this hope of which I have been writing. It paints a picture of God’s best for us that invites our participation in our innermost being and outermost acts.
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your Kingdom come,
Your will be done,
on earth as in heaven
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom,
the power and the glory are yours.
Now and forever. Amen.
 See http://timothycaho.com/?p=714 where I have written previously on this.
 For more on this go to http://www.dwillard.org/articles/individual/spiritual-formation-what-it-is-and-how-it-is-done.
In this blog series, we have been discussing three core components of abundant community: gifts, association, and hospitality. To sum up the arc of our conversation:
If gifts are the basic building blocks of abundant community, and association is the primary process for connecting and exchanging gifts, then hospitality is the practice through which our repertoire of gifts abounds and even overflows.
Paradoxically, the hospitable act of receiving the gifts of the perceived outsider/stranger actually strengthens a community’s sense of belonging and abundance.
Here’s a simple example of how the paradoxical interplay between gifts, association, and hospitality plays out.
Over the last few months, I have become familiar with and even a bit attached to a physical asset in our neighbourhood. As a result of daily dog walking around Edgbaston Reservoir, I discovered a group of regular dog walkers. Through this group of dog walkers, I developed a regular rhythm of meeting them on the ‘playing field’ by the Reservoir. I could have been seen as an American newcomer infringing on their established 'Dog Club,' but fortunately, I was welcomed warmly into their informal association of dog walkers. Through this simple act of hospitality, they made room for one more, and I discovered a wonderful gift of green space – as well as some new neighbourhood networks.
Consider another (related) example of how hospitality makes room for the gifts and the associations of the perceived outsider. Soon after I connected with the ‘Dog Club,’ I happened to be at a planning meeting with Martin Holcombe, the CEO of Birmingham Settlement (a city-wide community engagement charity) – the very charity who owns the field by the reservoir. Martin explained how the field had once been a sports field for a football club, and how nearly 30 years ago the pavilion had been burned down. Over the years, the fence had given way in places, and the field had been used for dog walking, picnics, exercise, and yes, some anti-social behaviour. Martin went on to explain how Birmingham Settlement wants to enable a community-led ‘re-launch’ of the field for diverse forms of community engagement. At one point Martin remarked, ‘I need to be in front of the local community’ and I had a ready-made offer: ‘Come to Neighbour Nights and let’s begin the conversation.’
That was Neighbour Nights #6, back in March. Martin came, and over 60 local residents showed up as well. That was the beginning of a dialogue between Martin Holcombe, representing Birmingham Settlement and local residents. Over the course of the conversation, Martin clarified that legally Birmingham Settlement owned the field and the field is covenanted for community use. In other words, Martin framed a scenario in which both Birmingham Settlement and local residents would benefit from what the other has to offer. Yet by being a de facto outsider, Martin also presented a future scenario that would require a posture of hospitality in order to move forward together. That is because local residents/users already access the field in various ways; Martin could be seen as a threatening outsider, an unwelcome presence ‘parachuting in' to disturb the neighbourhood peace. And yet, because of the legal structures in place, Martin could also be welcomed as a 'door opener' – that is, a friendly ally who has come to give permission and build cooperation.
What happened at Neighbour Nights # 6 (and since then) shows that hospitality is a delicate dance between guest and host. In the company of local residents, Companions for Hope took the lead by welcoming Martin as a guest into the neighbourhood, and with due respect, he then welcomed us to dream with him and Birmingham Settlement about how community engagement might happen on the field. During Q & A, residents made insightful observations about the history of the place, expressed passionate concerns about security, and even made requests for possible initiatives that could find a home on the field. One of our neighbourhood’s 'green initiatives' (focusing on horticulture, composting and skills sharing) shared the need for a new location in order to continue operation. Martin agreed to ‘re-home' this activity around the edges of the field, and already a small area of the site is being cleared to prepare for the horticultural activity, and so the dance of hospitality began…
Last week we gathered for Neighbour Nights #8. We invited Martin back for more Q & A with local residents about the future of the field. Some came for the catered meal provided by our friends at The Real Junk Food Project Birmingham, but after the meal, the attention turned to expressing our interests, concerns, and hopes for the field. Of course, it would have been more efficient for Martin (as CEO of Birmingham Settlement) to dictate vision and make it happen, but it would not have been effective as a community-led initiative.
Fortunately, Martin was again welcomed with a great turnout of residents (73 people showed up), and fortunately, Martin came as the ‘door opener,’ which welcomed residents to co-design what takes place on the field. As a next step, we agreed to throw a picnic / pop-up event on 28th May to raise the profile of the site, as well as to catch and store the energy around what might happen there in the future.
The point that I am making is NOT that Neighbour Nights offers a triumphalist formula for community organising, but rather it has offered a space for the dance of hospitality to begin. By welcoming an outsider, our repertoire of gifts and capacities has grown. That’s the simple power of hospitality.
In fact, these examples of meeting, gathering and welcoming are so simple, that only recently did I come to recognise that these ordinary acts of hospitality can conceal the paradox that I mentioned earlier: how making room for the gifts of the other/outsider/stranger actually strengthens a local community’s sense of belonging and security.
At first glance, you might think that a ‘Dog Club’ with stringent membership requirements would be more satisfying than an informal one that is easy to join; you might think an open field by the Reservoir would be made more secure by building a bigger fence to keep people out. But a second glance shows that behind the reaction to ‘keep outsiders out’ lurks a perception of scarcity – the belief there is not enough to go around. Alternatively, behind the response of welcome and hospitality is the awareness of ‘enough,’ the possibility of belonging to an abundant community.
For the last eight months, Neighbour Nights have been a space where (to shift the metaphor from dance to song) we have tried to form a neighbourhood choir with the following theme song: ‘cultivating abundant community from the ground up – by being neighbours on purpose.’ We are training our voices and learning our parts. We are also aware that there are other voices (not yet present) that belong in this choir. We will continue to listen for their voices and the parts they are called to sing. In the meantime, we are looking ahead to 28th May and to future Neighbour Nights as spaces where we can sing our theme song, find new choir members, and even learn some new songs in the key of hospitality. Songs like this:
“There are no strangers here, only friends you haven’t yet met.” – W. B. Yeats.
When we started Neighbour Nights back in October 2017, we began with a simple question: Instead of taking an issue-based approach to community organising which starts with neighbourhood problems (ex: Why is there so much litter and why isn't City Council dealing with it?!), what is possible if we bring neighbours together around food to talk about their gifts and how to share them? Another term for “bringing neighbours together around their gifts” is associating, and the theme of this blog: the power of associating.
In the previous blog post, we focused on gifts and the importance of gift mindedness as a posture for cultivating flourishing community-led development. If we think of gifts as the raw material for cultivating community, then we can think of associations as the way those gifts are exchanged.
In fact, the power of associational life lies in its simplicity. In The Abundant Community, John McKnight and Peter Block describe it this way:
“An association is fundamentally a group of people who have a shared affinity. Associational life begins with a group of people who are drawn together for some reason, and that reason is what makes it work. Say they all like dogs, so they have a dog club. Or they all like reading fiction, so they have a book club. An association is often a fulfilment of one's individual likes and purposes. It is a place for having something in common, standing on common ground..." 
In other words, whether by a common location, common function or common interest, associations are vital to neighbourhood life because they are the primary social process by which gifts get expressed in community.
As a once-a-month repeatable gathering, Neighbour Nights has become such an association in Summerfield. In fact, in addition to creating a context where individual residents can share their gifts, it has become a kind association of associations, space where:
• Existing associations such as Christ Church Summerfield and Summerfield Residents Association can connect and partner;
• The Real Junk Food Project Birmingham can raise its profile and recruit participants;
• Winson Greeners can get the word out about monthly litter picks;
• City Hospital Greenhouses (our neighbourhood horticultural initiative) can promote its workdays and organise workshops around the latent skills of residents.
And herein lies the paradox of community organising towards associational life in the neighbourhood: some organisation is necessary in order to associate and create the environment for gift sharing and getting things done, yet too much organisation ends up destroying the social fabric of associations!
Eight months in, we are recognising that there is a balancing act in this kind of community organising. On the one hand, we know that just living in proximity is not enough. Proximity might make us neighbours in a formal, sociological sense, but by itself, proximity does not create associational life. Associational life must be convened, literally "called to come together." But on the other hand, we could try to move beyond convening to managing the relationships and outcomes between these associations. The temptation here is to make all the exchanges predictable and more "efficient" in a managerial sense. But predictability and efficiency come at the cost of losing neighbourliness, and we are committed not to be managers on task, but rather "being neighbours on purpose."
For Companions for Hope, "being neighbours on purpose" is shorthand for intentionally designing just enough structure to become “an organising agent rather than a service-providing system."
Why? Because we believe that service provision does not satisfy the core longings of community. We believe that beyond service provision (as important as it is), there are the gifts of the people and the power of association to make those gifts sharable.
Therefore, I see the associations that come together through Neighbour Nights as a form of community gardening in both senses of the term: gardening in the community as well as a gardening of the community. The gifts of the people are like seeds, powerful yet dormant unless exposed to the right conditions; the associations are the 'microclimates' that provide these seeds with enough soil, water, warmth and light to grow.
In this way, Neighbour Nights is one way we have learned to garden together with our neighbours...
 John McKnight and Peter Block, The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2010), 71.