Bringing it All Back Home

My son and I followed our yearly summer trip to the Southwest Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute (SWUUSI) with a pilgrimage to A Third Place Community Center in Turley, OK.  We got a grand tour of the ministry happening at A Third Place and I helped out a bit with some of the work being done that afternoon at the center.  The day we spent in Turley with Rev. Ron Robinson and his wife Dr. Bonnie Ashling was a spirit filled experience that emphatically confirmed the transformation a missional outlook has had on my life.

I had spent my SWUUSI afternoons with Rev. Ron at his Missional Church workshop and having been previously catechized in missional, I was primed for my baptismal visit to Turley.  Turley is a northern, unincorporated suburb of Tulsa, OK and in the last couple of months, the 2 mile radius served by A Third Place has been notified that it will be losing its neighborhood elementary school and its local Post Office.  Missional Church means relocating to abandoned places of empire but it’s something else altogether to see the empire abandoning them around you quite literally as you set up shop.

A Third Place was the feature cover story in the SPRING 2011 issue of  UU World magazine, ( “Cultivating an Abandoned Place” by Donald E. Skinner), but as informational and complimentary as that UU World feature is, the article doesn’t – can’t – do justice to the simple power of A Third Place Community Center and the ministers of grace who are Rev. Ron Robinson and Dr. Bonnie Ashing.  I learned that you have to experience the mission yourself.  Being in solidarity helps, it always helps, but as with most singular things, you just have to be there and FEEL it.

While Rev. Ron was giving me a tour of the grounds, I told him, “I feel so at home here.”  It had nothing to do with Turley or Oklahoma specifically.  I am from Massachusetts and I miss New England terribly.  My grandmother lived 100 yards from the water in a small town on Buzzard’s Bay and I have seaside New England in my blood, yet I felt a sense of deep connection to A Third Place and its lonely neighborhood.  It was all about the spirit of the place.  The defining spirit is hung on the wall, in a hand lettered sign.  The sign spells out not only the mission of A Third Place, but the philosophy and theology of missional church:

The three R’s of the Welcome Table are a primer on missional church and missional living.  1. Relocation to abandoned places is first. The economic engine of empire chews up and spits out both rural and urban communities that are no longer of any profit making value to the machine.  People, places, lives, hopes and dreams are left behind.  When you set up your church or your life or your ministry in an abandoned place you join together with others who have relocated there and work together with those who have remained there as well with those who have returned.  Rev. Ron and Dr. Bonnie are both Turley natives whose life journeys took them away from Turley and whose lives and ministry have brought them back.   2.  Redistribution of Goods (and the Common Good).  While I was at A Third Place, I made a sign for their Sharing Center (a stewardship table) encouraging people to “take what you need, give what you can.”  A Third Place redistributes church.  The focus isn’t on Sunday morning worship or religious education, but on service.  How can we bring food to those who need food, clothing to those who need clothing, medical care to those who need medical care, community and fellowship to those who need community and fellowship? It is nothing short of a place where Jesus’ teachings to serve those in need are the root of the church.  3. Reconciliation  between and among peoples and communities is the end and goal of the spiritual journey here.   All are welcome, none are judged.  The religious language is that of what the community knows – Christianity, but a Christianity without condemnation and hell, guilt and rebuking.  It is a Christianity that seeks first to be understand rather than be understood.  It is religion that walks with and shares, not a religion of having power over.

A long time ago I felt a tug, a pull, a call to follow a path of love and justice called ministry.  I didn’t fully understand it at the time and the truth is I still don’t.  I uncover the calling bit by bit, piece by piece as I go along.  I remember, however, when it first grabbed me and didn’t let go. It reached out to me from these words of Isaiah read by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke:

“The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

It was these words that I had read at my ordination. It was these words that keep calling me back again and again. It was these words that I heard in Turley, OK that could make it feel so much like home, even though I was only passing through.

Sitting at home now, I am reflecting  on the missional church workshop and conversations I had with some of other participants.  How can you do missional church work in the suburbs?  Can everyone just up and leave their lives and commitments and relocate to abandoned places?  Where are the abandoned places closest to me? How do I begin the redistribution of goods here and now?How I do I begin all the reconciliation there is in front of me and help others to do so?  I have some ideas and the rest, I trust, will be revealed.  I will write about it all here in this space I am sure.  This October I will travel to the Ginghamsburg Church in Tipp City, Ohio to attend a conference called Change the World.  Ginghamsburg calls out to me as a congregation that started small in a suburb of Dayton, Ohio.  Taking up missional work, they’ve grown to be a huge campus congregation and their ministry reaches other continents in addition to having a profound influence through various 501 c 3 organizations they’ve set up in their own community.  I can’t wait to see what they have to teach.

I will also be leading others in pilgrimage back to Turley.