Gentrification is in overdrive on 14th Street in downtown Washington, D.C. Every morning I walk past cranes whipping around constructing new high-rise condos with sky-high rents. Yet, when I arrive at Luther Place Memorial Church in the heart of the 14th Street neighborhood, where I currently serve as the organizer of community life and justice, I am greeted by a different reality — women, many of whom are life-long district residents, who are experiencing homelessness.
As a young adult moving to the District of Columbia after living in El Salvador, I came with hopes of changing the world — of shifting the oppressive practices of market gain over human dignity that I saw wreak havoc on the lives of Salvadoran people. In the District of Columbia, I quickly became disillusioned with my hopes of changing the world and felt a deep loneliness as I entered work each day. Where is God in all of this mess? Further, like many young Christians, I found myself working in ministry despite carrying distrust and frustration with Christianity.
Over the past three years, I have learned to live in the tension between the world as it is and the world as the Gospel calls it to be; encountering Jesus in the conflicts, surprising moments of grace, and most deeply through relationships, especially with people who the world teaches me to distrust. I realized if I wanted to see a different city, one that was for everyone, not just the rich and wealthy, I would need more power. I joined with a community-organizing network with hopes of building relational power that could shift the injustice in our neighborhood. The key action in broad-based community organizing is the individual relational meeting where one spends 30 to 45 minutes listening to the story and interests of another person. Dietrich Bonhoeffer teaches us that “the first service that one owes to others in Christian fellowship consists in listening to them … those who cannot listen long and patiently will always be talking past others, and finally will no longer even notice it … the death of the spiritual life starts here.”
It was in the spiritual discipline of one-to-one meetings that I regained a sense of God. As I began scheduling daily relational meetings and hearing the stories of the women in the shelter, leaders in our congregation and residents of our neighborhood, I began to gain a sense of my calling at Luther Place: to help bring a culture of relationships into our congregation. Soon my inward transformation through encounters with the holy had propelled me outward. I began to form listening teams, leaders centered on our vision as a congregation, and I trained them to do relational meetings. This internal listening work has transformed our relationships within the congregation and created space for us to move outward and relate to our neighbors in a new kind of way.
A few months ago during my daily walk down 14th Street, I encountered a group of families walking toward the church speaking Spanish. Someone called out my name, and I realized that I knew one of the people; it was a community walk from Thompson Elementary, a local public school. I scheduled a relational meeting with one of the parent leaders and discovered that the 14th Street community lacked any affordable summer enrichment program for Latino families. As a result, many of the young people regressed in their English language and reading skills over the summer and returned the following school year behind academically. We began strategizing and after an intensive campaign of relational meetings and listening sessions at the school and in the church, a new ministry was birthed — ArtSmart Summer Camp — which over the last month has provided summer enrichment for 30+ elementary-age youths and families in the neighborhood. Summer camp will end with a 200+ community block-party celebration.
Our growing spiritual discipline of listening to people has transformed and equipped us to hear and discern God’s call in our neighborhood. I am excited to see where we are called next.
For more information about using community-based organizing in your congregation, a resource comic book, “Hope at Work: First Steps in Congregation-based Community Organizing,” is available, as is a free guide to one-to-one conversations.