Friday, August 25, 2006

Creative Reflection

I had to write a creative reflection for uni about what I would do mission/ministry wise if I knew the world was ending in five years. It's pretty long, but I thought I'd post it anyway.

What would I do if the world were ending in five years?

I believe that people’s lives are transformed as they are brought into contact with the Living God through community. People encounter Jesus through other people, not books or organisations. If the world were ending in five years time I would want to spend all my time and energy helping people encounter God through other people. I would want to motivate other Christians to take the journey with me and give ourselves to the task of creating transforming community housing. Houses where people with material needs can have somewhere to sleep, where people with social needs can connect with others, where people with emotional needs can be heard and where people with spiritual needs can meet with God.
In Preston, where I live, there is a housing crisis among the poor. Housing is expensive, if you are forced to stay in a boarding house you can pay up to $160 a week for a small and uncomfortable space. It is possible to rent private housing for the same price but only if you have the references, finances and know-how to make it happen. If you are eligible for government housing there is a 10 year waiting list, it’s unclear exactly what you are meant to do in the meantime.
All of this puts people in desperate situations. People stay in each other’s government housing illegally, they squat, they scrape together the money to stay in a boarding house but then don’t have enough for their other material needs - let alone trying to save anything so that they might plan for the future. Living in these kinds of desperate situations, with financial strain hanging over your head all the time, usually has very negative outcomes. People don’t cope well with the strain and end up making bad choices often in the areas of drugs and crime, putting themselves into worse situations. The strains continue to grow and the desperation spreads. Marriages and friendships break down because of the strain, mental illness and general health problems arise, participating in general society becomes harder as people become outcast.
There are government and other social solutions to these problems. There are systems in place to help people get access to support for housing, drug and alcohol problems, financial difficulties and even social support groups, but these solutions are not enough by themselves, the problems are not being resolved. People can get case workers who help them know who to contact, which places to go to and what to say, but the underlying issues aren’t being resolved. There is a housing crisis in my area, but the crisis goes much deeper than housing.
In many local councils the government seeks to find initiatives that will help develop healthy communities. Activities that will bring people together, programs that promote religious tolerance, projects increasing environmental awareness and sustainability. These initiatives are good things, but so often they are out of reach of those who are marginalised and who are truly in need of healthy community. These initiatives often only serve the middle class who of course also need healthy community, but are no where near as desperate as those on the fringe of our society.

In the hope of addressing some of this issue I am dreaming of a creating healthy transforming housing communities. Safe places of belonging that are created with the ideals and values of healthy community aimed at transforming their occupants. I would love to find investors to purchase properties in the houses of our street (there’s one for sale out the back of my place right now) and create low cost share housing with a intentional focus on healthy community, not just a place to eat and sleep. The houses would be run by people who come to our church and not just as staff but as live-in or live-out members of the households sharing life with the other occupants.

In an attempt to flesh out this dream a little more I have created the following headings that need further explanation.
This project requires investors who have a desire to see their wealth used to support the underprivileged in Melbourne. These people would need to be willing to give their material resources to the project and not expect normal investment returns. Although this investment may bring some longer-term financial gains for the investor, the focus is on the gains for the occupants who currently don’t have a safe, secure or supportive environment to live in but would through the project.

A set of criteria would be applied to an occupant to determine if they are eligible: 
- current housing situation - the applicants current housing situation would need to be deemed illegal or unsustainable.
- attitude - applicants have to be interested in exploring this as more than just a housing option. They must be willing to contribute to creating a healthy community and growing themselves. This is important as it helps the occupants take responsibility for their own lives.
- income - if an applicant has an income that is deemed to be too high then they would not be eligible.
- level of assistance required - applicants needing high level assistance and supervision could not be accepted. Occupants must be able to catch public transport, cook, pay bills, speak some English, be on the way to trying to get work, trying to do study, or trying to get full time volunteer work.
- illicit drug use - applicants must be illicit drug free for the last 6 months
- children - applicants would need to be deemed safe around children. A Police Check would be required – specifically for criminal acts involving children. Other criminal history would not prohibit or exclude the applicant.

House Carers + Assistants
The role of the House Carers would be critical to the vision of creating transforming community houses. The House Carers, whether they lived-in or lived-out of the house, would be regularly available to the occupants and responsible for working with the occupants to create a healthy, safe and supportive living environment. If the House Carers did not live-in then they would need to be very close-by, either next door or at least in the same street. Proximity is one of the keys to creating community. The House Carers would be responsible for the day to day running of the house, they would be crucial to creating the environment that allows for transformation.
There would also be roles in assisting the House Carers:
- Support Resourcing - this would require someone to focus on ensuring that the occupants are connecting with the various support services offered by the government and others in the local area. This isn’t a case management role, but someone who would inform occupants of where they can get support and encourage them to do so. This role is totally scalable based on the time and ability of whoever fills it.
- Financial Management - house finances is one area that may require quite a bit of oversight and guidance. Someone from the church community would need to volunteer their time to help occupants manage things like bills and shopping expenses as well as offering their services to occupants with their individual finances.
- House Maintenance - keeping the house in good working order would be an important role and someone with the gifts and skills to manage this would be required.
- Jobs Hunting - again this is not meant to be a replacement to existing social services in this area, but occupants may like some help applying for jobs, going to interviews and searching through papers, the internet, etc.
- Volunteer Work - in cases of long term unemployment where occupants are still seeking work but are also in need of something to fill their time volunteer work is a helpful option. Someone from the church community could help organise volunteer work for the occupants, either with Northern Careworks or elsewhere.

Community Meals
One element of creating transforming community houses would be the community meals. A regular community meal would be a feature of the house with each occupant bringing something to the meal to share and spending the time with others in a healthy social environment.

Rent for the occupants would be worked out as a percentage of their income. This is important to help occupants learn to budget, it would also help with some of the running and maintenance costs of the house.

While there is an element of danger in having children involved in a project like this there is also potential for incredible gain. Children can break down many social barriers and see the world in a different way from adults, they bring something to a community that just isn’t available if it’s all grown-ups.

Drugs and Alcohol
It’s very likely that drugs and alcohol would be an issue in most houses. So that a safe environment is created all houses would need to have a no illicit drugs policy and depending on the circumstances houses may need to be alcohol free as well. On the alcohol issue it seems that allowing the household to come up with its own rules is significant way of encourage the occupants to make healthy decisions for themselves

Northern Community Church of Christ

Northern Community Church of Christ is the church that Loam (our congregation that I am dreaming would run this housing idea) is a congregation of. Attached to Northern is Northern Careworks - the community concern/development arm of the church. These houses would come under the banner of Northern Careworks for legal, administrative, insurance and financial reasons, allowing us to focus on the day to day aspects of the work.
Northern Careworks also runs an Opportunity Shop which would be the source for the furnishing requirements of the occupants. The Opportunity Shop could either supply the items free of charge or at a reduced rate for the occupants.
Northern Careworks is mostly staffed by volunteers, occupants could volunteer their time to Northern Careworks if they were unable to find employment but were looking for something regular to do. This may also help with future employment opportunities.

Spiritual Input?
Some attempting an endeavor such as this would demand some form of Christian input into the house and community that is generated there. I however think that this would send the wrong message. I am not dreaming about this so that people would just become Christians. I sincerely hope that people would meet God as they are served and loved in the context of community, but this is about a vision of the kingdom of God. As we live out the reality of the kingdom of God people are given access to a vision of who God is and what his agenda really is. Apparently the poor are the most over evangelised group in society. If we enforced weekly bible studies we would send the message that we don’t really care about them or their situation, we just want them to become one of us. It is my hope and prayer that as we serve, love and live with people who join these houses they would encounter God and seek to become like Jesus themselves.

My ‘heartburst’?
Thomas Bandy’s book ‘Mission Mover’ speaks of heartbursts. The idea is that your heart bursts for a particular sub group of people. Whether they are connected by interest or by location is irrelevant. The key is that your focus is on them, you feel called to the particular task of serving, loving, sharing with them, no one else. Bandy says ‘"A heartburst is simply an urgent desire to help a clearly defined group of people experience Jesus."
, it is "a desire to connect that person with this hope."
Mine is clearly the marginalised people in Preston, the ones I know who live in dangerous and damaging environments with no hint of transforming community around them. These are the people I feel God drawing me to, he’s pulling my life in their direction and pushing me to live like Jesus with them.

A team?
"A true team is a small group that shares similar core values and beliefs, celebrates an enthusiasm for a mission, eagerly interfaces their skills to achieve that mission, and seriously holds one another accountable for the fruits of the mission."
Ideally this team would be our congregation Loam. We’ve already been talking about how we might make some of this a reality and there are some amazing people in that bunch that are keen to get stuck into this project. Particularly I want to work on this project with my wife Jay as she has some fantastic gifts in areas that I’m not so great in and I can see us complementing each other well. I’m also excited to work with another friend Kate who brings a depth of wisdom and discernment to every situation that would be much needed on this journey. I’m keen to work on this project with all of the people in our church, to encourage them to share the journey and take big bold steps of faith together.

At Northern we’ve just begun a missional-discipleship order that provides us with a framework of spiritual disciples plus a particular method of prayer and bible reading to use. I am hoping that this approach to the spirituality of Jesus would sustain us as we journey on this road. I am very aware however that this would grow and change as we do over time.

Character and Skills?
There is always work to be done on my character and skills, but specifically for this task I can see that I would need to become much more disciplined. Regular contact with occupants even when I don’t feel like it, making time and space for Jay and I in the midst of such an intense environment, encouraging the rules and guidelines we create in the face of protest, all these areas would prove to be a challenge to my discipline. Also, managing conflict would be a skill that I need to improve on. I am imagining that there would be the potential for lots of conflict in these houses and much of the resolution of that would fall to me.

Style of leadership?
Currently my approach has been one of taking people along on the journey with me. I imagine that this would continue to be my style of leadership in this environment. It’s unlikely I would change and become more authoritarian, although there would undoubtedly be hard calls that need to be made in some circumstances. So far the process of taking risks and encouraging people to come along for the ride appears to be working as a method of leadership in this environment.

A mentor?

"A mentor is someone who speaks from his or her own experience of life struggle, spiritual victory, and constant growth to help you overcome adversity, discern hope, and customize a learning path."
I can think of no one better for this role than Shirley Osburne who runs St Martin’s in Collingwood. She is a practitioner in this area with mountains of experience and the scars to prove it. She is warm and open towards Jay and I and only lives around the corner, practicing the same kind of hospitality and concern for the poor that we wish to.

If the world were ending in five years I would want to spend the time working on building healthy transforming communities through low cost housing arrangements with people in my local area. I would want to do this with my wife and congregation Loam as my team and be mentored by a long term practitioner in this area Shirley Osbourne.

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