Yarntangler wrote about giving and receiving in her blog tonight, and I'd like to piggyback on that theme just a little.
I spent two days at a minister friend's community center, "A Third Place," and their "Living Room Church" in Turley, Oklahoma, about eight miles from Tulsa but seemingly many more miles away. It was a wonderful chance to see his/their Unitarian Universalist Christianity in action and become involved, with no worry about "how much can we grow this church," or "Can I really say 'God' or 'Jesus' without people thinking I'm weird?"
The free community center has a health clinic, library, donation room, internet center, meetings for the community, "Saving Pets of Turley," "Let Turley Bloom" community gardening, nutrition class, lectures, music coffeehouses, sewing connections, cable TV, daily newspaper, games, free meals, Oklahoma Food Co-op, Turley trash-off coordinating, holiday community paties, Turley talks and neighborhood projects, and much more. It is a place to meet new friends and help others. The Community Center gets no grants and relies on contributions and donations. All work is done by volunteers as there is no paid staff.
The community center and church is located in the poorest zip code in the Tulsa, Oklahoma metropolitan area. Life expectancy there is fourteen years lower than that of the wealthiest zip code, about eight miles away. Within a two-mile radius of the rented space, their primary service area, the population is 66% African-American, and the largest growing population is Hispanic.
We had a small Maundy Thursday service and then ate a very simple meal together: soup, salad, and bread sticks. Friday morning I sat around the Center, ostensibly talking but mainly listening to some of the volunteers and people from the neighborhood who arrived there early. One volunteer was watching a soap opera on the TV, another was fixing the computer internet connection, others took care of receiving donated clothing.
Later in the morning, I rode with the minister to the in the chapel at All Souls Unitarian Church, located in the richest part of Tulsa. This church has around 1600 members. It was a beautiful service. People dressed nicely. The church is located in an area of beautiful homes.
On the way back, we drove through the unincorporated part of Turley, where I saw burned-out houses, empty trailers, and closed businesses, as well as a little nicer part of town up the hill. There was such a big difference between the large church and beautiful houses in nearby Tulsa and smaller, poorer Turley, only eight miles away,
Although I'm still not exactly sure why I'm here in Oklahoma, reasons and ideas are beginning to take shape, beginning with volunteering regularly down there. I'm not yet sure what I'll end up doing; I'm going to ponder that for a few days. While doing my chaplaincy residency with the Center for Urban Ministry in San Diego, California several years ago, the director's main goal was "to take the church down from the hill to the people." I believe this is what the people are doing in Turley--and it's something I feel called to do as well.
During my years of lay leadership, seminary, internships, field work, and chaplaincy, the focus has always been on church growth, numbers, adding members and programs. For many people and churches, those are important goals. However, somewhere along the way, I found myself believing those things were most important to me as well while losing track of why I decided to become a minister in the first place: community outreach and one-on-one ministry. I'm not a Pollyanna. I realize things are not remedied overnight. But, one of my first sermons was about living in abundance rather than scarcity, about giving freely as well as receiving. And I feel that abundance in the community center and church in Turley. It is a small but active, loving community, one I'll feel blessed to become a part of.