Monday, 4 April 2016
Writer Scott Mageean
We were on holidays in Queensland when the official job offer to be Co-Leader of YV Vic/Tas came through. Two days before Christmas we spoke to a real estate agent and locked in a six month lease on a house that we hadn’t inspected and was scheduled to be demolished at the end of our lease. We knew very little about the area we were settling into, other than it would be near some friends, apparently close to some good schools, and not too far from work.
Four weeks later we arrived in Melbourne and have since discovered that the estate in which we temporarily live is one of the most desired in Doncaster East, and the house prices mean we will probably never be able to buy there.
House ownership was never really an option for us, but where we live it seems to matter. Milgate Park estate has a lot going for it in terms of community living; a communal sporting hub with an oval, two tennis courts, cricket pitch, netball and basketball rings, plenty of parkland and play equipment for our kids, and it was designed to create low car traffic. Its design is ideal for creating a sense of community, with ownership of the community facilities and parkland sitting with the residents that belong to the owners association—which, as renters, we don’t belong to.
Our experience in the first two weeks of being there, however, is that facilities don’t create community. While they can certainly aid, on their own they will never be enough. While people have generally been friendly, and it is indeed a lovely place to live, we’ve only had one neighbour come over and introduce herself to us and it was clear from the conversation that she assumed we were the new owners of the property—made clearer by the way she dismissed our next door neighbours as people who were just renting.
It seems that what was originally designed to help create community has instead created a division between those who own homes in the neighbourhood, belong to the owners association and therefore have access to all the facilities, and those that can’t afford to own in the area and aren’t rightful users of the facilities.
As I have dwelt with this idea of community and places of gathering within communities, I believe we must reflect on the places to which we belong and ask how they welcome those who find themselves as ‘outsiders’. Do our youth groups, young adult gatherings, and churches make room for those that are new to the area? Do we greet and welcome those that don’t have any ownership over the facilities or group, that don’t have a strong history, sense of belonging or any right to be there?
Building communities of hope and compassion, creating safe spaces for young people to feel welcomed and accepted, means we must learn to not just create community spaces but we must be people of community.
This issue isn’t new. As we look in scripture we see Jesus confronting the very same thing. Religious rules, festivals, and systems in his time and place were meant to provide care and support for the outcast, the poor, the widow and orphan. But they didn’t. Instead of bringing people together as a nation, Jesus finds something that created division, elevating the religious elite—the teachers and priests—and excluding those who they were meant to help and serve.
Jesus continually challenged who was in and who was out, especially when it came to the religious systems, by hanging out and eating with ‘sinners’. He cared for those that were forgotten or neglected, welcomed woman and children, and touched those who were unclean.
Before relocating to Melbourne this year, I spent just over three years living in Tasmania and ministering at Hobart City Church of Christ. We’d lived in our street for just over two years and left behind a great sense of community with our neighbours. While the street wasn’t developed with community in mind, we were able to build some great relationships with a number of our neighbours, offering support and assistance when needed and receiving friendship, support, and assistance in return.
One of the highlights of my time of ministry in Hobart was the coffee crew that started early in our time there. Originally they started as a way for a small group of us to gather each week and try the numerous cafés that can be found in the city centre. As we gathered around coffee and chatted through our weeks, we also spoke about coffee. We discussed techniques, our preferred orders and tastes, and those that were game tried different orders, stepping away from sugar or milk in their coffees. Whilst we were careful to still include those that only drank hot chocolates, I soon discovered that as we gathered in cafés each week we were learning a vocabulary.
From this reflection we decided to try and see if we could use this weekly gathering to not only disciple people in the world of coffee but help them be disciples of Jesus in these public places.
We then had some decisions to make. Do we meet at the same place and time each week or do we continue to meet at different locations to still experience all of the coffee shops? Are we seeking to build connections with the staff and other regulars at these shops, or are we going to use the coffee crew as a space to invite our friends, work or uni peers?
We decided that we would focus on people that we already had relationships with, and that changing the location each week would allow others to try different coffee shops with us—which might add to the incentive.
By my final coffee with the group we had regular coffee crew attenders that didn’t belong to our church or young adult ministry. They were not longer guests of their friend but regulars and people that we considered to be part of our community. This belonging led to some great conversation around the table and for some great one on one conversations during the week with myself and others that had become trusted people in their lives.
We had grown from the one small group meeting on a Friday to a larger group on Friday and a small Monday gathering. Our Friday group had outgrown most of the cafés in town so the only suitable locations were ones with multiple large tables or big communal tables, limiting us to four main options. The newer and smaller Monday group continued to meet in a variety of smaller cafés.
I believe that we can create community around a multitude of things—location, hobbies, preferences, or beliefs—but it takes intentionality and a willingness to not just welcome others but to genuinely make room for them by sacrificing some of our power and control, and allowing them to contribute, shape, and belong.
Our Christian faith gives us the resources we need to do community well. It informs us of the equality of all people, of our need for love, grace, forgiveness, and multiple chances. It celebrates the diversity of gifts and passions with which we have all been created. It urges us to care for those that are downtrodden, to stand in the gap in prayer and action for those that are abused, oppressed, and without power. It calls us to be a people, to be the church, a body of misfits and mishaps working beautifully through the work of the Spirit.
So as we gather with others and build genuine community there is obviously the hope that people would come to know the One that gives us this desire for, and informs the shape of, community. It is essential to real community though that people belong to your community whether they believe the things you believe or not.
So what are the natural places of community that you already find yourself in?
What activity or hobby can you gather people around with the intention of building community and giving to people a place to belong to, shape, and contribute to?
What group of people in your neighbourhood doesn’t currently have a place to belong, to contribute their gifts and resources to? How might you gather them together to give them a collective voice and sense of belonging?
What are some of the barriers that might limit the sense of community with this group?
Where can you not only make others feel welcome and invite them to belong to and shape your community, but also model to your leaders, students in your ministry, or peers the importance of and how to really invite people into the messiness, joy, and life of real community?
Originally published in YVQ11: OUR PLACE.
Written by Scott Mageean. Scott Mageean is the Co-Leader of Youth Vision Vic/Tas, a State Youth Games Vic committee member, and part of the team pioneering State Youth Games Tas. This coffee sipping, t-shirt designing, formerly moustache-twirling man is passionate about seeing people seek and honour God in the everyday. With his wife Luella and 3 children he is excited about embedding into a new neighbourhood and faith community
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