Multifaith and Mustard Seeds

I know, it's not tomorrow anymore. Nevermind that.

I'm just finishing up Tom Sine's "The New Conspirators", which is presently the book to read for trendy emerging church types. It's all about Mustard Seeds, "streams", new monastics, networks, alternative approaches to church, postmodern ministry and so forth. I of course like it quite a bit. In that spirit, I've been wanting to post on a few mustard seed/salt of the earth-type places that I've been involved with for a while, and today, while I'm eating leftover spaghetti for lunch, I shall, because I think these are places that my 12 readers might like to know about. (Although I should be doing other things, like getting work done for said places...)

First off, I spend about half of my working life entering data into a computer, providing volunteer support, and trying to avoid social faux pas at an organization in Seattle called Multifaith Works. The organization does work with folks struggling with MS, HIV/AIDS, substance abuse recovery, and the associated isolation that comes along with those. A huge number of the people in our client base, and the majority of our staff, come from social backgrounds about which I as a straight white Christian country boy from Ohio know little to nothing--the GLBTQ community primarily, as well as the African-American and Hispanic immigrant communities, people in recovery, and of course the poor to working class. Almost every day I imagine that I say or do something stupid or offensive to or about one of those people groups, but what do you do?! I'm trying my best. Luckily they're nice and forgiving people.

The thing that I have going for me is that the bulk of our volunteers are more like myself than our clients. My program (The AIDS Careteam Program) organizes volunteers--historically primarily recruited from faith communities of various persuasions, and generally from outside the predominant communities that you associate with the disease--into teams to be partnered with individuals living with isolation and HIV/AIDS, to do the things that friends and family would and should do--that is, helping them out with day to day tasks, and generally getting to know them.

While I've only been working there for a few months, I've been a volunteer with the organization for about two and a half years and I've long felt that this group of people--from a variety of faith backgrounds--is doing what churches should be doing: very concertedly building community with the people who are marginalized in our culture--with no strings attached. Essentially, our program's job is to help people make friends with people who others have abandoned. I just love that. The great thing is that the experience is truly transformative: volunteers usually come in wary and anxious about meeting people they normally wouldn't associate with, and quickly become friends with them. Clients (partners is what we actually call them, because they aren't really clients) usually come in isolated, and often wary of the judgmental attitudes of religious-folk, but often find that these become their closest relationships. This isn't church building: we are a non-denominational 'secular' organization, and we're very explicit that religious 'conversion' is not our goal--its not even allowed. As such, I doubt that any church, mosque, synagogue or coven has picked up pledge money as a result of their congregants' volunteering, though some partners do discover through the experience that not all religious folks are judgmental hypocrites and eventually end up connecting with faith communities. At the same time, religious (and healthy) types discover that you don't have to be financially productive, straight and healthy to be a worthwhile person. For me, it is ironic and undeniable that what happens is the heart of what church building should be about--that is, it's an establishing of loving and trusting relationship, where people learn important truths about life, and the formation of community where there was none before. A finding of God in an organization and in other people, if you want to use those terms.

As we think about what church--especially progressive church--might look like in the 21st century, I would put forward the Careteam model as an example. It's non-creedal (if you like that sort of thing), communal, networked, completely organic, driven by a very specific mission, and culturally transformative from the bottom up. It's generally low-cost and self-supporting, open to a variety of positions, practically useful, and rapidly changeable. And in essence, it's organized around the belief that service to the poor, sick and marginalized is the highest good. Sounds a lot like the early Church to me...


Eliacin said…

I'm glad I found your blog. I'm also glad you are enjoying Tom's book.

We still need to connect. let's make that happen.