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The “Faith Factor”

This blog post was written by Samuel Acevedo, Pastor and Executive Director of Boston HERC, the Local Leadership Foundation in Boston, Massachusetts.

 

I often ask God, “What is the role of the church and faith-based institutions – what is the role of ‘people of good faith’as we seek to serve and love the youth of this increasingly skeptical city? How do we make it a playground for our young people? We certainly have a role in convening ‘people of good faith’ and ‘people of good will.’ But is there more? Should there be more?”

 

In the summer of 2015, the Boston School Committee asked me to serve as the Co-Chair of a body called the Opportunity and Achievement Gaps Task Force. Of the 19 members of the Task Force, I was perhaps the sole person of good faith (as a vocation, anyway) among some of the brightest, most committed people of good will I have ever worked with. Two weeks ago, the Task Force, with great relief, presented to the Boston School Committee the results of our twelve months of toil. We had competed our revisions – really, a thorough re-casting – of a ten-year-old policy aimed at closing the gaps in academic performance afflicting Boston’s primarily black and Latino youth as long as anyone could remember. This achievement gap influences, more than anything, the long-term likelihood these youth will ever achieve a college degree, break into a profession, or earn a decent living.

 

The goal is that Boston would be the first city in America to close these gaps. It is perhaps the most ambitious challenge the School Committee has taken on in decades. Whether we achieve it, however, may depend on the role that the church (Boston’s “people of good faith”) plays in the days and months ahead.

 

What should that role be? What is the role of people of good faith in addressing the challenges facing black, Latino, and other children of color? Indeed, what was I, a Pastor and Executive Director of a church-based resource center, doing co-chairing this Task Force to begin with?

 

Four years earlier, the Boston Foundation (one of our city’s leading philanthropic institutions) launched this conversation by convening fewer than a dozen of Boston’s “Black and Brown” clergy. They gathered us around the idea of finally reversing what they referred to as the “underperformance of black and brown boys.” I had the privilege of being in the room that morning.

 

But why the clergy? I posed this question to the Foundation. I am not sure that even they realized why this, decidedly-secular, institution felt compelled to begin this conversation with a gathering of the city’s clergy. One reason the Foundation may have been interested in the clergy was the sense that they have an important constituency; these clergy men and women are significant “civic leaders.” But that only begs the question — what makes them “civic leaders”? Is it purely a manifestation of Black and Latino historic tradition? Or is there more than mere tradition at work here? Is it that our community’s churches and religious institutions possess a unique galvanizing and life-transforming power that could be harnessed to reverse the destructive trends that would otherwise claim another generation of our young men and women of color? And if we were to discover that they do possess such a life-transforming spiritual energy, would Boston have the courage to do what is necessary to unleash it?

 

There is actually a good amount of social science indicating that church involvement is one of the factors contributing to the success of those youth who grow up in “high-risk neighborhoods,” and still manage to complete college and achieve great things. (One seminal study- by no means the only one- is the federally-funded National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. After studying 13,500 adolescents in 80 communities across the nation, the study concluded that youth living in “high-risk neighborhoods” were far more likely to stay in school and do well if they attended church regularly, than if they did not. See: http://www.baylorisr.org/wp-content/uploads/ISR-Making-Grade_071.pdf)

 

But determining the proper role of the church in attempting to close the achievement and opportunity gaps haunting our youth is not so simple a thing as merely following the data. There is a sense (shared even among those who do not consider themselves religious) that a kinetic energy is locked in our houses of worship that could be unleashed to transform the lives and vision of our failing youth and the shape of our cities. But the “governing community” – the government, philanthropic institutions, corporations, etc. – is nevertheless reluctant to unsheathe that energy as a consequence of legitimate, countervailing considerations such as the separation of church and state, or a host of other issues emanating from operating within a diverse, pluralistic society. Releasing that spiritual energy, at least in its purest form, may be too high a price to pay. Even if we knew it worked.

 

I continued to contemplate these questions and ideas as I drafted the preamble and much of the language of the six core goals of our new Opportunity and Achievement Gap Policy. I think what Boston is attempting is truly heroic and noble. I pray for its success, and would be honored to contribute whatever time and energy is needed to arrest and reverse these trends that have clouded the future of our youth for far too long. Something has to change; whatever is broken needs to be fixed.

 

But the “fix” may require that Boston – and its carefully-assembled collaborative community of “people of good faith” and “people of good will” – implement solutions too unsettling for our current comfort zones. Solutions that allow the church to be “the Church”; the Church assuming the soul-saving, life-transforming role that it was created for, but has all but forgotten. To work for both its social and spiritual renewal, so that the city can truly become a playground. A role for which our broken cities, and our lost youth, have no substitute.

27
Jun

Operationalizing a Vision- Episode 21

Take a moment to listen to the latest episode of the City as Playground Podcast.

 

Creating adaptive responses to community problems and using evaluation frameworks can seem incompatible at times. In this episode Rick Enloe, Dave Hillis,and Patricia Talton of the Northwest Leadership Foundation discuss how the two can go hand-in-hand to produce lasting impact in our cities. Join them as they explore how evaluation tools can be used to stay nimble and respond to the changing realities of our communities as we work to realize the vision of cities becoming playgrounds.

 

 


What Can We Do

Street Lights is written in real time. It is written in the midst of the vacillation and violence of our world. And if Street Lights is true—which we desire it to be—then it must in some way reflect these realities.

 

Orlando this week. Charleston a year ago today. And countless lightning strikes of violence in-between.

 

What does one do? How does Leadership Foundations enter into this bewildering display of heartbreak with any sense of propriety and talk about cities becoming God’s playground rather than a battleground? To keep trying seems a fool’s errand. To give up and throw in the towel seems to be giving into darker forces. Perhaps what is called for is what Graham Greene’s Whiskey Priest in The Power and Glory says, recently quoted in a piece by Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson:

 

“When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity—that was a quality God’s image carried with it. When you saw the lines at the corners of the eyes, the shape of the mouth, how the hair grew, it was impossible to hate. Hate was just a failure of imagination.”

 

What LF tries to do in times like this is help us see each other more clearly and fight against a possible “failure of imagination.” Through our work, as demonstrated in blog posts like our reflection last year after Charleston, we surface those “lines at the corners of the eyes” and “shape of the mouth”- the humanity in cities around the world and the good things that are happening. That in the midst of the horribly sharp edges of this world, playgrounds are still possible.

 

Read our reflection What Can We Do, Together?


Operationalizing A Vision Whispercast- Episode 20

Take a moment to listen to the latest episode of the City as Playground Podcast.

 

In this Whispercast, Rick Enloe and Dave Hillis consider how Leadership Foundations has operationalized the vision that took root in Sam Shoemaker and Reid Carpenter over 50 years ago. Using church history, the LF story, and our new evaluation tools, they set up our next full length podcast with Patricia Talton, President and CEO of the Northwest Leadership Foundation. Listen here and send in any questions you would like answered to info@leadershipfoundations.org.

 

 


Laughter Transforms

Charles Dickens wrote in A Christmas Carol, “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.” From LF’s beginning we have recognized both the truth and the power of Dicken’s statement and how cities can become playgrounds rather than battlegrounds as a result. Laughter and humor sit at the very heart of our work in cities around the world for two reasons: our relationship to Jesus and our relationship with others.

 

G. K. Chesterton reflected on Jesus in his book Orthodoxy: “there was something that He hid from all people when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.” It is our conviction that we are most like Jesus when, in the midst of working on very tough issues in cities around the world, we continue to have a sense of humor; taking that which is in front of us seriously and holding on to ourselves lightly.

 

Humor also tells us something about each other. Fyodor Dostoyevsky stated it this way: “If you wish to glimpse inside a human soul and get to know a man/woman, don’t bother analyzing their ways of being silent, of talking, of weeping, of seeing how much they are moved by noble ideas; you will get better results if you just watch them laugh. If they laugh well, they are good people.” Through the years we have seen this truth play out time and again. That it is people who laugh—and LF presidents and staff are great laughers— seem to get things done consistently and faithfully in the most difficult places.

 

This past month on LF’s City As Playground podcast we had the great privilege of talking with Eric Geary, president of the Lexington Leadership Foundation, about this very subject. Together we explored the notion that it takes engaging leaders to engage leaders. Through the podcast we explore the role that humor plays in turning our streets and cities into playgrounds.

 

Listen to the full length episode of our City As Playground now!


Ebenezer Stone

One of the great images in the Old Testament is the Ebenezer Stone. The event is recorded in 1 Samuel 7:12, where Samuel, the priest of Israel at the time, erects a stone to remind everyone “thus far the Lord has helped us.” One can imagine that this became the first of many “stones” that were scattered throughout Israel constantly reminding the people of God’s ever present help and healing.

 

All people and organizations need the equivalent of an Ebenezer Stone in their life – concrete reminders of particular moments where God has helped you and your organization.

 

Two weeks ago we had the privilege to go back to one of our Ebenezer Stones- Pittsburgh- for our LF network gathering. In the midst of a number of important meetings a group of us gathered on Mt. Washington, which is where, in 1962, Reid Carpenter prayed with the Rev. Dr. Samuel Shoemaker that “Pittsburgh would someday become as famous for God as it currently [was] for steel.” This was the place where the LF movement, now in over 70 cities around the world, began. This was the place where we had our Ebenezer Stone moment and remembered, over 50 years later, “thus far the Lord has helped” LF.

 

Along with a retelling of Sam and Reid’s story and a commissioning, we also took a moment to reflect on our own cities. Using G.K. Chesterton’s reflection on Pimlico and Chelsea we prayed for our cities and imagined what it would look like to love them into greatness. As you reflect on and pray for your city, we hope this becomes an Ebenezer Stone for you as well.

 

Watch a reading on Mt. Washington of G.K. Chesterton’s reflection


Engaging Leaders- Episode 19

Take a moment to listen to the latest episode of the City as Playground Podcast.

 

It takes engaging leaders to engage leaders – leaders of good faith, good will, and also of good humor. In this episode Dave Hillis and Rick Enloe explore the role of humor in setting a table of joy where everyone is engaged through sharing the communion of laughter and pain. Together, these essential components of life shared at a common table bring people together, engage everyone present, and expand our capacity to see, hear, care and play together, turning our streets and cities into playgrounds.

 

 


A Hopeful Imagination

Give a child Legos, Lincoln Logs, or even a SimCity video game and before you know it, they will be building new lands and creating unique structures while also weaving fantastic tales. Leadership Foundations see this process of creating, being imaginative and seeing things in new ways as not exclusive to children; it is also vital for leaders within cities around the world.

 

Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann contends that, not unlike the way a child plays, a critical task of leaders is to see and imagine new ways that “evoke a consciousness and a perception alternative” to the dominate culture. For Leadership Foundations, this alternative perception lies within the way we see our cities. Too often cities are regarded as derelict and dangerous. Leadership Foundations sees the alternative where cities are places of promise and prosperity; cities as playgrounds rather than battlegrounds. In this clip Dr. Stephan DeBeer, founder of the Tshwane Leadership Foundation and director of LF in Africa, briefly comments on the role of the imagination and the implicit ramifications it has on cities becoming more like playgrounds.

 

Earlier this month in Nairobi, Kenya, leaders from around Africa gathered to imagine what it would mean to operationalize the idea of seeing cities as playgrounds. Women and men from Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, and South Africa came together and reflected on this idea and discussed what it meant for their cities to become places of transformation for all. Dialogues abounded about what this would look like in particular cities up and down the continent. Core to every conversation was the implication and importance of the imagination as the primary engine by which cities become playgrounds rather than battlegrounds.

 

LF is convinced that to see cities become playgrounds, a prophetic and hopeful imagination is vital to the process. And as such, fostering the imagination of LF leaders and partners will further equip them to cultivate their cities into God’s playgrounds.

 


Engaging Leaders Whispercast- Episode 18

Take a moment to listen to the latest episode of the City as Playground Podcast.

 

What does it take to engage leaders of good faith and good will? In this Whispercast, Rick Enloe and Dave Hillis touch on topics like humor and ego in a discussion about the attributes and pitfalls of leadership. This episode sets up our next full length podcast with Eric Geary, President of the Lexington Leadership Foundation, Director of the LF Global Youth Initiative, and author of Loudership: Increasing the Volume of My Own Opinion.

 

 


Willing One Thing

Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, theologian, poet and social critic, in reflecting on the beatitude “blessed are the pure in heart,” wrote the following that captures an essential element we have recently highlighted in Street Lights and what we plan to continue moving forward: “Purity of heart is the ability to will one thing.”  Kierkegaard’s argument, opposed to being a moralistic reflection on the divine life, is the idea that the biggest difficulty in our life is double mindedness; that the primary manifestation of a heart tethered to God is the singular commitment to willing one thing.

 

Leadership Foundations is about willing one thing done in many ways: developing leaders who drive the wheel of permanent change—engaging leaders of good faith and good will, building the capacity of others, developing joint initiatives—in cities around the world. This singular commitment of willing one thing in a multiplicity of ways has fostered a global network of LF affiliates in over 70 cities with an aggregate budget of $30 million; 3,000 partners; 600 organizations receiving capacity building support; and over 255,000 people directly served through joint initiatives. This singular commitment of willing one thing in many ways has created a dizzying array of contextual, accessible, relational, and relevant programming ranging from affordable housing to health care to college access, just to name a few. This singular commitment of willing one thing is what allows the LF network to increasingly cultivate our cities as playgrounds rather than battlegrounds.

 

As we continue forward into 2016, Street Lights will continue to focus on how LF is developing these leaders who are uniquely equipped to cultivate their city into God’s playground, and, how our cities are becoming better as a result.