Community, pt2: Proximity

Last month I wrote about, what I believe to be the first and, dare I say, most important aspect of true community, learning to slow down.  That said, this month, I want to briefly write about what I believe to be the next element of importance in community development, that falls right after the idea of ‘slowing down’, or maybe even, shares equal space to it, proximity.

A group of us from Austin New Church, have been wrestling with the idea of what it look like to really live in, serve as, and do life as a true (not manufactured) community. The truth is, usually, no matter how hard you try, a manufactured community group is simply a group of people that do four or five events a month (a couple bible studies, a couple service projects) and then go on back to their real communities and/or lives, but the one thing that is not deeply practiced is the art of neighboring, which is a necessary characteristic to community – I know, I know, but Jesus said everyone is my neighbor.  Yes he did.  But the difference in that and what I am talking about is for another discussion.

When I say, “neighboring” I am referring to the necessity of proximity (it seems between secular and faith-based non-profits, true neighboring can only happen within a 3-4 mile radius of your front door). Neighboring is the idea and practice of local living and believing that those who live in proximity you need and depend on you as you do them.  This cannot happen with a “drive by mentality”.   This is impossible if you are not deeply living where you already are.  This cannot happen if the world “out there” is demanding you serve there instead of your own backyard.  As long as there is an “us-them” dichotomy there will never be true and lasting transformation that is supposed to be the result of neighboring.  This is the difference between “service” and “development” – a community cannot be “served” out of poverty, out of injustice, or even into transformation or renewal.  It must be developed out of or into.   And this only begins to happen once we move in, once we close the gap in the “us-them” dichotomy, until it is a “we” reality.  No matter how much we want to pretend we can, we can’t do this if our involvement in a situation is confined to driving in to “do the work” only to “drive out” and retreat.  As long as we are “driving out” at the end of the day, we are always “handing down”, it is always us being a dispenser of resources or goods or services, which makes us feel good about us, cloaks our superiority, and allows us to keep the real issues at arms length…Proximity takes it from ‘their problem’ to ‘our problem’, not by name alone, but in every other aspect.  It is pretty normal today, and has been for awhile for the church to “name-tag” something that isn’t really that something – you see this with words like, ‘missional’, ‘community’, ‘serving’, etc…naming something community, that isn’t truly community doesn’t make it community.

Over the past couple months, I have talked with both Christian and non-Christian organizations about this issue, I have listened to their speeches, and have taken notes on what they both agree to be true and necessary (non-negotiables) for true community development, renewal, and engagement. Here are a few:

    • Issue of Speed and Distance:  You have to slow down and be close enough to live where you really live.  Several organizations have said, you will never truly impact any community that is outside of your 3 mile radius
    • Living Among: You have to move from “them” to “we” – this involves more than being in verbal solidarity with those you are wanting to ‘reach’.
    • Long Haul: This is not a flash in the pan that you can or get to be popular by doing, this is a 5, 7, 8, 10 or even 20 year commitment.
    • The Common Enemy: This is impossible without proximity – the common enemy in, to, and against the community must be your enemy also, and it is not your enemy unless you are part of the community.
    • Friendship: This is absolutely a proximity issue.  Friendships put pressure on our lifestyle choices because our possessions and consumption patterns are hard to hide from friends (you can hide things from ‘friends’ who are not in close proximity to you).  That’s why it is often easier to keep people who are poor or different from you at a distance – or to arrange to enter their world only through brief visits on our terms.  Close proximity makes us more conscious of both abundance and lack.

According to Dr.Mark Labberton ,

“compassionate dispassion is a distance issue – knowing about an issue, finding it tragic and wrong, is not the same as actually being close to the situation or people.  It’s another ‘starving child,’ but not so to speak, ‘my starving child.’  evil arises from the seedbed of our heart and goes on to misname the world, letting injustice exist ‘out there’ while we go on seeing and naming the world in ways that serve our interests.  Our perceiving can be done from such safe distances that the needs of others make no claim on us.  The bottom line is, the urgency of injustice could not be greater than when it is experienced every day.  Until our hearts allow this ordinary daily reality to enter our lives with some degree of the same empathetic force it would if the injustice were against us or against those we most love, then the chances of a more just world becomes very dim.”

Two things to remember: (1) each of these community blogs are part of a whole, not independent in themselves. (2) my hope will be to piece these posts together at the end, so to wrestle past theory into praxis.  Also, next month we’ll discuss living deeply where you already are – this idea can only happen when slowing down and proximity already exist.

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2 thoughts on “Community, pt2: Proximity

  1. Pingback: Community, pt. 3 – Where You Already Are « Emmaus Life

  2. Pingback: Year End / Year Beginning « Emmaus Life

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