Engaging in the Compassion of the Community
The fourth circle of Christian compassion is engaging in the compassion of the community. This article continues our exploration of the five circles of Christian compassion (see here). In this article series, we have moved from personal compassion, to a church ministry of compassion, to establishing a faith-based organization. But here, many faith-based agencies do not go far enough. Too often faith-based nonprofits are insular and operate in a vacuum. In reality, however, faith-based agencies are connected to a more extensive social service network, whether they acknowledge it or not. When faith-based nonprofit realizes that it is not alone in working to solve the endemic problems such as poverty and homelessness, then its ability to create an impact in the community is magnified. Aristotle’s maximum that “the whole is more than the sum of its parts” is a critical component of Christian compassion. To engage with the community is the fourth circle of Christian compassion. Entering into this circle requires an agency to recast the shape of community service away from the false notion that “our way” is the only way and, instead, embrace community partnerships. This compassion to engage in the community requires four anchors.
Flexibility in Thinking: Some faith-based ministries might be tempted to label other social service agencies as “secular,” disagreeing with the cultural underpinnings of the other organization’s strategy, work culture and even, perhaps even the absence of faith. However, to move beyond charity thinking and embrace community solutions to complex problems, will require a faith-based nonprofit to be flexible in thinking.
Embrace Community over Individualism: There is a false notion that we are a nation of rugged individualists and the root causes of entrenched social problems are that people do not try hard enough and “pulling oneself up by their bootstraps.” However, meritocracy is antithetical to the communal basis of the Biblical narrative of God’s intervention with mankind. Indeed, often scriptures portray salvation as an act extended the collective whole (e.g., 2 Chronicles 7 and Ephesians 1). We rise together.
Understand the social service system: It is essential to understand the social service system if an agency is to become part of the system. The social service system is often inefficient, fragmented, and underresourced. These deficiencies are compounded when agencies do not understand how they fit together as a whole;
Commit to the long haul: Partnership with government agencies and other community-based nonprofit organizations is not a one-time investment but is a long-term commitment that is developed over months and years. It requires time, collective-interest rather than self-interest, and a willingness to show up.
The authentic engagement in the community holds the single greatest possibility of advancing community service work in the Seventh-day Adventist church. In fact, when we look at our church’s response to disasters, we employ a strong community partnership model to rapidly bring support to a flood zone or forest fire crisis. However, when we speak about traditional community service to meet ongoing human needs, like hunger, access to healthcare, and economic development, we are too often more comfortable going it alone.
While I don’t agree with the ambiguous conclusions that Gerald Klingbeil reaches in his article Marching Down Pennsylvania Avenue With Jesus, he does assert that “Social action encompasses three main dimensions: relief, development, and structural change. Jesus was involved in all three areas.” It is only as we embrace the fourth (and fifth) circle compassion, acting in partnership with others in the community that structural change can occur. Faith-based community service moves us from self to community, and it is here, where Seventh-day Adventist community services can grow.