“This community has changed a lot since I was a girl,” Beatrice explained as we sat on her front porch. “The library used to be just up the block. We used to have a grocery store and lots of things within walking distance.”
“Where do you get your groceries now?” I asked.
“Wherever I can get a ride,” she said. I discovered Beatrice didn’t have a car. As the conversation went on, I learned that it costs $24 to get a taxi to and from Walmart, that most people in the neighborhood don’t have cars, and that my town has no public transportation.
I was shocked! I had lived in this South Carolina city of 23,000 people for nine years and never knew there was no public transportation. As I talked with Beatrice, the pieces started to come together about why so many people in her neighborhood didn’t work—they had no way to get to work. I never knew.
That day, nearly two years ago, was the beginning of a new relationship between my family and my city. I was ashamed of how much I didn’t know just because I hadn’t taken the time to listen. I should have known better. I was an elder in my church, and I served in a stateside leadership role with International Teams, an organization committed to integrated community transformation around the world. In fact, it was an ITeams Tailwind leadership-training course that gave me the assignment to get out and listen to my community.
The Challenge of a Simple Task
Since that day on Beatrice’s front porch, I’ve learned a lot about my community, and I’ve learned a lot about the necessity of listening. I’ve often thought about why church leaders don’t tend to spend as much time dreaming about the restoration of their communities as they do about enlarging their congregations. Undoubtedly, there are many reasons, but one is certainly the scope of the task. Growing a congregation is not easy, but it seems like rudimentary stuff compared to transforming a community riddled with domestic violence, drugs, and poverty.
A quick survey of the needs—whether by browsing statistics or by a slow drive through some neighborhoods—can be overwhelming. What do we do about gangs? How can we help the overburdened foster care system? What can be done to help people get jobs when they have few qualifications and no transportation? How do we improve health outcomes for the community? Although Jesus may have plans “to reconcile to himself all things” (Colossians 1:20), it seems our plans must be more realistic. I’ve come to believe, however, that if we fully face the enormity of the transformational task and add a few ounces of faith, we will actually be pushed toward right actions.
And near the top of that list of actions is listening. In light of the overwhelming odds against such a vision of change, we must admit we don’t have many answers—we have lots of questions.
- Why are things the way they are?
- What are the problems I’m not even seeing?
- What are some of the root causes?
- What has been tried? What has worked and what hasn’t?
- How do those who are hurting the most perceive the problems and the possible solutions?
The Reward of an Others-Based Agenda
Being overwhelmed can be a good place to start because it helps us avoid the common mistake of imposing our solutions based on overly simplistic assumptions. The scriptures remind us, “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13).
One of my colleagues serving among the impoverished Roma people in western Ukraine told me of an instance where they were about to address a desperate need for better housing by starting a home-building program. Before they began, however, discussions with community members clued them into the fact that this would never work. They would have to start with a few families, but this would stir jealousy and turn the community against them. By listening to the community, they found that housing wasn’t actually perceived as a priority need.
The community was instead very concerned about the roads. Their main roads were so dilapidated that emergency vehicles couldn’t reach most of the community. In multiple instances, residents died because ambulances couldn’t reach them. So they began a road-building project that involved the community. Their progress caught the attention of local officials who then provided street lights. This project became a significant contributor to a growing sense within the community that things can actually change. And it started with listening.
When it comes to knowing how to engage our communities redemptively, listening is the first antidote for treating our ignorance. However, implicit in the story above is another reason for the necessity of listening: Listening empowers others. When we listen, the very act tells others they matter and that their thoughts and experiences are valued. When people are involved in identifying problems and crafting solutions, they are much more likely to become engaged in implementing new initiatives. They themselves are more likely to become agents of change.
Questions to Get Us Started
So let’s say we took more time listening to our community. What would we listen for? Here are a few ideas.
- Felt needs/Perceived problems – What are the greatest concerns of those in the community? Don’t expect people to become part of the solution if you’re addressing an issue of small importance to them.
- Root causes – What are the logistical obstacles that make it difficult or impossible for people to get what they need physically, socially, and spiritually? What worldview mindsets will need to change before you can expect widespread, behavioral change? In what ways do people have a diminished self-perception that is paralyzing them?
- Relational dynamics – What factions of the community are in conflict? How will that impact your strategies for change? Know ahead of time how you will be perceived or whom you will be alienating when you choose to work with particular groups.
- Unforeseen obstacles – Allowing members of the community to help shape a plan of action can provide input that will expose your false assumptions and give you insight into unseen challenges.
- Strengths & resources – What skills and abilities can you discover in your community that God might utilize to bless the community? What dreams and ideas are already stirring in people’s hearts that can be encouraged?
- The story God is telling – No matter how broken you perceive your community to be, God is already there, and He is working. Where do you see His redemptive activity already at work, and where is He setting the stage for a fresh work of His Spirit?
Listening to your community could start with something as simple as taking an hour to walk the streets and make careful observations. Or you could ask around to find out whom folks consider a “local historian” and meet with that person to learn how the neighborhood has changed over the years, what challenges it’s facing, and what its strengths are. Remember that you are building a relationship. Whether you are moving “full speed ahead” with community service projects or paralyzed by overwhelming needs, listening can be a powerful next step.
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