Tag Archives: Point Breeze

Fomenting Diversity in the Age of Big Data

We did a little demographic work recently. If we ever become proficient in running the programs that store our data, we can do more. And I think we may need to do more. We live in the age of data and it seems like the younger one is, the more one is interested in parsing data to decide what reality is.

We are on the cusp of entering the age of “BIG data.” We are growing up the ultimate consumers who expect to have their personal preferences met by the institutions with which they trade their info. The huge data whales of our info ocean, like Facebook, are training millions of people to trust them with their lives. When someone walks into Circle of Hope (or, more likely, checks out the webpage) they have new instincts to apply to see if they “fit.” Even more, they look for the perfect image of an institution that meets their estimation of righteousness.

Data breeds the illusion of perfection

People are now well-known for applying all their info gathering to assess the quality of their most personal relationships. And the church is on the personal relationship side of life, for sure. In an article in Psychology Today Hara Marano quotes Barry Schwartz noting that

“One of the problems with unrestrained choice…is that it raises expectations to the breaking point. A sense of multiple alternatives, of unlimited possibility, breeds in us the illusion that perfection exists out there, somewhere, if only we could find it. This one’s sense of humor, that one’s looks, another one’s charisma—we come to imagine that there will be a package in which all these desirable features coexist. We search for perfection because we believe we are entitled to the best—even if perfection is an illusion foisted on us by an abundance of possibilities.”

So it is no surprise that people bring similar mentalities to the church. They raise their expectations to the breaking point. A lot of people give us one public meeting, and maybe not even all of that, before they have decided we are not the best fit.

Looking for the perfect racial mix

One of the more painful results of people comparing us to their data relates to race. This is one reason we have to learn how to use our database (which doesn’t even track most of the things people assess!). We need to learn how to sort our people a little bit so we can give an intelligent answer to people who ask questions.

We don’t think it is particularly right to sort people according to class, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, region of origin, political party or social media savvy. But many people we meet do that sorting instinctively and we need to speak some kind of language they understand. For instance, I had to prove that regular attenders of Broad and Washington PMs are about 25% so-called people of color. Our neighborhood association area is 68% white, 6% black, 19% Asian and 7% Hispanic. Ours numbers about match those of the Center City Core and are a licc population by agettle more “white” than the percentages of extended Center City. Point Breeze is surprisingly changing in make-up as we speak.

When someone enters our room (and often I do this, too) they “count the beans” like the proverbial accountant. How many people of color are there? This is especially relevant to us, since we say one of our convictions is “Fomenting diversity and reconciliation is at the prophetic heart of our gospel.

“Have we achieved enough diversity?” is our question, too. In the age of big data and the accompanying rise of expectations, one might expect people to expect the perfect mix of population they prefer. We’re subject to that ourselves.

There is a lot more to the social dynamics of forming our church, of course, than just assessing its racial make up. For one thing, our target population has been the 19-35 years olds who make up 35%of extended Center City and nearly half of the core of it downtown. They are notoriously not followers of Jesus and we have good news for them. They are also mostly “white.”

If people want to count beans, I wish they were assessing how many faithless people are in the room when we meet. But even if I don’t like how people arrive at their questions about diversity sometimes, I still think they have good questions. Even though we might not meet some standards of righteousness, fomenting reconciliation is one of those convictions we will go down fighting for.

Counting different ways leads to different assumptions

I often gently argue with bean counters by noting that we are a lot more than what is happening in a meeting at any given moment. We are a 24/7 organism, not a meeting. The meeting is representative, but we are fully engaged with the city, as individuals and households, across all barriers all the time. Plus, many of our compassion teams connect us with groups that are not as diverse as we are, and not as interested in being so.

This year, we decided to demonstrate how we relate across barriers more deliberately as an entire church. One of the network’s five goals is: Use our series of six Saturday seminars to feature facilitators from outside of our network who can open our minds and hearts and enrich our diversity.” Our first seminar will be lead by Drew Hart (who wrote a fine blog post recently). The title is “Jesus Doesn’t Sleep on Racial Reconciliation and Neither Do We.” (It has a Facebook page, of course). Come meet Drew on January 12th.  Our seminars will highlight the many relationships we have that make us quite successful at fomenting diversity and reconciliation.

I fear that some of you who got this far in this post are feeling a little tired, like you have been swimming frantically away from a data whale trying to consume you, and now you are tempted by your own pastor to make friends with the darkness of bean counting! I am not really recommending righteousness by demographic perfection. I just want us to listen to the people around us with love, to keep recognizing our weaknesses, and to keep striving to overcome the barriers that continue to divide people, especially the ones that keep them away from Jesus. We are doing that. Even if we fail in the eyes of many (or our own eyes), let’s keep doing what Jesus does, without slumber.

Development

All weekend I talked about development — and I am not just talking about the in-town retreat the Leadership Team held with the discerning group to map out 2011 for Circle of Hope! No, I live in the Philadelphia region and we talk about development all the time: what’s happening in the casino district in Fishtown — the amazing speculation going on from Washington to Wharton in Point Breeze — the big ideas happening in southwest Germantown exemplified by the Kroc Center and the eviction notices given  to the people in the tower at Queen Lane — the changes on 52nd St. with the influx of new home owners pushing out from University City. What’s more: south of Temple is not what it used to be! — the Riverfront Prison site in Camden might get used well! — the South St. bridge reopened! It is exciting.

Development happens. Sometimes it is for the good. Much of the time it is the same old injustice in new clothes. Regardless, the church needs to develop along with it. I was talking to a new friend in the Kimball St. Garden this weekend who said visiting St. Peter’s in Rome was the straw that broke the camel’s back of his faith. He gave it up when he saw that piece of church “development.” I understood. When I was there a few years ago I asked God for an earthquake to take care of what must be the worst piece of advertising for Jesus in history. God becomes a baby to meet us person to person and the church advertises him with an overwhelming building designed to make you feel small and powerless in the presence of God (and the pope)!

In most of Philly’s neighborhoods there are further shrines to the church’s pride and power housing congregations who are trying to figure out how to stay afloat and become useful in their developing neighborhoods. I told the man I was getting to know that he could come see us in our room over a check-cashing store if he ever felt like experiencing an alternative. He said he might show up. But I am not too heartened that Circle of Hope’s big contribution might be to provide a corrective for something done in 1626! We have our own development to consider!

This weekend we were considering our development in our developing region, and it wasn’t that easy. The pastors put out some ideas that seemed to come from the best parts of our discernment process including slight changes to our basic identity statements. We needed a lot of dialogue! Change is not easy! There were two ideas aired, in particular, that must feel like tearing down the Queen Lane public housing tower feels for some people. They want it gone, but they aren’t sure it doesn’t mean something important is going to be lost.

I guess I am like a “developer,” God help me. I don’t need change for change’s sake, but I think things can improve. When it comes to developing Circle of Hope, for instance, I think we should admit that we are diverse in race, class, background and location and stop talking about ourselves as if we are trying to become that. We became that. We can always become more, but we became that. Now let’s keep the heart of who we are and move on to what is next. Personally, I am not going to give up on any aspect of the work of reconciliation until I die. I want to keep overcoming the racist divides of our country (as were easily seen in the last election when Obama got his white backlash, even if no one will admit that), and I will keep being a proactive peacemaker (the need for such was also evident after the election when not one candidate on election eve mentioned the war in Afghanistan as a big deal to them). I think reconciliation is basic Christianity and I am not aspiring to it, I am it. I think we worked reconciliation into our DNA; we have it in our proverbs and mission teams. Let’s not talk about doing it as if it is still in question. Lets be it.

For another less tangible thing, I think we, as Circle of Hope, should admit that we met all our goals for development as an institution and now we should act like we are developed. We are four congregations, nearly 50 cells, four pastors, lead by  20-person leadership team, served by three staff people. We have two profitable thrift stores and a counseling center. We have compassion teams that many people consider radical. We need to get our minds around that and imagine what is next as that new entity. Let’s express ourselves as who we are now and stop dragging ourselves back into some nostalgic small thing. For anyone who just tuned in, we are just about what we were dreaming about becoming when we were a small thing. Let’s have the dreams of what a Circle of Hope that exists now would dream! This requires some maturity, of course. It is easier to just keep doing whatever was happening before. The people getting pushed out of North Philly into the lower Northeast and out of West Philly and South Philly into Southwest are just moving with the flow. They don’t create much flow. A lot of churches in town (like some churches on the street with BW) seem to be holding on as long as they can to what used to be great as the world changes around them. We were not created for that.

I am not up for not developing. Jesus is the source of a renewed imagination. Jesus continually renews our strength so we can face what is, now. I think he finds it exciting to work for redemption in the latest thing that has developed with the latest church he has developed. Let’s keep up.