Thursday, November 5, 2015

LOVE MY CITY: Neighborhood-Driven Churches

Jeremiah 29:7
"Work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you. Pray to the LORD for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare."

It's easy for churches to get caught up in thinking about what the surrounding community can do for them.  What if a certain amount of people in the region joined up?  (Think how big the church would be!) And what if those people all gave generously from their resources? (Think how great the programs could be!)  And so churches often move from their deteriorating neighborhoods into more prominent locations, filled with booming populations of well-resourced families.

But that type of thinking seems flawed from the start.  Do people exist to build churches?  Or do churches exist for the good of God's people?

The longer I've been in South Bend, the more I have come to recognize and appreciate the many churches that really do love and serve the neighborhoods where they are planted.  These churches show the love of God to our city, and through God's love we see our city becoming great.

Many of these churches have found resources and encouragement from the Christian Community Development Association, which brings together churches and organizations who are working together for the peace and prosperity of their cities.

Here are just a few of the churches that I have seen loving their neighborhoods in profound ways:
  • Living Stones Church:
    • Home of the I ❤ South Side bumper stickers you may see around town.  LSC has done a phenomenal job of embracing the South Side, particularly the Miami Hills area near the church off Donmoyer.
  • Kingdom Christian Center:
    • Located on Elwood between the Near Northwest and Far Northwest neighborhoods, KCC has shown God's love to their community by being vocal opponents to violence in the community, barbershop & daycare ministry, and more.
  • Riverside Church:
    • RC has embraced their neighborhood south of the airport by launching the Beacon, a community center for the West Side.  RC also recently merged with City Chapel, a congregation that had loved the DTSB area faithfully for more than a decade.
  • St. Augustine Catholic Parish:
    • Just west of downtown on Washington, St. Augustine has been an ongoing presence in standing for justice and seeing basic needs met in the surrounding neighborhood.
  • Southgate Church:
    • Formerly Calvary Temple, Southgate has been serving the Southernmost edge of the city through community programs, athletics, and more.  They are now part of the greater Hope City Church, with a campus also on the West Side.
  • New City Presbyterian Church:
    • A new church plant, NCPC has a heart to serve the community downtown and just to the north.
  • That Church Downtown:
    • Located in Monroe Park Neighborhood, TCD has been a force for neighborhood focused presence, prayer, and care for a couple years now.
  • Tree of Life Anglican:
    • Tree of Life is as neighborhood as they come.  ToL meets in a home just south of Edison Intermediate School and loves their neighborhood well.
  • River Park Grace:
    • RPG is planted in the River Park Neighborhood and loves its community in many ways, most notably through The Well coffee shop.  RPG & The Well bring the opportunity for community connection to their neighbors.
  • Keller Park Church:
    • I'm a little partial here, but I am blessed by the KPC.  It started decades ago as a community center in the KP neighborhood and continues to embrace the people of the KP neighborhood by living, serving and worshiping as neighbors.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

LOVE MY CITY: The South Bend Community Schools

It is no secret the South Bend Community Schools have their fair share of problems.  Heck, it's practically actually broadcast on billboards.  So yeah, they have some issues.

But the reality is, our city has some issues too.  And the issues in the South Bend Community Schools are merely a reflection of the broader community.  To expect it to be any different, is to ask the Schools to be detached from the communities they serve.  And that is something they cannot nor should not be.

But that is what I love about the schools -- they represent and serve our communities.

In a world of charter schools and vouchers, some schools can shape their desired environment.  Just recently, when nearby Penn-Harris-Madison schools discussed opening their doors further to serve South Bend students, the conversation centered around whether the added income would be worth the "types" of kids it would bring.  One board member stated, “I just would want to be comfortable that … we don’t change the character of our schools."

And so these schools pick and choose.  Inviting in students and the funds that come with them, while finding ways to exclude others who may not fit the "standard" they are looking for.

But the South Bend Community Schools do not have that freedom.  In years of plenty or want, they have the mandate to serve the families of South Bend.  All of them.  With all of the baggage and the beauty that comes along.

And I see this in so many that staff the schools--teachers, administrators, and support staff who are committed to pushing through difficult situations, with relatively little pay, and even less thanks.  In conversations, you can hear their passion for justice & opportunity for all of the students, especially those who may lack support.  These public servants could make more money elsewhere, or find easier positions with less time in classroom management, but they believe every kid deserves a chance at an education.

And this kind of thinking goes beyond the staff.  I have met many parents who could afford to enroll their children in safer private schools or to transport them to higher-rated school districts, but instead decide to invest in the plight of the local schools with their time, energy, and children.  Those families are many of the most caring, genuine, and sacrificial people I have ever met.

Finally, there is something about seeing my own kids learn as a part of their community, not separated from it.  The South Bend Community Schools are the South Bend Community.  And my children are neighbors in that community, by virtue of their participation beyond just their location.  I love my children having friends of many cultures, races, languages and backgrounds.  I love that my daughter came home from first grade furious to learn about what happened to Dr. King, and in kindergarten chose to dress up like Rosa Parks when challenged to dress like her hero.  I love that both daughters have close friends from families where English is a second language.

Those are experiences I did not have.  And they are beautiful parts of the South Bend Community.

South Bend has its warts, and the South Bend Schools (as members of the greater community) have theirs.  But there is also something beautiful about our city, about our people, and about the stories that make up who we are.  And the South Bend Schools reflect that beauty as well.

People often talk about the risks of public schools.  They exist.  But I'm just as concerned with the risks of missing out on what our community has to offer.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

LOVE MY CITY: The St. Joseph River

(photo by Sam Lima)

Any river is really the summation of the whole valley. To think of it as nothing but water is to ignore the greater part. — Hal Borland 

I am sure there are some great stories of what the St Joseph River has historically meant to South Bend. In fact, I am pretty sure the city is only here because of the River. But my love for the city has to do with what the St. Joseph River is today -- what it means to our city, to me, and to my children. The River has become central to the story of what South Bend means to us.

Here are some of my favorite things: 

Wildlife in the Urban Context
I live in the middle of a neighborhood that has its challenges. We are an urban community, in the heart of our city, with occasional gun and drug problems. And yet, just this summer, my daughters were overcome with the giggles to see our fence trampled by two deer that found themselves trapped in our backyard as they wandered the several blocks down from the River. It's a really strange feeling to feel so intimately connected to city life, and yet see the beauty of God's natural creation. Several times a year, my children get to see groups of deer or foxes travel up and down the streets of my neighborhood seeking wooded areas close to the River, and it is magnificent!

Swimming & Kayaking
Call me old fashioned, but there is something really special about living in the city, but being able to walk down the street and take a swim in the River.  My kids and my chocolate lab love our swim sessions in the summer.  The River is special in ways that swimming pools and splash pads can never be.  And being able to paddle to church with our friend Sam Lima (like freaking pioneers!) will be a memory my kids will take into adulthood.

(paddling to Church with our friends Bryant & Sam - photo by Sam)

Again, in a world and a Church that have lost authenticity, I love the Keller Park Church ability to be able to walk down to the River after service and Baptize in the natural waters!  This year marked our second group service at the river landing just down the street.

(KPC Baptism 2015 - photo by Sam Lima)

The Riverside Trail
About 7 years ago, the City cleared the banks of the St. Joseph and built a walking and biking trail along Riverside Drive near where I live.  It is probably the single greatest thing the City has done to improve my love for this City.  It provides beauty, community interaction, and an outlet for family activities and exercise.

(Riverside Trail across from Keller Park)

The East Race
South Bend's East Race is the first thing that caught my attention about the City.  When I arrived as a Bethel College freshman, I was captivated by the rushing waters of the kayak course and river dam.  I've spent many nights with friends walking around, biking, or just sitting by the rushing water.  I'm convinced its beauty even made my wife fall in love with me (I needed some serious help)!

(St. Joseph River dam, next to the East Race - source unknown)

South Bend River Lights
Just this year (2015), South Bend commissioned the River Lights project.  It's a gorgeous, interactive light display.  As much as the original falls captivated Robin and I, the lights have captivated the hearts of our daughters.

(River Lights - source unknown)

So, yeah, I love this River.  It is a part of the story of our City, the story of my marriage, and will shape the story of Kali & Sophie's childhood.

Who would have thought we could have BOTH the best of God's natural beauty AND the amazing community life of our City?!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

LOVE MY CITY: The Sunrise Cafe

NOTE:  I really love my city (South Bend).  I understand it doesn't always have the best reputation, and it certainly has its issues, but it's pretty amazing as well.  This "Love my city" series will focus on some of my favorite parts of my city.

1805 Lincolnway West

A neighborhood thrives when there are places for the people to come together.

I always wanted to find a "place".  When envisioning what that "place" would be, there were two clear parts of the vision.  First, I would be a "regular" (you know, one of those people that sit down and the staff already know your "usual" without even having to ask).  Second, there would be lots of neighbors there.  I guess the vision was pretty much a diverse "Cheers", except in diner form.

The Sunrise Cafe is that place for me.

South Bend is a complex place, with a lot of great things going on, but also a lot that divides us.  Communities are often split by race, class, and language.  Restaurants often appeal to one segment or another, but the Sunrise Cafe is the only place I have visited that seems to truly belong to the people -- all of the people.

Walk in the door of the small cafe on any day and you will see a beautiful diversity of race, language, and background.  Mechanics, professors, police officers, businesswomen, the retired, the unemployed, and even pastors from across the spectrum fill the small room with conversation.  One of my favorite parts is the chatting and bantering that can take place at times from table to table.  It reminds me of cafeteria eating from my school days.  Constantly I'm finding myself connect with someone (other than just who I came with) in a meaningful way.

I have no clue what makes the Sunrise what it is. I would love to know how it became (intentionally or unintentionally) a place where everyone can feel comfortable.  I would love to hear why others have found it to be not just a great place to grab breakfast, but a safe and familiar place to experience community life.  The management I have met have always been very friendly and open.  I would imagine that is a big part of it.

All I know is that coming from a childhood in the "suburbs", the Sunrise Cafe is one of those places that presents the beauty of what is gained from city life.  And the Northwest side is better as a result.

If you, too, love the Sunrise Cafe or have an idea why it's so special, share it with me!

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

LOVE MY CITY: The Portage Sunoco

NOTE:  I really love my city (South Bend).  I understand it doesn't always have the best reputation, and it certainly has its issues, but it's pretty amazing as well.  This "Love my city" series will focus on some of my favorite parts of my city.

1335 Portage Ave., South Bend 46616

I first moved to the neighborhood (Keller Park on the northwest side), straight out of college.  It was a time where I was getting out on my own for the first time and realized I needed to start finding service providers locally, instead of driving home to Fort Wayne like when I was a student.

When my car first had trouble, I was referred by a fellow church member to "go see Ray" in the service station in the Martin's parking lot around the corner.  As a kid who still felt foreign to the city, I was uncomfortable with that proposition, so I decided to tackle the situation passively.  I was going to look them up online and make a proper appointment.

The only problem was, I found no promotional reference to them anywhere.  Eventually, I found a listing of "Snyder Bros. Garage" on some random third party website, and called the phone number.  It rang for minutes with no answer.  I was going to have to just "go see Ray".

The next day, I took my car in.  I headed for the big dilapidated Sunoco sign and walked inside the nearest building.  I was greeted by no one, and after tracking someone down, I was told to "write my car, problem, and phone number" on a sticky note on the cluttered desk and leave my key on top of it.  That was it.  No detailed appointment, no write-up.  I was feeling a bit apprehensive.  Was this place legit?

It was.  Days later, I had my car returned, fixed appropriately, and for cheaper than I could have imagined.  In the years since that point, I have come to love the quirky old-school style of the Portage Sunoco.  In a world of fast pace, money first, image-driven society, the Portage Sunoco feels like travelling back in time to a place where community relationships and authentic reliability trump big business polish.

The Sunoco was founded years ago by community stalwart Ray Snyder (who runs the local Little League among many other civic roles).  Often when handing the business over to the next generation, financial pragmatism rules the day and community takes a back seat.  Here that didn't happen.  The shop known only as "Sunoco" on Google Maps, without a website of its own, serves the NW South Bend community well.

Here are some of the unique stories I've heard or experienced:
  • An elderly friend was once allowed to drive the owner's car to get around while his car was being repaired.
  • They once finished my car while I was out of town, and (knowing I was unavailable) parked my car in front of their own house so it wouldn't sit unattended in the lot all weekend. 
  • I've seen them stop and help put a windshield wiper on an elderly woman's car who just pulled up.
  • They sell cheap used tires that keep our neighborhood on the road and able to get to work.  I imagine they have kept many people from losing jobs as a result of their auto work in our community.
  • I have had to ask (on several different occasions) to pay them more for services than what they were charging me, so I wouldn't feel I was taking advantage of them.
  • Many times they have told me, "This is what's wrong, but if it were my car, I wouldn't worry about it unless it gets worse."  They have never tried to up-sell me on anything.
  • They are really decent guys who serve our local schools and neighborhoods well.
I love the Portage Sunoco.  Yes, you won't be greeted by a polished receptionist and you may not even get the phone answered when you call.  And yes, it may not always be as quick of a turnaround on repair time as other places.  And yes, you may have to leave your key on a sticky note.  But they get all the important things right: people, honesty, compassion.  And our community wouldn't be the same without them.

If you have a great Portage Sunoco story, share it in the comments!