Walking in the City on a Hill

Cincinnati is a city of hills. Local legend says it was built on seven hills, like Rome, though as I drove up and down, around and through the city, it seemed there were way more than seven. (the van does NOT like hills, either up or down)

My hosts for the weekend, four Brethren Volunteer Service volunteers, live together in intentional community in a charming older home in Walnut Hills (one of “the seven”) in the heart of the city they call “the ‘Nati.”

Katie Baker, Ben Bear, Laura Dell and Anne Wessell arrived here as strangers last October, from their homes in Pennsylvania, Nebraska and Virginia, to work on various BVS service projects around the city. In addition to their BVS projects, they’ve had to work at becoming a community, learning to live together. As our dinner-time conversation revealed, it’s had its challenges, but they seem to have found ways of supporting and affirming one another, respecting each person’s preferences about food, bathroom use, house-cleaning, work and sleep schedules, and all of the other daily decisions that enter into any living quarters occupied by more than one person.

They welcomed me on Friday evening with a delicious dinner, courtesy of Ben, the designated cook for the evening. Over dinner, they told me a little about their respective BVS projects.

Katie Baker, from Littlestown, Pennsylvania, is creating a mentoring program for women transitioning from prison to community through Talbert House . Talbert House is a community-wide network of social service agencies that collaborate to offer programs to help individuals to “overcome adversity to become healthy and productive citizens through its programs in community corrections, mental health, substance abuse and welfare-to-work.” Talbert House started with a halfway house in 1965 to integrate ex-offenders back into the community and has grown to offer over 30 evidence-based programs in more than 20 different locations in the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky area that assist nearly 24,000 men, women and children every year. Though this assignment definitely wasn’t what she thought she wanted back when she was in BVS orientation, Katie said she loves the work and loves the women she works with. She’s clearly pouring her heart into this work.

Laura Dell, who hails from Beatrice, Nebraska, works with children in the local neighborhood as well as at the Cincinnati Church of the Brethren. Her big project is creating a children’s community garden on an abandoned and derelict lot in a tough neighborhood. Laura’s passion for living and growing things, and her extensive knowledge about vegetables, flowers and gardening is evident in her organized approach to this major project. She’s taken urban gardening classes through the Civic Garden Center, applied for grant funding to support the garden project, met with city officials to secure agreements to use the abandoned lot she located for the garden, organized work days to clear trash, weeds, even old mattresses and appliances from the lot, and worked with children from the neighborhood to start a variety of vegetables and flowers from seed that they’ll soon be able to plant in the garden. In her “spare” time, Laura also works with Lighthouse Youth Services and Easter Seals’ Building Abilities programs.

Anne Wessell, from Hershey, Pennsylvania, handles communications and public relations for the Cincinnati Church of the Brethren and she also works with the children in the congregation and children from the local neighborhood. From Sunday school lessons to weekly conversations with kids over a free breakfast provided by church members to programs she’s created to offer affirmation and positive opportunities for the kids, Anne brings a big heart and a genuine desire to make a difference to her work. She also serves at Mercy Neighborhood Ministries and Interfaith Justice and Peace Center.

Ben Bear, from Nokesville, Virginia, works for Interfaith Hospitality Network , an ecumenical organization where volunteers from the faith community and full-time professionals help families experiencing homelessness to reintegrate back into the community. Host churches supply meals, sleeping space and friendship and support to families, while professional case managers work with families on finding permanent housing. They also run a “Day Center” where family members have access to phones, computers, laundry and shower facilities, a kitchen, children’s programs and adult ed classes. Ben brings his previous BVS experience, his sense of humor, and his resourcefulness (he’s an avid Craigs-list and garage sale scout) to both his BVS assignment and his role within the house. Just during the weekend while I was there, Ben procured garden tools for Laura’s garden project and a bicycle that all of them can share to get around the city.

The BVSers are wrestling with questions like:
• How do I help kids who come from homes where their mothers curse at them, kids who, as young as age ten, roam rough city streets with no supervision, kids whose family is about to be evicted and who have no idea where they’re going to live next?
• After investing so much of myself, my energy and my passion into creating a children’s community garden here in the city, how will I be able to leave it behind when my BVS year is over? What if there isn’t anyone to take care of it and keep it going after I leave?
• I care so much about these women I’m trying to help as they transition from prison back into the community – but sometimes it’s all too much – too overwhelming, too many problems. I want to help them as much as I can – but where do I draw the boundaries? How do I keep myself from burning out?
• Where is “home”? Just as I’m getting truly settled into a BVS assignment and location, feeling like it takes on some of the qualities of “home”, the assignment will be ending and it will be time to move. Do I re-up for this BVS project? Take another one? Or venture out into the non-college, non-BVS world? And if so, doing what?

If you want to be inspired by a thoughtful, compassionate, courageous and creative group of young adults, check out their blog, “Walnut Hill Happenings.”

On Saturday, I spoke at the Peace Churches of Greater Cincinnati quarterly Peace Brunch. Seven congregations have joined together to “promote joint Christian ministry and urban, multicultural, youth outreach through unity, peace and reconciliation..” Member congregations include: Cincinnati Church of the Brethren, Mennonite Fellowship, and Friends Meeting (Quaker), Community Friends Meeting, Eastern Hills Friends Meeting, First Unitarian Church and St John’s Unitarian Universalist Church.

Many of the folks who attended are also involved in the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center (IJPC) – a “coalition of faith-based organizations and individuals who work together to address concerns focusing on economic justice, women’s issues, human rights, racial equality, peace and the environment.” These are clearly folks who are doing more than just sitting around and talking about peace and justice. They’re out there DOING THINGS.

St John’s UU hosted the event. One of their members explained that our discussion of restorative justice was especially poignant and difficult for their group, as 13 year-old Esme Kinney from their congregation was murdered last spring and that tragedy has tested people’s notions about justice. We talked about the difficulties of reconciling one’s “hypothetical” views on crime and punishment, restorative justice, and the death penalty with personal tragedy and how opinions can change drastically when it all hits so close to home.

Pastor Ben Walters at the Cincinnati Church of the Brethren shared some further thoughts on this tragedy after the worship service there on Sunday morning where I offered a sermon on restorative justice and forgiveness.

The neighborhood where the Cincinnati COB intentionally chose to relocate a few years ago is no stranger to crime and tragedy. Drug deals, prostitution, and violence are ever-present, on every street corner and in the buildings that surround the tiny church perched on a narrow corner lot.

So, why would a group of largely middle-class suburbanites relocate from their safe and comfortable quarters outside of the city to the heart of Cincinnati?

Ben’s face lit up when I asked this question over dinner at their house on Saturday evening. “Urban ministry has always been one of my passions. But a few years ago, as I was reading about the disinvestment going on in Cincinnati, I thought this was a way we could engage with the issues in the city instead of looking at them from the outside.”

Their church website explains it this way:

In 2008, our congregation moved from a comfortable suburban location north of the I-275 Beltway to seek the peace of the city. In our vibrant, diverse new neighborhood of Walnut Hills we have many more questions than answers about violence, racism, income and education disparities. Yet we want to be in the dance, rather than casually observing from the periphery. Where others before us have fled and abandoned the city and its people, we seek to engage it. We come to serve and to learn and to honor all of our diverse brothers and sisters.

Our vision of ministry in an urban setting is not simply another service ministry to the impoverished. While there is a need for this work, it is only one small aspect of a thriving urban ministry. For us, ministry is about connections—connections with others and connections with God. How do we connect with the highly educated professionals that have given up on the church and organized religion? How do we connect with the young mother and her four children who have just been evicted? How do we connect with over-stressed, over-scheduled families who value their faith but can’t squeeze in another obligation? Our ministry cries out for deep theological discussions and exploration, powerful worship experiences, a sense of community, and an ethic of care and compassion. It cries out for ministry that is vibrant and dynamic, that gives life to those inside and outside its walls. It cries out for the church to truly be a city on a hill.

After spending the better part of Sunday morning and early afternoon with the people who have chosen this way of living out their faith, I came away with profound respect for their commitment, humility, open searching for God’s leading and the many ways they’ve already found to serve and be a part of this community. And I felt blessed to have spent the weekend walking among people such as these in this “city on a hill.”

POSTSCRIPT: The speaking engagements in Cincinnati this weekend were the last official “gigs” of this cross-country trek. I’m off to Kentucky now, to visit my mother and stepfather, then will head back home. Stay tuned for further thoughts, reflections, ponderings and wonderings as I try to process all that’s happened over the past 10 weeks. Though this is the end of the official “Grace Tour”, it definitely is NOT the end of this journey, nor the end of this blog. Thanks, as always, for reading and for sharing your thoughts and perspectives on all that I’ve posted while I’ve been on the road. Can’t wait to get back home!

Shalom and Agape,

Posted by Melanie Tagged as: grace goes to prison restorative justice criminal justice book tour death penalty

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