Monthly Archives: October 2010

The Soul of the City

Walking Pace and the Soul of the CityDid you know that you can use the walking pace of an average city dweller [number of footsteps per unit of time] to determine how many libraries that specific city has?

How about the amount of crime?

The average wage?

The number of colleges?

The population?


Well, at least with a reasonable degree of error.  How reasonable?  Quite!

Jad Abumrad RadiolabIn a recent podcast from New York public radio’s Radiolab, co-hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich aim the powers of science towards that perennial question: what gives cities their unique feel?  Many of us have had the experience of being in a city and sensing a distinct identity or personality from the city itself.  Is the personality of a city something which we imagine or, to use a science term, are there specific elements in an urban environment which create a unique city DNA?

Surprisingly, even though science is not incredibly well equipped to examine things like culture, history, ethnology, social mores and customs, there are data-based judgments that scientists can make about a city from something simple and quantitative like walking speed, that speaks novels about the city in question.

Needless to say, footsteps per unit of time and other telling data all ride shotgun to one, most important, type of data and… it’s so simple it’s almost criminal: population.  No, not population density or population demographics but… just population.   These “specificities, [like] the local history, are in large part insignificant… they are completely overwhelmed by these generic laws of urban scaling”.

I am tempted to say more but, really, this should be listened to.

So, strap yourself in and enjoy an hour of science and the city that can only be explained as fun and full of holy wonder.

Listen to the Cities episode here at

Points of Light towards the Beloved Community

Dr Martin Luther King JrA couple weekends ago I was down in Atlanta visiting my brother and we had an amazing Sunday down at the King Center and Ebenezer Baptist.  As someone who has idolized Dr. King since high school and who has found his writings and sermons to be constant companions along my journey of understanding racism, equality, and social justice based in a vision of the Beloved Community it was truly a pilgrimage for me.  Standing outside of the house where Martin was born on Auburn Avenue and to see it preserved brought all of the books I have read about King growing up and developing come to life in a way which connected me with, not only the history of the civil rights movement but also, the possibilities of his dream for our day and age.

Ebenezer Baptist ChurchI was also very pleased to see that the exhibit didn’t just stop with Dr. King’s work in the civil rights movement but also touched upon his work as it developed to address the related evils of poverty and militarism.  I was honestly biting my tongue anticipating that the Poor People’s Campaign and King’s  speech and marches against the Vietnam war would be excluded.

Walking through those pictures just down from the street where he grew up and the church where he pastored when he was killed made this man and the movement he has come to exemplify come to life in a way which begs the question: why not now?  What is holding the people of this country from rising up again as a un-ignorable voice and force for peace and justice?  What would it take for we the people, in the midst of this increasingly global awareness, to believe that the world which God intends is indeed a possibility and that we have an enormous power as united people to bring this new world into being?

Michael Pfleger at International Civil Rights Hall of FameOn the way back to the car I made a more intentional stop at the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame as was cheered as I saw the foot prints of Michael Pfleger.  In addition to working with Father Pfleger in his role as co-chair of the 2011 Congress on Urban Ministry I also had the privilege of doing an internship at the Faith Community of St. Sabina.   This amazing church and its faith-filled congregants have taught me more about living out faith than three whole years of seminary.  Quite a portion of my hope for the continuation of Dr. King’s dream comes from having experienced this community and having been deeply moved by their spirit and faith.

Good work is being done  in the churches, synagogues, mosques, and community development organizations across this county.  We must learn to lift up these points of light in spite of the seeming prevailing of darkness and to encourage our communities to be inspired by the Spirit which is surely at work even now.

Here’s a recent, ten minute interview with Rev. Dr. Michael L. Pfleger on the Tavis Smiley show.

Jim Wallis on Building Faith-based Social Movements

Jim Wallis speaks at 2006 CongressI’ve been going through some of the old recordings from the past plenary speakers at Congress on Urban Ministry.  As we approach these mid-term elections in a frenzy of political polarization, attack ads, and electioneering I was struck by the relevance of this plenary Jim Wallis did back in 2006.

Jim WallisJim Wallis is an author and the founder/editor of Sojourners.  He has been a crucial voice for American Christianity that crosses the normal, hard and fast, boundaries of left and right, liberal and conservative.

Listen here or below as Jim Wallis  speaks at the 2006 Congress about moving from partisan politics (and partisan religion) towards creating and nurturing a movement for social justice based on faith and hope.

One of the highlights for me is near the middle where, for a couple minutes, he hits upon this idea that the Beloved Community must be built up by moving from ministry to models to movement.  Wallis gives credit to ministries (saying at one point that if everyone in this room stopped their ministry there would be many cities that would literally stumble) but also pushes the Congress to move past ministry and even models that help extend ministry toward movements that bring ministry to bear upon systems and structures of injustice.

Jim Wallis at 2006 CongressI wish Jim would have pressed a bit harder on this as I think many socially mindful/active Christians (Jim Wallis included) are still searching for the way to build a movement.  The civil rights movement is an extraordinary exemplar but, times have changed and I would contend that the powers that benefit from the status quo have successfully developed methods to diffuse social movements created with familiar paradigms.  We must create a new paradigm of movement and then allow it to adapt.  I would contend that the best way to do this is by listening and being responsive to the Spirit.

If you are reading this from a Chicagoland location you might be interested to know that Jim Wallis will be participating in an informal debate out at Wheaton College on this coming Thursday.  He will engage Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, in an informal debate: “Does Capitalism Have a Soul?”.  Here are the details:

Thursday, October 28th – 2010
7pm at Edman Chapel
Debate to be moderated by Washington Post Columnist Michael Gerson.

More info here.

The Role of Art in Social Transformation

Bill MalloneeThis week I’ve been looking at the connection between art and faith.  There is good precedence for these two uniquely human forces being a critical concoction behind social transformation.  I received a flyer for the Kairos Conference earlier this week and was pleased to see that Sweet Honey in the Rock will be involved.  Kairos is a gathering “discerning justice & taking action on America’s death penalty” to be held in Atlanta this November, 2010.  Sweet Honey will be doing a public benefit concert at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Tuesday of the conference.  How perfect that this group, so deeply rooted in the civil rights movement and the sacred music of the Black church, will be performing at the church of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as we address the injustice of the death penalty.

Sweet Honey in the RockI wish we could say that we are as far along in our planning as Kairos but we do have quite a bit more time still left to prepare.  What I can say is that we do have some amazing things simmering over the wood fires!  Please tune in here every now and then as we share information about the artists who will be involved in the 2011 Congress on Urban Ministry.

On Wednesday, as we shared the news about Bill Mallonee, I was struck by the way this artist has increasingly focuses his art to causes of social justice.  Most recently, in the mini-albums he’s been releasing about three times per year.

This past summer Bill Mallonee released his newest Works (in) Progress Administration Ep: Dust Coal Soul.  In the wake of the recent mining disasters, both stateside and elsewhere, this song cycle lifts up the issues of one of the world’s most dangerous professions.  And yet, far from being sterile and abstract, the heartcrafted lyrics do much more to personalize and create an intimate connection characters of these songs.  Bill writes:

Bill Mallonee - Coal Dust Soul Ep“The songs for Coal Dust Soul were written after the Massey Mine explosion, in Montcoal, West Virgina on April 6th, 2010.  There were no survivors.  The death toll was 29 in the country’s worst mine disaster in four decades.  Another mining disaster in China, less than one month later (the facts regarding the number of deaths from this explosion and subsequent flooding were almost impossible to verify), continued to call attention to the perilous conditions miners labor under.

These songs, almost all of them written in the “first person,” took shape over a couple of weeks.  I was deeply moved as I watched the coverage of the disaster, the rescue attempts, the frail expectations of those who awaited better news, and the eventual failings of the team’s efforts to rescue the 4 trapped miners.

But mostly, I was humbled to the point of hushed silence by the faith and courage of the families who had lost loved ones.  The risks their loved ones daily undertook were great; the losses their surving families now bear seem almost incomprehensible.  I sat numb and helpless before the screen every night as I tried to comprehend it.

They now began a different journey: a journey of grief.   It is a journey I know little about in my own life.  But I know enough to say that it will be a journey on a road of confusion; a journey in search of answers; a journey in search of justice that may one day create better working conditions than those miners currently face down every day…

And finally, they are on a journey that will produce all that is noble and imperishable in the human spirit when it must grieve.  I am convinced that those who must grieve give us a “gift.”  It is a “gift” (however fragile) whispered in their prayers, written in their testimony, traced in their tears and offered in their eyes.

That’s what these songs are about… Maybe that’s what the best songs have always been about.  It is my hope that these songs maybe of some comfort to any and all sharing in a similar journey.”

Bill MalloneeIn case you still need some reasons to give Bill a listen – here are a couple:

1.  Bill Mallonee is quite possibly “…the best folk-rock act nobody’s ever heard of…”  – New York Press

2.  Bill came in #65 in Paste Magazine’s “100 Greatest Living Songwriter’s” Poll

3.  Bill has recorded over 23 cds.

4.  Bill’s deep love for early Dylan, Neil Young, Alan Lomax’s legendary field recordings, Flannery O’Connor, John Steinbeck, hymnody and other writers of the “American experience” left an indelible mark on his work and vocal delivery.

5.  Blue-eyed soul rocker Edwin McCain (of “I’ll Be” fame) covered two of Bill’s songs “Babylon” and “Welcome to Struggleville”

6.  Bill has played with these artists:

  • Edwin McCain
  • Sean Mullins
  • Sufjan Stevens
  • John Mayer
  • Dwight Yokum
  • Emmylou Harris
  • REM
  • Buddy & Julie Miller
  • North Mississippi Allstars
  • Allejandro Escavado
  • Pierce Pettis
  • Pedro the Lion
  • Denison Witmer
  • Glen Phillips (Toad the Wet Sprocket)
  • Peter Case
  • Peter Mulvey
  • Bruce Cockburn
  • Gin Blossoms
  • Derek Webb

Check out this touching Bill Mallonee ode to Autumn posted over at the Heroes of Indie Music blog.

Bill Mallonee at the 2011 Congress

Ernst Fischer quote

Art is irrevocably intertwined with social change.  Art is both the tell tale on the mast of culture signaling a change in the direction of the wind and, in many ways, art is the wind itself.  Listening again this morning to the stories of Freedom Singer Bernice Johnson Reagon (NPR) it became unmistakably clear that even the most stalwart of injustices don’t stand a chance when art is wound up with faith.

St. Sabina praise dancers

This is a conviction that the past 15 Congress gathering have attempted to embody.  Music, dance, drama, visual art, and poetry have been the crossroad companions to our journey of faith and justice.  They have consoled us and given voice to our lament just has they have given wing to our joy and worship.  Art has been the marrow in the fortitude of our faith and has challenged us to express this faith in new and bold ways.  In short, art is essential.

Bill MalloneeWe are pleased that for the 2011 Congress we will have one of the songwriters of our age… Bill Mallonee.  In fact, his critical credentials are only outdone by the well-kept-secret nature of his 3 decade spanning career.  Bill has been alternatively heralded as one of “the 100 Greatest Living Songwriters”[1] (two spots in front of Conor Oberst and three spots behind Sting) and “the best folk-rock act nobody’s heard of”[2].  Bill Mallonee will be bringing his heartbreaking, life-affirming, faith-filled cast of songs  to the 2011 Congress where he will appear in concert as well as lead a workshop on the relationship between art and religion.

“Bill Mallonee… [has] remained fascinated with the shadowy emotional toils and struggles inherent in the American experience, compelling, insightful, [he] continues to probe through Americana rock and roll proving that sometimes the only story worth telling is that of the journey.”
Rolling Stone

We’ll be sharing a bit more about Bill in the coming days but, for now, visit Bill on Myspace if you’d like a taste of his music and lyrical prowess.

[1] Paste Magazine

[2] New York Press

MA in Social Justice and Community Development

Community Leader at Lake And PulaskiSCUPE’s newest degree program is designed for those aspiring to affect faith-based, social transformation in communities as well as to those committed to restoring economic equity, social justice, and ecological health, especially with regard to underserved, marginalized, or exploited populations.

The degree is the MASJCD, which stands for the Masters of Arts in Social Justice and Community Development.  This cross-denominational program engages students through a faith- and values-based perspective and provides:

  • an interdisciplinary foundation in justice theories and religious social teachings
  • a comprehensive, integrated curriculum, useful for various career paths in community development and social justice
  • practical tools in community organizing, social analysis and change, communication and non-violence, advocacy in public policy, working with volunteers, grant writing, and fundraising

The best way to learn about the possibilities of this degree in your life is to attend the upcoming open house hosted by our partner institution the Institute of Pastoral Studies at Loyola University Chicago.  Here are details on this opportunity:

Loyola SCUPE IPS Open House

You can read more about the connections between social justice and community development in a recent blog posting here by MASJCD program co-director Susan Rans.

Also, stayed tuned for an upcoming SCUPE podcast with the other co-director for the program: Mary Nelson of Bethel New Life.

Educating for Hope

What is an effective urban ministry leader?  To answer that question we must begin with a working definition of leadership.  The one outstanding characteristic that is found in all materials about leadership is that leadership is always about change.  At SCUPE we define effective urban ministry leadership as “when one assumes responsibility for transforming a reality to the glory of God”, emphasizing that leadership is always about change.

Such leadership requires three things:

  • a solid grasp of the existing reality with all of its political, social and cultural complexities and investments,
  • a vision of an alternative reality and three
  • a strategy of how to move from the existing reality to the alternative reality.

When all three things are present there is hope and hope is what education is all about.

Dave Frenchak

The first step in the process is often the hardest.  It means putting to one side all of our stereotypes, prejudices, opinions, attitudes and all those things we have learned from culture and school that reinforce negativity regarding those we do not know.  This is necessary because an important ingredient in contextual theological education is empathy and negative perceptions based on limited experience block empathy.  Here is the hard reality for those of us who planned and worked hard to be comfortable in life.  If we are serious about being effective leaders in ministry in the city we will need to leave are places of comfort, wherever that is, and willingly move to situations, circumstance and places where we will be not be recognized or acknowledged for who we are.  We will have to have sufficient faith to allow ourselves to be steeped in a culture where we are the minority. The incarnation is the model.

I repeatedly tell seminary students that they are first and foremost practicing theologians and their task is to do theology both from the pulpit and in the streets.  Theology cannot be done without the second aspect of transformative leadership, vision.

John Kinney

Foundational and essential to the challenge of doing theology in the city is the exercise of prophetic imagination. Imagination is a gift from God given to every human being.  It is one of the delightful things that separate us from the rest of creation.  We humans have the capacity to see a reality beyond the reality that is immediately before us. Unfortunately, however, for many, if not most, of us our imaginations have been sorely neglected and dulled.

Prophetic imagination is sanctified imagination, imagination that is set aside to see first and foremost, what a place would look like if it glorified God.  When one is captured by prophetic imagination you can be sure change is coming. When one is captured by a vision about what a place would look like if it glorified God the gates of hell will not be able to prevail against such a vision.

Jose D. Rodriguez

The third and critical practice of doing theology is developing a strategy and plan to move from the existing reality to the prophetic vision.  This is the ultimate task of the contextual theologian the unveiling of hope.  It is hope, not grounded in fantasy, but grounded in our understanding of God and God’s will for the city.  As theologians it requires us we to see a reality beyond the reality that is immediately visible, God’s reality.

Hope is our grounding place for urban ministry.  As theologians, it is hope that informs the way we look at communities.  At SCUPE, therefore, we do not focus on ministry based on meeting community needs but rather ministry based on the spiritual, material and personal resources existing in that community.  Only then are we fulfilling our calling to educate for hope.

– Dave Frenchak

SCUPE weekend