Incarnation and Beyond: Thoughts on How to Change the World

This post was published originally on the Alabama Rural Ministry blog.

On Tuesday August 30, Joe and Betsy attended a lecture at Auburn University given by Bryan Stevenson, the founder and director of The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) and the author of the recent award-winning memoir Just MercyAuburn selected this book as their 2016-2017 Common BookThese thoughts were written by Joe and were inspired by Mr. Stevenson’s lecture and by Joe’s reading of Just Mercy. The blog is being posted today in honor of the Alabama Arise annual meeting today, which Joe is attending as ARM’s representative.

img_20160830_215008I only needed about 2 days to read Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy after it was given to me as a Christmas present in 2015. I was simultaneously enthralled and heartbroken by his stories of being on the front lines of Alabama’s criminal justice system as a lawyer representing death row inmates – some of whom were mentally ill and some who were innocent – and wounded children sentenced for life as adults with no consideration for the trauma they had endured. Interwoven in these stories were the same intersecting, death-dealing threads that infect so much of our American story: white supremacy and poverty. Stevenson’s stories reveal the sick inner-workings of a criminal in-justice system in which innocence and guilt are determined more by your skin color and annual income than the “facts” of your case.

At the same time, Stevenson writes of hope and redemption. He calls us as a nation to new depths of compassion, vulnerability, and courage. He believes – as do I – that we’re all broken people whose personal healing is bound up in our shared healing; that I am not whole until we’re all whole. The organization he founded and now directs in the capitol city of our great state, The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), draws on this hope as it works to end these unrighteous realities of unequal justice across our nation.

Stevenson was invited to speak at Auburn University because his book, Just Mercy, was chosen as the selection of the year for Auburn’s Common Book program. Every freshman received a copy of the book. His lecture late in August is one of many events scheduled on campus throughout the year which will provide opportunities to explore the issues of justice and compassion his book reveals. As an Auburn alum, I found Just Mercy to be a fantastic book to challenge Auburn students to think critically about what it means when they say they believe “in obedience to the law because it protects the rights of all” (The Auburn Creed). Unfortunately, this belief is not yet a reality – not in Alabama, not in America.

This needs to change, and it can. Stevenson shaped the thoughts he shared to a packed ballroom at Auburn’s Student Center (along with a packed overflow room) around four principles to change the world. All four principles connect well with the ministry we’ve been called to in rural Alabama. While all four are worthy of their own blog post, I wanted to focus one the first one he shared since it resonates so deeply with our work and my own personal calling.

“To change the world, we need to get proximate with the poor.” -Bryan Stevenson

Stevenson heard his calling to the work of EJI during a law school internship with an organization in Georgia representing indigent death row inmates. He recounts the story of his first prison visit to tell a condemned man that he would not be executed for at least another year. The man’s response – a chorus of thank you’s followed by hours of conversation and singing songs of Godly endurance and praise as the guards roughly pulled the man back to his cell – struck Stevenson to the core. Before this meeting, Stevenson didn’t really know why he wanted to be a lawyer. Getting “proximate” – that is “within proximity” – with the poor, the suffering, the marginalized, changed the way he saw the world and his own work within it.

Stevenson appeals to a broad, secular audience and doesn’t speak in explicitly religious terms but the principles he upholds – this one in particular – could not be more Christ-like. When he talks about getting proximate with the poor, I think immediately of a poor Jewish baby born in a manger because there was no room in the inn. This baby, as we know, is and was God incarnate – in the flesh. According to John’s gospel, this was God’s chosen way of showing His unfathomable love for the world and His insatiable desire to save it and make all things new (John 1:14; 3:16). The Apostle Paul says as much in Philippians 2:5-11 as he describes “the mind of Christ” who emptied himself to become like us and kept emptying himself until there was nothing left to give.

When Stevenson talks about getting close to suffering in order to share in it, change it, heal it, he is pointing to the dynamic, ongoing, powerful truth of the incarnation that is rooted in the very being of God.

As Stevenson was sharing about getting close to marginalized people and not loving them from a distance, he said something that hit close to home (literally)…

“There is power and insight in Alabama’s poor Black Belt communities.” -Bryan Stevenson

I’m a product of one of those communities – York, in Sumter County – and I know that Stevenson is right based on my own childhood, my service with ARM as a summer construction coordinator in 2005, and my service now since 2014. I felt this power when my own life was changed as I got “proximate with the poor” for the first time as a summer intern with ARM. While I had grown up in Sumter County, I was blind to the stark realities of race and poverty which are now so evident to me. My summer with ARM introduced me to people in my hometown whose stories gave me new eyes to see the world and my place in it very differently. I heard my call to Christian ministry that summer with ARM.

When I consider ARM’s impact, I think of the relationships I made that summer and the hundreds of volunteers and other summer interns who have been blessed by similar relationships over the years through ARM’s work. There is power and insight in Alabama’s poor Black Belt communities not because ARM is special but because God is at work there in powerful ways; after all, God chooses “what the world considers foolish to shame the wise… what the world considers weak to shame the strong… what the world considers low-class and low-life—what is considered to be nothing—to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing” so that the foolish message of the cross and resurrection might be revealed as the power of God for the salvation of the world (1 Cor. 1:18, 27-28).

It is an honor to call the Black Belt home. It’s even more of an honor to be serving with ARM in these kinds of communities where we can introduce our mission teams to new friends whose stories can help them hear God’s call to be a part of God’s saving mission for our world.

Getting proximate with the poor. Living incarnationally. Loving up-close and personal. This is what ARM is all about. And yet, it’s only the beginning if you want to be a part of God’s mission to change the world make all things new.

God got up close and personal with us in Jesus, but God’s power at work to save our world didn’t stop after Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. At Pentecost, in Acts 2, we see God pouring out the Holy Spirit in order to bring Jesus’ work to its fulfillment. God’s saving work begins with the incarnation, but it extends through the ongoing presence and work of the Holy Spirit today and into the future. God’s Spirit calls us into fellowship and makes us one in Christ across all our worldly lines of social and economic division. This Spirit inspired fellowship (aka “the church”) is not reserved for a special few – it is God’s desire for the whole world, for every community in every time and place. This requires folks like Paul who were willing to be sent out beyond their own communities into new places so that God’s good news could be proclaimed to all people. Paul certainly worked incarnationally as he invested heavily in the churches he planted and discipled, but he held this incarnational approach in tension with his calling to keep expanding his vision to reach new communities. His obedience to this bigger vision has literally changed the course of history.

Why do I bring this up? Because it’s important for us to remember the importance of working for change at a broader, more systemic level.

Our heart is partnering on a personal level with families and kids and mission teams as we repair homes and bring the Bible to life. We get the truth of the incarnation and it has been the basis of our ministry model for 18 years. But, on the other hand, we’re called to extend (our “arms”… get it???)Our vision is bigger: we exist to end substandard housing in rural Alabama. All of rural Alabama; not just the 3 counties where we currently serve.

There are so many families seeking home repair assistance in Alabama. We receive calls daily, and we sometimes feel overwhelmed by this burden. Why are so many homes in need of repair? Why are so many families unable to afford to pay for these repairs? These are questions that can’t be answered on a personal level because they point to broader, systemic problems in the way our society operates politically, socially, and economically. Like the early church, ARM is called to look beyond the communities where we serve and consider the reality of substandard across rural Alabama. Like Paul, we are called to be apostles of God’s saving, redemptive work with our neighbors next door AND across our state.

One of the ways we’re responding to this call to extend is through our membership with Alabama Arise. This is a coalition of public and private organizations who have banded together to speak as one voice to the Alabama legislature concerning public policy issues that directly impact the lives of our low-income friends and neighbors. Today, I (Joe) will be attending the annual meeting of Arise where priorities for the year are set. These priorities direct Arises’ research, outreach, and lobbying resources. One of the issues I’ll be voting for as a priority in 2017 is the funding of the Alabama Housing Trust Fund, which would create new opportunities for organizations like ARM and others who want to build and rehabilitate quality affordable housing across our state.

We want to change the world at ARM. We’ve staked our claim in Alabama’s poor, rural Black Belt communities. We’re thankful for the witness of Bryan Stevenson, EJI, and so many others in our great state who remind us to get proximate with the poor as we seek the justice, righteousness, and comprehensive flourishing of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

Where do you stand? How is God calling you to extend? We invite you to join us as love up close and personal through home repair and kids day camp ministries. As you get to know our friends, we hope you’ll be inspired to extend, to see the bigger vision of sweet homes for Alabama, and to step out in faith with us on this journey towards God’s kingdom.


What is holistic community development?

In 200 words or less…

Holistic community development is a collaborative, creative process which cultivates the social, economic, political, cultural, spiritual, and environmental conditions needed for the entire community to thrive. An outside organization or community developer works to begin this process by creating space for dialogue that helps the community re-narrate its story by asking critical questions about the status quo and the local and non-local forces that keep the status quo in place. As the community is empowered by this critical consciousness, a new, more equitable, just, and sustainable vision of the community’s future can emerge around which its members can organize. This social capital is the fuel that propels the community in critical praxes in pursuit of concrete changes in its everyday life, its cultural forms, its political processes, its economy, and its environment which all work together to enact the community’s new story. While outside resources or expertise may be needed, it is the community who leads and controls this process. This definition of holistic community development is inspired by the work of Friere in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Margaret Ledwith’s Community Development, and Westoby and Dowling’s Dialogical Community Development

Praxis: Friendship in Prophetic Action for Shalom

As I reflect on the meaning of praxis in relation to development within my current context, a very special friend comes to mind: Mr. JB. I met JB ten years ago as I served with Alabama Rural Ministry (ARM) for a summer leading home repair mission teams. My encounter with JB is likely the single-most influential factor in my decision to return to ARM in 2014 to join the full-time staff. In this context of ministry with ARM, my understanding of praxis – generically defined as “a unity of theory and practice” (Ledwith, 2009, p. xiv) – has been shaped by the stories of families in rural Alabama who strive to live lives of dignity and purpose in spite of their poverty housing conditions. These stories reveal how Alabama fails to be a “sweet home” for so many of its residents. Unlike my privileged experience as a middle-class, Euro-American, raced as white, able-bodied male, the experiences of families I have come to know through ARM are marked by various struggles with systemic injustice and marginalization due to race, class, gender, and (dis)ability. My friendship with JB was my informal introduction into this new, bewildering reality of poverty in my own backyard. As I try to be friends with JB, I am led into situations that call for a special kind of action – prophetic action – inspired by the Spirit of Jesus who still anoints God’s children to “preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, [and] to liberate the oppressed” (Lk. 4:18b, Common English Bible). This prophetic action is founded on the hope of “the day of the Lord’s favor” (Lk. 4:19), which is a day of joy, peace, holistic and dynamic flourishing, and perfect community with God, neighbor, self, and all creation – a day of shalom. These three themes – friendship, prophetic action, and shalom ­– inform the praxis I am seeking to embody. After reviewing common definitions of praxis, this essay will briefly explore an understanding of praxis as friendship in prophetic action for shalom.

In most cases, praxis refers to a synthesis of thinking and doing, acting and reflecting. The term arose as a response to modern, Western culture which is rooted in “a dualistic post-Kantian epistemology which presumed a fundamental dichotomy between… thought and action” (Markey, 1995, p. 193). However, praxis can also take on broader, less specific meanings. Markey (1995) finds at least three fundamental understandings of praxis in common usage.  Following Aristotle, praxis can be synonymous with practice or any kind of “direct activity.” Second, following Kant, praxis becomes “any ethically relevant human behavior” (Markey, 1995, p. 180-1). These two understandings remain ambiguous since neither explains the purpose or goal of praxis. However, the third way of understanding praxis as identified by Markey’s (1995) analysis is more explicit about its purpose. Following Marx, praxis is seen as “human creative activity” that transforms history and people, as social praxis that shapes culture, and as revolutionary praxis which “works to subvert, counter, and overturn the existing social praxis” (Markey, 1995, p. 181).  This particular understanding of praxis is the most applicable to the aims of development, which seeks the transformation of individuals and socio-economic processes including subversion of the status quo in contexts of systemic injustice and oppression.

My friendship with JB and reveals the need for the kind of revolutionary praxis that Marx suggests. Even though he and I grew up in the same county in rural Alabama, our life experiences could not be more different and more unequal. JB is an African-American man, raced as black, twice my age, who is unemployed, and lives alone in a severely dilapidated mobile home where he gets by on a very low income from government assistance. JB has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, has struggled with alcoholism, and has not been able to keep healthy relationships with his family or his surrounding community. JB’s home is very close to the town where I grew up in a very comfortable home, received a decent education, and was given all the love, support, and opportunity I needed to thrive. If not for my service with ARM’s home repair ministry, I would not have crossed JB’s path because social life in Sumter County is still sharply divided by race. My church, my school, my neighbors, and my friends were virtually all white in a town where African-Americans made up nearly 75% of the population. This oppressive reality of social division and inequality stands in opposition to the will of God who desires an abundant life of justice, love, and community for all people in all places, Sumter County included. A truly Christian praxis, which will be even more radical than Marx’s understanding of revolutionary praxis, is desperately needed to create a space for God’s healing and redemption to unfold in Sumter County and other rural communities across the state. This Christian praxis will be characterized by friendship in prophetic action for shalom.

Through my experiences with JB and many others I have come to know in rural Alabama, I have been convinced that Christian praxis must begin in friendship because praxis is, first and foremost, an embodied response to the God who is Love. As Gustavo Gutierrez (1988) makes clear, “if there is no friendship with [the poor] and no sharing of the life of the poor, then there is no authentic commitment to [the praxis of] liberation, because love exists only among equals” (p. xxxi). Beginning with friendships makes space for people to learn to give and receive from one another, to trust one another, to care for one another, and to share their stories from the heart. This foundation of love, trust, equality, and mutuality are essential to Christian praxis. What’s more, in order for these praxeological friendships to be truly Christocentric, they should be shaped by God’s option for the poor “not because Christ is with the marginalized but, rather, Christ is the marginalized” (De La Torre, 2004, p. 57). For me, this means trying to be friends with someone like JB who reveals Christ to me in uniquely powerful ways. I have come to learn that “Jesus doesn’t have any good news for those [like me] who serve the poor,” because “God is not manifest in our ability to heal, but in our need to be healed” (Oliver, 2009). Those who pursue friendships of solidarity with the poor as part of their praxis must be involved in the transformation they seek to see in others and their communities, and be ready to be transformed themselves. As Ledwith (2009) notes, praxis is not an individualized experience because “in praxis, my journey comes together with others in the quest for critical consciousness: making sense of the world in order to transform it as a collective experience” (p. 41).

Christian praxis begins in deeply personal friendships, but it must move on to prophetic action. As stated previously, praxis is understood generically as a unity or synthesis of theory and practice. This dynamic is usually described as the action-reflection cycle. For Freire (2000), the two are inseparable such that “true reflection… leads to action… [and] that action will constitute an authentic praxis only if its consequences become the object of critical reflection” (p. 66). However, this is not a linear, step-by-step process. Instead, according to Freire (2000), “action and reflection occur simultaneously” (p. 128). This cycle is articulated well within Brueggemann’s (2001) concept of prophetic ministry which seeks to “to nuture, nourish, and evoke [an alternative] consciousness and perception” that simultaneously “serves to criticize in dismantling the dominant consciousness… [while,] on the other hand, [serving] to energize persons and communities by its promise of another time and situation toward which the community of faith may move” (p. 3).

Christian praxis is prophetic to the extent that it employs a critical analysis of power, ideology, and hegemony. This reflective analysis will reveal how power “is located within a multidimensional system of oppressions in which we are all simultaneously oppressors and oppressed” (Ledwith, 2009, p. 143). In response to these death-dealing systems of oppression, prophetic Christian praxis will invite a “public sharing of pain,” which “seeks to penetrate the numbness in order to face the body of death in which we are caught” (Brueggemann, 2001, p. 117). This lamentation goes deeper than political protest, and allows the voices of those who suffer most to be heard the loudest.

At the same time, prophetic Christian praxis will bring people together to work for concrete changes in their lives and communities. This will mean interacting with and possibly challenging “the political and social structures that normalize injustices” (De La Torre, 2004, p. 47). However, this political action, founded as it is in friendships, will begin locally and, over time, extend to develop “a [global] reach that aims to transform the structures of oppression that diminish local lives” (Ledwith, 2009, p. 3). This transformative action will look different in every context, but will, in every context, consist of “offering an alternative perception of reality and in letting people see their own history in the light of God’s freedom and his will for justice” (Brueggemann, 2001, p. 116). Christian praxis as prophetic action must build upon its personal relationships to inspire movements for structural change that can adequately criticize the status quo while energizing diverse groups to pursue in unity a renewed common good where “justice [rolls] down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).

Finally, Christian praxis that begins in friendship and leads to prophetic action will be inspired by a vision of shalom. Or, as Gutierrez (1998) says it, praxis is “the activity of “peacemakers” – that is, those who are forging shalom” (p. xxx). This Hebrew concept found in the writings of the prophets is usually translated as “peace,” but its original meaning is much richer. According to Myers (2011), shalom summarizes God’s “kingdom vision for the better human future”, and describes a community of “just, peaceful, harmonious, and enjoyable relationships with each other, ourselves, our environment, and God” (Kindle loc. 3778). All Christian praxis must be evaluated in the light of this holistic, comprehensive vision of redemption.

However, the light of shalom shines into the present from the future that God and God alone is working out. Shalom is the hope of those who pursue Christian praxis – not their reality – and “hope must be an inherent part of our present commitment in history” (Gutierrez, 1988, p. 11). The pursuit of Christian praxis will face challenges, setbacks, and obstacles at every turn. The structures of social injustice it seeks to transform are deeply embedded, and change will sometimes be slow. And, hardest of all, Christian praxis “will always be practiced through our own conflicted selves,” which are just as caught up in systems of oppression as those oppressed (Brueggemann, 2001, p. 118). Ultimately, our praxis towards shalom can only be a participation in God’s much bigger praxis towards shalom. Praxis, therefore, is a gift received by grace through faith. For now, this gift of shalom is only seen in part – “a reflection as in a mirror” – but on the coming day of the Lord “we shall see [it] face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12).

What does this understanding of Christian praxis as friendship in prophetic action for shalom mean in my context of ministry among children and families in rural Alabama? First, it means making friendship with those I serve not only a personal priority, but a matter of organizational culture and ethos. It can be easy to see ARM as just another “social service agency” where people with “needs” go to get their needs met and where people who like to “meet needs” go to volunteer. In pursuit of Christian praxis, ARM will need to be transformed from a social service agency to a social capital enterprise where friends – not “needs” – are met. Second, it will require creating a space for with whom we serve to voice their grief and struggles. Both myself and ARM’s volunteers need to hear and come to know the depth of suffering that is endured by families in rural Alabama who live without adequate housing. Third, Christian praxis will require an expanded advocacy role, especially on the state level, which engages and challenges Alabama’s political structure. ARM is already involved in this work in very small, indirect ways, but a deeper commitment must be made. This commitment to political change must be informed by and even led by those families with whom we serve. Finally, the gift of shalom as our hope reminds us to rest, enjoy, and celebrate God’s faithfulness together. Along with all the “doing” of ministry, there must be time simply for “being” together in God’s presence. ARM already tries to incorporate rest and times of fellowship between families and volunteers into its ministry design, but this practice must continue to grow even more widespread. As I recall my friend JB in light of this essay, I wonder: how can I be his true friend? How can I listen, amplify, and share in his pain? What are the socio-economic powers at work in his life and community? Who can come together to challenge these powers? What does shalom look like for JB?


  • Brueggemann, W. (2001). The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd edition. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
  • De La Torre, M. (2004). Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
  • Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th anniversary edition. New York: Continuum.
  • Gutierrez, G. (1988). A Theology of Liberation, 15th anniversary edition. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
  • Ledwith, M. (2011). Community Development: A Critical Approach, 2nd edition. Birmingham, United Kingdom: Venture Press.
  • Markey, J. (1995). “Praxis in Liberation Theology: Some Clarifications,” Missiology: An International Review XXIII (2).
  • Myers, B. (2011). Walking with the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development [Kindle version]. Retrieved from
  • Oliver, C. (2009). “Why I Stopped Serving the Poor” (unpublished essay).

The Vineyard Church and Human Trafficking: Reflections on Charismatic-Evangelical Political Engagement

The Vineyard Church, a young Christian denomination at the forefront of the “third wave” of charismatic renewal which swept through American evangelical churches in the early 1970s, has become the tradition with which I am most at home. This reflection will explore the Vineyard Church’s political engagement with human trafficking. In addition, I will personally reflect on the nature of this engagement, and will offer a brief comparative look at the Anglican Church’s political engagement with human trafficking.

Three of the Vineyard Church’s five core values reveal their expectation for socio-political transformation as a result of their discipleship. These values – the theology and practice of the kingdom of God, reconciling community, and compassionate ministry – compel Vineyard churches to be engaged with socio-political processes (Vineyard USA, n.d.-c). The Vineyard’s primary expression of this engagement is the Vineyard Justice Network (VJN), which trains “the people in our churches to think and respond strategically to the interconnectivity of human trafficking, poverty, and the environment” (Vineyard Justice Network, n.d.-b). Since VJN began as the Vineyard Anti-Slavery Team, “freeing slaves” from human trafficking is one of its main concerns.

VJN encourages Vineyard churches to pray for victims and survivors of human trafficking, identify and support those at risk of being trafficked in their communities, and care for survivors. Specifically, VJN “lifts up prevention work as the key way Vineyard churches can fight modern-day slavery” (VJN, n.d.-a). To this end, they provide an impressive array of online resources to individuals, which empower them to engage in hands-on ministry with organizations working in their communities (Vineyard USA, n.d.-b).  These “action steps” include organizing “Stop Modern Slavery” among community and church members, as well as advocating for change by calling or writing elected officials (Vineyard USA, n.d.-b). In addition to these individual resources, prayer guides, Bible studies, educational toolkits for awareness building, and information articles are provided for Vineyard church groups (Vineyard USA, n.d.-a). While the VJN does not organize any direct socio-political action related to human trafficking, it hopes to inform a grassroots movement within Vineyard churches which can engage local communities, as well as local, state, and national governments, in order to prevent the spread of human trafficking and care for survivors.

This kind of de-politicized, grassroots approach to the engagement of human trafficking locates the Vineyard Church within the evangelical tradition of church and state relations. As Shah (2009) highlights, “evangelicals believe that… change comes not through top-down, state-centered legal and policy schemes but through the bottom-up transformation and mobilization of individuals” (p. 137). The state’s primary task for evangelicals is “to defend the innocent and vulnerable,” which aligns well with the Vineyard’s emphasis on supporting, empowering, and caring for survivors and those at risk of human trafficking (Shah, 2009, p. 137). In addition, the Vineyard’s charismatic roots also influence its socio-political engagement. As Swindle (2009) explains, the Pentecostal church once emphasized a holistic, communal understanding of holiness that was “dissatisfied with surrounding injustices and committed to an alternative vision of the world and society” (p. 154). This Pentecostal vision of holiness as “new creation” inspires and animates the Vineyard’s theology and practice of the Kingdom of God, which compels them to be engaged with their communities in very practical, hands-on ways.

I deeply appreciate how the Vineyard’s unique blend of charismatic evangelicalism leads to a person-centered approach to issues such as human trafficking. For Vineyard churches, the reality of human trafficking is not an abstract issue; it is people with faces and stories. This personal approach is oriented towards the development of mutual relationships of love, solidarity, and compassion, which are the necessary starting point of any truly Christian socio-political engagement. However, they cannot be the destination. The love shared between a Vineyard church and survivors of human trafficking must become the driving force behind a larger, broader campaign for justice in which human traffickers are stopped and the risk factors for human trafficking victims are mitigated. With their deep distrust of government, evangelical churches are typically hesitant to move beyond one-on-one relationships into the realm of public policy change. As the Vineyard grows in its response to human trafficking, I pray it will not make this mistake.

To do so, Vineyard churches would be wise to look to the example of their Anglican brothers and sisters. As Anderson (2009) notes, the Anglican tradition “acknowledges [the state] as a partner worthy of cooperation” (p. 110). The Anglican tradition expects the church to be politically active (Anderson, 2009, p. 104). This Anglican approach comes to light when comparing the Episcopal Church of the USA’s advocacy website on human trafficking with that of VJN. While the Episcopal Church offers many of the same kinds of resources to empower individuals, groups, and local churches to respond, it also reports how Episcopal advocates supported the passage of the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, which became US law in 2015 (The Episcopal Church, n.d.). Going even further, the Anglican Communion has joined forces with an international coalition of interfaith leaders in order to secure commitments to stopping human trafficking around the globe (The Archbishop of Canterbury, 2014). These national and international efforts reveal the scope that is required for the Vineyard’s socio-political engagement to seek faithfully the justice of God’s kingdom.


Anderson, Leah Seppanen (2009). The Anglican Tradition: Building the State, Critiquing the State. In Sandra F. Joireman (Ed.), Church, State, and Citizen: Christian Approaches to Political Engagement (93-114). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Archbishop of Canterbury. (2014). Archbishop Justin and Pope Francis back Anglican-Catholic anti-slavery and human trafficking initiative. Retrieved from

Episcopal Church, The. (n.d.). Human Trafficking Resources. Retrieved from

Shah, Timothy Samuel (2009). For the Sake of Conscience: Some Evangelical Views of the State. In Sandra F. Joireman (Ed.) , Church, State, and Citizen: Christian Approaches to Political Engagement (115-144). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Swindle, Stephen M. (2009). Pentecostalism: Holy Spirit Empowerment and Politics. In Sandra F. Joireman (Ed.) , Church, State, and Citizen: Christian Approaches to Political Engagement (145-164). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Vineyard Justice Network. (n.d.-a). Freeing Slaves. Retrieved from

Vineyard Justice Network. (n.d.-b). Who is VJN? Retrieved from

Vineyard USA. (n.d.-a). Action Steps for Groups. Retrieved from

Vineyard USA. (n.d.-b). Action Steps for Individuals. Retrieved from

Vineyard USA. (n.d.-c). Core Values and Beliefs. Retrieved from

The Tension of Advocacy

The work of advocacy is fraught with tensions; concerns are voiced, issues are debated, and tough decisions must be made. “Tension” is the word that best describes my own feelings towards advocacy. On the one hand, I know that the political transformation Christian advocates seek is necessary for the more just, shalom oriented world that God is bringing to life. On the other hand, the primary means by which I see advocacy practiced in popular American culture hardly seem to align with this end. The kind of advocacy with which I am most familiar is practiced online using clicks, “likes,” “shares,” and emails – all of which can be done from the comfort and security of one’s home with little to no personal cost or investment. Cheap advocacy abounds and justice is never cheap. Any Christian sense of justice is ordered by love; particularly the self-emptying love of Christ who comes close to the pain and suffering of injustice in order to bear it with us. While I know there must be those who practice a very costly form of advocacy, I have yet to hear their stories. I hope this class will present an opportunity for me to discover, explore and develop a more robust, risky, and compassionate practice of advocacy that is aligned with the justice-love of God’s coming reign.

This cheap-costly advocacy tension I feel relates to the tension between doing and being. Too often, it seems advocacy only calls us to do certain actions – petitions, protests, speeches, and more – without calling us to be anything in particular. I do not mean to say that all “doing” of advocacy is cheap because too many people who have protested, marched, and made their voices heard have paid for these actions with their lives. Still, most practice of advocacy is not life threatening and can be performed regardless of who you are – your being. However, any Christian sense of advocacy must call us to be a certain kind of advocate who has a personal stake in the matter being advocated. A book I read a few years ago by an environmental activist and advocate opened my eyes to this tension. One day while rallying against a coal power plant, she wondered how she and all the other protestors would survive if the rally were actually successful. Could she live her life without coal power? This question was the catalyst to a major life-change in which she and her family moved to a farm and began living the change she was formerly advocating. Instead of just doing advocacy, she became an advocate by re-orienting her way of life towards a future without coal power. Her doing of advocacy was inseparable from her being an advocate. This kind of advocacy, which is costly, full of integrity, and oriented towards a new future, is what I hope to learn more about.

I sense these tensions in the Bible as well. When I think of advocacy, I immediately think of Moses, the original prophet, speaking God’s truth to the world’s power. He boldly proclaimed the God-given freedom of the enslaved Israelite people to pharaoh, and God eventually set the people free from their slavery. But were they actually free? They were freed from slavery, but not even forty years of wandering in the wilderness and centuries of other fiery prophets could secure Israel’s freedom for God’s justice and righteousness. The doing of advocacy was successful, but the being which that advocacy was seeking was never truly embodied.

Jesus shows us this tension very clearly as he stands accused before Pilate. The gospel of John records a dramatic dialogue between Jesus and Pilate just before Jesus is crucified. When asked by Pilate if he was a king, Jesus says that he is, but then states that his kingdom is not of this world. “If it were,” Jesus said, “my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders” (John 18:36, New International Version). Jesus had certain political means available to him, but he refused to use them because doing those things did not align with the kind of person he is and the kind of people he was trying to shape. The work of advocacy is inherently political and several means are available for achieving political goals. For Christian advocates, the witness of Jesus asks us to align our advocacy efforts with the reign of God and, remembering Jesus’ command in Acts 1:8, to become a people whose being is a witness to the world God is bringing to life.

I did not feel that either the Monsma or the Beckmann texts adequately addressed these tensions. While Monsma did successfully highlight and discuss in-depth the tensions inherent to several very relevant political issues, the premise of the book seemed to be that a sufficient amount of thought, intellect, and reason is all that’s needed to be an advocate for God’s kingdom. All the topics Monsma discussed, especially on creation, justice, and solidarity, and all the questions he raised are necessary and good, but advocacy must be more than an intellectual exercise. The Beckmann text was very inspiring and hopeful. Being an Alabama native and resident, I was touched by the story of the women from Birmingham who advocated on behalf of the jubilee debt cancellation campaign in the late 1990s. However, Beckmann failed to offer the vision for a new way of being – a way of life within a community in which everyone has enough to eat. The strategies he offered for doing advocacy on behalf of the hungry were useful, but strategies are not enough.

Even with these tensions, I recognize that advocacy is essential to my work with Alabama Rural Ministry. Our vision is to end substandard housing in rural Alabama. However, we currently operate in only 3 of Alabama’s 66 counties. If we are serious about our vision, we must be ready to advocate on local, state, and national levels for the kinds of structural changes that could benefit all of Alabama’s rural residents, especially those beyond our reach. Unfortunately, our organization has struggled to devote the time and resources necessary for effective advocacy. However, we do belong to a statewide advocacy organization called Alabama Arise, which speaks up on behalf of low-income families across the state.

Look What York Did! – The Coleman Center for the Arts and Community Development in Rural Alabama

york welcomeThirty years ago, one year before I was born and two years before my family moved to the place I came to call home, the Coleman Center for the Arts (CCA) made its humble beginnings in the west-central Alabama town of York. This rural community lies on the western edge of Alabama’s Black Belt region, which is known for its dark, life-nurturing soil. In this place of rich agricultural fertility, seeds of a different kind were planted in York’s economically distressed and socially divided soul. Three decades later these seeds, nurtured by their deep roots, are now blooming in vibrant colors. While the Coleman Center may be “for the arts,” this “plant” is not for the eyes only; it bears fruit with the potential to sustain and renew the life of this community.

In this paper, I tell the story of CCA and critically examine its mission, strategies, and activities to determine how it has promoted or impeded the process and outcomes of community development. A four-dimensioned analysis of its work is included which asks: how is CCA engaging people in critical thinking and self awareness?; how is it developing creativity and innovativeness?; how is it advancing the continuity of community development initiatives?; and, how is it accomplishing security in life chances and sustainable, holistic well-being? To conclude, I offer a recommendation for improving CCA’s work through an analysis of power, critical praxis, community organizing, and solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized.

The Story of CCA

In 1985, Dorothy Altman Riddick, known simply as Tut, organized a group of York’s citizens to create CCA out of their belief in the power of art and culture to bridge socio-economic divides (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). Bertice McPherson, a friend of Tut’s, says “Tut wanted to help the people of York by giving them a place to create art and to study” (Harrison, 2012). CCA began as an agency of the city and housed the city’s only library and art gallery, which it used as sites for adult education classes, children’s summer reading programs, and community art shows (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). In 2003, CCA began its first public art projects and launched its artist-in-residence program (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). When Shana Berger and Nathan Purath came to York in May 2005 on a brief visit as participants of this program, CCA was without a director; just two months later Shana and Nathan had permanently moved to York to become CCA’s co-directors (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). “Driven by the idea that art can play an integral role in realizing positive social change,” Shana and Nathan brought new energy and vision to CCA and, in 2008, re-organized it as an independent non-profit entity (Coleman Center for the Arts, n.d.-c; Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015).

Today, CCA employs three full-time and two part-time staff who oversee the use and maintenance of nine buildings in downtown York, which is a significant amount of real estate in a town of only 2,000 residents (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). This small group of people are the catalysts for “a contemporary arts organization that uses art to foster positive social change, answer civic needs, build local pride, and use creativity for community problem solving” (Coleman Center for the Arts, n.d.-a). In order to pursue its mission of integrating “contemporary art into education, civic life, and community development throughout our region,” CCA has adopted a strategy that employs “an architecture for creating participatory projects [and]… a relational framework through which artists and community members collaborate” (Coleman Center for the Arts, n.d.-a; Coleman Center for the Arts, n.d.-c). As their mission states, CCA’s programs create contemporary art, which “refers to art made and produced by artists living today… [who] often reflect and comment on modern-day society” (The J. Paul Getty Museum, n.d.). Purath says their definition of art is broad – including anything created with intentionality that inspires meaning, embodies a social value and purpose, or sparks emotional moments of fellowship (Purath, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). Much of CCA’s work can be further classified as “public art.” Defined in simple terms as any work of art placed on a public site, this kind of art is not defined by its particular form or style but by its collaborative, interactive process, which seeks “out the most imaginative and productive affinity between artist and community” in order to create a “form of collective community expression”  (Association for Public Art, n.d.). Public art – designed through and for dialogue – is an apt pursuit for a contemporary arts organization built on the hope of reconciling a community across its socio-economic and racial divides.

CCA’s works of contemporary, public art are created within four program areas guided by its relational, participatory strategy: education, exhibition, artists-in-residence, and Pop Start. The education program is made up of the city library, an after-school art club, a one-week summer camp, and a youth action council. According to Berger and Purath, the youth action council is a brand new initiative designed to empower a group of 16-20 racially diverse high-school students from both the public and private schools who are given $1000 to design and implement a project which addresses a social issue they care about in their community (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015; Purath, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). CCA’s exhibition program operates an art gallery to host the annual Sumter County Fine Arts Council Annual Juried Show, which displays works by local artists (Coleman Center for the Arts, 2014). The gallery also hosts shows for visiting artists-in-residence throughout the year (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015).

Over the past decade under Berger and Purath’s leadership, CCA’s artist-in-residence program has grown and developed significantly. Its goal is to create “socially engaged participatory public art [through] projects and processes [which] employ mutuality, collaboration, and reciprocity among co-participants” in order to “address civic and social needs” (Coleman Center for the Arts, n.d.-b). According to Berger, artists whose work seems to connect with York in a meaningful way are chosen to participate, but are asked not to conceive of their projects before their initial visit (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). This initial visit introduces the artists to the community and provides a space to discuss the issues they would like to address (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). After this introductory visit, artists return multiple times to share their ideas, receive feedback, and work with the community to create their project (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015).

This process has resulted in several collaborative, transformative works of art. One project, “Open House” (appendix A), “transformed a blighted property into a public outdoor theater in downtown York” (Berger, 2013). With all the style of a Transformer robot, this “sculpture” of a house literally opens up into “a public space for performance, celebration, dialogue, fellowship and community” with the physical labor of three to four persons over the course of a few hours (Berger, 2013)! The “Open House” is now used to host a series of community movie nights during the summer  as well as other community events (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). This project is only one of many produced through the artist-in-residence program over its eleven-year tenure.

In 2013 and 2014, CCA began work on its first economic initiative, Pop Start. York’s downtown has, like many other rural towns, experienced significant decline over several decades. Pop Start plans to “offer rotating business incubation, a cooperative market for selling home-sourced goods, a community social space and an opportunity for artists and community members to experiment with the space of a storefront” (Coleman Center for the Arts, 2013a). The hope is to focus economic activity, provide more support for York’s entrepreneurs, and counteract the sense of failure and loss created by empty downtown storefronts (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). CCA recently was awarded a $200,000 place-making grant from ArtPlace America to fund the first 18 months of Pop Start’s operations, which will begin once building renovations are complete (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015).

CCA operates its programs with support from a variety of national, state, and local organizations. The Andy Warhol Foundation and Alabama Power have been particularly important supporters who have helped attract additional funds (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). The National Endowment for the Arts, the Alabama State Art Council, and The Daniel Foundation of Alabama have also supported CCA’s work (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). Finally, CCA enjoys the support of many local residents, who have donated several of its buildings and who serve as an integral part of CCA’s work (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015).

Community Development Analysis

Critical Thinking and Self-Awareness

The practice of critical thinking and self-awareness is essential to the work of community development because communities exist within the relational nexus between embodied persons and disembodied societal structures which interact in complex ways to powerfully shape the community’s life. Without critical thinking, a community will fail to see the effects of these structures and, as a result, may ignore significant factors that restrain or enhance its community development efforts. This failure would place too much emphasis on the community’s responsibility to, in effect, develop itself. On the other hand, a community without a strong sense of self-awareness may fail to see the potential of its own resources and, as a result, feel powerless in its community development efforts. This failure would place too much emphasis on external actors to, in effect, rescue the community.

Critical thinking combined with self-awareness can give “rise to new ways of seeing the world that lead to new ways of being in the world” (Ledwith, 2011, p33). According to community development practitioner Margaret Ledwith (2011), this “critical consciousness” is essential to the process of empowerment, which develops “the theory and practice of equality” necessary in order to communally confront systems of oppression, injustice, and inequality (p32). Because communities are “[arenas] (locality factor) in which community social processes (non-locality factor) take place”, self-awareness is necessary for discerning the community’s embodied locality, but it remains incomplete without critical thinking, which unveils the workings of non-locality, i.e. disembodied, social processes impinging upon the community’s life (Mtika and Bronkema, 2012a, p1).

How is this critical consciousness developed? For Ledwith (2011), the process begins with outsiders who “create a learning context for questioning that helps local people to make critical connections between their lives and the structures of society that shape their world” (p33). The necessity of this “learning context for questioning” arises from Jurgen Habermas’ communicative action theory. This theory explains how sites of “free, open, and unlimited communication” in which all voices in the community are heard within public, rational discussions have the potential to build a common ground upon which a community can act to resist the colonization of macro-economic and political forces “that reduces people to the status of things” (Hustedde, 2009, p28). What communicative action theory calls for is, in a word, dialogue: “a deep, challenging and enriching conversation, a mutual process of building shared understanding, meaning, communication and creative action” (Westoby and Dowling, 2009, p10). As outsiders create spaces for dialogue within communities, they nurture an environment from which critical consciousness can emerge to support processes of community development informed by critical thinking and self-awareness.

Is CCA’s work creating space for dialogue and giving rise to critical consciousness in York? According to Berger, CCA’s participatory approach to public art projects creates an unfamiliar space for both the local community who are not trained as artists, and for the artists-in-residence who may feel out of place in rural Alabama (personal interview, Jan. 21 2015). This mutual unfamiliarity has a disruptive and equalizing effect, which opens up a neutral, free space for dialogue (Purath, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015; Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). As artists and local community members share their stories in this space, the community is simultaneously having a conversation with itself – often about tough issues like racial segregation that may not otherwise not be discussed in public (Purath, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). This dialogue builds York’s self-awareness in powerful ways, but critical consciousness also requires critical thinking. CCA’s work at this time seems to only address local issues and, therefore, fails to analyze how York’s “experiences are linked to the forces of power that are embedded in the structures of society [in order to understand] how these forces reach into communities to impact on personal lives” (Ledwith, 2011, p34). While CCA is opening up space for dialogue that is producing transformative works of public art, their dialogue stops short of critical thinking.

Innovativeness and Creativity

            Apart from a spirit of innovativeness and creativity, community development efforts lose their liveliness. They get stuck in the world “as it is” and fail to inspire the community to action towards the realization of the world “as it should be” (Chambers, 2003, p22). As Westoby and Dowling (2009) wisely note, “the key to community development is… the quality and creativity of people who dream of a better world for their neighborhoods and want to take some form of public, communal, transformational action” (p289). A spirit of creativity and innovativeness gives birth to vision – without which “the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18 King James Version). The human capacity for creating – and re-creating – is a profound reflection of humanity’s own creation in the image of the Creator who is the source of life. Creativity is the essence of life – of soul – that connects us to others, to our place, our history (Westoby and Dowling, 2009, p14). This “stuff of soul is made by genuinely participating in initiatives emerging from people’s shared suffering and concerns” in a process Westoby and Dowling (2009) call “poetic participation” (p61). Poetic participation is the breeding ground of creativity and openness to new ways of thinking, doing, and being in relation with others. Out of this fertile soul, a community can be re-created.

Is the work of CCA nurturing an environment of poetic participation in York that develops its creativity and innovativeness? Emphatically, yes! As Berger (personal interview, Jan. 21 2015) notes, direct community engagement and feedback with artists is part of their work from the beginning of the process to its completion. “All artist projects are characterized by close collaboration with the community,” says the CCA website, which ensures “that artists and participants sustain deep connections to each other and the work” (Coleman Center for the Arts, n.d.-b). CCA is building soulful connections in York across lines of race, socio-economic status, and age (Purath, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). This diversity is what attracts and motivates many of CCA’s participants according to Berger (personal interview, Jan. 21 2015). People do not participate “because they like contemporary art”; it is because they believe in the outcome and want to be connected to other people (Berger, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). The social space of poetic participation that CCA facilitates is an essential place for York to gather and re-imagine a new, more lively, way of life.

            In addition to infusing community development with soulful life, creativity and innovativeness are also essential for community development efforts to remain vital and relevant. A community that is not exercising its creativity is undermining its ability to adapt in a world that is rapidly changing. This ability to exercise creativity and generate innovative ideas is especially important for a community’s economic system. It is a society’s ability to “generate and tolerate new ideas” and “adapt to continuously changing economic and technological circumstances,” says Cortright (2001), that “are a precondition to sustained economic growth” (p. ii). Shaffer and Summers (1989) also identify “the adaptability of the community to changing conditions both within and outside itself” as a key ingredient to the community’s ability “to maintain, if not improve, its relative economic position” (p2). The best example of a community’s creativity and innovativeness in the economic institution is its entrepreneurs since they are “by definition… responding to change and trying to capture the opportunities embodied in change” (Shaffer and Summers, 1989, p8). The practice of creativity is not only good for human development and wholeness – it’s good for business too.

Is the work of CCA facilitating economic ingenuity through entrepreneurship in York and sustaining its ability to adapt? Again, the answer is yes. With the addition of Pop Start, CCA is intentionally and directly injecting new life into York’s economic institution and creating a space for York’s entrepreneurs to flourish. In addition to Pop Start, CCA has participated in past city planning efforts and were part of a small-town design initiative led by students from Auburn University’s urban planning program. These efforts reveal CCA’s commitment to helping York adapt to a changing economic and political environment.

Continuity of Community Development Initiatives

Community development based on dialogue is a slow process because it requires patient listening. In a complex world characterized by speed and instant gratification, this kind of patient dialogue “requires a resistance to the shallow-ing of practice,” which is obsessed with “quick fixes,” in order to take a more depth-ful approach that does not over-simplify the problems a community faces (Westoby and Dowling, 2009, p11). Community development efforts must be designed and maintained for the long haul in order to make any sort of deep, transformative change that takes account of a community’s complexity.

However, these deep, transformative changes are the community development outcomes of a very intentional, sustained community development process. As Phillips and Pittman (2009) discuss at length, community development is both a process and a set of outcomes. However, as Mtika and Bronkema (2012b) note, most people focus on the seen, tangible “life course outcomes” while forgetting the necessity of the community development process which creates an environment for these outcomes to emerge by developing the character, creativity, and innovativeness of the community (p31). Phillips and Pittman (2009) explain this interaction between process and outcomes by saying “the process of community development is social capital/capacity building which leads to social capital which in turn leads to the outcome of community development” (p7). The energetic core of this cycle is social capital. Green and Haines (2012) note the significant features of social capital as “the aspects of social structure (trust, norms, and social networks) that facilitate collective action”, which is “central to building other forms of [community] capital” and therefore essential “in addressing common problems that are not easily resolved by individual actions” (p144, 147). When a community is actively engaging community development processes that produce social capital through improving character, creativity, and innovativeness, it is poised to mobilize its own resources, assets, and ideas, as well as those external to the community, to create the community development outcomes it desires. Therefore, the continuity of community development initiatives and their outcomes is directly related to the strength of social-capital-generating development processes.

Is the work of CCA advancing the continuity of community development initiatives in York? A broad survey of their programs suggests that, while a large part of their work is designed to be impermanent, they are still advancing the continuity of community development initiatives through their participatory, relational approach to creating public works of contemporary art. At the same time, CCA has been able to sustain some programs and community assets over the course of three decades such as the city library and art gallery. They have also been able to convert some of the “impermanent” work produced by their artist-in-residence program into more permanent community assets. This conversion can be most clearly seen in the “Open House” project previously mentioned, which continues to provide a source of “cultural capital” by increasing York’s uniqueness and by serving as a site for community celebrations (Green and Haines, 2012, p267). Another example is the “One Mile Garden” (see Appendix B) project which “includes a central garden for growing, teaching and learning” at CCA’s downtown location, as well as “satellite gardens” throughout the community and a public fruit tree orchard at a public park (Berger, 2009). Because CCA connected its artists-in-residence with a local York resident who was an expert gardener, the project continues today as an important source of “environmental capital” which teaches the community to care for its land (Green and Haines, 2012, p215). These two “impermanent” projects have produced important cultural and environmental assets for the York community and show that CCA and its artists are committed to advancing the continuity of its community development activities.

At the same time, “Open House”, “One Mile Garden”, and many other artist-in-residence projects embody the social-capital-generating community development process, which is so essential to sustainable community development outcomes. As Purath explains, much of CCA’s work through the artist-in-residence program has been to demonstrate a capacity for change, building a base of trust between artists and the community and within the community, and creating and maintaining an open space to find common ground (personal interview, Jan. 21 2015). Two poignant examples of how CCA is generating social capital are found in its “To My Dearest and Beloved Family” (see Appendix C) and “De-Weaponizing the Gun” (see Appendix D) projects. In “To My Dearest and Beloved Family,” the visiting artist created an exhibition of military portraits and invited York’s residents to “provide pictures of area service members, veterans or those depicted in uniform,” which produced pictures ranging from a Civil War veteran to a current member of the JROTC (Coleman Center for the Arts, 2013b). This exhibition was displayed publicly at the CCA’s art gallery and represented “deep love, pride, admiration and respect” for the community (Coleman Center for the Arts, 2013b). In the “De-Weaponizing the Gun” project, a visiting artist used a small caliber rifle to create pointillist “drawings” of bullet holes on sheets of metal painted white (Coleman Center for the Arts, 2009). The gun, especially a rifle, is a popular and powerful symbol in York where many residents enjoy hunting and sport shooting. This attention from the local community garnered by this project led to an invitation for the artist to perform a live demonstration of his work at the camp house of a well-known white family, which was attended by black and white residents (Purath, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). This occurrence may seem insignificant, but in rural communities a camp house serves as a kind of social status symbol and this event was the first time black families had been hosted at this camp house. In both cases, social capital was generated as the community gathered to take part in these works of art.

While not all of CCA’s artist-in-residence projects have become permanent assets for the community, they all help create and strengthen York’s social capital. CCA is committed to the long, patient process of listening and dialogue, which lie at the heart of community development processes. This dialogical process represents a significant effort to advance the continuity of its community development initiatives.

Security in Life Chances and Sustainable, Holistic Well-Being

As important as community development processes are, they are incomplete without subsequent community development outcomes. Mtika and Bronkema (2012b) explain how “improving these life course outcomes enhances security in life chances of community members” (p31). By “security in life chances”, they refer to an adequate, equitable level of access to opportunities that allow community members “to improve [the] quality of their lives” (Mtika and Bronkema, 2012b, p31). In addition to improving security in life chances, community development outcomes also contribute to the community’s economic, socio-cultural, and spiritual well-being in the present and future. Phillips and Pittman (2009) show the relationship between these outcomes and economic well-being when they state: “the purpose of community development is to produce assets that may be used to improve the community, and the purpose of economic development is to mobilize these assets to benefit the community” (p11). Westoby and Dowling (2009) connect life course outcomes to a holistic notion of well-being achieved through caring for the ordinary, socio-cultural, economic, political, and ecological spheres of community life. It is clear that community development work should lead to improvements throughout the entirety of the community that can be seen, felt, heard, tasted and touched.

Is the work of CCA increasing security in life chances and sustainable, holistic well being for York? Westoby and Dowling’s (2009) five aspects of community care in relation to well-being serve as a helpful lens for evaluating CCA’s contribution towards York’s well-being. When “caring for the ordinary” is considered, CCA’s work excels in “valuing the mundane, the commonplace, and the everyday events that are the social glue connecting ordinary people with one another” (Westoby and Dowling, 2009, p185). For Purath, CCA’s community problem solving approach is all about the day-to-day life in York (personal interview, Jan. 21 2015). “Caring for the socio-cultural” sphere of community life is also evident in CCA’s work as its programs nurture diverse social relations in a variety of ways (Westoby and Dowling, 2009, p185). Purath describes the outcome of CCA’s work as creating a more kindred spirit (personal interview, Jan. 21 2015). Closely related to the care of the socio-cultural, he also noted how CCA’s programs are helping to overcome a sense of failure on a psychological or emotional level (Purath, personal interview, Jan 21. 2015). In this way, CCA is contributing towards York’s “power-to” defined as “personal power to achieve our potential” associated with self-esteem and self-belief, which is “vital to releasing the energy for change” (Ledwith, 2011, p146). The work of CCA is clearly contributing to York’s holistic well-being with its care for ordinary and socio-cultural dimensions of life in York.

With the Pop Start creative business incubator, CCA is preparing to launch its first initiative aimed at “caring for the economy” by creating “alternative, local, human-scale, relational economies with social and ecological objectives” (Westoby and Dowling, 2009, p185). With one of its purposes of being “a cooperative market for selling home-sourced goods,” Pop Start will strengthen economic linkages in the community, which, as Silver and Loxley (2007) note, may not create huge profits but “will improve the economic and social well-being of those otherwise omitted from the benefits of profit-oriented economies” (Coleman Center for the Arts, 2013a; p8). In addition to the Pop Start initiative still in development, Purath explained how CCA contributes to the local economy by purchasing a significant amount of goods and services from local stores with sources of funding external to the community (personal interview, Jan. 21 2015). CCA’s “care for the economy” is still in its early stages, but this will soon become an integral aspect of their work with the launch of Pop Start.

When considering Westoby and Dowling’s (2009) final two categories of community care – political and ecological – CCA’s work has made some steps in the right direction. Its Youth Action Council is its only program with explicit political intentions that seek to “[enable] agency, moving from private concern to public action” (Westoby and Dowling, 2009, p186). Since the program is still in its infancy, its contribution to York’s political well-being remains to be seen. Care for York’s ecology is evidenced by CCA’s “One Mile Garden” project previously described. While this work is important for “changing hearts and minds” on a personal level, it does not contribute towards other aspects of ecological care such as a structural analysis of broad ecological concerns, the creation of alternative institutions, and the mobilization of political confrontations necessary for structural change (Westoby and Dowling, 2009, p186). In its work of caring for York’s political and ecological spheres, there remains much room for CCA to grow.


The Coleman Center for the Arts is practicing community development work in York, AL, in profound, inspiring ways that are making a real difference in the everyday lives of York’s ordinary citizens. According to Berger, this practice is informed by an asset-based approach, which in general seeks to capitalize on a community’s existing strengths and resources instead of focusing on its lacks (personal interview, Jan. 21 2015). The asset-based approach is very popular and has many strengths, but is not without weaknesses. As Green and Haines (2012) note, asset-based approaches use a development model of community organizing which “stress the importance of bringing people together and helping them help themselves” (p245). Ledwith (2011) sharply criticizes this kind of “help you help yourself” approach as fundamentally disempowering because it provides “a smokescreen for the forces of structural inequality by ignoring unequal wealth and power distribution, as well as to ignore heterogeneity and inequity within communities” (p29). In other words, asset-based approaches tend to be too optimistic about the power of local communities to improve their quality of life with local resources and strengths. They can fail to see how entire communities and regions have been excluded and marginalized, which severely limits the potential of the community’s local assets. Sometimes they see the local community through rose-tinted lens and fail to notice the exclusion and marginalization in the community’s midst. In summary, asset-based approaches have a tendency to be naïve about power and its distribution within and beyond a community.

Inasmuch as CCA employs an asset-based approach, it is susceptible to this tendency towards power naïveté. CCA does seem to be aware of many divisions within the community, but it is unclear whether this awareness extends to an understanding of internal and external power relations. The first step to addressing this potential weakness in CCA’s approach is to perform a power/conflict analysis of York and the surrounding region of Sumter County. As conflict theory suggests, “communities are always characterized by conflict, usually arising from inequalities of power and/or wealth along lines of gender, class or ethnicity” (Silver and Loxley, 2007, p9). Even in a place as welcoming and friendly as York there is still plenty of conflict and power struggles, especially when considering its not-too-distant history of explicit forms of systemic discrimination against people of color through the 19th and mid-20th centuries.

Green and Haines (2012) discuss three approaches to community power analysis, which serve as a kind of “audit” of the community’s political capital, defined as “access to decision-making” (p239, 243-4). A reputational approach relies on community informants to identify influential people, whether they hold formal positions or not. A positional approach identifies the key institutions in the community and who occupies positions of power in those institutions. Finally, a decision-making approach examines who or which groups of people tend to “win” on important decisions made throughout the community’s history. None of these approaches are mutually exclusive, so it makes sense to use a combination of all three (Green and Haines, 2012, p244). One major weakness of all three is that power is seen only as decision-making ability, but power “can be expressed through non-decisions as well” (Green and Haines, 2012, p244). Sometimes knowing what did not happen in a community or what was not said at a meeting tells you more about the exercise of power than knowing what did happen or what was said.

However, all three of these community power analyses only reveal power inequalities on a personal or communal level. According to Ledwith (2011), power is always operative on three levels: the personal, cultural/communal, and structural (p145). Since these levels “mutually reinforce prejudice and discrimination,” actions that do not simultaneously address all three levels will be negated (Ledwith, 2011, p145). A process is needed for unveiling power on a structural, societal level. This societal analysis is essential to community development because communities occupy a “contradictory position” in relation to the larger political economy as both necessary for its survival and simultaneously “constrained in what they can achieve in terms of shaping or transforming that economy” (DeFillips and Saegert, 2008, p3). Mtika and Bronkema (2012a) note this societal tension in their definition of community when they explain how extra-local social processes provide a general shape within which local expressions of community are formed. If the general shape provided by these external social processes is degrading to the community’s well-being, the work of community development must engage these extra-local realities so that space is made for a more just, equitable, and life-giving community expression to emerge. The process of identifying the “general shape provided by external social processes”, i.e. a structural power analysis, begins by asking questions to encourage critical thinking.

As previously noted, CCA utilizes a rich, relational, participatory approach to creating public art that is founded on and encourages dialogue. This dialogic environment is the essential foundation for critical thinking practice that empowers community members to ask questions about their lives, which unveil oppressive hegemonic structures affecting them (Mtika and Bronkema, 2012b). The key is to deeply listen to the actual experiences of community members, their “little stories”, and to then ask probing questions which problematize these stories and reveal how they are connected to a “bigger story” operating on a structural level (Ledwith, 2011, p72). In order for CCA to encourage the growth of critical consciousness in its work, it must find ways to encourage this kind of critical thinking throughout its programs.

Yet, the purpose of power analyses, critical thinking, and critical consciousness is not merely to identify inequalities of power; the point is to challenge these inequalities that unjustly oppress and marginalize some for the benefit of others. This purpose calls for the practice of relational power, which is “the capacity to organize people and their institutions around common values and relationships so they can act together as one to bring about the change they desire” (Linthicum, 2003, p82). As Linthicum (2003) rightly notes, the development of relational power begins with dialogue and listening that builds trust within personal relationships, but it does not end there. Relational power “is a process for creating social capital,” says Chambers (2003),  “and keeping it in motion [emphasis added]” (p69). CCA is already very good at creating and sustaining social capital, but it should now put this community asset into motion in ways that challenge and confront internal and external inequalities of power.

While confrontation is often not a popular method for seeking change in rural, Southern towns, the kind of confrontation which encourages community development is a “healthy process that enables humans to resolve pronounced differences of opinion” (Linthicum, 2003, p170). Westoby and Dowling (2009) provide a very wise, “care-ful” approach to conflict which is resolved through dialogue with the hope that “people can listen, learn, and move towards one another, being hospitable towards the ‘other’ and therefore becoming community” (p102-3). However, when this dialogical approach to conflict is ineffective, a more explicit “action” may be called for which “seeks to call a government or business official to accountability” (Linthicum, 2003, p158-9). This kind political, critical praxis work will not be easy and it may create enemies, but it is essential work if sustainable, transformative change is desired.

As this recommendation for critical praxis and relational power concludes, it is vital to note the heart of this work: solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized. Westoby and Dowling (2009) emphasize solidarity’s call “for a movement alongside and engaged with the most vulnerable people in places where they live – invisible, unsafe, distant, uncomfortable places” (p212). Solidarity is the practice of radical friendship with and among those who experience oppression and marginalization to the point of identification with and sharing in these sufferings. However, as Oliver (2009) so profoundly notes, “the only way to remain with the poor is if… we recognize ourselves, even if well disguised, in him/her who is right before our eyes” (p4-5). Solidarity means discovering your own poverty and need for justice because, in the end, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere [since] we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny [so that] whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” (King, 1963). Berger and Purath both came to York as outsiders and have stayed for a decade. Their commitment to York is clear and, in a sense, they are already practicing solidarity just by living and working in this community. Therefore, this recommendation for solidarity is an exhortation to make their commitment even more radical as they identify themselves with and sacrificially love those experiencing suffering in York.

“Look What York Did!”

In my interview with Nathan Purath, he mentioned an occasion that made him especially proud of CCA’s work. A “fan” of CCA on Facebook posted an article about one of CCA’s projects with the accompanying note: “Look what York did!” (Purath, personal interview, Jan. 21, 2015). Purath, along with Berger, are right to be proud. The Coleman Center for the Arts is an outstanding, inspiring organization, which genuinely cares for the people of York and wants to see this community flourish. The Facebook comment mentioned is only one voice in a chorus of supporters within York and beyond who want to see CCA succeed because its success will lead to York’s greater well-being. It was a privilege to learn more about Berger, Purath, and CCA. I submit my analysis of their work knowing that I have barely scratched the surface of all that they do. I offer my recommendations with utmost humility, keenly aware of its shortcomings and limits. Overall, I hope my analysis and recommendations will spur further thought and dialogue as CCA moves forward with its community development work. I am proud to say that CCA is part of my home, even a part of my identity. I am thankful for its work and look forward to learning more and participating with Berger, Purath, and the CCA family in the future.


Association for Public Art. (n.d.). What is public art? Retrieved from

Berger, S. (2009). One Mile Garden, Bob Bingham, Robin Hewlett, and Ally Reeves. Retrieved from

Berger, S. (2013). Open House, Matthew Mazzotta. Retrieved from

Chambers, E. (2008). Roots for Radicals: Organizing for Power, Action, and Justice. New York: Continuum.

Coleman Center for the Arts. (n.d.-a). About. Retrieved from

Coleman Center for the Arts. (n.d.-b). Artist Opportunities. Retrieved from

Coleman Center for the Arts. (n.d.-c). People. Retrieved from

Coleman Center for the Arts. (2009). Walton Creel, Demonstration. Retrieved from

Coleman Center for the Arts. (2013a). Pop Up Pop Start. Retrieved from

Coleman Center for the Arts. (2013b). To My Dearest and Beloved Family. Retrieved from

Coleman Center for the Arts. (2014). SCFAC 2014. Retrieved from

Cortright, J. (2001). New Growth Theory, Technology and Learning: A Practitioner’s Guide. Reviews of Economic Development Literature and Practice No. 4, United States Economic Development Administration.

DeFilippis, J. and Saeggert, S. (2008). “Communities Develop: The Question is How?” In James DeFillippis and Susan Saegert (Eds.), The Community Development Reader (1-6). New York: Routledge.

Green, G.P. and Haines. (2012). Asset Building and Community Development, 3rd edition. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications.

Harrison, Thomas B. (2012). Mobile Museum of Art opens ‘I Am York,’ a 60-year retrospective for Tut Altman Riddick. Retrieved from

Hustedde, Ronald, J. (2009).  “Seven theories for seven community developers.” In Rhonda Phillips and Robert H. Phillips (Eds.), An Introduction to Community Development (20-37). New York: Routledge.

King, Martin Luther, Jr. (1963). Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Retrieved from

Ledwith, M. (2011). Community Development: A Critical Approach, 2nd edition. Birmingham, United Kingdom: Venture Press.

Linthicum, R. (2003). Transforming Power: Biblical Strategies for Making a Difference in Your Community. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.

Mtika, Njalayawo M. and Bronkema, D. (2012a). “Definition of Community” (unpublished).

Mtika, Njalayawo M. and Bronkema, D. (2012b). “Dialogic Pedagogy and Critical Praxis in Community Development” (unpublished).

Oliver, C. (2009). “Why I Stopped Serving the Poor” (unpublished essay).

Phillips, R. and Pittman, R.H. (2009).  “A Framework for Community and Economic Development.” In Rhonda Phillips and Robert H. Phillips (Eds.), An Introduction to Community Development (3-19). New York: Routledge.

Shaffer, R. and Summers, G.F. (1989). “Community Economic Development.” In James A. Christenson and Jerry W. Robinson, Jr. (Eds.), Community Development in Perspective (173-195). Ames: Iowa State University Press.

Silver, J. and Loxley, J. (2007). “Community Economic Development: An Introduction.” In John Loxley, Jim Silver, and Kathleen Sexsmith (Eds.), Doing Community Development (2-13). Winnipeg, Canada: Fernwood Publishing.

Westoby, P. & Dowling, G. (2012). Dialogical Community Development. Australia: Tafina Press.

Linthicum: Shalom is Our Mission

In the final analysis, we are not called to build bigger or better churches, to prepare disciples or even to win people to Jesus Christ, though these are all important and strategic elements. We as the church are to focus on working for the realization of the shalom community in our political, economic, and religious life together. That mission of proclaiming the vision and doing whatever we can to move this world toward “becoming the kingdom of our Lord and His Christ” is the essence of what we Christians are to be about.

Robert Linthicum, Transforming Power, p. 40

While I agree with most everything Linthicum writes about shalom, I think he’s at risk of breaking the eschatological tension of shalom when he calls it an “achievable” society. He doesn’t define “achievable” but he needs to. Shalom is achievable only as an eschatological reality that we experience as a gift of the Spirit in brief fits and spurts, foretastes that leave us wanting more, until the day of the Lord comes and brings all things to their fulfillment, when God will be all in all. The language of “achievement” also contradicts Linthicum’s previous statement about shalom being a gift of grace. Gifts are not achieved. Yes, we have much work to do, but all our work towards shalom is meaningless apart from the power of the Spirit who is leading all creation on the reconciling way of Christ to be at home in the boundless love of God.