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Community from Scratch

How one pastor is building Christian community where it doesn't come easy.

An interview with Eugene Rivers.

In the shadow of inner-city crack houses, Eugene Rivers preaches a radical gospel.

It's the same message he preaches to Boston politicians, gangs, and the Christian Coalition: love, radical love.

Educated on the streets and at Harvard, Rivers' journey from gang member to minister began when he was confronted with his own mortality while listening to Billy Graham on the radio. Rivers, 49, now pastors Azusa Christian Community in south Boston. His work among gangs was recently a Newsweek cover story.

While in Chicago for a conference on violence prevention, Rivers talked with Leadership editors Marshall Shelley and Eric Reed about establishing community in a tough environment.

What have gangs taught you about community?

The gangs in Boston challenged the clergy about the absence of community in the church. The church had so failed to model an attractive and viable vision of community that children had to create their own.

They'll go somewhere to find fraternity in the midst of a crisis. The "all for one, one for all" ethic drives the gang. The loyalty, allegiance, and camaraderie that are cardinal dimensions of gang life are what they need in the church.

How has that changed the way you build community among young people?

I'm hearing some remarkable things. Contrary to a lot of rhetoric, Gen-X young people are looking for spiritual direction.

A young woman, a sophomore at Yale, wanted me to be a father figure for her because she had never had that kind of affirmation. She knew she could not flower as a woman until she had that. The absence of fatherhood in the black community has had catastrophic consequences. So for her and for these young people, there is a yearning for parents, for fathers, who will listen, laugh, correct, and enjoy the dialogue.

Is the family, then, your picture of community?

Nuclear family--father, mother, children--is the definitive basis for larger visions of community. Everything proceeds from God's concept of family.

How does that compare with other biblical models?

The church must be biblically consistent. We cannot pick and choose with Scripture. The vision of the common life in Acts 2 and 4 is as central to the story of the church as anything else. Pentecostals--and I say this as a Pentecostal--focus on the sensational events, but we ignore the community. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit was not manifested simply in tongues. We must embrace the full gospel. We must wrestle with koinonia. As a result of God's presence, oppressive divisions of class, ethnicity, race, and gender were eradicated among his people.

Not until the church engages the power of the Spirit in our life together will we be what God called us to be.

Truth can be a weapon, more dangerous than healing, in the hands of the unwise. What prevents this from happening?

We don't recognize the difference between speaking truth and hearing truth. One thing you learn in community: if the right thing is said at the wrong time, the truth is lost. Truth out of context is over-rated.

Truth can be a weapon, more damaging than healing, in the hands of the unwise. People have to be psychologically and spiritually ready to hear certain truths. I learned that at Harvard.

I used to do a seminar on "contemporary urban issues," some heavy-duty stuff on racism in society and the role the church has played in that. For some of the kids, it was overwhelming. One Christian kid almost had an emotional breakdown.

From that I learned that each pastor needs to ask, "Is the person ready to receive? Am I the person to share the insight? And what is the best way to do it?" In some cases, choosing the right vehicle is more important than the truth itself.

How do you determine if you’re the right person to deliver a hard truth?

The nature of your relationship with the person. It's like the old saying, "I don't care how much you know till I know how much you care." When they know I genuinely love them, and they feel secure, then I'm in a position to impart truth. When the goal is not "being right" but loving a person in Jesus' name, now that's a breakthrough. Then we have a different quality of spiritual life.

How do you develop that?

Model it. You must demonstrate humility, willingness to "lose" the argument for the sake of the community. Eliminate the hierarchy of winner-loser.

In discussions I say, "I may misunderstand this. So you've got to help me." And so you teach the virtue of vulnerability. That frees other people to be more honest, because you've created a safe space in which people can share.

Has that happened in your ministry?

Yes. I've learned over the years that a truly biblical community will be open to a plurality of perspectives within some confessional parameters. So that you have a financial district blue-suit type with a Gen-X punk rocker leading significantly different lives, but they're united by a common bond: the blood of Christ.

At Azusa we don't care if you're Republican or Democrat. That's not the litmus test for our life together. We may have significant cultural differences, but we'll agree to disagree because the most important thing is the ethic of love. My non-negotiable bottom line is that we love one another.

That sounds good. How do you do its?

Prayer. Praying together creates a loving atmosphere. That is important because everyone is at a different stage of development within any community.

Fifteen years ago I thought ethical rigor and discipline were the imperatives, but churches are to be pastoral communities. They are to be sanctuary, hospital.

In such a context, prayer heals the wounded. It's redemptive; it's therapeutic. Then when people come in from the streets, broken and in pain, the confessional community becomes a place of healing and acceptance. Here your imperfections, your flaws, are not held against you. In real community you are encouraged to believe that with God's power you can overcome and transcend your limitations.

Truth can be a weapon, more damaging than healing, in the hands of the unwise.

Eugene Rivers
is pastor of Azusa Christian Community
411 Washington St.
Boston MA 02124

Copyright(c) 1999 by the author or Christianity Today, Inc./Leadership Journal. Winter 1999, Vol. XX, No. 1, Page 51

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