Friday, October 9, 2015

seek ye the welfare of the city...

Yesterday our small city received a "body blow" when Sabic Innovative Plastics announced the
closure of its Pittsfield manufacturing base. Not only does this eliminate 300 high paying, high-tech jobs from the region, with the corresponding economic distress created when families and individuals relocate to Houston or elsewhere, but it also re-opens an ugly and as yet unresolved psychological wound in the body politic. Since the mid 80's our town - and the entire Western Massachusetts region - has been struggling to overcome the loss of manufacturing jobs - including the massive trauma caused in 1986 when General Electric closed its power transformer division. In addition to poisoning our waters for generations to come with PCB's, the exodus GE solidified a type of social anxiety and despair. Sabic's absence - while logical and even understandable within a larger context - adds insult to the soul of an already injured city.

The signs of our community's suffering are real: increased street violence and gang activity, a widening gap between the affluent and the working poor, a mass transportation system that struggles to meet the needs of a 24/7 economy, political bickering and stagnation and a regular loss of young people to more vibrant and financially rewarding places. The median age in Pittsfield is currently 49 years in comparison to the 37 years of the rest of Massachusetts. Most of our citizens earn less than $40K per year (the median income is $45K vs. the $66K of the rest of the state.) And despite a cadre of committed and creative ecumenical and inter-faith leaders, more and more folk find organized religion irrelevant to their lives. We. like the Pacific North West, have truly become not just a post-Christian community, but a post-religion realm. The objective reasons for our collective gloom are real and not likely to change in the near future.

And herein lies the unique challenge of this moment for faith-based organizations: a radical ministry of presence.  The Hebrew prophet, Jeremiah, was advised by the Lord not to sink into melancholia nor deny the suffering of those he loved. Rather, he was to "seek the welfare of the city."

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

My experience in other post-industrial ministries - and contemplative hunch born of taking a long, loving look at what is real -- suggests that there are three components to such a ministry of presence:

+ First, a worship encounter that nourishes, comforts and challenges us to become our best selves. There must be refreshment rather than judgment. There must be space and quiet and beauty in this maelstrom of uncertainty. And there must be solid and clear teaching about how to nourish the peace that passes understanding both within ourselves and throughout the wider community.

+ Second, a compassionate alternative to the status quo.  A ministry of presence can quietly change the beauty and safety of a blighted region if there is the will and sufficient prayer. When I lived in Cleveland, Fr. Jim O'Donnell and the small Caritas community systematically planted community gardens throughout the East Side ghetto. They worked with Habitat for Humanity and others to reclaim entire city blocks house by house. They ministered to those most in need of food and created a retreat/prayer center in the heart of the chaos.

+ Third, an organized, focus faith-based challenge to the political and economic
leadership of our town. There are a variety of no-brainers that would make a huge difference for our community right now including relocating the Police Department from its current address so that downtown parking might flourish. But there isn't the political will - nor the organized power - to move key players off the dime of maintaining a dysfunctional status quo. Berkshire Interfaith Organizing has the potential to be this catalyst but it is still in its birthing phase.

People of faith understand that despair is not the end of the story. It is part of our reality, without a doubt, but not the conclusion. Nature, the first book of Scripture, teaches us a similar truth: autumn arrives with signs of death but also scatters the seeds of new life. We are moving into a profound season of autumnal truth. This moment needs those who, like Thomas Merton, could see the "hidden wholeness within the broken moment." Like countless others, I am saddened by yet another economic burden to this beautiful community. So let it be unto us like the words of Jesus to the leaders of his day:  you can read the signs of the sky but cannot discern the signs of the time.

Our time requires a radical ministry of presence: an energized and organized coalition of compassion, spiritual renewal and social action. There are no magic bullets. No new manufacturing enterprises to come to the rescue. There is just faith and our God-given creatitity.  Lord, may it be so among us.


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