City Lights - 20 Years of Lessons Learned

    January 01, 2015 | Our Member's Stories | Faith in Action stories by Craig Stock by Carey Davis

    Carey Davis (right) and a typical CityLights interaction between Wayne Presbyterian members and the Southwest community. This group was a gathering in June 2014 of “First Ladies” from local SW churches. This ministry of CityLights continues today as a ministry of The Common Place with quarterly gatherings for the women of SW Philadelphia called Holy Rest Mornings.

    Lessons Learned: 20+ Years of CityLights
    WPC’s urban ministry can inform your “Faith in Action” 

    As we noted in “CityLights: The Early Years,” in the January 2021 Wayne Pres Newsletter, the spark that lit the lamp and fed the fire of that ministry was Carey Davis.  

     Recently, Carey reflected further on “Lessons Learned:  20+ Years of CityLights.” These invaluable insights, detailed below, are helping to inform our church’s ongoing outreach partnership with The Common Place in Southwest Philadelphia.

     But Carey’s thoughts can also provide wise counsel for each of us as we orient our own personal “Faith in Action” priorities in the coming months and years.

     Her dozen guidelines to servant leadership are based on a cornucopia of activities and relationships she developed in Southwest:    

      ⁍ Emboldening our WPC Session to make CityLights the primary mission cause for a full three years.

      ⁍ Bringing financial expertise to dozens of residents through the “Common Cents” investment club.

      ⁍ Inspiring Target Inc. to support the Mitchell Elementary library with a major grant and 250 hours of work by company volunteers.

      ⁍ Reviving and sustaining the Southwest’s local newspaper to emphasize “Good News” about the dedicated people and positive programs there.

      ⁍ Helping the city’s largest men’s homeless shelter with food, clothing, job skills, and outlets for them to serve their community.

      ⁍ Providing an open, caring forum for individuals and organizations to share their needs, resources, and capabilities with other community-minded people.

     The needs of our sisters and brothers in Southwest Philadelphia and underserved areas elsewhere differ only in degree from our own: productive education for our children; reliable medical and behavioral healthcare for our families; adequate, affordable housing; nutritious food on the table; fulfilling, adequately compensated jobs; safe streets and playgrounds; dignity, respect and a sense of self-worth.

     Carey’s message can help each of us discern, with God’s help where we can best contribute our time, talent, and treasure to meet these needs.    Ted Behr

    Lessons Learned in the words of Carey Davis..

    For two decades, I had the honor of working with WPC members, Southwest Philadelphia leaders, and a host of volunteers from the region to develop an urban/suburban and inner-community network.  Our focus was to improve the quality of life for residents of the Southwest neighborhood, but it was quickly evident to all of us that the friendships and camaraderie we shared with each other and the common commitment to “thy kingdom come on earth…” enhanced each of our lives immensely.

    So what lessons does one take away from 20 years of urban ministry through urban/suburban partnership?  The following are just a few:

    1) Begin from a place of spiritual grounded-ness (and return there often!).   CityLights was launched in 1995 when WPC was in a very solid position spiritually.  Strong preaching, theologically rich music, commitments to small group bible study and to pastoral care through the emerging Stephen’s Ministry, and mission-focused Christian education at every age level, all converged to provide congregation members with the foundation needed to reach beyond themselves eagerly and sacrificially. 

    2)  Commit to a focus project for a 3-year period.  As most congregations have multiple mission projects that they support in various ways, it was important to highlight the developing CL partnership as the “focus” of mission efforts and funds for a designated time frame.  The three-year period allowed enough time to test the waters re: how the church was received in the community and how readily church members chose to engage.  It was important that during this time frame, CL leadership found ways to link what was happening in the partnership to other mission endeavors of the church.  For example, a mission trip to Kikuyu, Kenya included not only WPC members, but SW partners as well.   Mission efforts were not in competition, but could complement each other.

    3)  Maintain strong communication with church staff members and the Session.  Report quarterly to Session and have a representative attend staff meetings periodically.  Not only does this help to avoid conflicts between various program areas, but allows for every aspect of the church to be involved in the partnership in some way.  Church orchestra members performed at the 58th Street Home talent shows; nursery school children collected art supplies for Myers Tots; Men’s Bible Study gathered bagels from local businesses for Outley House men’s shelter, or rehabbed homes through Hammers with Heart.

    4)  Establish a community-based leadership team early on.  From the beginning stages, there was a committed team at WPC guiding the involvement of church members in SW Philadelphia.  Further, we had strong relationships with community partners and interacted freely on projects that they helped to define. We did not, however, engage community leaders in strategizing to set the overall agenda of the partnership until several years in.  I believe this would have helped to focus our energies on issues and tasks that were most pressing to the broader SW community.

    5)  Make relationships, not funds the focus of the partnership.   And its corollary:  give to individuals or families only through a partner organization.   More than once, the church loaned a community member funds for a specific need, but the loan was not repaid, putting the church in a difficult and awkward position.  Community partners often have a clearer picture of issues faced by families and are aware of resources that might address their need.

    6)  Work closely with local churches.   While community leaders from a variety of churches were involved in CL, we had only a few churches participate in the partnership.  This may have been an issue of autonomy – not wanting to be reliant on others, wanting to set their own agenda for their involvement in the community, etc.  Helping to develop a strong network of congregations for prayer support, and to address the spiritual needs of the community would have been helpful.   It is exciting to see the recent creation of the Salt and Light congregation in the strategic 58th and Chester location.  Linking with additional churches in the community will be pivotal for deeper change.

    7)  Build upon the existing assets of the community.  Organizations, businesses, institutions, neighborhood groups, block captains, and every resident has assets to bring to the community, whether capital, skills, expertise, connections, history, talents, or hands and feet.  Be in the habit of watching for and commending assets as you see them, then inviting participation in efforts that can get everyone involved.

    8)  Support those already paid to care for the marginalized.  Social workers, teachers, rec center leaders, health professionals – these people entered their line of work to help others. They are often underpaid or under-resourced.  Encouraging them and offering support for their endeavors can go a long way in maintaining a strong cadre of community servants on the front lines. 

    9)  Determine one or two areas that your congregation is particularly suited to address.  While CL touched nearly every organization in the community in some way, we developed deeper roles in the areas of education (supporting both a local public elementary school and a private Christian school with volunteers, resources, and connections), and in economic development (through the acquisition of a grant, hiring a consultant, and the development of a strategic plan for the community).  These two areas were of paramount importance to both SW leaders and WPC congregation members; expertise in the church could be tapped to move projects forward. Other issues such as the police/justice system, health care, and housing might also be tackled, or better yet, partner with other churches that find those issues compelling.

    10)  Take racism seriously.  Its impact is pervasive and will impact the partnership at every level, no matter how well meaning we are.  Learn to talk about it openly with partners, to listen carefully, and to address concerns that are race related as they arise. 

    11)  Have the partnership team become trauma informed.  And help to build a coalition of organizations in the community that are trauma informed and competent.  There is no issue facing the community that does not have its root in trauma, whether the chronic daily issues of poverty, racism, violence, etc. or specific incidents that people endure without support.  Had I stayed with CL a few more years, this would have been my focus. 

    12)  Celebrate often!  Community work is hard and ongoing.  Take time regularly to celebrate what has been accomplished by the partnership.  Highlight people and events in local news (or start/re-start your own community paper!).  Invite local officials to witness the good going on in their areas of service and seek their support for the future.

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