TRANSFORMING COMMUNITIES: How People Like You Are Healing Their Neighborhoods. By Sandhya Rani Jha. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2017. 144 pages.
Government has a significant role to play in creating a just, safe, and productive community, where everyone is included in the benefits of community. However, government cannot do it all. There is need for grassroots community efforts, and religious communities play a significant role in creating communities of healing and justice. Every faith community has gifts and resources to contribute, no matter how large or how small they might be. Indeed, a community of fifteen parishioners could be the catalyst for something rather powerful. The question is, will we hear the call and respond?
Perhaps what is needed are stories of ways in which faith communities have stepped into the gap. Before we get to the how to, there is need to see what is possible. Sandhya Jha is just that kind of story-teller. She is a Disciples of Christ minister (my denomination) and currently serves as Executive Director of the Oakland Peace Center, and effort that emerged out of First Christian Church of Oakland, which had about fifteen members, and which Sandhya served as pastor. This ministry, which provides space for some ninety community organizations that serve Oakland’s diverse community and its needs, is itself an illustration of what can happen with a bit of imagination and divine inspiration. This effort reflects Sandhya’s commitment to community service and the pursuit of justice. She has spent many years involved in various forms of community organizing, including a form known as "faith-rooted organizing." She believes that the needs of our communities require a commitment that will likely take fifty years to accomplish, so there is no time to waste. While there is a place for protests, which she has engaged in, they are not, she believes, sufficient. For progress to be truly made, communities themselves will need to take the lead. She believes that they have the skills and wisdom to do this, but there is need for regular people to discern those skills, and then find ways to implement them to solve issues in that are specific to those communities.
The book's ten chapters begin with a discussion of "the power of recognizing assets." What she has in mind here is a movement beyond charity. There is a recognition her of the danger of efforts to serve that dis-empower. What is needed is solidarity (strength-based organizing) and then discernment of assets, such as leadership skills within the community, to begin building a community of hope. This leads to a discussion of the value of community conversations. She points to the effort on the part of First Christian Church of San Jose to utilize their building to form the Recovery Cafe, which provides meals, job training, and more to the people living in the community. This effort emerged due to the church listening to the community. One of the tools they used was a basic tool of community organizing—the "one-to-one." A “one-to-one” involves one person sitting down with another, seeking to hear that person’s concerns, whether personal or community-related. These conversations form the basis for discerning pathways to change and transformation. Such conversations usually precede larger community meetings, which makes those meetings more productive. That is because the efforts undertaken reflect the concerns of the community. They’re not imposed from outside.
Sandhya Jha continues the conversation about ways in which regular people can join together to make positive changes by introducing the reader to the principles of restorative justice, which can serve as an alternative to the traditional punishment-based justice system. Because restorative justice is relational, it has proven to reduce recidivism. Crimes are understood to be committed against people, not the state. There is a chapter on housing issues, which so many communities deal with. As I read the chapter, in which she mentions that there are more vacant homes than homeless, I began to imagine ways in which housing could be made available to those who need and want it. I realize that there are often mental health/drug issues related to homelessness, but that is not true of all, or even most. Is not housing a human right that we need to find ways of addressing? Why not create a new homestead law? There is also a chapter on overcoming hate, as well as one that emphasizes the importance of building connections between groups of people. There is a chapter on building community and one on reconciliation. The latter is an important work that is directed at ministering to veterans, many of whom not only suffer PTSD, but more specifically a sense of moral injury. This is a very interesting chapter that deals with an issue that pertinent to our communities after nearly seventeen years of war that has not ended (let alone the continued fallout from Vietnam). It is important to note that one of the key leaders in this effort is Disciples theologian Rita Nakashima Brock, who has been an outspoken opponent of engaging in war efforts. There is also a chapter on community gardening, which addresses the issue of urban food deserts.
Early in the book she speaks of community organizing efforts, which often involved congregations. But there is another model, known as faith-rooted organizing. Sandhya discusses this effort in terms of salvation. This model recognizes that faith-communities often bring distinct gifts to the organizing effort that are not always utilized in traditional community organizing efforts. It also differs from traditional community organizing, which focuses on self-interest and emphasizes common good. There is in this effort a sense of solidarity, whether one is directing impacted or not.
The closing chapter serves as a summary, inviting us to consider how faith communities can be bases of healing movements in the community. The message here is that the myth of individualism has undermined community, but that myth can be deconstructed, and a new effort set in motion that can bring justice and healing to the communities we inhabit.
This is an insightful book that can inspire local congregations to look both at themselves and at their communities, and discern ways that they can engage. The concept of being missional has been popular in recent years. Sandhya doesn’t refer to this movement, but the stories told here are illustrative of what it means to be missional. The kinds of projects discussed are rooted in the life of a congregation. They reflect values and gifts. While many of the projects and efforts discussed here can be replicated elsewhere, the possibilities for congregational mission are endless and not limited to those discussed here. She recognizes that every community is different, with unique needs and different required responses. But, she has enough experience with these kinds of efforts to give us wisdom that can help empower efforts of transformation.
Sandhya Jha is first and foremost a story-teller, and that gift is well used here. While the book is not difficult to read, it will challenge readers. That’s why this book can be a great catalyst for conversation within faith-communities that are ready to hear and see the concerns of their communities and then get involved. The key, of course, is to remember that this reflects the community’s sense of divine call. In other words, the church is not simply another service organization. It is a community of faith and what it does in the community is a reflection of its communion with God. That is why I believe this is a book for our times.