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Do Duke and the ‘Hood Need Each Other?

March 19, 2010

Me with 2009 Duke interns to New Song, Reynolds Chapman and Tolu Sosayana, on the street corner which birthed the vision. Martha’s Place is in the background, a former crack house.

“All my fragmented experiences are not due to chance … they force me to come to a synthesis, to overcome the fragmented character, the breaking of pieces … The tragedy is that each fragment wants to be the whole … and passionately denies the others.  Each one perceives Christ only through his own experience, his own vision.  No one sees his own limitations, his own relative character in Christ”      Theologian Alexander Schmemann in his journals

Do Duke and the ‘hood need each other?  Duke speaks eloquently of “knowledge in service of society.”  Is there a kind of “knowing” about hope that can only happen in mutuality at the margins?

Those questions stirred within me five years ago, standing on a street corner in the ‘hood after spending a day in Baltimore in inner-city Sandtown.  I was overwhelmed by what I had just seen, the remarkable ministry of New Song Ministries in a 15-square block area – 250 Habitat homes, a sparkling charter school for 150 neighborhood children, a health care ministry, a vibrant interracial church.

An extraordinary community leader, a tall gentle man named Elder Harris, had taken me and my colleague Emmanuel Katongole through his New Born Ministry in the same community.  Harris is what New Song folks call a “remainer,” a neighborhood leader and elder who chose to stay in Sandtown when most middle-class African-Americans moved out.  He even stayed when the crack epidemic moved in.  And right there, on the poisoned ground of a former crack house and open-air drug market, Harris and his wife Amelia started Martha’s Place, a recovery home for addicted mothers.

Talk about resurrection – the ramshackle building where women used crack was transformed into the beautiful home where they found new life.

After touring Martha’s Place we stood on the street corner outside with Harris.  “So Elder Harris,” I asked, “what seminaries are sending their students to learn from what y’all are doing here?”

There was a pregnant silence.  Slowly Elder Harris turned his face toward mine.

Seminaries? There ain’t no seminaries sending students to Sandtown.”

He stunned me, floored me, humbled me.  And right then and there on that street corner, the vision for the “Teaching Communities” program was born.  For the five years since then we’ve sent Duke Divinity students to places like New Song, L’Arche, Church of the Saviour, Circle Urban Ministries, and Mississippi to learn from the work of the Holy Spirit and wisdom of God’s people who have not abandoned places at the margins.

The “Choose Life” garden.

It was a joy to be reunited last week with Elder and Amelia Harris and the folks at New Song and New Born when I led a group of eight Duke Divinity School pilgrims on a “pilgrimage of pain and hope” to Baltimore and Richmond.

“I’m grateful you’re here in a community that has been forgotten,” said Elder Harris last week.  “Especially seminarians.  If we were all doing what God intended, we wouldn’t have poverty in Sandtown.  We have 70 churches in a 52-block area.  Something is wrong.  We’re still struggling in this ministry.  The harvest is plentiful but we need more laborers.  We’re part of the miracle God has done.  It’s a cultural addiction,” he continued.  “To move out means you’re more prosperous.  Who was left behind?  The people who didn’t have a voice.  Who did we leave them behind to?  The pushers, the addicts.”

Out the window and across the street I could see where there was once open air drug dealing – now  a “Choose Life” memorial garden with benches, trees, flowers, a mural, and a remembrance to lives lost in the community to addiction and violence.  “It does the spirit a lot of good to have beautiful spaces like this,” Elder Harris had said earlier.

There is a deep danger of self-sufficiency when it comes to thinking we know what we need to know about hope in a broken world.  Some call it “asset-based community development,” others of us would say it’s believing that hope begins with seeing gifts and not impoverishment.  God has planted gifts in the most unlikely places.  And from the standpoint of Elder Harris and Sandtown, Duke was just as unlikely a place to be a gift as Sandtown was to seminaries.

“Each fragment wants to be the whole.”  To what extent is true knowing only gained in mutuality, in companionship within an unlikely community of gifts and becoming something more than their fragment in that exchange?  Last week folks in Sandtown kept talking with excitement about “the Duke group.”  Duke and Sandtown are recognizing they need each other.  The wonder, what can only be born on a street corner in a place like Sandtown.

Duke pilgrims with Pastor Thurman Williams of New Song Church

About the Author: Chris Rice is co-director of the Center for Reconciliation at Duke Divinity School.  He is author of Reconciling All Things, Grace Matters, and More Than Equals. He writes regularly at the blog Reconcilers.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Granvel Johnson permalink
    March 22, 2010 5:27 pm

    While the Apostle Paul knew he was blind I had no idea how poor my sight was until going on the pilgrimage. I know of at least one Duke Seminarian who is already anticipating the next pilgrimage to Sandtown.

    I believe these types of encounters hold the potential for revitalizing not only communities, but also the church.

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