Through a Student’s Eyes: Christian Community Development
A few weeks ago I, along with a group of students and staff from Duke Divinity School, attended the Christian Community Development Association’s (CCDA) conference in Chicago, IL. Recently, A.J. Walton, a third year divinity student, had the chance to sit and chat with one attendee, Reynolds Chapman, also a third year student, to hear his reflections on CCDA and the transformation of his Christian calling.
These are two wonderful students who are each called to the ministry of reconciliation. I know you’ll enjoy listening in on their conversation.
AJ: You’ve been involved with CCDA for several years, Reynolds. How did you get involved, and how has it impacted you?
Reynolds: This past year was actually my fourth CCDA conference. I first got involved in college because, like John Perkins talks about, I realized the Gospel was bigger than personal salvation. Initially, I’ll admit that I thought, “Jesus calls Christians to social justice, so I need to go help people.” It was still quite “personal” for me. What John Perkins did for me in his philosophy on community development—relocation, redistribution, and reconciliation—was to help me realize that the Gospel isn’t about having the right view. It’s about embodying a life that helps break down the barriers that divide the church and the world in which we live every day. He helped me realize that embodying requires joining, entering into the lives of others, which is something that I didn’t think about before.
Prior to meeting John Perkins, I was cynical about the church. I thought, “The church isn’t doing this and that. We need to be more vocal.” Going to CCDA, I found that the church did care, and that I didn’t have to be some hero that proclaimed this on my own. I simply had to join this group of people doing this work already. To add to that, CCDA was life-changing because, for the first time, I was in a place where Jesus Christ was proclaimed loudly and, at the same time, where the Gospel attended to the deepest problems in our country.
AJ: How has CCDA reshaped your thinking about social justice?
Reynolds: I’ve grown to realize that our human strivings will always fall short. When we try to solve the world’s problems from our own efforts, we simply cause more harm. Social justice, then, has to start with God. It can’t just be about our humanitarian efforts, but it must be grounded in Jesus.
Ultimately, social justice goes back to creation, the fact that God created the world right and good…to have shalom [peace]. We [humans] disrupted and corrupted God’s intent to have the world be in peace. But Jesus, in the incarnation, embodied and proclaimed the kingdom of God, and he calls us to participate and live into that. Through the Holy Spirit, we’re equipped to do the same as Jesus, with Jesus as both our power and our example.
AJ: But this doesn’t mean that we give up on advocacy, does it?
Reynolds: No, advocacy is big part of CCDA. Right now we’re doing a lot with immigration reform. But what is most important is “being.” One speaker this year, Brenda Salter McNeil, actually spoke on this quite a bit. Since it is CCDA’s 20th anniversary, everyone is quite conscious of who we are and where we’re going. What she said, though, was that we have to remember that John Perkins is not our father. God is our Father. That’s who shapes us. In many ways, that was an example of CCDA grounding what we do in who we are. We are, number one, children of God. Now granted, there’s a huge tendency in CCDA to want to be activists and forget about Jesus, but we always have to pull back and say, “This is why we do it…because of Jesus.” “Being” is number one, and then we try to see how who we are in Christ should move us out into the world.
AJ: Sometimes CCDA and those who believe in John Perkins’ understanding of relocation are critiqued because of the idea of downward mobility. What are your thoughts on that?
Reynolds: I think the critiques on downward mobility have merit. One thing CCDA has to guard against is making it “trendy” to move into certain areas. CCDA is getting younger, which is a good thing, but it’s crucial for us all to remember well…to know who came before us…what they did and why they did it….so that we don’t do community development because it’s “the thing to do.”
One good thing is that there’s now a broader definition of relocation, one different than what it used to be. It used to be the move-from-the-outside-to-the-inside, though this isn’t necessarily what the Perkins family did. Nonetheless, it’s typically a) the suburban person who leaves the suburbs; b) the local who grows up in the community and doesn’t want to leave; or c) the former insider who left and wants to come back. But even this is becoming more complex. I heard one speaker at CCDA, a Princeton professor who grew up in a poorer community, admit that he struggles with whether or not to return to his community. In general, though, any talk of relocation is a struggle now. It’s tough.
AJ: On a more personal note, how do you deal with the reality that, despite what you say, believe, or even see happening because of CCDA, the world still doesn’t look the way it ought to?
Reynolds: Wow. When I feel like I’m on the verge of despondency, what gives me hope is the picture in Revelation where the New Jerusalem comes down, with people from all nations and tribes worshipping God as one. That’s hope. Eschatological hope. Hope in the future. When we [Christians] feel overwhelmed, hope has to drive us. What Christians have is the confidence that one day all things will be right. It’s a gift from God. In the meantime, I want to plant myself somewhere and let the Spirit work through me…to learn and grow.
- “Beyond the Engaging Poverty Fad”–Chris Rice’s thoughts on the 2010 CCDA conference
- Voices from the Summer Institute: Reflections on reconciliation from John Perkins
- Divinity student Nathan Rauh reflects on his internship experience in community development with Church of the Saviour