Please take a moment to view the photo essay that is a companion piece to this sermon.
Very special thanks go to Rev. Ron Robinson for allowing me to interview him and for his willingness to share the good news of his ministry in Turley, Oklahoma. You can find out more this work here. (You can also donate to his minstry through PayPal.) You can read a three-part newsletter article on Ron's ministry here, here, and here.
A month ago I was riding in a car with my friend Paul, a Unitarian Universalist in Rockford, Illinois. We were driving in his Mini-Cooper down the central thoroughfare through the small city of Rockford. I had never been to Rockford before, but the stretch of road was very familiar. It was pretty much what you see as you drive through almost any urban/suburban area in the country. To me it felt as if I was driving down Metcalf Avenue. [The main street running through Overland Park.]
We started out at the new development end, the end that looks exactly like 151st Street and Metcalf. The buildings were clean and crisp, utilizing glass, stainless steel, and fashionable stonework. Young saplings, secured to the ground with guide wires, dotted the islands in the parking lots. The shopping center featured upscale stores and brand new restaurants.
As we continued to drive we passed another shopping center with slightly lower end stores and restaurants, roughly the equivalent of 119th and Metcalf. This shopping center had been the new thing five years earlier. Next we passed even older establishments with concrete buildings that looked just the slightest bit run down and then strip malls which had been the new thing over a decade ago. It resembled 91st and Metcalf.
I began to call out, as one gifted with skills of prophecy, the types of stores we would pass next: tanning salons, ethnic grocers, and economy priced beauty salons, all in strip malls with salmon and green awnings and many vacant storefronts. As Paul and I continued past, I announced, “I bet we pass a Payday Loan lender in the next thirty seconds.” Paul responded, “Not so fast. First we pass the auto parts stores and then we pass the Payday lenders.”
Paul explained: As the make-up of the community changes, the first thing you see is more and more used cars on the road. These cars need more constant maintenance and so you need a store that sells auto parts. Show me a store that sells auto parts and within 18 months there will be a Payday lender next door. For Paul, who has lived there most of his life, driving through the Rockford sprawl was like passing through the rings of a tree from the outside to the inside.
You can do the exact same thing in Overland Park. Jump in your car and drive ten miles from 151st Street to 75th Street. When I moved to Overland Park seven years ago there were one or two predatory lenders (Payday lenders, check cashing businesses, title loan stores) between 75th and 83rd. Now there are seven.
Of course, that’s just the neighborhood around the church. Drive down Troost. Drive past the Bannister Mall. Look at the neighborhoods in KCK with abandoned lots and foreclosed homes. Consider all the schools they are closing in KCMO.
Whether you are in urban planning or local politics or sociology or the non-profit sector or the for-profit sector, you might have different names for this. Since I am in the theological sector, I call these places “The Abandoned Places of Empire.”
The Abandoned Places of Empire. I did not invent the term. This term comes from New Monasticism, one of dozens of contemporary, post-modern, alternative, experimental, Christian movements. (The first of the "Twelve Marks" of the New Monastics is "relocation to the abandoned places of empire.") The New Monastics view the world we live in as comparable to the Roman Empire at the time when the Roman Empire began to disintegrate and collapse. They would say that the United States demonstrates imperialist tendencies, and not just in terms of its international policies.
What are the tendencies of empires? In an empire, the state, the church, and the culture become deeply intermeshed, inseparably interwoven. Empires elevate entertainment and the marketplace as the central focal points of society. The Roman Coliseum and the marketplace of 2,000 years ago are found today at The Legends [an enormous, upscale shopping and entertainment complex] with its race track and Nebraska Furniture Mart. We know the legends of Roman mythology. The Legends of today has a Coldstone Creamery.
Another feature of empire is that it systematically draws the wealth and resources out of some places and centralizes that wealth elsewhere. When the Roman Empire occupied the Holy Land, it taxed the people and sent that money back to Rome. It set the terms of trade and pulled goods and resources from the margins to the center.
The Roman religion, first pagan then Christian, preached a message that justified the state. Today, the New Monastics and other alternative Christian groups are critical of dominant forms of Christianity that legitimize the larger culture. The New Monastics critique the mega-church movement and its shopping mall aesthetics. They express concern towards the Gospel of Prosperity that many of these churches preach, the idea that God wants you to be rich and that material wealth is a sign of holiness. They criticize what they call “cultural Christianity,” a church that implicitly or explicitly blesses the larger culture.
On this point, let me say that it is common for a church to offer a critique of culture on a superficial level at the same time that it implicitly confers a blessing upon the culture at a deeper level. It may rail against the sinfulness of rap lyrics or Hollywood or it may get itself worked up about homosexuality while at the same time remaining silent about the causes of poverty, the foreign policy of our nation, or our fascination with materialism and spectacle. If we’re going to talk about the merging of church and culture, it should be pointed out that America’s largest mega-church holds worship in the basketball arena that was the former home to the Houston Rockets NBA team.
So, an empire succeeds by fusing the state, the culture, the church, the marketplace, and entertainment. All the parts mutually reinforce each other. An empire depends on the ability to suck resources away from one area and centralize those resources in other areas. Gold rush towns become ghost towns when all the gold’s been taken away. When the gold is gone, what you have left is an abandoned place of empire. No gold, no Golddiggers. [This last sentence is an allusion to my photo essay.]
Sometimes, what is left behind is a ghost town or a clear-cut mountainside. Other times, it’s a ghetto. The dominant culture sends a message about these abandoned places. “They are places where cool people don’t go and you should avoid these places. The people that live there ought to leave and if they are smart enough or wealthy enough they have left. If you live there, it is probably because you are dumb or lazy.”
I want to tell you a story. It is a true story. It takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It is a story of two cities. It is the story of Owasso and Turley, two of Tulsa’s satellite communities. My good friend Reverend Ron Robinson lives in Tulsa. He is a UU Christian and wanted to start a new church. When Tulsa desegregated, the white flight sent people racing to Owasso. Owasso is an affluent suburb completely and completely lacking for liberal religion, or liberal anything for that matter. Since liberal Christianity didn’t even have a place in Owasso, Ron decided he would start a church there. He called it Epiphany and the church grew 600%. In other words, it grew from a church of two members (Ron and his wife) to a church of twelve. One Easter they managed to get 25 in worship.
The church grew dispirited with trying to make itself viable in Owasso. The spirit moved them and they decided to replant their church in Turley. Let me tell you a little bit about Turley. In the 1960s Turley was a solidly blue-collar town. By the new millennium it had become an abandoned place of empire. It had gone from blue-collar to no-collar. Its residents were either retired or unemployed. Here is what the community looked like: no new housing had been built in decades. There were almost no businesses, no employment to be found, and little if any public transportation. Parts of Turley are unincorporated, meaning no municipal government has responsibility for it. Trash piles up. Feral dogs and cats roam freely. There are few grocery stores and the community had no access to healthy food. There are no hospitals and no health clinics. There are no movie theaters and no spaces for youth to gather. You can’t even get a pizza delivered there.
So, Ron Robinson, his wife, and their 15 year-old daughter moved there and they re-launched the church, calling it “The Living Room.” Its impact was negligible. One Easter the church decided to line Turley’s streets with pots full of blooming daffodils and tulips. People came and cut the flowers or dumped out the dirt and took the pots.
The church changed again. They decided to stop holding regular church programs and to transform themselves into a community center which they called “A Third Place.” Today, the church is a core group of around 8 people. They operate a community center for the residents of Turley. The Community Center runs a food pantry, an extremely popular internet center, a modest library, a community medicine clinic, an art gallery, and a coffeehouse with live musicians. They offer free meals, community classes, a children’s area, a games area, meeting space, a sewing co-op, 12 Step programs, and an animal welfare clinic.
They formed a partnership with the University of Oklahoma which has launched public health and social work initiatives in the town and works to bring community health services to the residents there. They have started a community gardening program. Native American members of the Turley community plant the three sisters: corn, beans, and squash. With a donation of land, they have started a community orchard. They practice what they call “guerrilla gardening” which involves reclaiming abandoned lots or even a median strip or a sidewalk and planting there.
There is hope here, but there is also tremendous despair. Here is one more thing to say about Turley. “A Third Place” community center is actually on the exact same street as All Souls UU Church in Tulsa, the largest UU church in the country. They are eight miles apart from one another. The average life expectancy in the zip code where “A Third Place” is located is 14 years less than the average life expectancy of All Souls’ zip code.
But, let’s come back to Kansas City. When I did my slideshow of abandoned places of empire in Kansas City I chose just three different areas. I probably could have chosen one hundred and three. For example, I didn’t mention Wyandotte County. My friend pastors a congregation in KCK. He tells me that sixty percent of the homes and businesses around his church are vacant.
For the last ten months I, along with another member of our church, have been working in partnership with an organization called Communities Creating Opportunity, an organization that does community organizing and that brings together members of faith communities to build relationships, share stories, talk about the issues that matter in our families, and helps us to organize to effect change in our communities based on the power of our relationships. In the past month I joined a group of people involved in CCO who met in the office of Mayor Reardon of KCK and advocated for a solution to make foreclosed homes less conspicuous and therefore less of a target for vandals and squatters.
A few weeks ago I attended a meeting at the Kauffman Foundation with bank executives and ministers from throughout the city. This gathering had been organized by CCO and it was an opportunity to advocate for banks to offer a more moral and less usurious alternative to Payday loans. When it was my turn to speak, I talked about not being in the room purely out of a sense of solidarity with my brothers in midtown, my sisters in East Kansas City, or my friends in Wyandotte. I believe I was the lone Johnson County representative in the room and I talked about how every time I drive to work, I pass seven predatory lenders within a mile of the church. The presence of those predatory lenders speaks to the vulnerability present among our neighbors in this neighborhood. Under my working analysis of empire, I would say that payday lending is a form of grabbing what little is left of the wealth and resources of one area and relocating that wealth elsewhere. I do not want the area around this church to become an abandoned place of empire, surrounded by pawn shops and zombie malls.
I want to introduce another word, a word that isn’t theological in and of itself but can be infused with a religious meaning. The word is “reclamation.” To reclaim something is to take something back, to take something back that empire had wrongfully possessed. To take something back that empire possessed immorally and without consent.
The last pictures I showed you in my slide show had to do with reclamation. The community garden near my home is probably temporary, but I’d much rather have a community garden than an abandoned field where people dump their trash. And, sure, it is possible to scoff at the little garden. What difference does that make? Well, it raises my property value by a very small amount. A thriving public school system would make a bigger difference, so we will have to put that on the agenda. That garden provides an opportunity for people in my neighborhood to connect. It builds community which, in turn, has an impact on public safety. It is environmentally sound. If you grow food in your backyard, no fossil fuels are needed to ship it or truck it. The most environmentally friendly food is the food you can walk to your own dinner table. These changes are small. You might almost say they are insignificant. But, the biggest difference is the change it has made in me. I care about my community more. I think about my neighbors more. I notice more. I’m not saying that this was a Saul on the road to Damascus moment. I’m just saying those heads of lettuce are better… better than the shuttered store. Better than the trash heap. Better than a Payday lender.
The first abandoned place of empire to reclaim is the human heart.
We live in an empire. It is an empire that has fused faith, government, culture, business, and entertainment. It is a ravenous force. It leaves behind rust belts and strip-mined mountain sides. It can be resisted and much of its damage can be undone. Its abandoned buildings can be reclaimed. Its abandoned fields can be sown.
This Earth Day weekend you may have heard about the 4 R’s of environmentalism: reduce, reuse, recycle, replenish. To those I add another 4: reclaim, restore, rebuild, recreate.
Earlier in the service I read a selection from Rev. Vanessa Southern’s meditation manual, This Piece of Eden. In it she talks about the children of her church working to grow a garden. I conclude with her words,
It is odd to think that this patch of ground was once fallow, a trash dump for the local alley dwellers. In short order, it has gone from eyesore to asset. Listen carefully any day and you can hear the neighbors cooing in appreciation as they walk by. If in our neglect of this piece of land they saw evidence of a church not fully rooted in this community, in our care of this garden they may now see a love made manifest.