“Our Job: Here & Now”
Franklin Circle Christian Church ~ Rev. Allen V. Harris
ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of
many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the
restorer of streets to live in.”
Does that not sound like good news worthy of Cleveland, Ohio in the
year 2007? Ancient ruins being rebuilt? Providing a foundation for
many future generations? Repairing the breach? Restoring the streets?
These are words worthy of Regina Brett, Phillip Morris, Connie Schultz,
Dick Feagler, Kevin O'Brien, or another Plain Dealer
columnist. There can be no question in anyone's mind that our city is
ripe and ready for restoration and in anxious need for revitalization.
But the prophet of this, the third great slice of the epic book of
Isaiah, does not have Cleveland, Ohio in mind, but, rather, another
great city which had fallen on hard times: Jerusalem. Like our fair
city, the city of Zion had experienced decline and deterioration, but in
538 BCE it was the result of war and the ensuing exile of the Hebrew
people to Babylon that secured the city's grave fate for decades.
Cleveland hasn't experienced an actual war, but in some ways we have
been decimated by many wars. Certainly our young people on the streets
would call it that. Guns are so prevalent that one has to wonder if
they aren't coming from an arsenal. Drugs and the wretched culture that
surrounds them create rival factions the envy of any military
opponents. Our young women are treated as poorly by the men around them
as any hostage captured in the heat of battle. Our children, the
elderly, the disabled, gay and lesbian neighbors fear for their safety
so much that they barricade themselves into their homes as much as
And our people are dying… in gun battles, drive-by shootings, by stray
bullets, by out-of-control cars, through mindless beatings.
And if that isn't enough, the social safety net, so carefully
constructed by this country and working well for the most part since the
Great Depression has been under attack and is woefully under funded.
People in very real need are ridiculed and people in poverty are
reviled. A senseless war overseas drains our resources away from
critical programs proven to strengthen the fabric of the nation,
oftentimes siphoned off by corporations that are held unaccountable to
the very citizens who fund their escalating executive salaries. And now
we approach the unthinkable hallmark memorializing 4,000 of our finest
men and women who have died.
Likewise, we haven't been taken into exile into another country, like
the Israelites, but in many ways we have known exile up close and
personal. Our jobs have been banished from our city and our nation, in
the name of “always low prices.” Our people are in exile in the suburbs
and beyond because our city streets are unsafe and our schools struggle
to have the resources and attention to do the most important job a
civilization can do: educate our young.
So maybe there is much in common between the city of Jerusalem in the
time of Isaiah 58 and the city of Cleveland in our day. We both face
war and exile.
But the word that comes to us today, which I have taken as a sign for me
to share with you my vision of Franklin Circle Christian Church, is not
the challenging word that came from First Isaiah to the people prior to
these terrible events happening. It is not even the compassionate word
from Second Isaiah that came to the people in the midst of the crisis.
Third Isaiah, from which this text comes, is, in fact, the word of the
Lord, spoken through Isaiah, to the people as they begin returning to
their decimated city. It is, therefore, ultimately a word of hope.
And that is what I offer to you, the good people of this historic,
diverse, urban congregation on Cleveland's Near West Side in the late
summer days of 2007. Hope. Hope like you have never hoped before.
This congregation is and will continue to be a place of safety, a beacon
of hope, and a people of action as the exiles return to our city and
make it great once again. The leadership of this congregation, not
simply the pastor but every Elder, every Deacon and Deaconess, every
Trustee, every Team Leader, Every Fellowship Group president, and
ultimately every member will be vital and necessary in our church's
leading this city to a new day of restoration, renewal, and hope.
ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; we shall
raise up the foundations of many generations; we shall be
called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
Let me tell you why I know this is true.
First, it is in our nature to do so. This congregation has lasted
through 165 years filled with many devastating times and situations, and
has survived, even thrived. It has survived a civil war, two world
wars, two major wars in Southeast Asia and now a series of wars in the
Middle East. It has survived the assassinations of three presidents,
one of whom was a former preacher of ours. It withstood the Great
Depression, as many of you know personally. It has survived the ravages
of urban decay, “white flight,” and is trying to survive gentrification
with integrity and faith. It has seen the industrial revolution
up-close-and-personal, literally outside our windows, as well as the
technological revolution and now the information revolution.
And as all this was happening, this congregation responded with hope.
In the 19th century, this meant building a stellar Victorian Gothic
sanctuary in the aftermath of a terrible war between the states, and the
formation of new congregation after new congregation all across the west
side of Cleveland and beyond. That's hope.
In the 20th century this meant building a fully functional Community
Building in the midst of a world rushing to war. It created program
after program to meet the needs of a radically changing neighborhood,
from a “Chinese Sunday School” teaching life skills to the immigrants
that had built our nation's railroad infrastructure, to creating after
school programs and drama groups, hosting Boy Scout troops, offering a
place for Senior Meals and Montessori Child Development classes. And
then, when times got tougher, this church was willing to live off of its
great endowment in order to maintain not a building, but a presence in
the city so many love. Members, even when choosing to make the
difficult decision to move outside of the city limits, still maintained
such a devotion to this church and its mission that they to this day
drive many miles in order to ensure it will continue to witness to God's
love to a city in crisis. Many of them at advanced ages. That's hope.
But my heartfelt belief in this church as a “repairer of the breach” and
a “restorer of streets” is not based simply on who we were then, but on
who we have become now.
In the 21st century our building continues to be seen as a place of
vibrant ministry, whether our own or that of other wonderful groups. In
addition to our own cluster of programs for children, youth, and adults,
we host an after school program, a women's outreach center, a yoga
group, a clothing center, a gay and lesbian band, and soon our Thursday
meal program will return. If we are going to be part of the solution
that rebuilds our ancient ruins, then we will have to continue to see
this building as a community center and never a museum nor a fortress.
Every dollar we spend to keep it up should be seen as money well spent
to keep it open and overflowing with people doing the mission Christ
sent us to do. That brings hope.
But more than that, we have become a safe and nurturing community for
people of vastly different backgrounds and perspectives. From our
weekly worshipping congregation to our governing board we include folks
who are from all economic classes; who are white, black, Hispanic, and
even West African; those who are rich in resources and those who barely
have a dime they can call their own; we welcome people in recovery from
addictions, long-term survivors with HIV/AIDS, and people who have known
the inside of a jail cell all-too-intimately; we rejoice in the gifts of
single people and coupled people, women as well as men, those who are
gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, straight-but-not-narrow, and even
a few who may be confused!
And we do this not because we are confused, or because we are
“accommodating” the culture, but because Jesus told us to do so and
lived as a bold and prophetic example to us to do so. This church
believes our openness is a gift of God's grace that we offer a divisive
and all-too-segregated world. We're too busy doing God's work to bother
with such us-vs.-them nonsense. That brings hope.
But let me tell you more of my vision, built on six years of getting to
know our history, this neighborhood, and you. Franklin Circle Christian
Church was called by God in this time and this place to be a
bridge-building community to a city divided against itself. We
literally link worlds as diverse and different as could ever be
imagined. From the gorgeous Victorian homes being remodeled and
restored to our south and west to the landmark public housing of
Lakeview Estates, Lakeview Towers, the Big 8, and Riverview Towers to
our North and East, we sit prophetically in the middle of the great
divide of the modern world, between the haves and the have nots. I hear
Mordecai's words to Queen Esther: “Perhaps you were called to this
position for just such a time as this!” Will we see and capture this
calling or will we squander it away by bickering amongst ourselves.
The Widening The Circle Forums which have been hosted monthly for the
last year and a half and will continue this year have not been designed
for navel-gazing and tea-time conversation between like-minded people.
We have talked about everything from using or not using the N-word to
how to treat people with differing abilities to gender identity to class
differences so that we might hone our skills as hosts to the
conversations that might make our neighborhood safer and bring justice
to our entire community. This brings hope.
This next year we will, through the leadership of the Board of Elders,
talk more specifically than ever before what it means for our church to
Anti-Racist and Pro-Reconciling Congregation; what it means to be
and Open & Affirming Congregation, and what it means to be a
We will also be hiring an Associate Pastor, one who can relate to the
youth of our church, our neighborhood, and our city. I cannot do
ministry alone. I need a pastoral colleague who is trained and
experienced in ministry so that we can support one another in this
wonderful but difficult work. We need a youth pastor so that this
congregation can better minister to our youth, reach out and help the
youth of our diverse community, and can also teach the rest of us what
is necessary from us for their hope and their salvation. This brings
Essential to this calling to give hope to a city in crisis and a
neighborhood in need is recognizing what we can and what we cannot do.
Your pastor finds this a humbling experience. One thing which I learned
painfully and beautifully this summer, at the City of God conference
which I attended in Washington, DC in early June, was that I have
developed a great and rich relationship with you, my beloved Franklin
Circle Christian Church, and with this wild and wonderful community
called Ohio City/ Near West Side, but that perhaps my commitment was not
as deep as I led you - and myself - to believe.
Sitting not ten feet from perhaps one of the greatest preachers and
pastors of our time,
the Rev. Dr. Jim Forbes
(photo left*), he asked our group the
penetrating question, which I believe to this very moment, he
unknowingly meant for me and me alone: “Are you shacking up with your
congregation?” Are you committed on paper, or is your heart
really committed. I began to cry uncontrollably. I think at that
point I realized that I was just “shacking up” with you. I hadn't
really committed myself to you, nor to this community, perhaps not even
to my partner of 18 years, Craig. It was as cathartic an experience as
I have ever known. I vowed at that moment, to either love you or leave
As I reflected with the other urban pastors and lay leaders on my
emotions and the painful confrontation to which Rev. Forbes question
brought me, I realized that I continued to be distracted by how very
different I feel from you, my people. Our class differences, our
educational differences, our social differences, and just the
differences in our life experiences seem to me to be so great and so
very difficult to overcome. I realized then that the very differences
of which I proudly proclaimed as being “open and affirming,” where the
very ones I could not seem to overcome. Similarly, I wondered whether
or not you were fully committed to me, either, because of these same
differences or because you may have intuited my reservations.
So I opened my heart to hear God's answer, and it came in the form of an
80+ year old prophet of whom I have spoken before: Gordon Cosby (photo
of the Church of the Savior communities in the Adams Morgan area of
Washington, DC. In my article in the September Messenger
newsletter I write about his call for us to stop “doing” ministry and
even “thinking” ministry, and simply being present with people.
Of course, you cannot fully commit yourself to another human being if
you are not fully present.
And by presence, he did not mean proximity or closeness. Mr. Cosby
meant being fully engaged with another person or a community so much so
that your life depends upon them, and theirs upon yours. Then and there
I realized that I needed to be more fully present with you, my beloved
congregation, and then challenge you to be more fully present with this
community and the people who live here. Our job, here and now, is to be
God's presence in our community, our city.
Ministry is always communal. God came to individuals never for their
salvation alone, but for the salvation of the community. This is what
the prophet speaking in third Isaiah knew all too well. In chapter 58,
the salvation that is promised is directly related to the well-being of
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
Jesus did not come to individuals; he came to a community. Jesus
did not just call Peter to follow him, he called a band of twelve
disciples, who were to go and spread the news to all the world! We
cannot be saved individually if we are not present with our community in
a way that brings healing, wholeness, and justice to all the people.
I would dare say my salvation is dependent upon the future of the
city of Cleveland, Ohio. Certainly the hope of Franklin Circle
Christian Church is radically intertwined and interdependent upon the
future of this city. To act otherwise is not only foolish, but risks
our very relationship with God - our salvation.
At our Leadership Retreat yesterday, I challenged the leaders present to
be more fully present with our community. They responded with energy
and grace. But this presence is hard, it means doing two things that
are challenging to good church folks: first it means showing up where
you've not been before and like you've never been before…
the Thursday Meal Program, our After School Program, with people who
walk through and past our doors daily, with young adults, many who see
the church as antiquated and irrelevant; as well as getting out into the
community in new and risky ways: going to Neighborhood Block Club
Meetings and community forums, standing in the places where our children
have been shot and our homeless neighbors beaten, literally outside of
our front doors.
But the second thing I am calling us to is even harder for your average
good-hearted church member: just being present. We want to always “do
something” to help people or even “rationalize” what's going on. The
secret to being hope for this city will be to do our job, here and now:
to simply be present with those in need, those in pain, in their joys
and in their celebrations, in their comings and in their goings.
This will lead, eventually and naturally, to compelling thoughts and
words and action on behalf of those in our community. If first we are
truly present with ourselves, with each other, with our community… we
will come to know what is required of us: to do justice, to love
kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. If we are first and foremost
fully, deeply, and profoundly present with our neighbors, our community,
our city, then through God's amazing grace we shall be called “repairer
of the breach” and “restorer of streets to live in.” Then, and only
then, salvation will come to our city, our community, and, God willing,
each and every one of us. This is our hope.
Rev. Allen V. Harris
Franklin Circle Christian Church
*Photos are graciously shared by the Rev. David R. Thomas, Christ
Episcopal Church of Harrison, NJ
Copyright 2007 -- The Rev. Allen V. Harris
Franklin Circle Christian Church
(Disciples of Christ)
1688 Fulton Rd., Cleveland, OH 44113-3096