Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Who Is My Neighbor?

by the Rev. Susan M. Smith, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life staff member

One of my favorite parts of doing vision/mission/strategic planning work is all that we discover by investigating our “mission field.” Sometimes we spend all of our time focused on who we are as a congregation and identifying our shared values and passions. Those are vital steps in shaping a compelling vision, but we can’t forget that we minister in a particular place at a particular time.

There is research work that suits every personality. For those who are gregarious, I ask them to pose this question to everyone they meet from the grocery store clerk to the mayor, “I belong to a congregation that is open to a variety of beliefs and focused on making this world a better place and I was wondering what you thought a congregation like that could contribute to our city/town/neighborhood.” In my experience, everyone has an opinion.

Those who like to work with data have some really exciting tools to explore. My favorite new one is at http://projects.nytimes.com/census/2010/explorer in which Dustin Cable from University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service has compiled racial identity info from the 2010 census. With the racial groups represented by differently colored dots, you can see at a glance the radical separation of races in most of our cities. Take a very distant view and the predominance of African Americans in the South and Hispanic/Latino Americans in the borderlands can be seen in glaring clarity. However, in working with congregations, I’ve used this tool to find some amazing locations of racial diversity as well as the intersections of racial enclaves. Using http://www.census.gov/2010census/popmap you can get analysis at the county (or parish) level on race, ethnicity, age, income and housing.

I think the most helpful tool is a Ministry Area Profile available online at http://www.perceptgroup.com. Percept Group has done area studies for congregations since 1987. I saw one for the first time when I was in parish ministry and doing UUA “Extension” training. It used to take weeks to get one, but now they are available on the web in just a few minutes. You get maps, charts, and tons of analysis particularly helpful to congregations including preferences in worship style, church architecture and programs. You find out the social justice and quality of life concerns of your neighbors as well as their preferences for making charitable donations. While reading one of these for a congregation recently, we discovered over 3,000 households in a 5-mile radius of the congregation with a higher than average tendency to be UU.

Sometimes we tell ourselves that our neighbors are not like us or don’t share our concerns. I suggest that you get some actual data to insert into your system while you are visioning and developing plans. It is inspiring to see that as many as 30% of people surrounding your congregation are very concerned about race relations or that 20% of them are looking for spiritual growth. It is sobering to discover that a growing demographic in your neighborhood is unemployed female heads of household with children under the age of 5 or that 12% of your neighboring adults don’t have a high school education. We can be more respectful of the uniqueness in our multi-cultural environment when we know that there is growth in your area from Mexican Americans, Vietnamese Americans and East Indian Americans rather some non-existent generic Hispanics/Latinos or Asians. 

Theologian Frederick Buechner wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” What if we thought of those who live and work next door to our congregations as not merely a coincidence but a calling, an opportunity and a blessing?