Tag Archives: Community Development

Mark Gornik on Learning to Pray with African Christians: Ethnography, Theology and a World of Christianity

8 days ago, President Derek Halvorson, of Covenant Collegetweeted the following:

Looking forward to having @CovenantCollege alum Mark Gornik, author of Word Made Global, on campus next week: http://ow.ly/1S1MVd 

And with that, I knew that I wanted to attend Gornik’s lecture series this weekend (Thursday night, Friday night, and this morning – Saturday). Of course, other than my reading of Gornik’s book “To Live in Peace” years ago when I took the course “Principles of Community Development” as a sophomore at Covenant College, I had no idea what to expect from this particular course, nor did I have any time to prepare.

Since his time living and working in Sandtown among residents in this poor area of Baltimore and helping to start New Song Urban Ministries, Gornik left to live and study in New York City, and start the City Seminary of New York. He subsequently did his doctorate thesis on African Christianity in NYC, eventually focusing on three churches.  This was a work of ethnography, a work of learning from African Christians who now live in NYC, learning their theology, and learning how they worship.  Gornik’s doctorate thesis was then turned into the book Word Made Global: Stories of African Christianity in New York City.

Gornik’s lecture series at Covenant this weekend partly reflected his doctorate thesis and book.

First, let me get it out of the way that I’m very glad I attended. It was free and open to the public, and although I wasn’t familiar with the book, nor did I really understand what the lecture was going to be about, the title of the course really intrigued me. I knew that Gornik has spent a lot of time thinking about (and living) intentionally with believers in an urban setting.

But this lecture and his work went way beyond his work and interaction in Sandtown, Maryland.

As Gornik spoke, I realized that here was a man who had devoted himself to anthropology work, learning about different cultures worldwide (and for his particular doctorate thesis, learning about African Christianity in NYC). He has spent time in Africa, Asia, and Central America also learning about Christian communities.

Gornik spoke from experience that in theology and worship, one size does not fit all. Time and time again, he pointed out that worship is by nature a representation of a culture. Each individual Christian has a particular story, and each community has a particular story that is unique.

Gornik concludes that we must be incredibly humble and cautious when we think about critiquing another Christian style of worship or theology. Certainly, all Christians share the same basic tenants of the faith (e.g. that humans are sinful and as a result that Jesus Christ died – and more importantly, rose – to save us from our sins). Despite these core truths, Christians worldwide (not to mention in just North America) have distinct theologies.

For example, while the Reformed (think Presbyterian) tradition formally believes that no human is without excuse to know God as a result of Creation (general revelation), it is also held that no one can be saved apart from Scripture. On the other hand, a different tradition (such as the Pentecostal movement) might believe that God works in wondrous ways to reveal himself to others, and that people can be saved apart from Scripture. (This is just an example, mind you – I have not explicitly stated what I personally do or do not believe).

So Gornik’s argument is that a Christian theology on which an individual or community holds is directly affected by that individual’s or community’s history and cultural context.

I thought a lot about Bryant Myers, who has similar thoughts to Gornik’s conclusions. Myers writes about theology in Christian Community Development at the beginning of Chapter 2 of Walking With The Poor:

…The development process is a convergence of stories. The story of the development practitioner is converging with the story of the community and together they will share a new story for a while. Because the development promoter is a Christian and because God has been active in the community since the beginning of time, the biblical story is the third story in this confluence of stories. This brings the development practitioner back to theology and the biblical account.

One of my favorite quotes, which affirms this idea, is by Duane Elmer, another Christian Community Development practitioner:

Love is culturally defined. When we truly love others, we love them in their own context, in keeping with the way they define love. We can’t express love in a vacuum. It can be expressed egocentrically (my way) or sociocentrically (as the other person would define love).

I whole heartily agree with Gornik, Myers and Elmer. We must be incredibly careful (and humble) in our critique of Christianity in other cultural contexts, which we may not completely understand.

Certainly the core foundations of our faith are essential. For the non-essentials (to salvation) however, it is better to err on the side of love, acceptance, and mutuality rather than pointing fingers and saying “you’re wrong, I’m right.”


Philippines: Part II (2010)

Filipinos are known as some of the warmest, friendliest, and most hospitable people in the world. Relatedly, they are also very communal – they share space together and always like to be near friends & family. They have a very circular sense of time: There are no set schedules and no set deadlines. It’s OK to be 2 hours late (or more) to a scheduled meeting or appointment! Contrast this kind of demeanor with that of most Americans: Individualistic, linear time orientation, and usually less willing to go out of their ways to make one feel welcomed.

These are the two cultures that are crossing paths this week. This is one of the reasons why I love the Philippines.

In 2008, as many of my readers know, I spent 3 months living and working in the Philippines with a Christian NGO known as Food for the Hungry Philippines. Then, I studied their microfinance initiative (which is only 1 small part of what they do here), evaluating its effectiveness in a few key communities, and learning how recipients benefited from the earned income in their IGAs (Income Generating Activities). For example, I interviewed several loan recipients who had received very small loans with which to buy a pig. They then raised the pig, and I learned how they benefited from the extra income of selling the adult pig.

Three months is a short time in which to do research. One week is even shorter. I am here for a week in order to do a case study with the Christian NGO, Center for Community Transformation (CCT). My focus is on how they conduct their Fellowship Groups, or the weekly meetings that their partners come to in order to pay down their loan and encourage each other. (CCT prefers to use the term “partner” rather than “client” because in a partnership, both parties are equal and one is not “above” or “better” than the other).

The Fellowship Groups are largely normalized across the country. However, due to the very short time period, I will not be able to quantify any of my research, and will be unable to make any generalizations. The time is way too short to be able to interview enough people, do focus groups and hand out surveys. Rather, my goal is to build a narrative of what a fellowship group should look like. I will be observing one or two fellowship groups, but most of my research will come from interviews with CCT staff members.

The “standardized” process of each Fellowship Group is summarized in the following five steps:
1) Welcome
2) Worship
3) Word
4) Work
5) Wrap Up

CCT is a distinctly Christian organization, and this fact influences everything they do. “Worship” and “Word” (Bible study) is considered just as important as the “Work” (paying off the loans). As a Christian who has studied Community Development, I agree: Holistic transformational development can not just come piece-meal. It must be an integration of services meeting different kinds of needs – the physical (material), the spiritual (without God, we are nothing), the mental (a strong sense of identity and strong sense of ability & self worth), the the health outside relationships (harmonious relationships with community and government is important), and much more.

Having arrived at 10:15pm Sunday (Philippine time is 13 hours ahead of EST), I have only been here 1 & 1/2 days (it’s early Tuesday morning now). Last night, I got to experience Filipino culture at its finest, and was welcomed very warmly to CCT:

You will notice that this banner includes the name of two other organizations as well: Hope International (which is also a Christian microfinance organization), and Esperanza (an MFI located in the Dominican Republic). We had no idea that CCT was going to host all of us during the same week, but this is incredible! PEER Servants’ first goal is to write these case studies in order to bring the stories back to the States and share them with other MFIs around the world.

But I am also always looking for connections in the Development world (working internationally in community development and microfinance is something I’m very interested in pursuing) and am excited to be able to spend time with some of the people in both of these organizations, with whom I am already familiar.

The people captured in this picture playing the stringed instruments are just a few of the dozens of guitarists on a stage. As we walked into CCT’s headquarters last night, this band started playing, there were people at the door there to greet us, and they served us a feast! It was a delight and a wonderful introduction (or, for me and a small number of others who have been to the Philippines before, a re-introduction).

Today, I’m back off to the CCT office for a more formal introduction to the organization of CCT and to begin my interviews. I am excited to learn, and am absolutely humbled to be able to spend time with such an incredible organization.

I’ll try to post another blog before I leave on Sunday morning.

Thank you for your continued prayers & support.