Back when I was conducting research for my Ph.D., which resulted in my book Evangelicalism and Conflict in Northern Ireland (Palgrave, 2008), I interviewed people who were involved with the now-defunct organization Zero28.
Zero28 was a socio-political action group, started by some Christian students (mainly from evangelical Protestant backgrounds) at Queen’s University Belfast. The name of the group was based on the 028 telephone code for Northern Ireland.
A founder of Zero28 told me that the phone code, sadly, was about the only thing everyone in Northern Ireland had in common.
He also told me that the aim of the group was “Following Jesus in the Real World.” What that meant was reading the context they were in – a violent and deeply divided society – and doing something about it.
This past week I had the chance to visit East Central Ministries in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a group which the director of the Southwest Institute on Religion and Civil Society at the University of New Mexico (UNM), Prof. Richard Wood, had told me was an example of the “emerging church” in Albuquerque.
I’ve spent the greater part of the last month at UNM working on a book about the Emerging Church Movement (ECM) with Gerardo Marti, The Deconstructed Church. While we are at a stage in our research where we are not conducting any more formal ethnographic “field work” with Emerging Christians, I was still curious to find out about was happening in Albuquerque.
John Bulten and Morgan Attema generously hosted my husband and me at their headquarters in Albuquerque’s tough International District, a multicultural, multi-ethnic community that is home to number of “undocumented” migrants. In common with many emerging communities, East Central Ministries has located itself in a disadvantaged urban environment.
John explained that this was inspired by John Perkins’ Christian Development approach, which entails living and working alongside (not for) the poor. To that end, many of those involved with East Central Ministries live near each other in a housing cooperative in the local community, thus embodying the practices recommended by Perkins and also by the various, usually city-based new monastic communities that can also be considered part of the ECM.
At East Central Ministries, which started 13 years ago, this has blossomed into an array of programmes including:
There was a pleasant buzz about East Central Ministries as people came and went about their business in these various ventures. Women were cleaning up after the co-op after having distributed food. Men were bringing lumber they had salvaged for building items for the store. A small group, including a retired Catholic priest, were praying together.
What I saw in the short amount of time that we were there was simply an encouraging example of some people who are striving to “follow Jesus in the Real World.”
That means reading your local context in such a way as to identify real and pressing needs, building relationships, and working with people to make the community a better place.
We were impressed by what East Central Ministries has been able to accomplish, in a relatively short period of time, in a US context where Government health, welfare, and other social services are not nearly as generous as in Western Europe.
That means there are significant gaps in the “safety net” for immigrants (especially the undocumented) and for long-standing citizens caught in cycles of poverty. Emerging Christian groups, as well as other faith-based initiatives and secular charities, often struggle to fill those gaps.
Of course, that’s not to say that it has been easy for East Central Ministries. While John described the work as fulfilling, he was frank in that it is sometimes stressful and tiring. That’s important to remember because it can be easy to romanticize new monastic groups – especially when you yourself do not participate in one!
We devote a chapter in The Deconstructed Church to the various ways in which Emerging Christians try to “follow Jesus in the real world.” Many strive to implement the principles of new monastic living, while others’ faith is reflected in their career choices, socio-political activism, attempts to opt out of consumerism, and so on.
But for a couple of hours last week, the people of East Central Ministries showed me how “following Jesus in the real world” is done.
(Photo: John John Bulten and Morgan Attema)