Even miracles take a little time (serving with a community)
Updated: Apr 27, 2022
Residents of the Tymber Skan community in Orlando, Florida love their community...those that remain. Several years ago, developers with an eye on opportunity successfully removed the primary obstacle to their plan - the residents. At least most of them. The property's 320 units dwindled to 50. And the community experienced a great deal of heartache and pain.
A leader emerged during that time who stood in the gap and said "no" to the developer's offers because she had discerned their true intent. Her name is Malinda and she did this for the love of the community. She is pictured here casting vision for a church group that recently came to Tymber Skan to serve.
The service project was very successful. This article highlights seven key elements which made it so. Churches often want to serve communities near their campus, especially those that are experiencing distress. The overarching principle of serving well in these cases is doing things with the community rather than to them or even for them. It takes time to develop but the basics are clear - pray regularly with the residents, support what they are doing or want to do to improve their community, and trust God. He'll do miracles along the way but even miracles take a little time.
The vision Malinda shared came from a sermon series she heard on the book of Ezra while most of her neighbors were still being displaced. She saw a parallel with her community and the people of Israel who were driven from their land. That story is ultimately about returning to the land and to the living God. This gave her a vision of a beautiful place that anyone could afford and everyone would want to live.
All transformative visions come from God - visions that truly change lives and communities in the here and now and touch eternity. These can't be faked. A good communicator can approximate such a vision but the proof is in the fruit - does the vision have staying power in times of trouble, do people really get behind it, is it easily communicable by everyone, and does it change lives.
Not every community has a Malinda but every community has a vision. God puts it there. As his image bearers, we have a built in desire to see heavenly things, things as God intended them to be. These visions get twisted by sin and selfishness but if you ask enough people in a community, it will emerge, and it often emerges from unlikely sources. I've seen this happen time and time again in every community in which it is prayerfully sought.
2. RESIDENT INITIATIVE
Vision leads to action, the kind of action that you don't have to beg for or guilt people into. Malinda's hope fueled her own action and she began seeking other residents that would help her stabilize the community. Many of the residents participated directly in the stabilization effort, fixing up their houses, maintaining common areas, watching each other's children, helping their neighbors with the basics - a ride, food, tools, a listening ear. Other leaders emerged.
There is no substitute for resident initiative. If you'd like to see your neighbor take better care of their yard, you can cut it a couple times but it's not going to change anything long term if that's not something they're interested in. But if you get to know your neighbor, chances are there is something that you both care about in the community and that you can work together on.
Not everyone is going to catch the vision and participate. That's perfectly ok. It's not necessary to move forward. Just work with who shows up. Over time, many of those reluctant to get on board will become the most ardent supporters. Some will move out and move on. Others may stay on the sideline for the duration but even they will often stop working against the well-being of the community when they see changes that positively effect their life.
3. BROADER PLAN
Service projects are most effective when they are a part of a broader plan. It takes time to build a plan that suits the community, one that has consensus. What happens most often is that a single person or small group of people come up with a plan and then try to convince everyone else to get on board. That doesn't work. It's particularly ill-fated when the plan is devised by an outside entity but still problematic when it's a small faction of residents.
What works best is surveying residents about hopes and concerns, creating a straw man plan that is aligned with the vision and that addresses the issues that arose from the survey, and then discussing and adjusting the straw man plan until there is a consensus. Consensus doesn't mean everyone agrees but it does mean everyone is heard and that attempts are made to find common ground until there is a supermajority in support of the plan.
At Tymber Skan, the most active residents created such a plan. They surveyed households and held regular open meetings to discuss the plan as it evolved. The plan was comprehensive and one part of the plan was six high priority projects for which outside help was deemed beneficial. They found a men's ministry at a nearby church that was willing to help and they got some support for supplies from the county and the date was set.
The planning process emerged as a result of engaging with a facilitator. Having a neutral party who is experienced in community development can be extremely helpful. Best practices can be shared and lessons learned from other communities can inform decisions. But the decisions themselves must come from the residents.
Facilitators can also help build consensus, resolve conflict, and develop partnerships but they are not a magic bullet. There are many stakeholders in the future of a community with a wide range of agendas and influence - residents (owners and renters), government, businesses, non-profits and churches. If one of those stakeholders hires the facilitator, it will be difficult for the facilitator, often impossible, for them to maintain neutrality.
I have played that role with Tymber Skan along with members of my team. I am a mission pastor at a nearby church. I first came on property in the summer of 2021 after Malinda heard comments I made from the stage about community development. I heard her story and while I was moved to help, I wasn't sure how much time I could commit but I did offer to come once a week and pray for an hour.
5. PRAYER The work of the disciple is prayer. Jesus us taught us how to pray. Paul taught us how often - without ceasing. A prayerful life changes the disposition of our heart which changes the decisions we make and the outcomes that follow. Prayer also, somehow, prompts the God of heaven to act which changes things apart from any human action; God still does miracles.
In under-resourced communities, prayer orients the work towards what matters most in a way that acknowledges that the challenges are greater than human effort alone can overcome. Prayer is an act of humility that most people, regardless of the particulars of their beliefs, are willing to participate in. I've seen this act of humility become a first step in someone developing a saving faith in Jesus Christ many times.
We began meeting weekly for prayer at Tymber Skan in the summer of 2021. The hopes and concerns of the residents became a regular topic for discussion and were lifted up to God. Within a few weeks, the quality of those discussions began to shift from bitter frustration to purposeful optimism. The action plan, activities for children, a bible study, community barbeques, and the service project all spun off from the prayer meeting.
6. SUPPORTIVE PARTNERS
Tymber Skan has a bad reputation. Bad reputations are stubborn. Even though a community has emerged from the ashes of previous years of struggle and exploitation, people in the surrounding area who do know of Tymber Skan, only know the negative parts of the story which makes it very difficult for the residents to find supportive partners.
A supportive partner is willing to forego what they've heard to come and see for themselves what is happening. To give people the benefit of the doubt and hear them out. To come alongside and get behind the positive things that residents are trying to accomplish. And to do so without trying to take over, take credit, or take the money.
The group of men who came to serve were supportive partners. They came alongside and helped the residents with the six projects the residents had identified. And they did that so with patience and respect. There was a larger agenda than simply accomplishing tasks. The residents had their plan and the church was there to simply encourage them to keep pressing forward while sharing the love of Christ.
Many of the men were accomplished leaders but they never took over the projects. Residents ended the day with a sense of accomplishment and a great deal of appreciation for the help, none of which came at the expense of their dignity.
7. CO-LABORING (50/50)
The service project day was a huge success. A total of 50 people served, about half from the church and half residents. People from very different walks of life working together. It was such a beautiful sight. Neighborhood kids helped park cars and pick up trash. Residents with disabilities took pictures and handed out waters. Everyone pitched in and all six projects were completed and more.
Moreover, the seeds of relationships were planted. If the residents are going to be successful in their efforts to redevelop their community, they are going to need advocates and expertise. There are legal issues and complex ownership dynamics. Many of the guys who came to serve have such experience and are now more likely to be advocates.
There is nothing magical about 50/50; it need not be fussed over as a precise goal. But the closer you are to an even split between residents and non-residents, the better. And ensuring you are working on projects of greatest priority to the residents is a must. It's doing things with a community rather than to or for them.
Service projects that do things for a community tend to reinforce isolation and dependencies, ultimately discouraging resident initiative. While efforts to serve with a community build healthier relationships and encourage community pride and leadership. This allows them to retain ownership and keep moving things forward towards their goals. In short, it produces hope.
One story beautifully sums up for me what can happen when a church applies the key elements described above. One of the men who came to serve brought his thirteen year old son with him. The boy was very disinterested in being there at first. But very quickly, as he began interacting with the residents and working on a project, his disposition changed.
By the end of the day, his thoughts had changed completely. He told his dad how great the day was and said, "Dad, I want to live there." When his dad asked why, he responded, "Everyone knows each other." The boy experienced something we all long for - real community. Tymber Skan has that asset. People do know each other and many of them will do just about anything for their neighbors. While it is still rough around the edges, the heart is turning to gold.
Churches can serve with a community and amazing things can happen. We have seen people come to faith and become a part of the church. We've seen families reconcile and children rescued from harm. We've seen hope emerge again and again. Miracles. And all that was required was a little time.
The chalkboard sign at the front of the property read "Even Miracles Take a Little Time" for a while. A resident wrote it to remind everyone coming and going to be patient and to believe that God is working and will often turn our most feeble attempts to serve him and others into something beautiful. On the day of the service project, Matthew 18:20 was the word on the sign that greeted the men from the church. A resident who is brand new to faith penned it. Fifty gathered that day and served together and God was in our midst.
The list of seven elements above might seem like a lot but the residents did the heavy lifting, and God was working in and through the process. All that the church did was make good on an offer to pray each week, provide a bit of facilitation and an opportunity for the men's ministry to come out on a Saturday morning and help. The rest took care of itself. And while there is a lot of work left to do, we expect God to keep showing up and doing miracles, big and small. Because that's what he does time and time again.