Patchwork: Lessons from a Community of the Lost and Found
Our difficulties start with the fact that we have lost each other.
This weekend, July 15th, 2017 we will be joining others to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Patchwork Central Ministries in Evansville Indiana. It hardly seems possible that four decades have passed since the Amersons, Doyles and Kimbrough’s made a covenant to live in an “intentional community” in a core-city neighborhood.
We will also be celebrating the 95th birthday anniversary of Alan Winslow, a long-time member of the Patchwork Community. Alan, along with Alice Serr, lead Patchwork’s Neighborhood Economic Development Center for many years. This was a program of micro-lending before such efforts were widely undertaken. Alan is one of the scores of incredible lay persons who have been a part of the Patchwork story over these four decades.
Perhaps we were “foolish beyond our years” in 1977.
No doubt we were naive. Perhaps we were just a part of our generation’s search for an “alternative lifestyle.” No doubt we wanted to test some of theories learned in graduate school. As we would have said at the time, we were seeking to find new ways to live as people of faith. No doubt we were open to adventure, to odyssey, to new lessons about ourselves and others.
Whatever the case, we took the risk of leaving safe jobs and titles to join this experiment in covenantal living. (I will avoid the easy jokes about making these changes due to eating some bad tacos or barbecue.)
We spoke of being an intentional community because this was the term used by others at the time. There were other Christians, friends in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Chicago and California who were experimenting as well. It is safe to say we were trying to live out our personal vocations as Christians in ways that offered us the chance to explore new styles of worship, ministry and witness. Why Evansville? Why this medium-sized community down on the Ohio River? As we used to say, this only makes sense if it can “Play in Peoria.”
Over the years the Patchwork Central Community grew from the ten of us (six adults and four children) to dozens of folks. We who would gather for worship, social service, educational and counseling programs, community organizing and protest rallies and so much more. We were “small but mighty in spirit” and our numbers seemed to increase in proportion to our commitment to try yet another mission. Food panty, after school program, health care clinic, art education, photography, minority leadership development, micro-lending through Neighborhood Economic Development, Back Alley Bakery, tool lending, low-income housing, jobs program for ex-felons painting houses and more. Our friend, Jim Wallis from the Sojourners Community, after a visit, jokingly said, “Patchwork is a place with more ministries than people!”
While many of us were United Methodist, ordained even, from the beginning we understood ourselves to also be ecumenical and interfaith in practice. So, quickly, there were friends from the Roman Catholic, United Church of Christ, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Jewish communities. Sunday evening worship grew. Before long this little gathering turned into several dozen who worshiped, ate and laughed together on Sunday evenings. The room was often overflowing with folks who found this to be a safe place and open place.
The three founding couples lived in separate homes, but shared many resources. The joke among the men was about who got to “wear the community necktie.” Truth is, we rarely wore ties. We improved our turn of the century (1890 to 1910) homes. Others joined. Some lived in the neighborhood, but folks joined from around the city and the region.
We grew in numbers and influence in the city. Soon we had the opportunity to purchase the Washington Avenue Synagogue nearby. How could we afford it? Our question became, “How could we not afford such a wonderful center for community activities and worship?” We covered the down payment for the facility by selling a used car that was given to us by Drs. Polly and Ernie Teagle of Belleville, Illinois. The rest of the mortgage we undertook “by faith.” Hard to believe bankers would support this rag-tag group. Such adventurism — but somehow it worked.
There are so many lessons from those years. On this anniversary I think about what it means to be lost and found. The 15th chapter of Luke’s Gospel is about finding and losing. Here are parables of lost sheep, lost coins and a lost child — and the finding again of each.
What was lost and what did we find in those early years at Patchwork? Who was lost and who found, at Patchwork? Here are four lessons from those years — the list could be much longer (and, no doubt will be in future reflections).
First, we had lost our belief the institutional church could act in creative ways, especially outside the impulse impelling it toward focusing most ministry in suburban neighborhoods. (There was a book published earlier written by Gibson Winter and entitled “The Suburban Captivity of the Church” named the dilemma we saw.)
What we found was this. If we took the risk of acting first, and asking permission later, some folks in the church would surprise us and support ministry within lower income communities. We decided to start Patchwork Central, and although some tried to dissuade us, others, some in leadership, said, “Well, you may be acting foolishly but we will do what we can to support you.”
I am not certain this would happen today. I see a majority of leaders who are so risk-averse they seem stuck forever in the way things were always done. For us, we have the gift of folks like Lloyd and Marie Wright and Sam and Marie Phillips. Lloyd was the United Methodist District Superintendent in Evansville and while he often wanted us to “slow down” and “not try to fight city hall,” he none-the-less stood by our fledgling efforts at new forms of ministry. Sam and Marie Phillips were the sort of progressive leaders we are lacking today. Sam had been a D.S. as well and was working in the area of global mission. The Phillips understood. And, I could name many, many others, clergy and lay. Suffice it to say — we found support and vision that we mistakenly thought had been lost to the entire church.
Second, speaking for myself, I thought the potential for ecumenical work in a core city neighborhood was a lost cause. There were pundits in those days who said that a focus on social justice would drive people from the church. Justice work was blamed for any decline in the church. It seemed a world of “every denomination for itself” and the primary focus of churches was only on church growth.
I was so very wrong. There were clergy like Ed and Mariam Ouelette (UCC), Walt Wangerin (Lutheran), Joe Baus (Presbyterian), Jim Heady (UMC), Alice Serr (Catholic) and Michael Herzbrun (Jewish) to name a FEW. AND, many of the strong and growing congregations were ones that joined us in our ministry efforts.
Third, speaking again for myself, I thought there were few resources in my new neighborhood upon arrival. I thought imagination and energy for change was lost to these new neighbors.
I remember, with embarrassment, saying that our work in those early years was to “bring resources to places where they don’t naturally occur.” Such hubris!! Such ignorance. I believed the notion that we would “discover the needs of the people” and set up plans and strategies to fix these dysfunctions. Instead, what we discovered were neighborhoods full of people with insights, talents, capacities and education beyond our imagination. The poverty problem was my own — my poverty of vision. I couldn’t see the potential resource that was all around. In almost every new endeavor we found folks with gifts to share. Where I had seen a desert of resource, there was more abundance than I could have imagined. However, I needed to stop and listen. If I did, I would discover that my role was more that of friend and coordinator than initiator.
Perhaps most significantly, I thought the basic ingredients of community were something I needed to bring because they were otherwise lost. Somehow, I thought, I was to bring them to a community void. Well, community by its very nature is about discovering relationships already available to us — if we can see them and risk finding.
We discovered that everyone can and does live in community. The question becomes how intentional do you want it to be? The choice is to risk living in new ways. The choice is to see with new eyes what is possible. It requires work. bell hooks, in her book Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope puts it this way: “To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination.”
In the parables we call the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 we too easily think of the son as the lost one. However, a closer read shows that the father and older brother were also lost. They had given the younger brother up for dead — and the parable suggests that when all seems lost, it is then a new relationship is possible, if it is accepted.
Ken Medema puts the lesson from scripture on finding and losing in a memorable verse:
Finding leads to losing, losing helps you find.
Living leads to dying but life leaves death behind.
Finding leads to losing, that’s all that I can say.
No one will find life another way.
There will, no doubt, be many memories this weekend about the early years at Patchwork Central. Some will want to speak of what we gave — or contributed — to this ministry that still survives. I will know the truth, for me Patchwork happened because of what I lost while there, and in so doing, what WE, together, found.