Rev. Greg Klimovitz | September 21, 2017
And who is my neighbor?
This was the preface to one of Jesus’ most prophetic parables that cut through first-century religious, cultural, and ethnic divisions that continue to challenge us today.
This question also frames Swarthmore and Wallingford Presbyterian Church’s partnership with the Fellowship of Urban and Suburban Engagement (FUSE). An interfaith and ecumenical network in Delaware County and the City of Chester, FUSE bridges the gap between urban and suburban communities through the nurturing of cross-cultural relationships. In a time of increased polarizations and awareness of personal and systemic biases and privileges, members of Swarthmore and Wallingford have linked arms with FUSE to affirm their commitment to the beloved community that transcends race, religion, class, and social location. Along the way, they have nurtured relationships that transform strangers into valued neighbors.
Recently, the two congregations partnered with FUSE to fund One-to-One Coffee Conversations. A 2016 Dream Tank for Ministry Innovation grant recipient of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, this initiative provides gift cards to pairs of FUSE participants from different backgrounds for raw and honest conversations at a local coffee shop or mutually agreed upon restaurant. The distributed gift cards eliminate potential financial barriers, prohibit one person from becoming beholden to the other, and foster a level of equality vital for truthful storytelling that dismantles prejudice and elevates love of neighbor. “If we are willing to engage that space together and have the ability to be on equal ground there and begin to talk about all the other things, we begin to develop empathy for one another,” commented Rev. Sarah Cooper-Searight, Associate Pastor of Swarthmore Presbyterian Church. “Our empathy is what leads us to genuinely caring about one another…and when you genuinely care about someone then you genuinely want to do something to work towards change.”
What has been critical for these conversations, of which there have close to twenty person-to-person first-time meet ups since receiving the grant, has been the freedom to be open and risk vulnerability. Clyde Killebrew, member of the FUSE steering committee and Executive Administrator of Making a Change Group, added, “A lot of people are really curious about things they don’t understand. [They] really would ask if they felt they were not going to offend or be ostracized or punished because they said something that didn’t come out quite the way that it should have.” This permission to ask the tough and unrefined questions in safe and gracious spaces is central to the vision of FUSE. “We talk about trying to expand the fences,” added Bonnie Breit, member of Congregation Ohev Shalom and the FUSE steering committee, “recognizing that there are differences but trying to find ways to get people to learn from each other.”
As Wallingford and Swarthmore congregants have expanded their fences and participated in various FUSE-sponsored events, they have deconstructed assumptions and affirmed the value of those who live just across the urban-suburban divide. “FUSE invites and encourages its members to tear down barriers,” noted Rev. Francois Lacroix of Wallingford Presbyterian Church, “[FUSE encourages us] to get out of our ‘silos’, to actually walk with others, to get to know the other as brother and sister.”
In addition to these formative conversations, FUSE participants have worked together on local community restoration efforts, to include park clean up days and care for local community gardens. These ventures are more than token service projects. Instead, they are affirmations of what is possible when strangers become collaborative neighbors and share resources to improve the communities they both love. Even more, they embody the same neighbor love wrapped within Jesus’ ancient parable. “The gospel is written all over this,” said Rev. Cooper-Searight. “If this is not the work to which I am called I don’t know what is. This is how I worship God and glorify God.”
As our congregations ponder their local call in such a time as this, there is much to glean from the witness of Swarthmore and Wallingford’s commitment to FUSE. They have affirmed that if we are to work to undo the effects of racism and slow the impact of our biases and varied privileges, it begins with a commitment to view the other as neighbor. This will require a willingness to invest in new community partnerships and holistic relationships of grace. Only then can we begin to work towards the kind of change in our neighborhoods that mirror God’s dreams for a world made whole, right, and good again.