Over the next few weeks I’d like to share with you an article I have written on the importance of Asset Based Community Development and Relational Thinking in relation to strengthening individuals in the context of working with marginalised communities.
I wonder how do you see the people that you work with? What are the views you hold of the communities that you seek to change? As you reflect on your answers to these questions, a challenge for us in the thrust and parry of the everyday of caring community work, is to remember that each person we come across, whether an old friend, work colleague or a new connection from the street has inherent worth, because they are a loved creation of our creative God. Each one is made in His image and innately reflects something of the divine (Ps8:4-9). However for some, this spark of gold is hidden under layers of hurt, rejection, pain and heartbreak.
If we are to be true to the high value God bestows on humankind, we need a framework that will help us dig below the surface that elements such as emotional and existential pain present. Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) together with Relational Thinking (RT) establishes such a framework and provides for us a rationale and demonstrable methodology or set of principles for our community work.
Through the exploration of community I will unpack the importance of local connections and how they unearth hidden strengths, opening the door for personal and community empowerment. This process will help to shape a theology of engagement that recognises God’s Kingdom is in the world and that he invites each one to play a part in its advancement.
Think with me for a moment about your local community, either where you live or where your work is based. What are the elements that make up that community? Sometimes it’s hard to stop and analyse the waters that we swim in or the air we breathe. In each of our communities there will be elements that seek to meet the needs we have, whether they present as physical, emotional or spiritual. These include the business community, schools, medical care, friends and family, sporting clubs and other varieties, churches and the religious expressions of other faith communities, libraries, local government, social services, media outlets and so on.
If these elements of the community are working well and in harmony, they form an interconnected web of relationships, structures and institutions, where people can gain a sense of belonging and support to discover and live out their place and purpose as contributors in the world. If you like, a safety net of relationships has been established which affords the individual the opportunity to explore more of their external and internal worlds. There may even be the opportunity to explore new abilities in this context.
Figure 1 Jane’s Community. The ideal community recognises the individual placing them in a relational web, which provides for their physical, emotional and spiritual needs and those of their family.
Unfortunately we know only too well that our communities aren’t like this and in fact the relational web that provides this safety is broken in so many places. The causes of this rupture are numerous including; individualism, consumerism, family breakdown, domestic violence, tall poppy syndrome, selfishness, addictions of various types and the list goes on. The results are equally as devastating both for individual psyches and communities more generally.
Figure 2 Effects of the Broken Web. These are just a few of the results of a broken relational web, as we look at our communities the story is way too familiar.
During the time I spent leading a missional community in Pakenham, on the South Eastern outskirts of Melbourne, I sat on the welfare committee of one of the local primary schools. Each Wednesday of the school term we gathered in the staffroom to work through solutions to some of the most concerning issues that the young students were facing. One morning we discussed the unfortunate divide present in many families and its effects on the children. Pakenham was a sleeper suburb with over 70% of the population leaving the community everyday to go to work. It was also one of the fastest growing suburbs in Australia. These two factors had a number of immediate implications. Firstly it meant that many parents spent long hours each week commuting up to 120km a day into the CBD. As well the time away from the community often led to the focus of the parent’s lives being elsewhere, even recreation could be removed from the place where there house was situated. On the other side of the equation the children were in the community. They lived their lives in the local community, were encouraged to become active in it, learnt about its history. In a sense made their ‘home’ in the community. We saw direct links between this disconnect and children ‘acting out.’ They couldn’t name it, yet the divided focus they were asked to live with and the confusion it caused was palpable.
Even within a household the relational web can be broken leaving the members floating and feeling disconnected from each other and broader society. Some would argue if the basic building block of a community is broken, ie the household, is there any point looking to a more utopian hope for our communities. Sociologist Jim Ife believes that we must start there, as it provides inspiration and a framework for development that moves us from reaction to a focus on medium to long-term goals. From a Biblical perspective the prophet Isaiah outlines what a community could look like. He sees a place where; there is joy, the young and old are valued, each have what they need in terms of shelter and food, there is a strong connection between work and purpose, and the people recognise their dependence on God (Isaiah 65:17-25). The building block for this type of world is the local community.
(next week I’ll show the importance of the local community and introduce you to Steve)
 Asset Based Community Development is a methodology for community worked designed byJohn Kretzman and John McKnight. They have established the ABCD Institute that furthers this thinking around the world (http://www.abcdinstitute.org).
 Relational Thinking refers to the work of Michael Schluter, from a Kingdom of God viewpoint he has designed a framework of Relational Proximity which can be used as a guide to establishing life promoting relationships (http://www.jubilee-centre.org, http://relationalthinking.net).
 Working definition of a community, developed and taught by Andre Van Eymeren.
 Jim Ife, Community Development: Creating Community Alternatives – Vision, Analysis and Practice (Melbourne: Longman, 1995), 98.