On the afternoon of Wednesday, June 29, 2011, I interviewed the eight members of the 2010-2011 PULSE unit at their house in the Highland Park neighborhood of Pittsburgh. These brief interviews transpired near the end of their term of service, giving me the benefit of nearly a year’s experience and the insights gained thereby.
My thanks to the interviewees, who were: Andrea Bowman (Archibold, Ohio), Maggie Graham (Greensburg, PA), Beth Glick (Goshen, IN), Laura Hanisch (Flanagan, IL), Abby Stern (Chambersburg, PA), Elizabeth (Dill) Dillon (Livonia, MI), Alicia Donner (Toledo, OH), Anna Pawsey (Clyde, OH).
The questions they answered for me had to do with what they had learned and how they had grown during this year of community and service. I explained, at the start of each interview with each person, that growth was the focus of my months of pastoral sabbatical, growth in God’s kingdom through growth in our giftedness for Christian life and leadership, that as a result of my sabbatical I would hope to weave together and locate myself within a chain of Christian spiritual nurture, with myself being mentored and mentoring others. Part of that could, God willing, be something related to Emmanuel Mennonite Church, and its partners, something like a PULSE community. Therefore, I would like their reflections on their reasons and hopes for joining a PULSE unit, how they grew through both the service and the community components of the program, how the church (local and more) fit in with their experience or not, and what they would recommend for anyone else, anywhere else, who would start and sustain a similar community. I will summarize below the answers they gave to my questions.
I. REASONS AND HOPES FOR JOINING PULSE: common to most or all of the responses was the desire to serve and to “give back” to the world and society. Having had experiences of community and relationships in home and in college, some expressed desires to continue and grow in what had already been good and formative relational experiences. Most also spoke of wanting to take several manageable transitional steps between the structured life of college to a life in which they would be totally responsible for all aspects of adult independent living. PULSE is such a transitional step. And some spoke of the leading of God, through what at the time seemed to be coincidence, accidents and serendipity.
II. LEARNING THROUGH LIFE TOGETHER:
All of the respondents spoke positively of the community aspect of PULSE life, though it was not without some difficulties, challenges, tensions and growing pains. But with good communication skills and a solid commitment to each other, almost anything could be worked through, or at least endured and put in a sustainable perspective. Several respondents spoke of learning greater patience, communication skills, conflict management, assertiveness, listening, and a consensus model of working out covenants and procedures. Love is not too strong a word for what develops, even when one will never like everything about everyone.
Living together also spurs learning how to live with oneself, that is, learning what is one’s own and unique mix of need for solitude and interaction. Everyone needs some of both, but not in equal amounts. To get along, the differences must be known and respected. It also helped to have had some training or testing during the year to discern personal gifts and skill sets.
Some gave credit for the generally good relationships to the previous year’s selection process, where some attention to compatibility within diversity must have been given. But kudos were also in order for the mix of structure and independence and responsibility that went into the formative stages of the community last summer. For example, the participants, in their initial orientation to PULSE and Pittsburgh, were encouraged to draw up a covenant regarding the many details of life together, such as cooking, cleanup and communication. Ultimate responsibility for both the formation of this covenant and its follow-through was theirs, they were told. And yet they were also given a sample of a previous year’s covenant, plus some understanding of the issues such a covenant would have to address. In effect, they were given responsibility, but were not abandoned.
Respondents also gave credit to such practices as the four meals together each week, and of sharing prayer requests, concerns, highlights and disappointments, as well as prayer, before each of the four common weekly meals. Such practices gave them access to more than the superficial presence of each others’ lives, and helped cultivate deeper levels of trust and friendship.
The weekly seminar also got high credits for helping connect members with each other and with the community. An additional growing and learning experience was having each PULSE member do at least one of the weekly seminars.
Other forms of community mentioned included the city itself, PULSE alumnae, and the church. I’ll reflect on the church below. As for the city, it is noteworthy how many past PULSE participants have stayed in Pittsburgh, and how many current ones plan to stay. One even called it “home,” though she neither grew up here, nor had any family in the immediate area. For that we can credit some of the PULSE alumnae, as well as the efforts of Chris Cooke and others to educate PULSE participants to “deep Pittsburgh,” the history, dynamics, development and character of Pittsburgh, on the neighborhood and regional level.
III. THE SERVICE EXPERIENCE
PULSE seeks to connect participants with work and settings in line with their passions and gifts. Still, some hiccups can occur. One member’s placement had to change early in the year. But the adaptability that all PULSE participants showed was one evidence of their growth through service. Of special note is the fact that PULSE-ers are working in the areas of arts, economic development and the environment, in addition to the more expected realms of service, such as social service, advocacy, accompaniment, and education. While the latter fields address important and urgent needs, the first three are what make a city viable, livable and appealing.
Through their service experience, PULSE-ers learned much about themselves, their fields of interest and their gifts. As in the community experience, so at work, they learned communication skills, adaptability, assertiveness, patience, and maintaining boundaries between themselves and others, including those whom they served. Other lessons included learning how to handle difficult people, to see through bluff, bluster and facades, and to overcome the stereotyping of older people who often have diminished expectations of young adults.
For some PULSE-ers, their year of service has led to careers in their field of placement, or at the placement itself. For others, even when going into other fields and locations, valuable lessons remain. And they have the satisfaction of knowing that they have done something counter-cultural and against the grain: a year or more of service when the typical career ladder was beckoning.
IV. THE LOCAL CHURCH
As a pastor, I was especially interested in the role of the local church, or the lack thereof, in the lives of PULSE members. By church I do not mean the local Mennonite Church alone (not all PULSE participants are Mennonite). Nor do I mean just any one particular congregation.
One of the values of PULSE is “the exploration of faith.” PULSE does not hold its members accountable to a particular faith statement, though typically its members will include some component of faith in their covenants with each other. Members are not pressured to attend church, only encouraged.
All respondents had attended at least several churches, including churches other than the those of the denomination in which they had grown up. Most shared that they had not gone as regularly than they might have while at home or in college. Partly that was due to the fact that much of what a church does, PULSE members already do for each other, so that it would be hard or unusual for a local congregation to be as close and intimate for PULSE participants as is the PULSE community. Another factor was geographical distance and lack of mobility if they wished to attend a church of their denominational background. Another issue, however, was that the typical church of their background, as well as their home church, was not quite on the same wavelength as they now were, as a result of their experiences and growth. They were connecting their faith with issues of justice, poverty, peace and urban dynamics, things that may be “off the radar screen” of so many churches.
V. ADVICE FOR COMPARABLE COMMUNITIES
I asked for advice on what to do, especially, what to replicate, should a comparable community get started elsewhere, as well as for what not to do, or repeat. That I got much more of the former than the latter I take as a good sign. Some of the advice I got was:
- Try to keep placements geographically as close as possible to the community house
- Keep up the weekly seminars and education
- Give a similar mix of structure and responsibility, guidance and freedom, necessary expectations of each other (covenant) and flexibility
- Keep the community building aspect right up there in importance with the service aspect
- Do personal skills and gifts discernment like we did
- Get to really know your neighborhood and the city down to its roots
- Have fun together
- Don’t skimp on space to hang out together, especially on a great front porch like what their Stanton house has.
- Conversely, get to know and respect each other’s need for solitude, space and separation, as well as your own
- Beat the drum for your organization; modesty and hiding in the shadows will get you nowhere; develop a strong network of friends and supporters, locally and beyond
- Have a fairly rigorous application process by which you select for compatibility and complementarity among members
A. Personal and Spiritual Growth
Our growth, as Christians, is not just a personal process. It is a cosmic event, with consequences that can be called, in the best sense of the word, “apocalyptic,” or “revealing” of present and future realities, of the end and goal of God’s work in Creation. In Second Peter, we are described as those who “are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.”(3:12) We are even told that we can “hasten that day.” (3:10)
How? As we “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (3:18). Thus we become and display the end result of our prayers, labors and longings.
The paradox of personal growth is that we are each responsible for attending to our own growth, and yet we cannot grow ourselves. Growth is a partnership of God, self and others.
PULSE is oriented toward the growth in faith and personhood of young adults. Its mission statement is to cultivate “a community of young servant leaders who will transform Pittsburgh.” Yet it has important things to say for the growth in faith and humanity of all persons, at all stages of life. The ingredients of relationship, commitments, service, faith, worship and spiritual practices are necessary to the growth of all persons and communities into the will and image of God, until the day when we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (I Jn. 3: 2)
For the church to organize itself and invest in the growth of young adults is not only right and good for their growth, it is necessary for the growth in grace and godliness of all other members of the church and the wider community. For as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, “we are woven together into a seamless web of interdependence and mutuality, so that what betters anyone benefits everyone.”
American Christians often wring their hands about the absence and defection of young adults from the church (except from young adult churches). This is not the case in much of the rest of the world, where the average age of Christians is probably under twenty-five. But as many sociologists and philosophers have observed, there is every incentive in the culture and economy not to grow up. Many are quick to point fingers at young adults, raised on a media diet of role models such as what we find in Arrested Development and The Simpsons.
But the media and the market are creations of their parents’ generation, a generation that is now making a growth industry out of nostalgia and the rescue and retention of our (formerly) youthful bodies. That is directly at odds with the stories and traditions of other cultures, and those of our ancestors, which saw life as a gift, that it was short (it still is), and that its only fair to help the next generation take the same place that the previous generation gave you. That was the measure of maturity.
As someone the age of their parents, I was pleasantly caught off guard when PULSE participants said to me, “I joined PULSE because I want to give something back” (emphasis mine) to life, the world and to God. They’re barely out of college and already they feel like debtors? Besides for the cost of college?
As we age, the sense of obligation doesn’t stop, according to the words of an old hymn: “Oh to grace, how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be.” This sense of gratitude, and the joy of paying forward what we have received, are markers of current and emerging maturity. From what I heard and observed, I doubt that a year of PULSE will fulfill and still this sense of gratitude and the desire to give. If anything, it may stimulate it.
B. An Emerging Christian Urbanism
I expected to find young Christian community service workers placed in food shelters, homeless shelters, community accompaniment and advocacy positions, day cares, housing rehabilitation, and other human service endeavors. Some PULSE participants have done or are doing just those things, thanks be to God.
But a pleasant surprise was to find PULSE participants engaged in urban forestry and gardening (for food and beauty), economic development, and the arts. Why should those be surprising? I now wonder. These latter things are what make a city livable and enjoyable, not only feasible. They are also the features of that “City with foundations, whose builder and architect is God” (Heb. 11:10) according to the descriptions of it in Isaiah 65, Ezekiel 47-48, and Revelation 20-22. Common to these visions of the city of God, the New Zion, is a geography of reconciliation, even an urban infrastructure of reconciliation, between God and humanity, between the tribes of humanity, and between humanity and the rest of Creation.
God builds such a city. But it should not surprise us if hints and foretastes of that city emerge now, especially through the life and work of the church, which is to be a human foretaste of a divine victory. PULSE and its participants are visible expressions of a hidden but emerging reality: the New Zion.
C. Young Adults and the Local Church
In spite of PULSE’s affiliation with the Mennonite world, its an unavoidable and unfortunate fact that Pittsburgh’s one Mennonite church is geographically removed from the PULSE house. PMC may have intentional efforts and programs to reach out to PULSE members, but I could discern very little of that from the respondents’ answers. To be fair, I have asked no one at PMC about that. Furthermore, its probably good for Mennonite young adults to visit and experience other churches, so that they either re-choose to be Mennonite, intentionally, when they return, or they find a church which they better suit.
As the pastor of an urban church in a city with many colleges and universities, I know how frustrating it can be to reach out to young adults of college age. Their parents and grandparents may call you with their contact information, eager for the pastor to contact them. Often, you soon learn that some of them are in town to get away from church. Others may wish to attend and worship, but only where there are others of their age and interests, rather than in the smaller local church of their denominational background, where gray heads outnumber young adults. Whatever the case, they should be blessed and released for such exploration. Nothing is to be gained by pressure, guilt or compulsion.
Even if young adults do attend regularly, chances are good that they will eventually move on to other places and other churches. Much more rare is it today that a young adult attends, stays, joins, marries, raises children, dies 60-70 years later and is buried in that same urban church. It happens, but we cannot build a church growth strategy entirely upon it. Such mobility can lead, if we’re not careful, to a reluctance to relate to college-age and young adults, out of grief over so many goodbyes.
No one is guaranteed tomorrow together. But we are guaranteed forever. Whatever we can invest then in relationships and people today will bear fruit in God’s kingdom forever. And the seeds that young adults plant in our congregations, through their visits, their fellowship, their questions, insights, experiences, challenges, growth and struggles, will bless and benefit the local church, however long or often they are with us.
How does the local church both bless and benefit from the young adults who may go almost as often as they come? The respondents spoke of how much they appreciated potlucks after church, invitations to people’s homes, and other expressions of interest and hospitality in them as persons, and not just as a group. It helps if the local church is also grappling with and interested in the things they are doing and learning, especially when it comes to the justice and social issues they face in their assignments.
And yet the primary focus of the church must be neither them nor the issues they face. One respondent said that what she looked for most in a church was not the programs nor the traditions, but the members’ “passion for God.” Could it be that, when we reach first for God, we touch the world, while when we reach only for the world, we touch neither?
V. POSSIBLE FUTURE DIRECTIONS
I came to PULSE wondering what such a community and program could teach me about church and leadership in an urban environment similar to the one in which I serve. I even am looking to see if such a community could take shape in Minneapolis, related to the congregation I serve. Furthermore, I am in discernment over whether such a service and learning community should be part of a wider national organization, like Mennonite Voluntary Service, or something more independent (“autocephalous” was the word John Stahl-Wert used), yet affiliated, like PULSE.
Its simple and reassuring in some ways to have uniform and authoritative policies, procedures and personnel already in place (“service community in a box”), so as to benefit from the experience and guidelines of an outside authority, especially when differences and problems emerge. They will. But an unhealthy dependency on the distant authority can take shape. If there is much turnover in the headquarters, or too much distance from headquarters, this dependency can prove fatal.
Now the idea of something independent and affiliated seems to be not so far-fetched nor impossible. Being independent but affiliated (with local and national partner agencies) has the potential to combine the benefits of local guidance and responsibility with those of support and counsel from partners, as long as the mission and its values are clear, and as long as the governing body and the participants hold to them and follow through on their responsibilities. There would, however, have to be other people who would share the vision, fill in the missing gaps in my skills set, and give the time to linking the dream with reality. They and their offerings would be confirmation that this is God’s idea, not just my own.
But the goal must be kept firmly in mind: Not just another program, institution nor an organization for its own sake, nor for our own sake, in a world already full of programs, institutions and organizations competing for people and funds. The goal is the growth of God’s honor and God’s kingdom through the growth of God’s people. Not just young people, but all people who would be in partnership and relationship with them. That would have here the kind of transforming effect that PULSE seeks to have in its setting.
Pastor Mathew Swora
Emmanuel Mennonite Church