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Life in Christ Cathedral of Faith and Media Presbyterian Church: Forging an Urban-Suburban Partnership

Life in Christ Cathedral of Faith and Media Presbyterian Church: Forging an Urban-Suburban Partnership

For thirteen years, inner-city pastor Dickie Robbins prayed for a cross-cultural partnership. He participated in several joint church projects, but each one fell through. In one case, he befriended a white pastor who offered to help Life in Christ start a food ministry. The partnership ended, however, when the member of the Anglo church who coordinated the program died, and the person's church stopped supporting the ministry. The partnership had never become central to that church's vision.

In a suburb only a few miles away, Rev. Bill Borror was also seeking a cross-cultural partnership that would open new doors for Media Presbyterian Church to engage in holistic urban ministry. "As Christians, we need to share with those who haven't been given as much, or who because of sinful structures or their own sinful habits have been prevented from experiencing all that God would have them have," he explains. "We need to be there with our brothers and sisters who are ministering directly in that community." He had found, however, that most African American pastors did not want to work with suburban or Anglo churches. He too had experienced a church partnership that failed.

Then, "by divine appointment," Bishop Robbins and Rev. Borror met and discovered their shared vision. Slowly, they built a partnership that has brought their very different congregations together for work and worship. Media Presbyterian Church sends construction crews to help renovate the homes purchased by Life in Christ's economic development corporation. Volunteers from Life in Christ travel to North Carolina with Media Presbyterian's annual Habitat for Humanity "blitz build" work trip. Professionals from Media provide financial and legal consulting to Life in Christ ministries. Life in Christ hosted the commissioning service for Media's youth group. Pulpit exchanges helped bridge their divergent worship styles.

The foundation for all their joint activity is the "mutual love and respect" that has grown between the two pastors. A Christ-centered relationship between church leaders (especially the senior pastors) they say, is key to the success of an urban-suburban partnership. "Projects will come and go," says Rev. Borror. "We'll have success, we'll have failure - but to build an accountable relationship, to build a mutual love in Christ, that's powerful." Despite hectic schedules, the two pastors meet regularly for prayer. They do not hesitate to speak their mind if problems arise in the relationship or if they see something amiss in the other's ministry. They are "kind but clear," says Bishop Robbins, and do not offend easily. A sense of humor is another essential ingredient in their relationship.

While few of the members know one another as well as the pastors, deepening the congregations' sense of their common bond in Christ is a goal. "We're not just trying to put a new front door on a home," says Jeff, the leader of Media's Faith in Action committee. "The whole idea is to build relationships. To get people in one community to learn about each other, to break down barriers, maybe to get a chance to witness."

With the imbalance of resources between the churches, the relationship could easily become paternalistic. Recognizing this danger, Media church leaders stressed early on that they wanted not only to help but to receive from Life in Christ. Life in Christ is helping Media accomplish its goal of discipling its members through hands-on ministry. Rather than dictate how they would be involved, they met with leaders at Life in Christ to plan their work together. "We really don't know how to get involved in helping you," Jeff admitted to Bishop Robbins. "You're here, we're there. We need to be in the helping function, not the leading function." For his part, Bishop Robbins stressed that Life in Christ's commitment to and track record in holistic ministry preceded their relationship with Media Presbyterian Church. The partnership expanded what they could do, but did not make them dependent.

Another key to the partnership's success has been having a staff worker dedicated to the collaboration. The first year, Media funded a full-time "urban intern" to live and work in Chester and organize their joint projects. The intern, a Media church member whose love for the city had grown over several years of involvement with CityTeam ministries, helped the two churches network with other Christian agencies. She also served as a mediator between the two church's worlds, giving presentations about Chester at Media and "translating" suburban culture to folks at Life in Christ. At first, the prospects for joint work projects looked limitless. Ultimately, however, the urban intern ended up with too many projects on her plate, and both churches learned to scale back their expectations and narrow their goals. Media now funds a half-time intern who also works half-time with the youth. This arrangement facilitates greater youth involvement with Chester ministries.

Cross-cultural partnership has challenged both congregations. The experience has helped Media confront members' ignorance and prejudices. Some were too fearful at first even to drive through the city of Chester, let alone do volunteer work there. Early in their collaboration, Bishop Robbins spoke in a Media congregational meeting that straightforwardly addressed racial issues and cultural stereotypes. Bishop Robbins acknowledges that his own congregation at first felt threatened by cultural diversity, but has been learning to appreciate it.

Another challenge has been Life in Christ's lack of organization and follow-through with projects, especially at the start of their collaboration. Three times, a group of Media volunteers drove to Chester to help rehab a building, and three times the volunteers from Life in Christ failed to show up to unlock the building. Robbins "took his flock to task" for not taking the ministry seriously, and worked with his church leaders to follow through on delegated projects. At the same time, folks from Media had to adapt to the more casual, crisis-oriented urban style of getting things done. Plans suffered from miscommunications, financial arrangements fell prey to misunderstandings, deadlines came and went without progress.

With all the problems they encountered with the partnership, did either church consider just giving it up? No, says Rev. Borror, "We're in it for the long haul." He never told the church it would be easy, and expects the process to be trial and error. Bishop Robbins agrees that building relationships is hard work that requires patience. But he is equally confident that their partnership is long-term. "No return trip - this is where I'm called," he says. "If we exalt the Lord and believe in the purpose for His church, we can work together."

One reason the pastors have stuck it out is because they share the conviction that Christian cooperation strengthens their evangelistic witness. Jesus prayed that the loving unity of his one body would convince the world that he came from the Father (John 17:21). When Christians of different denominations, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds come together around the banner of holistic ministry, the world takes notice. Bishop Dickie Robbins remarks, "People who are not a part of the Body of Christ - yet! - need to see a greater level of cooperation between people who declare allegiance to the same God. This probably is the greatest witness to the world, that the Body of Christ comes together in cooperation."

Heidi observed the fruits of this partnership firsthand. On a chilly Saturday morning she drove with a work crew from Media Presbyterian Church to a skeleton of a house in Chester designated for a low-income family, joined by members of Life in Christ. As she stood scraping wallpaper, she noticed the woman next to her was wearing a shirt with the number "5" with a halo over it, and asked her about it. Mrs. Sanders told Heidi her story.

In Media in spring 1999, five high school girls were killed in a terrible car accident. Mrs. Sanders' daughter was one of the casualties. As they have done for other local families touched by tragedy who lack a church home, Media reached out with a caring embrace. A friend of the Sanders who attended Media arranged for Rev. Borror to conduct the funeral. Afterwards, Rev. Borror continued to visit them and provide counseling, and other church members brought meals. As they struggled with their grief, the family began attending services at Media. After a few months, they became members, and Mr. Sanders was baptized.

Like all victims of tragedy, Mrs. Sanders questioned God: "Why did this happen?" What she has learned, she told me, was that God did not cause the accident, but God used it to bring her to Media Presbyterian Church, and to a closer relationship with Christ. Growing up Catholic, she knew the right answers and did the right things - but now her faith has become personal. She doubts the family would have recovered had it not been for the church.

In gratitude, she wanted to give something back to Media. But she wanted to do more than write a check; she wanted to be personally involved. When Media asked for volunteers for the joint housing rehab project, the whole family signed up. Working on the house gives her peace, gives her a sense of knowing God better, gives her a sense of satisfaction in helping another family in need. She thinks her daughter would be pleased to see her family working together. Her daughter was rebellious at times, but had a caring spirit.

Two families were helped that day: An African American urban family in need of a new home, and an Anglo suburban family seeking healing from grief - brought together in mutual blessing by a church partnership.

[chap. 11, pp. 242-245]