Rich Paxson

Receiving a New Story

St. John’s, our small church where I work part-time as volunteer bookkeeper/Treasurer, completed its annual leadership change a month ago. Leadership changes, even in tiny congregations like ours, can be disruptive. Whether the change is benign or belligerent, each staff member must find the new workplace vision that best facilitates healthy personal responses to new corporate circumstances.

A work environment reshuffle seems a good metaphor for the identity changes related to being “inducted into a people,” that is, induction into the Church as James laid it out in the previous sessions. In both cases, prior rules of engagement no longer apply. Individuals need fresh outlooks within the constraints of a changed structure that demands new answers for old questions. For me, a revisioning process usually begins with reflecting on “Where have I been?”

Lately, I’ve been reflecting on my history and experience with racial prejudice that I developed growing up on Chicago’s South Side. This past week I ran across a book that in a very engaging way opened up to me the history and the practices of my Chicago experience. Author Antero Pietila in “Not in My Backyard” describes 20th Century, urban-American racial segregation as it played out in Baltimore, Maryland. Drawing on his forty years of newspaper reporting, Pietila captures the look, the feel, the fears and the changing vision of the second half of 20th Century urban America. “Not in My Backyard” outlines practices that ‘contained’ African-Americans into urban ghettos and then analyzes white political and economic responses as Blacks ‘broke out’ of the ghettos in the 1950s to begin moving into previously ‘all white’ neighborhoods.

“Not in My Backyard” resonates precisely with my lived experience on Chicago’s South Side in the 1950s and 60s. The book validates my experiences and my responses helping me let go of the continuing but inarticulate immediacy of the Chicago ‘social other’ of my family of origin and the social dynamics of our South Side neighborhood. Laying down my former life does not mean rejecting it or fighting against it. It means understanding and appreciating who I was then and how I navigated those troubled waters. The process of laying it down frees me to respond to God’s vision introducing me now into a new, much-expanded people.

The prophet Habakkuk’s writing in the following quotation seems to fit my current situation:

Then the Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come; it will not delay.