When the Forum for Theological Exploration (FTE) recently brought together Christian innovators in Los Angeles, it became clear that within our individual stories and our collective memories, lie the blueprints for creating a future in which we can all flourish.
Christian leaders are creating hybrid expressions of faith community in spaces that are both secular and sacred, holy and ordinary, church and marketplace these days. Innovators are working in the margins that emerge between two systems; spaces where life grows in the tension between safety and risk, comfort and creativity. Their stories inspire me.
Steven A. Chaparro is a trained architect and serves as design strategist at Visioneering Studios, Inc. But he grew up as a pastor’s kid and felt the tug of pastoral leadership, so he put his particular skills to work by re-imagining sites for ministry and engineering spaces designed to serve human flourishing. One such place is Moniker Warehouse, a co-working space in San Diego. He describes it as a “dream factory” where a church is one tenant among a lively mix of 20 artisan brands, creating jobs and becoming a community asset in one of the city’s most socially and economically underserved neighborhoods.
In Cincinnati, Rosa Lee Harden urges “emancipation from a predatory economy.” Harden had grown up in a small Mississippi town before the big-boxification of the U.S. economy. Back then, money stayed in the community, providing jobs, and supporting families in a way she describes as “neighborly.” A few years ago, she was instrumental in launching a real-time experiment in Cincinnati. Could a few people who were willing to work together to invest their dollars in neighborhood economies really make a change?
This Cincinnati experiment is growing and is one example of a movement to redefine economics from the bottom up; funding local ventures, supporting entrepreneurs, and encouraging shared learning. Initiatives such as Social Capital Markets (SOCAP) and The Parish Collective encourage planting small, place-based churches that celebrate and connect models that create beloved community. “We have what we need,” says Harden, “when we gather and put it out there.”
Marlon Hall would agree. He is an archeologist and self-described “curator of human potential.” Through his Houston-based nonprofit The Eat Gallery, Hall has helped seven budding entrepreneurs launch businesses that match health needs of underserved populations with artful food (including a nutritious green smoothie that went viral because it tasted like white chocolate).
“The food was good, but they were part of something bigger,” Hall says. Community developed; passions blossomed; people came alive to the “why” of their existence. He believes the best way to honor God is to fully develop one’s talents and skills and create opportunities for people to make meaning and money at the intersection of one’s passion. His philosophy of Christian social entrepreneurship is to go into our neighborhoods like anthropologists, with vitality that resembles the gospel.
“Eat the food. Dance the dances. Cut your hair. Become a participant observer in the culture,” he says, “Then learn what our cities and towns need and find ways to meet those context-specific needs.”
As for Alisha Lola Jones, she launched InSight Initiative, Inc, a startup that consults in the design of events that uplift people while also turning a profit. Jones is an ethnomusicologist whose academic work focuses on contemporary African-American male performances. With her sister, she created Genius for Men, a men’s empowerment conference that celebrates the stories of everyday black men who do extraordinary good in and around an underserved DC neighborhood.
Her advice to would-be entrepreneurs: “There’s going to be doubt. There’s going to be famine and fallow ground,” she says. “Those who made it big had blips along with the ascension. Risk should be part of the conversation.”
God’s spirit, set loose on the world, aches to create new life from the compost of our decaying institutions. We have what we need to create alternatives to systems that are snuffing out the life chances of the people we love and serve. And it’s these Christian social innovators and disruptors who are daring more of us to take next steps we might not have imagined before.