October 29, 2010

Know thy Neighbor

It’s easy to assume you know a place until an unexpected encounter, story or statistic startles you awake. In the end, it probably the most familiar places that hold the greatest surprises.

For this reason, I love this video about St. Paul’s in Huntington, CT. Not only does it combine health ministry and Anglican Spirituality, it also shows how one priest - the Rev. Janet Waggoner - is walking side-by-side with parish leaders to gain a deeper understanding of their neighborhood. In the accompanying article, Waggoner says “I was wowed by the incredible diversity of our community...Go north and you have the rolling hills and farms, and down to the river and all the houses have boats in their yard.” And while neither the video nor the article go into this, I wonder how these explorations have changed St. John’s ministry.

I made my own startling discovery a few years ago. One evening, while researching an article, I found myself staring at NYC public health data broken down neighborhood-by-neighborhood. Naturally, the first thing I did was search my home zip code. But then, on a whim, I also searched that of my parish. I was startled to discover that HIV infection rates were (and remain) more than twice that of NYC overall, and that children’s asthma rates were (and remain) almost double that of other NYC neighborhoods. I was stunned. And, quite frankly, embarrassed. How could I profess to love my neighbor when I knew so little about their lives and needs?

Last week the Episcopal Church Center released new tools for understanding the demographics of one’s parish neighborhood, and for anyone who loves data there will be a fresh batch coming from the 2010 Census that can be viewed here. (Note - once you enter a zip code you can filter according to topics such as “health” and “poverty.”) But in the end, I must admit that I like St. John’s method best - not only is it incarnational, it builds leadership and a ministry of presence.

How has your ministry been shaped by what you’ve learned about your neighborhood? Have you been surprised by what you’ve found? Are your parish leaders actively involved in learning more?