“Try not to think in terms of superimposing our own tastes and objectives on the lives of others but rather to make our energies and talents available to those who would want us to work amongst them.”
— Judith Tokel, meeting notes from the American Addition Neighborhood Council, December 9, 1968
I’ve been doing some poking around in the CMC archives. They’re in the back of the Upper Room, the last stop of the elevator. The celebration of CMC’s 55 year anniversary this August, combined with the more casual pace of summer, makes it a good time to poke.
The very first file in the first drawer is labeled “American Addition.” It was, and still is, a small predominantly African American neighborhood on the near east side. In the late sixties and early seventies, this congregation, then called Neil Avenue Mennonite Church, became heavily involved in working alongside that community to form the Amercrest Improvement Corporation to make substantive improvements to the neighborhood. This included volunteer labor on houses, and petitioning City Council to remove dilapidated housing and extend bus, gas, and sewer services to the neighborhood (sewer lines had been previously installed, but many of the houses hadn’t been hooked up).
It was a major work, one of the key ways this congregation engaged African American neighbors during the Civil Rights era.
Which is why I find those words from Judith Tokel so compelling, recorded in the meeting notes, preserved in our archives. They appear hidden in the middle of a paragraph, but serve as a fine definition of mission, conscious of power dynamics: “To make our energies and talents available to those who would want us to work amongst them.”
Mission work of churches can so frequently perpetuate uneven power dynamics rather than transform them. The attitude of which Judith Tokel writes is a good foundation for the important work of being in active solidarity with others.
And the work continues.