By Chris Smith
Flourish magazine, Fall 2010
A 115-year-old congregation in one of Indianapolis’s rougher urban neighborhoods might not be the first image to pop into one’s mind when one thinks of a “green” church. The same goes for a church community with historical roots in a tradition of churches—the Independent Christian Churches, part of the Stone-Campbell tradition along with the Disciples of Christ and the non-instrumental Churches of Christ—that has little or no theological foundation for creation care.
But at Englewood Christian Church—which fits both of these descriptions—on the near east side of Indianapolis, there has been a growing consensus that God cares for and is reconciling all things and that we, as God’s people who are maturing together into the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4), should care for all parts of creation.
Called to place
Foremost among Englewood Christian Church’s guiding principles in this direction is a deep commitment to the place where God has called us together, and in which God has been shaping us over the last 115 years. Our covenant describes our congregation as “a manifestation of Christ in this location” and “a tangible presence of Christ in this place.” There was a time in our history, a little over 30 years ago, when our neighborhood—like many other urban neighborhoods—was deep in the throes of “white flight.” Our elders were pressed with the issue of whether to relocate the congregation to a more suburban neighborhood, as many other congregations were doing, but in the end they emphatically decided that it was important for us to stay in this place where God had gathered us. This decision, perhaps one of the most formative in our history, would eventually be followed by theological convictions about place: that land and place are of key significance in the scriptural story; that God’s plan for redeeming the fallen creation centers on the gathering of communities in specific places where they can model, through their life together, the wisdom of the cross of Christ.
These convictions have helped us to begin to model a way of life together that stands in contrast to the general thrust of society’s corrupted imagination, which is depicted by the theologian Willie Jennings, in his book The Christian Imagination, as “floating above land, landscape, animals, place, and space, leaving such realities to the machinations of capitalistic calculations and the commodity chains of private property.”
Because place matters to us, land also matters, and not in some vague, abstract sense, but in the very specific, particular sense that God has given the land in this place to the people of this place as a gift to be nurtured for their sustenance. Our theological convictions about place lead us to consume less energy on transportation, as many of us live in such close proximity to our workplaces and the church building that we regularly “commute” (if one can even use that word in this context) on foot or bicycle. Our theological convictions about place and land have also worked themselves out in the form of shared practices related to gardening, beekeeping, housing, and contributions to the urban planning of our neighborhood.
Called to people
We share the conviction that life together in community is essential to the work that God is doing in the world. We have learned a great deal from the German theologian Gerhard Lohfink (author of Jesus and Community and Does God Need the Church?) and his reading of scripture that accentuates the social and communal themes of God’s redemptive work in the world. That work began in the people of Israel, continued in Jesus’s gathering of disciples, and for the last two millennia has continued in the church.
In a similar fashion to our convictions about place, our convictions about community stand in sharp contrast to the prevailing culture of individualism. The idol of individualism has done great ecological damage, especially as it has matured over the last century into a global system of consumerism. But we work from the conviction that we are called by God not to be a religious community that gathers only on specific times throughout the week, but rather to be a community in the fullest, unqualified sense of the word, sharing all parts of life. Sharing resources with one another and our neighbors, whether lawnmowers, cars, homes, or other items, has become a means of conservation for us. Conserving energy and recycling are great first steps of creation care, but ultimately God requires the transformation of the desires of our hearts and mind—out of the world’s patterns of isolation and unchecked consumption and into the maturing community of God’s people.
The fact that Englewood Christian Church is a multi-generational church has also geared us for responsible stewardship. We have Gen-Xers and younger folks who are passionate about caring for creation, a good number of middle-aged folks who lived through the Jesus People era and have encouraged us to think critically about technology, and many seniors who learned practices of frugality, conservation, and handiwork during the Great Depression. In an age when many churches are oriented toward a specific age demographic or when age groups are often cordoned off within larger congregations, we feel fortunate to be sharing life together across generations. The collected wisdom of these generations, combined with our conviction about the crucial importance of sharing life in community, has sustained arts and skills—gardening, cooking, preserving foods, fixing broken tools, etc.—that are rapidly becoming lost arts in the larger culture.
Walking the walk
One type of work into which Englewood Christian Church has been called in our urban neighborhood is the providing of affordable housing. In this work we try to make the best energy-saving and creation-conscious choices that we can, from rehabbing houses instead of tearing them down and building new ones, to installing energy-efficient appliances. In 2007 some key business partners helped us install a green roof on a commercial building that we own—the first green roof in the city of Indianapolis!
We also have a community garden that provides food for common meals we share and educational opportunities for children from the church and neighborhood. The church roof hosts a beehive—which, although it was vacant this year, has provided honey and beeswax products in past years, and hopefully will do so again in the future—and the church basement hosts a small vermicomposting operation. There are several families in the church who raise chickens and make the eggs available to others in the church at affordable prices. When we eat meals together, which usually happens a number of times each week, we use ceramic dishware, and washing dishes has become an important part of sharing the meal together.
We also host a conference or two each year, which gives us an opportunity to explore a specific topic in conversation with folks from other churches in other places. Among our favorite conferences over the last few years have been gatherings focused on agriculture. In 2008 we hosted a conference on church and agriculture that featured the farmer and writer Ragan Sutterfield as the main speaker. The talks from this conference have been published in the little book Farming as a Spiritual Discipline (reviewed in Flourish here).
Two years later, this October, we hosted another conference that revisited the agriculture theme: “A Rooted People: Church, Place and Agriculture in an Urban World.” Almost everyone who participated in the conference was engaged in agricultural work of some kind and was eager to talk about their experiences and to connect with other kindred spirits, including speakers Fred Bahnson, a farmer and writer who helped found one of the best-known church-based community gardens in North Carolina; Martin Price, the longtime director of ECHO, which provides agricultural education for communities around the world, particularly in difficult growing areas in the developing world; Claudio Oliver of Brazil, who spoke on recovering local practices of production; and the storyteller Sean Gladding. All of these speakers offered glimmers of hope amidst a dismal ecological forecast. Favorite parts of the conference, however, were the mealtimes, as the Englewood Christian Church community worked diligently to create menus based on local foods and allowed plenty of time for mealtime conversations.
We’re humbled that God has gathered us in the Englewood neighborhood of Indianapolis and even more so that God is using us in all our weaknesses and inconsistencies to bear witness as a community in this place to the divine work of reconciling all creation. Most days, life here is chaotic and full of the unexpected, but God is good indeed and there is much joy in sharing life together as a community, an expression of God’s new family, rooted in place.
Chris Smith is editor of the Englewood Review of Books and enjoys the adventures he has in urban naturalism with his wife and three children.
As a treat for the Advent season, the Englewood Review of Books will be releasing the recordings of the Rooted People conference’s main sessions over the next few weeks on its website.