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Judson Memorial Church, located in Greenwich Village in New York City, has trained 29 seminary students as public ministers over the last five years. As the senior minister at Judson and the developer of this program, I thought I would be teaching the public ministers. The opposite is true. The chief learning so far in five years of community ministry is that we had more to learn than to teach.

Public ministry contrasts to parochial ministry in attending the community first and the parish second. While the goal of parochial ministry is spiritual nurture, the goal of public ministry is social justice. The dividing line between sacred and secular is given a good shake in this mix.

The seminary students who apply to participate in this program want to do something. In this program, they get involved in doing many things. The public ministers help community members, many of whom are in troubled situations. While helping the community members address problems, the community members help the ministers understand the complexities of worlds that they inhabit.

The public ministers accompany undocumented immigrants to their appointments and check-ins with ICE U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Some public ministers have engaged in campaigns of civil disobedience. A half dozen of them were arrested outside of the former Varick Street detention center to Free Jean, an undocumented Haitian who was almost deported the day before the Haitian earthquake. He was, indeed, set free by a combination of their efforts and the horror of the earthquake. Others set up short-term housing for gay youth with nowhere to turn. They clean out the apartments of senior citizens who are about to be evicted because of the smells in their apartment. The public ministers work with members of our congregation, and their task is to activate and energize them, politically and socially. They get hands-on experience.

The interns also had an impact on our church and our congregation. They moved our church into the 21st century and became the driving force for our congregational mission. The students gave us a racial diversity we did not have by opening us to younger experience, as well as bringing in, through their outreach, people whom we might otherwise never have met. A good example is the group of undocumented immigrants with HIV who now attend Judson regularly. As a result, Judson began to look at its own racism, which we saw intimately by our desire to be the host to our new guests and not recognizing that our guests were also hosting us with and to new experience. Judson is now a congregation with a majority of people under-35 years of age. Before the community ministry program we were a majority over-60 congregation.

I also saw the absolute hunger ministry students have for the things that they dont teach in seminary. This includes the effects of wide ranging injustice, as well as how to organize, do social analysis, engage victims in the tough issues they face and to survive political defeat.

A parochialized seminary curriculum narrows the views of ministry students, and timid and parochialized congregations and misinterpreters of the Bible magnify these views. Our experiential education involves an action-reflection curriculum, one that privileges experience over book learning, without dismissing book learning. The curriculum places the experience of social justice at its center. This fills a great gap in the typical seminary education. Paolo Frieres Pedagogy of the Oppressed often informs our methodology. It assumes that the privileged have as much to learn and receive from the under privileged or differently privileged as they have to teach or give.

One of the foundational ideas of community ministry is connecting the sources of social injustice. For example, we acknowledge that the same impulse that results in the harassment of women also results in harassment of GLBTQ people as well as people of color. It is a spiritual and intellectual immaturity. In one word, the source is fear. Our interns, joined by our congregation, work at addressing the roots of violence against women, gays, immigrants and poor people. They do this by staying close to the people others call victims.

The public ministers meet as a group once a week for three hours in a session that is part therapy group, part salon, and part consciousness raising. Lay people often sit in as observers. The goal of these sessions is to understand how to sustain social action over a career and to meet the resistance to it, internally and externally. The topics may be as large as political despair or as small as how to get a senior to properly dispose of her diapers.

Because of the contributions of these 29 community ministers, Judson has attracted dozens of new members. We have learned to enjoy and not just paternalize intergenerational experience. The critical mass of the community ministers and their welcome encouraged this tipping to happen. Most importantly, both our students and our members feel like they are doing something to aid their community and world, and in increasingly deft ways. We have learned that action breeds more action, that concern for the community expands our community, that engagement beyond the parochial brings new insights and breathes new hope and life into our world.

June 2, 2010