Listening in South Austin, TX with Sunrise Community Church - November 29, 2016

Challenge the Role of the Pastor & the Church

Pastor Mark Hilbelink is redefining the role of pastor and the role of the Church in South Austin, Texas. A pastor is no longer solely creating sermons and facilitating meetings but they are actually doing the dirty work of case management and breaking economic social barriers. Being involved in people’s lives in ways that are uncomfortable for them but necessary and vital for those that have specific needs.

Moving past the ideas of segregation of class but moving towards the fullness of the Eucharist’s equalizing power spoke of in Corinthians. Sunrise Community Church is striving to truly take care of the poor, the weak, the homeless, and the oppressed. Through listening to what the streets were telling them, Sunrise found that in South Austin there were no services for the homeless community. All the support was in North Austin. So they set up a hub for those in the homeless community where they were able to communicate with the other organizations providing services and support on the other end of the city.

Sunrise quickly realized that what they were doing was important but they were missing something even more important. The homeless in their area are most often without families and Sunrise decided they needed to be that family. Now, I have heard of ethnically diverse and generationally diverse but the community at Sunrise are seeking what it means to economically diverse. Meaning they have to ask an entirely different set of questions:

  • How do you take communion with someone who is a prostitute without trying to “fix” them or put shame them? Especially when their only option is to choose a “more safe” version of prostitution or they will be homeless.

  • How do you sit next to someone in church who is a sex offender that has been clean for 30 years but it makes you uncomfortable?

  • What are appropriate boundaries with people that are different than me?

  • How do I worship God next to someone who hasn’t showered in a long time?

As I listened to the staff tell their story, I learned that we can no longer afford to stay a “tidy” church. We have to get messy. We have to face the fact that people are different and are still God's creation. Because, the truth is,  lives are at stake. Whether the difference is racially, economically, age, gender, or sexuality that is dividing... we must be FOR people but we also must be WITH them. If we are all about the Body of Christ then we have to remember that God is bigger than our understanding of socially appropriate and see Christ in all of God’s Creation.

Hope is found in the messiness.

Hope is found in the place when a sex offender can receive help getting a bus pass from a victim who is choosing to use her pain to bring healing.

Hope can be found when a community of homeless people are claiming a space as good and for peace. When they claim that place and will not permit others to disrupt that space. Women and men have come to guard Sunrise with their with their bodies and their lives, because of the freedom to be themselves and love that permeates from those that work there.

Hope is found when people can actually see the person of Christ in the person standing next to them whether that person is a billionaire or someone who has $.50 in their pocket.

Hope is found when a church realizes that being the Body of Christ is more than showing up on Sundays and more than throwing money at a “problem.” Being the Body of Christ is rolling up your sleeves and putting action to the words that you say every Sunday at church of “bringing heaven to earth.”

Separation Speaks

What is it that drives us to keep people separated from the homeless? What keeps us from seeing the person in the homeless person? Is it fear, anxiety, or the idea of security?

No matter the reason I have some work to do. I have my own complacency and desire to ignore those that are different than me economically. The conviction brings me to tears because I wonder how many times I have perpetuated the cycle of violence, harm, and exclusion against those that truly need love. I have done this, I’m sure, more than I want to admit. Creating excuses and assumption to rationalize my staying away. Yet, if I chose to actually see the humanity in the person on the street with the sign, I would have to live a different life that was out of compassion rather than judgment.

I'm thankful for the heart of Sunrise Community Church. I’m thankful for their bravery and their desire to see restoration. I’m thankful for their eyes to see beauty in those that teach them about compassion daily.

Let’s choose people over comfortability. Let’s choose relationship over a capital campaign.  Let’s take a cue from Sunrise Community Church and create a family for those who have lost family, who have been isolated, and secluded from the world. Let’s choose to be the Body of Christ in sickness and in health.  

Questions to Consider:

  • How is that we as the middle-class white church are more interested in being comfortable in church rather than sharing God’s love with those who need it most?

  • How do we stop cultivating more boundaries but actually become a catalyst for less assumptions around social boundaries?

  • How do we create and actually embrace people in different economic standing as the good creations of God that they are?

For more information about the work of Mark Hilbelink and Sunrise Community Church. Find inspiration in the way they chose to listen to what the streets of their city were telling them.