“O Come Immanuel and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here. Rejoice, rejoice.”
The strange contrast of mourning and rejoicing in this Advent song is a contrast with which I am well acquainted in my 35 years of seeking to build community and work for justice on the west side of Chicago.
I call it the agony and the ecstasy, the extremes that stretch one’s faith and skills. No room for namby pamby approaches. Years ago Bethel struggled with others to stop redlining and get bank investments in our low-income community; we finally had a government commitment for new home subsidies. But the bank waffled and turned down the loan two days before the deadline. We cried, got mad, strategized. In church that Sunday the whole congregation prayed. Emboldened, church members went into the bank on Monday morning. We cornered the bank president, he put us off, and we got into the elevator with him to his offices. The elevator stalled between floors giving us plenty of time to get the nervous banker to write out the financing commitment letter. First, the mourning, and then the celebration.
“Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain, but then the Holy Spirit, revives my soul again.”
So where does this revival come? Often when we looked at a dilapidated building in our community, the revival comes with the eyes to see the possibilities of rehabbing, of new uses. The revival comes in community, in coming together to take action. There is nothing like some music and food, too, to bind us together.
The revival brings eyes to see the possibilities more clearly than the problems. The street corner across from Bethel Church was infested with drug dealers. Rather than hide inside or call the police, we held outdoor prayer vigils on that very corner and invited the dealers to join us in prayer. Community filled with garbage? New eyes helped us see the possibilities of setting up a recycling center, of processing the garbage, creating jobs.
Finally, the reminder of Advent is the sure sense of hope — Immanuel shall come to thee. That’s God’s gift. It doesn’t have to be this way. God makes a way.
Mary Nelson is president emeritus of Bethel New Life in Chicago, where she served for 26 years. She is on the faculties of Asset-Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University, North Park University, Christian Community Development Association Institute, and the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education, and does consulting and speaking.
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