We’ve used our Community Garden for a lot of things over the years. There have been Fall Festivals, photo booths, and concert after-parties amongst the rows of crops growing on the far side of our property. But early in April, we did something new with the space. We used it to pass knowledge to our friends in the nonprofit community.
Nonprofit leaders from across the country — from Philadelphia to Georgia to St Louis — gathered here on April 6 for Leadership Network’s HUB event. Hosted three times a year, HUB is a conversational workshop aimed at accelerating results for churches and nonprofits by bringing them together to exchange ideas and hone practices. According to Reggie McNeal, a Missional Leadership Specialist at Leadership Network, the overarching theory behind the conference is one that has guided 6 Stones for years: we’re better together.
“The HUB City Impact Experience is designed to help community and congregational teams who are already engaged with community development to accelerate that development; to identify clear, epic wins, which are collaborative initiatives that move the needle on big societal issues,” McNeal said. “The reason I wanted that group to visit [6 Stones] is because that’s exactly what has transpired over the last seven years here.”
6 Stones began as a conversation. More accurately, it was born from a series of questions. When this organization was launched as a nonprofit, independent of the church that backed it, the first order of business was to dialogue with community leaders about their needs and the best ways to meet them.
“It did take a sizable financial investment from one church, and that church had to stipulate that it would be a non-profit,” said John Meador, Pastor at First Baptist Church of Euless and a panel member during the discussion in the garden. “It wouldn’t be a church ministry that was just under the umbrella of First Baptist Euless. Because [the city and school district] couldn’t really legitimately partner with First Baptist Euless. But they could legitimately partner with a nonprofit 501(c)3 with multiple churches involved.”
Gene Buinger, who was running the Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District when 6 Stones was conceived, stressed that he would have never been able to marshal the support of a church unless they were to initiate the conversation. It was essential, in his mind, that any people of faith who desired to support the school district on a large scale would need to make their intentions clear from the beginning. More importantly, they would need to be willing to engage with students and families of all religious backgrounds. So long as their motivation was compassion, not proselytizing, they were welcome partners. Steve Chapman, the current Superintendent for HEB ISD seemed to agree, as did retired Euless city manager Gary McKamie. All three men have served or are currently serving on the board at 6 Stones.
Meador, Buinger, McKamie, and Chapman were members of a panel that also included Greg Thompson of Classic Chevrolet and former First Baptist employee Gary Phillips. Classic is one of our most consistent and generous supporters, lending tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of volunteer hours to the community every year. Phillips was part of the team that got 6 Stones off the ground in the early years. Collectively, those six men represented nearly every facet of our organization, and they were more than ready to field questions from a national audience.
“Nearly 55% of our kids are economically disadvantaged, and so one of the things that we realized is that we really have to look to this community and try to leverage all of the resources in this community, because we have high expectations for our kids,” Chapman told the group. “One of the things that Dr Buinger used to say to our staff consistently is that our demographics will not dictate our destiny. Unfortunately, there are a lot of school districts that allow that to happen. We continue to have outstanding performance and to be one of the highest performing districts in the state, and that’s because we are able to leverage the resources of this community.”
For most of the men and women attending the conference, that kind of cooperation is the goal. Many of the organizations represented have already begun to develop those kinds of collaborative relationships, but others are still wrapping their arms around their mission and goals. In either case, dialogue with their peers would prove to be an invaluable resource.
“The value [of HUB] is growing together. A normal conference experience is that you go and learn by yourself, even though you’re with a lot of different people. You only take away the things that you hear from the speaker or from the presenter, and then it’s up to you to do something with that on your own. With this process, it’s more about what we can learn together and challenge each other on,” said Preston Kegley, a new leader at East Side Church of God in Anderson, Indiana. “The process actually encourages you to do something while you’re here. To make progress in your thinking and in your planning and in your preparation. And then it gives you a community to bounce ideas off of as you’re planning and discovering how you can best be at work in your community; how God can be at work through you. So it’s not an isolated approach to growth, it’s a community approach to growth.”
Community is essential to this movement. More and more people and churches are beginning to realize that something has been off about their service for far too long, and that living in accordance with their faith demands more than passing the offering plate or arguing over doctrine. According to McNeal, there has been a schism between motivation, rhetoric, and action in Christian service for a long time. He says it traces back to the Fundamentalist movement, which emphasized a literal interpretation of the Bible as the core of Christian life and intellectualism.
“A hundred years ago, we were building hospitals and orphanages,” McNeal said. “In my opinion, the Church abandoned the culture a long time before the culture abandoned us. We built hospitals, orphanages, old folks’ homes — you name it — we were in the middle of it. Fundamentalism came in, and to dissociate from that, the folks that were in mainline denominations stayed in with some of those things but quit talking about Spiritual stuff because they didn’t want people to confuse them with those crazy fundamentalists.”
“Evangelicals grew out of that; wanting to speak the Truth with less vitriol, so they majored on ‘how do we hone the message?’ So you had this great divide, almost, between heart and mouth. But sharing the Truth in love means you’ve got to do both things. I think what’s happening now, in this Kingdom emphasis that I’m seeing all over, is bringing [those things] back together; understanding that both things are critical. Who cares how right you are in your doctrine if you don’t love me? But if you love people and you’re unwilling to tell them all the Truth, then somehow that’s not love.”
Bringing together the message and the lifestyle of the gospel has proven complex. When you’re working with Truths as big as the ones at play in Christianity, it’s exceptionally unlikely that any one party has it all figured out. HUB is a place where a diverse set of people can bring their individual pieces of the puzzles and start to discover where they fit in the larger picture. Transforming individuals and communities requires conversation, both within the population and with other collectives with similar goals. We have to know what needs fixing if we’re going to fix it correctly, and doing so is much easier when someone else has already blazed the trail in one way or another. For church bodies, those conversations have to move outside of the building.
“It used to be the church that was the cornerstone of the community. It used to have influence and affluence. It was the moral character of the community. It was the integrity of the community. It fed the poor and clothed the homeless. It did all of that; it had integrity and honor about it. And we’ve taken a backseat to culture and society. We’ve done some stupid things as a Church,” said Anthony Meyers, a Pastor on the Leadership Team at The Crossing in St Louis. “We have to change that. It can’t be about us. It has to be about them.”
The Church — the collective of all Christians, regardless of geography, as denoted by a capital ‘C’ — has always been charged with the implementation of a certain set of teachings. The historical Jesus, founder of the faith, preached an element of service and compassion alongside morality. A close inspection of his message, in fact, reveals a prioritization of the former in pursuit of the latter: get your heart right and your behavior will follow.
In that context, processes and partnerships are more important than individual results. The Crossing, a collective headed by three distinct church bodies and partnering with local nonprofits, recognizes that emphasis. The end goal, Meyers and Meador both espoused, cannot be an expansion of church attendance. It needs to be something bigger than organizational growth. It’s got to be about compassion. And it needs to be bigger than one group.
“We have a long, cultural bias in the Western Culture of siloed approaches to everything. The Government does this, the Education Community does this, Healthcare people do this. So the Church, we have our own silo. We just play in our own little sandbox. There’s a big cultural backdrop that we’re against,” McNeal said. “What’s interesting, though — and what places the church in a unique role that we don’t get sometimes — is that the Church is already deployed across all these domains. When people come on Sundays and they’re sitting there; they’re in education, they’re in health care, they’re in government. They’re in all these places, and we do an enormous disservice to their gifting and calling when we’re not affirming that the arenas that they’re at work in are vitally important to God. Because it’s a part of human existence. I think that whole mindset has to change.”
If we — the church, the nonprofit, the business sector, the government — are going to make a quantifiable impact on this world, we cannot go it alone. Every slice of society has a role to play in the work of organizations like ours because there are, quite simply, some things that we can’t do by ourselves. There are also things that cities can’t do alone. And things that school districts can’t accomplish in isolation. And people that businesses can’t reach without help. We all have different needs and desires, but we can all agree on one thing: We need each other.
“The point is life,” said McNeal. “A better life for the people who live in our towns and our cities.”
Providing that kind of assistance is beyond any one organization. That’s why we run our efforts as a coalition rather than a commission. It’s why The Crossing partners with people who are already at work in St Louis rather than trying to plant their own programs. It’s also why churches like Preston Kegley’s come to HUB events. We need to engage the individual skills of each and every person we can, and we need to include as many voices in the dialogue as possible. That’s how we’ve always done it, and that’s why we gladly pulled the curtain back on everything we do here at 6 Stones. There is no room for secret-keeping or competition when it comes to making the world a better place. Cooperation is the only course. We’re better together.