Many congregations struggle with how to help persons who struggle financially (often by providing food, clothing, cash assistance) without falling into cold, impersonal patterns of relating. Can we be neighbors? The problem is that we have learned to imitate the bureaucratized social agency: Wait here; fill out this form; answer a few questions for me. Can’t there be a better way? After all, most of us believe that congregations primarily exist to build community, not administer services.
What would happen if a comfortably middle class congregation—you know the type by its well-manicured front lawn—intentionally sought to partner with a lower income congregation? Nobody likes the idea of simply parachuting in with team of volunteers to fix a problem. Partnerships are developed over time. For example, I know of a suburban Presbyterian church near Syracuse that partnered with an independent Black church in the city to raise money to replace the city church’s boiler.
Partnerships can be more geographically distant. Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, NY has developed a partner relationship with a sister church on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya. It’s comparable to the “sister city” relationship that many North American cities have developed with same-size cities in some other country or hemisphere.
Holy Spirit Parish of Fargo, North Dakota, offers an example of a “sister parish” relationship. This medium-sized, mostly white, middle-income church developed a long-term partnership with a low-income, Black parish in Mississippi. They call it “twinning.” It started when a nun associated with the parish moved her ministry to several black parishes in Mississippi.
The North Dakota parish sent school supplies, baby clothes, quilts, and clothing to the Mississippi parish. Families up north “adopted” particular families in Mississippi. This is not an anonymous arrangement. Families exchange letters and photos. Every other year, several people are sent to visit the Mississippi parish and exchange news. In alternate years, the Mississippi parish sends a group to visit North Dakota, with the more wealthy church financing the trip.
The parish priest at Holy Spirit said, “People really get excited and energized by this connection. They are willing to support this because they feel like they have come to know the people personally.”
Twinning takes effort and a commitment to develop it over time. The middle class partner would be well advised to engage in diversity training—exploring avoid paternalism and bridge the race and class divide. Yet if done right, these partnership can move congregations away from bureaucratized ways of providing help and toward the building of friendships across race and class.
Victor N. Claman et. al., Acting On Your Faith: Congregations Making A Difference (Boston: Insights, Inc., 1993), 83.
Image: Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Human Rights. Google Images.