by Sarah Messner
“When I first arrived at Princeton Seminary, I thought I’d become a nice pastor in a white-steeple church,” said Bill Stanfield (M.Div., 2000). That vision transformed dramatically after he spent the year after his middler year living in a Brussels ghetto with Moroccan and Turkish immigrants. “My context was completely stripped away,” Stanfield said. “At seminary, I thought of faith as a tool bag you carry around. In Brussels, all of my finely honed theological nuances crumbled into one very simple question: Can I love folks?”
Stanfield refers to this conversion of his heart and mind as a metanoia, a complex process of renewal and redirection, in which he learned to live more authentically in relation to God and others.
Shortly after he returned to PTS from Brussels, Stanfield met Evelyn Oliveira (M.Div., 2001). Oliveira too had experienced metanoia when she taught English for a year in the Dominican Republic prior to starting seminary at Princeton. It was not her first experience in the Dominican Republic: she had visited several times as a teenager to translate for short-term medical missions. These mission trips had included persistent efforts at evangelization. Over time Oliveira realized that, rather than “delivering a line,” she was drawn to witness to God’s love by putting her faith into practice: “I realized my own salvation was caught up in loving others,” Oliveira said.
Stanfield and Oliveira were married in 2002 after Evelyn graduated from PTS. They were subsequently hired by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of South Carolina to work on a community development project in Chicora-Cherokee, a primarily African American neighborhood in North Charleston, with the highest rate of childhood poverty in the state. Prior to beginning their work, they received training in best practices in community development, racial reconciliation, and nonprofit management at the Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE) in Chicago. At SCUPE, they were introduced to research by John McKnight and John Kretzmann from the Asset-Based Community Development Institute. McKnight and Kretzmann had researched what happens to disinvested communities when needs-based social service organizations focus their resources on filling only needs. They learned that in communities where support systems traditionally reinforced weaknesses rather than capacity, cycles of dependency and resentment are created, leaving communities worse off than before.
Wary of repeating this mistake, Stanfield and Oliveira wanted to work with stakeholders to discover and grow community assets, whether by developing youth leadership potential, incubating business ideas or entrepreneurial gifts, or improving physical assets like abandoned buildings. To work toward their ideal of community-defined strengths and goals, Stanfield and Oliveira listened to members of the Chicora-Cherokee community for an entire year. They joined with St. Matthew Baptist Church to purchase a home in the neighborhood. Then, in 2003, they formed a board of directors to establish the Metanoia Community Development Corporation, a group of “people pushing forward into a new relationship with God and one another to create a strong community.” Located in the Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood of Charleston, the Metanoia Community Development Corporation is a faith-based, community-led, and assets-driven organization that takes a holistic approach to community development by sponsoring programs in youth leadership, quality housing, and economic opportunities. The new board defined metanoia as “seeking the Kingdom of God through promoting positive change in ourselves, in our neighborhood, and in our society.”
Rather than focus on disheartening childhood poverty statistics in their neighborhood, the board of Metanoia chose to develop leadership qualities in their youth through year-round leadership programs, tutoring, career training, and business development opportunities. “One of our most important responsibilities is to develop leaders in the community who can heal our community for themselves,” Stanfield said. Their youth leadership development initiative includes after-school and summer programs, encompassing kindergarten through college-age youth. A former teacher, Oliveira was particularly dedicated to the development of youth leadership programming.
Metanoia also encouraged quality housing initiatives in the Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood by rehabilitating old homes and building new ones, which raises the local real estate value, supports local businesses, and lowers crime rates. On a block where Metanoia developed six homes, violent crime rates dropped more than 60 percent. Metanoia also assists first-time homebuyers with making down payments and offers courses in financial literacy. Recognizing the importance of economic development, Metanoia has sponsored two youth business ventures, Isoke Sisters Jewelry and Hodari Brothers Screen Printing, funded a training academy for contractors, operated a neighborhood farmer’s market, and partnered with the food bank to provide job training.
For Stanfield and Oliveira, PTS provided the foundation for the ministry they do today. “The theological education I received [at PTS] helps me to think critically about the world; it grew my theology of the Kingdom of God,” said Stanfield. For Oliveira, PTS challenged her to deeply engage her faith, developing a theology that has supported and affirmed her call to urban missions. She studied liberation theology—which posits that God has a special option for the poor—through her courses with Professors Peter Paris, Brian Blount (now president of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Virginia), and Mark Taylor. Habits that were fostered at seminary such as regular prayer and reading the Bible have sustained her in work where it is easy to get burnt out. Oliveira also continues to incorporate lessons learned from Professor Deborah Hunsinger’s courses in prayer and counseling and Professor (Emeritus) Diogenes Allen’s course on spirituality.
The couple’s ministry with Metanoia has its challenges. Stanfield recalled that, when they first moved to Chicora-Cherokee, he wanted to “change everything instantly.” Eventually he learned that development work “is a marathon, not a sprint.” The community of Chicora-Cherokee itself taught him the discipline of maintaining a vibrant hope in the midst of struggling against poverty and injustice. “There are many complex problems in our community that I witness every day on the walk from my house to work—it would be easy to get stuck in despair. But at the end of the day, we have only to ask ourselves, ‘Have we been faithful?’ We can’t focus on specific results: it’s not our kingdom, it’s God’s. And since we believe that God’s heart is close to those at the margins, if we want to be close to the heart of God, then that’s where we’ll be working.”
Metanoia’s web site: pushingforward.org
BBC article: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10497083
Asset-Based Community Development Institute: abcdinstitute.org