Mennonite churches have been relatively successful at doing good for the most vulnerable in our society. Important work often seen as for our neighbours might include: building housing, serving meals, and sponsoring refugees. During a neighbourhood glowride my approach to good works began to change from doing for, to working with the most vulnerable. Before talking about that small but important distinction, I need to tell you about glowrides.
A glowride is a community bike ride that takes place at night and encourages participants to light up their bikes and parade around the city. In our church’s downtown St. Catharines neighbourhood of Queenston, about 40 residents met up one Friday night at 8 pm. Everyone’s bicycle was decorated with glow sticks or battery-powered Christmas lights and we all went out cruising around the neighbourhood in a ridiculous beaming glory.
On the surface, a glowride is exactly what it sounds like: a quirky event that celebrates bicycling culture. As many a Mennonite will tell you, however, fun social events such as life-sized Dutch Blitz games, potlucks, and paska baking nights serve a larger purpose — they build trust, respect, and a sense of belonging in our communities. In short, these types of events help us learn to do things with one another.
Riding through the Queenston neighbourhood accomplished similar aims: it celebrated the one-year anniversary of a not-for-profit bike shop while bringing the community together around a fun event that promoted bicycle safety. Unlike an event that aims at doing something for the neighbourhood, glowrides, and other fun events like them can contribute to a collective capacity to do good with neighbours.
At Westview Christian Fellowship, bike safety, and pedestrian safety more generally, is not a trivial matter. The majority of our parishioners exclusively bus, walk, or ride a scooter for transportation. Pedestrian safety can make the difference between feeling secure enough to lug laundry to our church’s women’s centre, Westview Centre4Women, or picking up groceries at the corner store.
Doing with rather than for, encourages co-operation and a co-operative set of neighbours can initiate tangible improvements in a community. In our neighbourhood, for example, the group that organized the glowride — a dedicated association of residents, churches, and services — has effectively mobilized to address complex social issues. For example, we’ve worked to decrease the number of discarded needles in our parks and on our streets and we’ve discussed the problem of food security, and supported an overdose prevention site, the first of its kind in Niagara.
MCEC churches have a cultivated sense for the difference between volunteering at a soup kitchen — doing for — opposed to sharing a pot of borscht — doing with. Unfortunately, we’re often so focused on our insular church communities that we forget to apply these lessons in our neighbourhoods. As I switched off my bike lights Friday night, I wondered if we’re not called to do more of this kind of humanizing and bonding work together.
The kingdom of heaven is bigger than the church. Like Christ, Old Testament prophets called on their society to organize around the widow, the poor, and the marginalized. The hope wasn’t simply that individuals or groups would become better at doing things for others. Rather, the prophets envisioned societal change. By extension, we are called to address structural issues such as pedestrian safety, food distribution networks, minimum wage, tax regimes, and affordable housing. The way we organize our life with neighbours can serve to empower the most vulnerable or drive them off the road.
It should be possible to use the life we cultivate on a Sunday morning for more than supporting our insular communities or developing outreach programs. The association of residents who continue to bring light to the Queenston neighbourhood confirms for me that churches can partner with neighbourhoods to catalyze collective action. Through working together we can slowly but sustainably begin to put the concerns and needs of the most vulnerable at the centre of our life together – as churches and as neighbourhoods. And let me tell you, a glowride is a pretty good place to begin.