Community from Scratch
How one pastor is building
Christian community where it doesn't come easy.
An interview with Eugene Rivers.
In the shadow of inner-city crack
houses, Eugene Rivers preaches a radical gospel.
It's the same message he preaches
to Boston politicians, gangs, and the Christian Coalition: love,
Educated on the streets and at
Harvard, Rivers' journey from gang member to minister began when he
was confronted with his own mortality while listening to Billy
Graham on the radio. Rivers, 49, now pastors Azusa Christian
Community in south Boston. His work among gangs was recently a Newsweek
While in Chicago for a conference
on violence prevention, Rivers talked with Leadership
editors Marshall Shelley and Eric Reed about
establishing community in a tough environment.
What have gangs taught you about
The gangs in Boston challenged the
clergy about the absence of community in the church. The church had
so failed to model an attractive and viable vision of community that
children had to create their own.
They'll go somewhere to find
fraternity in the midst of a crisis. The "all for one, one for
all" ethic drives the gang. The loyalty, allegiance, and
camaraderie that are cardinal dimensions of gang life are what they
need in the church.
How has that changed the way you build community
among young people?
I'm hearing some remarkable
things. Contrary to a lot of rhetoric, Gen-X young people are
looking for spiritual direction.
A young woman, a sophomore at
Yale, wanted me to be a father figure for her because she had never
had that kind of affirmation. She knew she could not flower as a
woman until she had that. The absence of fatherhood in the black
community has had catastrophic consequences. So for her and for
these young people, there is a yearning for parents, for fathers,
who will listen, laugh, correct, and enjoy the dialogue.
Is the family, then, your picture
Nuclear family--father, mother,
children--is the definitive basis for larger visions of community.
Everything proceeds from God's concept of family.
How does that compare with other
The church must be biblically
consistent. We cannot pick and choose with Scripture. The vision of
the common life in Acts 2 and 4 is as central to the story of the
church as anything else. Pentecostals--and I say this as a
Pentecostal--focus on the sensational events, but we ignore the
community. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit was not manifested
simply in tongues. We must embrace the full gospel. We must wrestle
with koinonia. As a result of God's presence, oppressive
divisions of class, ethnicity, race, and gender were eradicated
among his people.
Not until the church engages the power of the
Spirit in our life together will we be what God called us to be.
Truth can be a weapon, more dangerous than
healing, in the hands of the unwise. What prevents this from
We don't recognize the difference
between speaking truth and hearing truth. One thing you learn in
community: if the right thing is said at the wrong time, the truth
is lost. Truth out of context is over-rated.
Truth can be a weapon, more
damaging than healing, in the hands of the unwise. People have to be
psychologically and spiritually ready to hear certain truths. I
learned that at Harvard.
I used to do a seminar on
"contemporary urban issues," some heavy-duty stuff on
racism in society and the role the church has played in that. For
some of the kids, it was overwhelming. One Christian kid almost had
an emotional breakdown.
From that I learned that each
pastor needs to ask, "Is the person ready to receive? Am I the
person to share the insight? And what is the best way to do
it?" In some cases, choosing the right vehicle is more
important than the truth itself.
How do you determine if you’re
the right person to deliver a hard truth?
The nature of your relationship
with the person. It's like the old saying, "I don't care how
much you know till I know how much you care." When they know I
genuinely love them, and they feel secure, then I'm in a position to
impart truth. When the goal is not "being right" but
loving a person in Jesus' name, now that's a breakthrough. Then we
have a different quality of spiritual life.
How do you develop that?
Model it. You must demonstrate
humility, willingness to "lose" the argument for the sake
of the community. Eliminate the hierarchy of winner-loser.
In discussions I say, "I may
misunderstand this. So you've got to help me." And so you teach
the virtue of vulnerability. That frees other people to be more
honest, because you've created a safe space in which people can
Has that happened in your
Yes. I've learned over the years
that a truly biblical community will be open to a plurality of
perspectives within some confessional parameters. So that you have a
financial district blue-suit type with a Gen-X punk rocker leading
significantly different lives, but they're united by a common bond:
the blood of Christ.
At Azusa we don't care if you're
Republican or Democrat. That's not the litmus test for our life
together. We may have significant cultural differences, but we'll
agree to disagree because the most important thing is the ethic of
love. My non-negotiable bottom line is that we love one another.
That sounds good. How do you do
Prayer. Praying together creates a
loving atmosphere. That is important because everyone is at a
different stage of development within any community.
Fifteen years ago I thought
ethical rigor and discipline were the imperatives, but churches are
to be pastoral communities. They are to be sanctuary, hospital.
In such a context, prayer heals
the wounded. It's redemptive; it's therapeutic. Then when people
come in from the streets, broken and in pain, the confessional
community becomes a place of healing and acceptance. Here your
imperfections, your flaws, are not held against you. In real
community you are encouraged to believe that with God's power you
can overcome and transcend your limitations.
Truth can be a weapon, more
damaging than healing, in the hands of the unwise.
is pastor of Azusa Christian Community
411 Washington St.
Boston MA 02124
Copyright(c) 1999 by the author or Christianity
Today, Inc./Leadership Journal. Winter 1999, Vol. XX, No. 1,