A week ago, I visited one of the abandoned places of the empire, Turley, Oklahoma.
In the heart of Turley, literally and figuratively, is Unitarian Universalist minister, the Rev. Ron Robinson. ("Oh, don't mention me," he said when I told him I was going to blog about A Third Place. Sorry, Ron. It is impossible to write about Turley without writing about this humble visionary.)
Peoria Avenue is lined with abandoned businesses and trash-littered lots. And smack dab in the middle of that is A Third Place.
Some community centers, Ron explained, are set up very rigidly, with sign in sheets and other intimidating prerequisites. Not A Third Place. You walk in, and first find some information about the place, some pamplets and information sheets about community events. You are welcome here.
Move past the entry and you're in a big multipurpose room. The first thing you run into is the food pantry.
For quite a while, they ran it just on their own food donations. But a couple of months ago, they became an official USDA food distribution center.
Past that, you'll find an area to sign up for volunteer opportunities, and a computer lab that stays pretty busy.
If you arrive on a Sunday, as I did, you might also find a table with the remnants of Sunday's communal meal.
Over on the other side of the big room is a library. They people of Turley kept begging the county for a library. And the answer was no. Okay, said the people of A Third Place. They gathered book donations and set up one in their community center. As Ron says, "We decided 'we' could do it ourselves; a big change we have worked on and are slowly planting is the change from a scarcity 'they' model to the abundant 'we' model."
Close to the library are the two small rooms, equipped with modest but professional medical equipment and running water, that make up the clinic, staffed by medical professionals from the University of Oklahoma.
They do well-woman checkups and basic medical care. Unfortunately, much of the grant money for this program has dried up and they are down to only one visit per week.
All of these bits -- library, computer lab, food pantry, clinic -- ring the central common area. There, people read books, watch movies, converse, and worship.
There is another room to the side, with a small kitchen, restroom, and a play area for children.
The bulk of the room has two purposes: it is the clothing donation center and it is the meeting room.
Imagine, just for a moment, that there are no rooms in your church used only once a week. Imagine that every single room has at least two purposes. A meeting room lined with canned goods, an RE room with donated coats along one wall.
Wouldn't that be great?
When I walked into A Third Place, I was met with a surprise -- the face of Rabbi Shaman. Great minds and all that.
The tour of A Third Place was only the beginning. The Rev. Robinson led us on a tour of Turley, showing us what A Third Place has done in the community, and hopes to do. The elementary school where they've been serving lunches, the additional elementary school they will soon begin helping. Their community garden. The abandoned lots they are oh so close to getting, so they can build a community park and garden. (Just a little more help and they'll be there. Go here, watch the videos, and drop off a little money in the paypal plate, wouldja?)
We saw the heartbreak, too. The unlit paths through the brush where people walk to get their groceries. The trash, the boarded up homes.
And we saw hope. A small, neat home, with boarded up neighbors, a shiny new coat of paint on a picket fence. We saw pride returning.
I am very hopeful that we saw the future. It looks like a giant old church:
When the Rev. Ron Robinson was a little boy, he went by the name Ronnie and he attended this church with his Mama and Daddy and numerous relatives who all lived in a bustling community named Turley. Then people moved away. And this church was effectively abandoned. One of the ruins of the empire.
Now Ronnie is all grown up and he has a great vision. To gain this church for the community of Turley, to clean out all the mold and fix the rot. Not to restore it to its former incarnation but to make it something even better. As you stand out in the 106 degree heat and humidity of Turley in August, there seems to be a cool breeze as he explains how this part of the church will be a community center, and this part will be for communal meals, and over here we'll have worship, and over there, we'll ...
But wait. I have neglected to tell you the most exciting, the most unbelievable part of all of this.
This grand project, all the things they've done so far ... were done with 12 core people. They began with 5. No staff. And yet, every month, they average about 250 people benefitting and participating in their various programs.
This is the missional life. To not hide in our churches, seeing them as sanctuaries in the midst of an alien culture. But to go out into that culture, those ruins, and be missionaries. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, providing community, health, relationship.
I urge your church to become a partner church with A Third Place. Yes, they need our help.
But that's not why I urge you to partner with them. I urge you to partner with them because it will benefit your church. It will benefit you. I can see mission trips to Turley as so many other religions take mission trips across the globe.
It will help grow the soul of your church. It will change your life.
It has mine.