Emory Report
April 16, 2007
Volume 59, Number 27

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April 16, 2007
Transforming communities

by Kim urquhart

When David Jenkins of Candler School of Theology speaks of community and peacebuilding – as he did in a recent lecture as part of Emory’s initiative in Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding – he often mentions his work with L’Arche.

“L’Arche is a distinctive, intentional formative community for the shaping of people and peacebuilding and non-violence,” Jenkins says of the international federation of faith-based residential communities for people with developmental disabilities. Jenkins, now president of the board of directors for L’Arche USA, spent two years living in a L’Arche community in London as a house leader and assistant.

Jenkins, at the time a recent graduate of Yale Divinity School, recalls his experience: “You’re sharing every day in this intense experience of communal life — cooking and cleaning and taking vacations together — and you’re also sharing it with people who oftentimes have been quite wounded in life.

“Being in intimate relationships with people who are vulnerable and are suffering calls on me to use the resources and the power that I have in ways that are loving, rather than domineering. It calls on me to listen carefully to people with disabilities, people who have lived something completely different than myself.”

And to Jenkins, diversity is a gift. Listening carefully to someone from another race, another religion, another class or another neighborhood is at the heart of peacebuilding, he says. “Diversity actually is a way to peace. It’s how we’re intended to be in the world, not as a threat to one another or an obstacle to peace.”

“Listening carefully to what people who have been struggling want in life has always been my methodology,” Jenkins says. He has developed a saying that guides him in his work at Candler: “Emory shapes its students to speak so that others will listen, but maybe our first task should be to shape our students to listen so that others will speak.”

It is also a great way to enter into ministry, he tells students. Jenkins is in his seventh year as director of Faith and the City, co-director of the Office of Contextual Education and lecturer in church and community ministries at Candler.

Faith and the City is a non-profit organization for Atlanta seminaries founded by Emory president emeritus James Laney and former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young. The program seeks to enhance the theological and practical skills students need to engage the church in critical public issues and community ministries.

Jenkins draws on his own background in community development and urban ministries to bring a theological perspective to how people of faith can work together to address issues ranging from affordable housing to racism.

Having served as a pastor and campus minister, Jenkins understands the skills needed by church leadership for civic engagement and ministry in struggling communities. He teaches students how to inspire their congregations to work for change.

Jenkins has always had a passion for social transformation and community development. He joined Emory from the Christian Council of Metropolitan Atlanta, where as executive director he administered homeless shelters and worked on refugee resettlement, racial and interfaith reconciliation projects. While attending seminary, Jenkins worked on behalf of welfare mothers as a Connecticut state lobby- ist. Ordained as a United Methodist minister, Jenkins pastored a congregation in a small rural community in North Carolina, and was a campus minister at Duke University while completing his Ph.D. in ethics.

He had studied religion, German and public policy at Duke as an undergraduate. Growing up as the youngest child of a single mother in working class neighborhoods in New Mexico and West Virginia, Jenkins felt out of place on the elite, wealthy Duke campus.

“After my first year, I was so uncomfortable that I felt I needed to rediscover myself and my own vocation,” he recalls. Jenkins decided to take a year off and move to Europe. To support himself, he worked in beer breweries, laundromats and bakeries. “I found myself drawn back to my roots of being with the working poor,” he says. That experience “grounded me again in some of the values that are still important to me, and that I had learned in my own family. So when I came back to Durham I knew that I needed to discover a place where I belonged.”

In Durham he became involved with the Boys and Girls Club, where he built friendships with families in low-income neighborhoods. He found he enjoyed listening to their vision for their families and for their communities, “and then see how I could be a collaborative partner in their work.”

It wasn’t until later that he discovered his calling to the ministry. After college, Jenkins was working with gang members and juvenile offenders in Denver and Boston to help “create a hopeful alternative for their lives.” He noticed that many churches failed to respond to the realities of many youth growing up in violent neighborhoods. Yet some congregations were doing “extraordinary work” in this area.

“They knew that the spiritual lives of people were inextricably linked to their emotional and domestic experiences, to community health and to physical health — that as whole people all of these components are interrelated. The church was one sacred collaborating partner in that wholeness.” He noticed that the churches weren’t only involved in an individual’s spiritual life but participated in the health of the entire community.

He also discovered how the church could act as a powerful advocate. Responding to the religious right, Jenkins wondered how progressive congregations could be involved in the lobbying and advocacy “that brought about greater wholeness to communities.” He knew it would take an interfaith voice for government and community leaders to hear.

Jenkins has since committed his career to bringing about social transformation through leveraging neighborhood resources and nurturing local leadership. At Emory, Jenkins teaches asset-based community development. Students spend time in neighborhoods that are becoming stronger and more self-reliant by using the skills and strengths already present within the community.

When students witness the transformation, Jenkins says, “they stop seeing poor communities as just places of need and violence, and they start seeing those neighborhoods as resourced, and gifted, and critical collaborators for larger social transformation.” That revelation “changes the way students think about themselves as a leader and changes the way they think about poor communities,” Jenkins says. “It continues to be a great inspiration for me.”

Jenkins also has gained insight into grassroots work as Candler’s representative to the national Hispanic Summer Program. Spring break this year was spent in Brazil, where he visited seminaries with four faculty members and three students from Emory. His interest in Hispanic ministry and Latino theology has inspired him to lead trips to border towns in Mexico and rural villages in Honduras. The experience “is beautifully enlightening for our students,” Jenkins says.

“Sometimes I see myself as a travel agent,” he adds. “What I do is help take students to other places, literally and figuratively.” Whether it is Latin America or Atlanta, the people in these communities will be the agents of transformation.