by Bob Lupton “Where there is no vision the people perish.” (Prov 29:13) That was wise Solomon’s observation. Without a clear picture of the final goal, people will head off in a hundred different directions. A vision provides focus. It is a vivid description of what the outcome will be. Like the large, full-color rendering an Atlanta architect painted of the abandoned Civil War era prison sitting in the middle of our community. The vision he captured was the dramatic conversion of the formidable Atlanta Stockade into an attractive apartment community with wide, sunny front porch, neighbors chatting and children playing. This living color portrayal inspired the Atlanta real estate community to rally around a massive transformation. The Atlanta Stockade became GlenCastle – affordable apartment homes for the working poor.
Not every vision is revealed in its final form like GlenCastle was. Often visions morph and mature over time. The vision that propels me today is quite different from the one that first drew me into the inner-city. Four decades ago my heart was captured by a small group of fatherless boys referred by the juvenile court. Keeping those youth out of trouble and in school was a huge challenge. The dream that drove me was motivating them to rise above their circumstances, graduate, get decent jobs, marry and become responsible fathers and men of strong faith. The destructive influences of the ghetto, however, proved far too powerful, too persistent, to allow this vision to take root. It eventually became clear that if these young men were going to emerge as healthy leaders their environment had to change. But changing a crime-ridden neighborhood was a much bigger vision than nurturing a handful of adolescent boys. To change that neighborhood meant becoming part of it, working from within. My original vision became subsumed into a much more daunting vision – to transform an inner-city community into a wholesome place for children to grow up. That vision eventually become the orienting compass of my life. The mission statement of FCS Urban Ministries became: “We exist to partner with underserved neighborhoods to provide innovative and holistic development that produces flourishing communities where God's peace (shalom) is present.”
How does one take on a challenge as complex as community transformation? The same way one would eat an elephant! One bite at a time. It may begin with a relationship with someone in need who captures your heart. For me it was twelve fatherless boys. In time, one-on-one relationship-building may prove to be an inadequate strategy. The destructive forces are just too overpowering – schools that don’t educate, gangs that recruit, a drug trade that ensnares. And so you are confronted with three difficult alternatives: (1) keep working one-on-one with the kids and hope for a miracle; (2) get the kids and their families out of there; (3) or change the environment.
For me, the miracles didn’t come. I watched helplessly as one by one my young friends got pulled under by the survival ethic of the street. So I began looking for ways to enable their families to move out of the ghetto into better housing. Those efforts paid off for a few of them. But it soon became apparent that what was good for these more capable families was bad for the neighborhood they were leaving behind. This “move-em-out” strategy ended up exporting the best and brightest, depleting the neighborhood of its most stable neighbors. That’s when it became glaringly obvious that an individual approach to helping the poor, though helpful to a few, would only worsen the breeding ground of social pathology. If I wanted a cure, I would have to address the source. That meant community transformation.
A vision to create a healthy neighborhood has a lot of moving parts – safe streets, quality education, thriving businesses, vibrant churches, home ownership, to name just a few. Any one of these might justify a mission of its own and a strategy for accomplishing specific goals (like raising educational standards or getting rid of the crack houses on the street). And any one might be an excellent starting place, an entry point. But a single-dimension mission lacks the breadth, the comprehensiveness, required to restore wholeness to a troubled neighborhood. Community transformation requires a holistic vision.
A vision defines what belongs in the picture as well as what does not. The architect’s rendering of the old Atlanta Stockade depicted a wholesome family-friendly environment. It captured the transformation in vivid color: an affordable, hospitable apartment community for families working to re-establish a stable life. But a vision is more than a painted picture. The real-time physical conversion of a monstrous concrete monolith was a daunting challenge, especially for a ministry with a limited budget. So when three million dollars of government funds were offered to underwrite construction costs, we were ecstatic. But upon reading the fine print we discovered that the grant was specifically for housing “homeless men”, not families. It was an agonizing decision turning down a much needed grant but the vision had already been cast. This was to be “an affordable, hospitable apartment community for families working to re-establish a stable life.”
A vision is different from a bright idea. Bright ideas come and go. A vision has staying power. It is like a seed dropped into the soil of the human spirit that sprouts and grows and forces its way into the inescapable attention of the bearer. Bright ideas get wisped away by Monday morning’s busyness but a vision will not leave one alone. It may take root within one person or group but it requires capacities far beyond those of the initial bearer. It is both born of faith and borne by faith. It has a magnetic quality that draws others into its field-force. That’s why it is not unreasonable to assume that a vision as complex as turning a formidable prison into place of hospitality or as daunting as turning a troubled neighborhood into a place of Shalom can actually be fulfilled. It takes visionary leadership, yes, and the timing must be right (discernment), but its magnetism will draw in from unexpected places gifted people, essential resources, new risk-taking neighbors, and a host of other talents and connections needed to fulfill the vision.
So now when compassionate people, eager to serve, share with me their idea for helping the poor, I usually ask them: “What’s your vision?” I want to understand their desired outcomes, the final results they hope to accomplish. Sometimes they have specific objectives, like tutoring a kid to help him pass the fifth grade. Other times their goals are less measurable, like helping poor people clean up their neighborhood. They may have a vague picture in their mind of the possible good that might occur if lasting friendships develop but often they do not have a clear picture of an ultimate outcome with a roadmap to its fulfillment. Serving for the sake of serving is like rowing with one oar – it may be good exercise but it is unlikely to get you to your destination.
“Where there is no vision the people perish.” Or, without a holistic vision a neighborhood will languish. Does transforming a neighborhood seem far beyond your ability or capacity? Good! Then it will require divinely orchestrated coincidences to converge, daily miracles beyond your network and available resources, constantly reminding you that you are not in control. You are a steward of the vision, not the owner. Your visionary leadership, your inspiration, are essential but not sufficient. Visions are authored by God and it is God’s responsibility to see them fulfilled.