The Grace of...Knowing Your Context

Photo Credit: Ryan Klinck

Photo Credit: Ryan Klinck

By Matthew Johnson

I understand grace as an invitation toward something wonderful and a revelation of God’s loving action in our world. With this understanding, I see grace at work in my neighborhood. I have neighbors with gifts to share, and my neighborhood has resources and assets. Those treasures catch my attention and draw me toward an abundant life. Those treasures also reveal God’s action, as God has planted gifts in every single person.

But to start with the gifts and assets is upside-down from the way we often look at the world. We tend to seek-out weaknesses, not gifts. We tend to fixate on liabilities, not assets. Not only do we seek-out weaknesses and liabilities, we tend to only focus on them. I have found that when I focus on what is missing and what is weak, I feel drained, discouraged, and distant from God.

Asset-Based Community Development is a model of community development that starts by asking, “What are the gifts, assets, talents, and resources that are already present within our community or neighborhood?” As we uncover these treasures we allow them to guide us toward wholeness, healing, and strength. When I look for the gifts already present in my context, I feel energized, hopeful, and tuned-in to God.

James (not his real name) lives in my neighborhood. He draws disability and suffers from chronic pain. Because of this he is rarely able to leave his home. It is safe to say the world sees James as a client at best, and a liability at worst, and because of this he is pushed to the margins.  

One day, my wife, Catherine was installing a front yard garden box at the house across from James’s house. As she packed up her tools James walked across the street. Catherine stood still, somewhat guarded because he had been gruff to her about six months prior. Instead of being gruff, he warmly asked, “How could I get one of those boxes? I love to garden.” Catherine answered his question and James responded by sharing stories of growing various trees and vegetables. He smiled as he talked and revealed some of his giftedness.

When we delivered James’s garden box. He met us in the front yard, joyful about the box and the mural painted on the side. As we finished filling it with soil he went inside and returned carrying something in his hands. He thanked us again for the box and then held out two hand-carved wooden feathers. He explained that wood carving was one activity he could still do to get his mind off of his pain, and he wanted to give these gifts to us in gratitude for the garden box. It was a beautiful and kind gesture.
I still get tears in my eyes when I remember that moment. Working with the fact that James is a gifted person helped us discover a more abundant life. James’s gifts were a reminder that God is active in our world.