Stories from the Cities | March 1, 2015

Building shalom in the city

Photo by Jennifer Hosler
Volunteers at Make a Difference Day. 

In the small city of Trotwood, Ohio, the Holy Spirit is slowly revealing a new way forward for the sisters and brothers of Trotwood Church of the Brethren. While, to some, the city’s situation may look bleak, the congregation is pressing forward with a different vision: one that shows a city of wholeness, justice, and well-being.

I visited Trotwood Church of the Brethren in May. My time there was both intense and joyful, with seven one-on-one interviews and a lunchbased group conversation over two days. In the interviews, words of hope and tears of joy accompanied stories of change, descriptions of pain and struggle, and expectations for the future. Like many members of churches located in transitioning communities, they are not exactly sure what the future holds. Yet in spite of uncertainty, they continue to walk forward, seeking the wellbeing of a city struggling with decline, violence, and poverty.

Musical. Family. Open.

These were the most common descriptors of Trotwood Church of the Brethren. And each word held true as I met with, ate with, and worshiped with sisters and brothers there. During worship, their musical heritage was evident: a significant proportion of the 100 attendees were up front in the choir or orchestra. When I heard the church share, listen, and pray for each other during joys and concerns, it was apparent that they supported each other like family. As I listened to my interviewees describe the church’s ministries and opportunities for community involvement, their openness to new pathways of mission became evident

Pastor Paula Bowser with a member of The Peace Place.

One of the ways that pastor Paula Bowser explains her vision for Trotwood is through Jeremiah 29:7.

In her paraphrase: “Seek the shalom of the city to which I have called you into exile, because when the city prospers, you will prosper.” Seeking the shalom—the Hebrew word often translated as “peace” in the Old Testament— involves working for justice, well-being, and wholeness. This vision shapes how the Trotwood congregation lives out God’s mission in their community.

A changing city

Trotwood is located just outside of Dayton, Ohio. What was once a village became a suburb and then an urban center, albeit one now with a diminishing population. In the 1950s, the Trotwood church had around 700 members, many of whom were professionals, civil servants, or educators—leaders in their community. During that era, the school superintendent, the treasurer, the high school principal, the elementary school principal, and many teachers were members at Trotwood. The city’s population, at that point, was primarily of European descent.

In the 1970s and 1980s, middle-class African-Americans began to move out of Dayton and into Trotwood, seeking its high-quality school system. As African-Americans moved in, white residents began to move out. Even after the civil rights movement, many white Americans did not want to live alongside black neighbors.

Eventually, economic changes affecting the United States began to hit Trotwood. Factories and blue-collar jobs closed or moved, leaving fewer opportunities for working and middle-class people. Many left in search of work. The tax base decreased and schools began to struggle, prompting other families to leave. There was an influx of economically disadvantaged persons, many from urban Dayton. The small city began to face challenges typically reserved for larger urban areas: violence, gangs, and drugs. Trotwood, once known for its good schools, became known as the community to avoid. Despite these challenges, however, there are bright spots of hope for the church and the community.

Retired Brethren pastor and denominational executive Glenn Timmons was one of four from the Trotwood congregation to attend the 2009 On Earth Peace workshop, “You Can’t Stop the River.” Held in Kansas City, Mo., the event presented by the Brethren organization focused on community change for congregations. Timmons described the event as the catalyst for a long discernment process that eventually birthed “The Peace Place,” a community nonprofit established in 2012 in Trotwood. The Peace Place uses the Agape-Satyagraha curriculum, which originated at Harrisburg (Pa.) First Church of the Brethren and has now been launched nationwide through On Earth Peace. The organization’s board represents an array of community leaders from city government, the education system, and the faith community. Every Wednesday evening, mentors from across the community help local youth learn nonviolent conflict resolution skills.

Youth and mentors of The Peace Place gather for an end-of-year event (May 2014).

A free evening meal serves as an incentive to draw in youth, but The Peace Place members keep coming back because of its safe setting and positive relationships.

Dinner served at The Peace Place.

“Some of the kids have said that the mentors at The Peace Place provide a safe place to be on Wednesday nights,” says Jen Scarr, a Bethany Seminary student who worked as interim program director during the 2013-2014 school year. “They’ve used the word family quite a bit. ‘This is my family.’ they say. ‘This is the place that takes care of me. You guys care for me.’ They keep coming back because they feel safe with us.”

Beyond their involvement with The Peace Place, members of the church are also working to bring about peace in their city through a new community partnership called Trotwood Neighborhood Transformation (TNT). TNT is built upon years of relationship-building among church members, school workers, and civic leaders, much of it fostered through the Trotwood Ministerium. In April 2014, faith leaders, congregations, and civic leaders gathered to receive training in asset-based community development. This approach utilizes community strengths and resources in order to promote positive change and community improvement.

Volunteers plant trees at John Wolfe Park on “Make a Difference Day.”

Challenges and opportunities

Just as the city’s population has been in decline, so too has the Trotwood congregation experienced a downturn in membership. The decline in numbers imposes financial and human challenges to the congregation’s ministry, even though The Peace Place, a church-based food pantry, a school-church partnership, and a mission to Guatemala would seem to belie that fact. The decline is due in part to the aging of long-term members and also to the changing demographics of Trotwood.

Though more diverse than many Brethren congregations, the Trotwood church is still predominantly white. The city of Trotwood is mostly black, with 68 percent African-American and 28 percent white. Most of the members I spoke with noted that worship culture and style represent an obstacle when it comes to the congregation’s appeal to the community at large. Several said that worship and cross-cultural challenges are key issues that the church must address if it hopes to attract members from the city itself. (Many members live outside of Trotwood.) Some steps have been taken, including the use of Steve and Kathy Reid’s Covenant Bible Study, Uncovering Racism (Brethren Press, 1999), during an adult Sunday school series. The Peace Place’s board of directors is intentionally multi-ethnic, and its new executive director, Georgia Alexander, is African-American.

Despite this progress, some said that continued discernment was needed regarding race relations and cross-cultural competencies, and in order to take stock of the church’s strengths, weaknesses, and future goals for ministry in a changing community.

A hopeful future

When I asked about the congregation’s strengths, several people mentioned their pastor, Paula Bowser, who has attempted to help the church go deeper in their relationships and in their care for the community. Some also cited “a really high level of acceptance, openness, and a deep concern for the community as the church’s biggest strengths.

I could sense these assets, which were evident when I heard about how they embraced several African-American youth who attend The Peace Place. The youth were invited and began attending church—but it wasn’t easy. The youths’ lack of familiarity with the church’s etiquette and norms forced members to back up their words of welcome with patience, love, grace, and mutual learning.

After observing their commitment to seeking the shalom of the city, I believe this congregation has a bright future, going forward in both uncertainty and certainty—uncertain over what the future may bring, but certain that God will be faithful as they seek to extend Christ’s peace.

Photos courtesy of Trotwood Church of the Brethren.

Jennifer Hosler is bi-vocational minister at Washington City Church of the Brethren in Washington, DC. Jenn has a background in both biblical/theological studies and community psychology. Her ministry interests include growing urban churches and in building peace by bringing together people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. She served for over two years in northern Nigeria as a peace and reconciliation worker with the Church of the Brethren’s Global Mission and Service, and for almost two years as an interim coordinator of the Brethren Nutrition Program, Washington City Church of the Brethren’s lunch program for people in need. Jenn lives in northeast Washington, DC, with her husband Nathan, and enjoys gardening, bike riding through the city, and running.