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Book review: The Power of Proximity

| by Ronald Keener

The publisher‘s notes on the back of The Power of Proximity: Moving Beyond Awareness to Action by Michelle Ferrigno Warren [IVP, 2017] are more eloquent than I can ever be: “We see evidence of injustice all around us, whether in incidents of racial inequality or in systemic forces that perpetuate poverty. But in an age of hashtag and armchair activism, merely having awareness about injustice is not enough.

“Michelle Warren and her family have chosen to live in communities where they are ‘proximate to the pain of the poor.’ Proximity changes our perspective, compels response, and keeps us committed to the journey of pursuing justice for all. When we build relationships where we live, we discover the complexities of standing with the vulnerable and the commitment needed for long-term change.”

The author, Warren, is identified as the advocacy and strategic engagement director for the Christian Community Development Association, is an immigration, education, and human service policy specialist and an adjunct faculty at Denver Seminary. I will let her explain for herself what she is about:

“Stereotypes are powerful, and mine were no different. One I picked up along the way was that living close to the poor was dangerous and unwise. I had never even considered moving out of a ‘safe’ community where I would be surrounded by ‘good, law-abiding’ people with excellent schools, strong property values, and so on. Moving into a low-income neighborhood was a hard choice for me and everyone else in my world. At times it felt more like a social experiment than a lifestyle to attain.

“At the time I did not think living in proximity to the poor was an important aspect of doing ministry alongside them. Living in the inner city back in the early nineties seemed not only like throwing my own life away but offering up our yet-to-be-born children’s lives and opportunities as well.

“While a life of proximity to the poor was one of those premarital non-negotiables I really had to evaluate, I believed God was moving and I wanted to join his plans for our life. I chose to trust that God didn’t want to ruin my life or future. I also had no intention of living my life as a martyr. I was just going to have to look at life through a new lens.

“This new lens did not develop overnight but started with a decision in my heart that grew with what I saw and experienced. I specifically asked God to give me new eyes to see the poor with compassion and not fear. I asked him to give me a hopeful outlook for a long life in a new place.”

Has that long quote tugged at your heart and made you ask yourself whether that wasn’t the dream and ministry that you had years ago, but just never had the courage to grasp? Ministry of this sort is more than about awareness, she writes.

“As American Christians within the pragmatic evangelical paradigm, we recognize all too well that our vision is limited, so we spend money, time, and resources to shape and expand our lens. We invest in Christian discipleship and education materials so we can be grounded in the truth of the Bible. We collect money and give it to leaders who go all over the world and into our own backyards to help people who don’t have as much.

“We even work to develop good, strong outreach ministries to give people on our staffs, in our youth groups, and even in our adult congregations the chance to see and learn from others who are less fortunate so we can more deeply understand the world in which we live.”

That’s all awareness, she says, but it’s not enough. “Awareness is not enough to fix a broken system. It is not enough to keep us or anyone else engaged for the long haul.” It takes proximity, she challenges us, for it’s only proximity that “gets us so close to the pain of an issue that it radically changes our perspective and demands a deeper response.”

This is a terrific book for the age in which we live, for the political system with which we contend, for the needs that still must be met. At 175 pages, it is a must read and a keeper on your list of books to share with those you love.

Ronald Keener

Ronald E. Keener was editor of the national business and leadership magazine, "Church Executive," for eight years, and writes from Chambersburg, Pa. His church interests lie with congregational transformation, church health movement, church strengthening and revitalization and reporting on churches that have not just survived but thrived. 


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