The front of City Hall in Reading reflects the architecture of a city founded in the 1700’s. It takes me two passes to find a close parking garage. The interior of the building is all lacquered wood, high ceilings, and glass doors. I find an index hanging on the wall and make my way to the second floor.
The city council chambers are empty. I pass a snack bar where a police officer eyes me as he picks out his candy. As much as I search, I can’t find Brian Kelly’s office. Kelly is the only official employee of ReDesign Reading, an organization devoted to promoting social change and combating poverty. Finally I stop at the Mayor’s office. A receptionist smiles at me as I enter. I ask her where I could find this mystery individual. She tells me to wait a second and walks around the corner next to her desk, returning to tell me he will be with me in a moment.
Minutes later, Kelly turns the same corner. He is taller than I expected, with long hair and the start of a beard. We shake hands and he tells me he hasn’t eaten yet, despite it being almost four in the afternoon. He asks if I’d join him for some food and I agree.
We walk out of City Hall and end up at an El Salvadorian restaurant where he orders in Spanish. Kelly is my age, a graduate of the Wharton Business School at Penn, and had spent a year working in Guatemala to facilitate social change. He tells me his Spanish is a little rusty, so he likes to practice whenever possible. In this small corner of the city, looking across a plate of pupusas with soccer playing on television and Spanish music flowing from the kitchen, we start to talk about poverty.
Kelly tells me the current system is broken, set up to keep the poor in poverty. Benefits are based on income so, in the end, where’s the motivation? Without jobs, why get married when claiming a second income eliminates housing, food, and cash benefits? Real change is based on social connection, on volunteer equity not done with currency rewards in mind.
Kelly envisions a system of bartering hours for needs, of housing co-ops where work equals room and board and fresh vegetables from sustainable gardens. He sees value in every person and knows they are filled with untapped energy. His passion is matching untapped energy with needs. He is a catalyst.
Our talk has floated in my head since then and it will be included in more detail in my book about the fight against poverty in the city of Reading, PA.
So could the church exist beyond currency?
Digest that for a second.
No more budgets, no more offerings. Volunteer hours are exchanged for food from pantries, gardens and farms grown by members. Outreach programs happen on a weekly basis. Staff members have needs met by a community of believers waiting to come beside them and lift them up.
We call for volunteers all the time, floating out versus where Jesus tells us to serve. We say, do it, it will be good for you. What if we added a tangible result? What if a childcare volunteer could have his or her children in the church daycare for free during the week? What if a person mowing the church lawn can have their lawn tended in return?
What if we redefined economy for the church? Why not us? Why not now? Jesus told us how hard it is for a rich man to enter Heaven.
We intellectualized his statement: he didn’t have a mortgage, taxes, kids to go to college and neighbors driving a new Lexus with a greener lawn and personal trainers.
What if he meant what he said? What if we started taking him seriously? We can break and reset the system. The church can be a radical change agent. It can start now.
The fuse is waiting to be lit.
Soundtrack Inspiration: Take a few minutes and listen to the words. A great song.