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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Pryfogle

Solving Our Crisis of Imagination

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Dear Friends:


Recently I spoke with a community organizer who is mobilizing faith communities in his county to advocate for affordable housing. The plan is to urge municipalities to build housing on government-owned property. It’s a good idea, a strategy that should be pursued across the United States, but it would be even stronger in tandem with an opportunity near at hand: to build on faith properties. I told the organizer how much more compelling the advocacy would be if congregations modeled what they want the government to do. But my suggestion must have sounded like another language, for it didn’t seem to register. The difficulty, I see now, was that I was asking the organizer to think outside the mental categories of his profession, to consider an alternative that was not yet in his imagination.


Among the political, social, religious and environmental crises we face, society’s greatest challenge may be a crisis of imagination. How often personal and political disagreements harden into two positions — it’s either this or that — because we do not contemplate the possibility of a third way. Collectively, we seem to lack the ability to bridge mental categories, perceive more reality than is immediately presented, or use experience as a springboard to fresh insight. Without these habits of imagination, we’re stuck — with dire consequences.


I’ve been talking with colleagues lately about the need to catalyze the imagination of congregations for sacred/civic placemaking. Too few faith communities are ready to repurpose their properties for social impact, even though religious buildings and land sit underutilized in every neighborhood. “Sacred/civic” is a combination of mental categories that opens the door to address not only affordable housing, healthcare, and economic development but also the formation of vital spiritual communities that cross differences to create new identity, purpose and belonging. Yet the status quo, which preserves established categories, is comfortable; the blurring of categories presents a barrier, and individuals must have some curiosity or desire to break through.


So who cultivates curiosity and desire? Who nurtures imagination? This is the task of artists, writers, philosophers, educators, and scientists, though they do not always embrace the task. The nurturing of imagination is also one role for parents and caregivers. But I want to linger on another vocation: clergy.


As stewards of faith, which in Christian scripture is defined as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” clergy are entrusted with the nurturing of imagination. They invite us to notice the movement of God in the world, in unexpected places. They share aspirations for the future that even now break into the present. They turn conventional thinking upside down by retelling sacred stories of reversal (the weak made strong, the last made first) and miracle (water from the rock, life from death). At their best, they help us see more by asking, playfully and earnestly, the Jewish prophet’s question: “Can you see it?”


“I've seen the promised land,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in a speech to support striking sanitation workers in Memphis the night before his assassination. “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” Earlier in his speech, when interpreting the biblical story of the Good Samaritan, King said, “I'm going to tell you what my imagination tells me.”


Ignoring their task, clergy confirm us in our beliefs rather than stretch us. They can harden us. At their worst, clergy even undermine our strength when they succumb to what I call “Wormtongue syndrome,” named after a king’s advisor in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” who gets power from his monarch through a posture of protection, a disabling caring. He whispers to the king that he is tired, needs rest, needs to be careful, and therefore need not concern himself with other matters.


Be silent. That’s what the wise wizard Gandalf says to Wormtongue. We should do likewise. We fail our clergy if we do not reorient them to our true needs. We must call them to their primary task: to cultivate imagination.


Friends, I tell you all of this because, first, I see how much work there is to heal wounds, free captives, and fix systems; and second, because I see how limited we are by conventional thinking and the tools we pick up to solve our problems, tools that contributed to the problems in the first place. I believe, as you may, that there’s got to be a better way.


So how do we solve our problems? How do we create more just, equitable, and sustainable communities?


I’m going to tell you what my imagination tells me.


A white suburban congregation, reckoning with its racial history, decides to partner with a Black-owned development firm to build affordable townhomes on the partially used parking lot.


The Sunday School rooms that sit empty all week are turned into a childcare center with a $1 annual lease to a Black-owned provider so it can pay higher wages to employees and offer scholarships to low-income families.


The unused commercial-grade kitchen becomes an affordable commissary for startup culinary ventures owned by women, people of color, and refugees.


In a politically and racially divided city, a mosque, synagogue, and church select one location for shared space and turn their vacated buildings into multipurpose facilities for community gatherings, education, health and wellness, and incubation of social enterprises that bridge differences to create belonging.


In a gentrifying downtown, a congregation creates a site for an alternative economy by razing its existing structure and building in its place a multistory mixed-use development, owned by a cooperative, with affordable rental and homeownership options above commercial spaces for local businesses and nonprofits as well as space for the worshiping community.


In a region suffering under the scorching sun, a coalition of congregations create resilience hubs to mitigate the effects of climate change, offering cooling stations and shelter plus space for education, coordination, and delivery of resources.


In all these places and elsewhere, faith communities answer the call to let go of comfort and control to find life with neighbors, to seek the health and wholeness of their communities, and to use their assets for the salvation of many. With habits of imagination, they create the foundations for the flourishing of generations, as the prophet said, and they are known to all as the repairers of the breach, the restorers of streets to live in.


Can you see it?


With longing and hope,


Daniel


Daniel Pryfogle is cofounder and CEO of Sympara.

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