On the west side of Chicago stands a large brick building that reads New Moms. As a nonprofit transitional housing facility, New Moms is a safe haven for new mothers between the age of 18 – 24, the majority of which are young women of color, who find themselves displaced and seeking stability. Offering services such as housing, job training, and family support, it is an empowering hub for the community. To the naked eye, it looks like your typical building; hallways filled with classrooms, office space, and apartments. However, if you are willing to look deeper at the heart of the work manifested through this space, you quickly learn it is much more than a building.
In Gary Gunderson’s book Boundary Leaders,1 there is a thought-provoking call to action that challenges us to reimagine where and how we immerse ourselves in community. Gunderson highlights a need to come out of the limiting familiarity in our comfort zones and invites us to cross over into what he defines as a ‘boundary zone.’ Boundary zones are meeting places; the space where paradigms collide, sacred meets secular, public meets private, and subcultures intersect. If we allow them to, these spaces hold the potential to be transformational.
Boundary zones are meeting places; the space where paradigms collide, sacred meets secular, public meets private, and subcultures intersect. If we allow them to, these spaces hold the potential to be transformational. Click To Tweet
At its core, New Moms exists to be such a space, and you can sense it in the organizational DNA. The first of five core values is ‘love.’ This value is the belief that everyone is made in the image of God and is worthy of unconditional love and respect. In this loving space, new mothers can find a caring community, a safe place to heal and grow, and the courage to build strong foundations for the future.2 This value was what initially drew me to the space as a seminarian, newly hired as a spiritual formation fellow. What I learned during my year in this boundary zone has, and will continue to inform how I do ministry for the rest of my life in a humbling, sober manner.
My story looked nothing like the demographic we served. I have no children of my own yet and up until that point, I had enjoyed a comfortable existence. I wasn’t even originally from Chicago; my upbringing had been California warmth, a stable home, and being a church kid since birth. It stirred up a sense of inadequacy in me in even trying to be what I thought these young women needed. I wondered, “Ok, so when will they warm up to me?” I was endlessly trying to figure out what my ministry game plan was for my time there, thinking I had to ’make this count!’ I meant well, but I think I made the same mistake we all do when crossing into foreign spaces. While the desire to help people is good, we tend to confuse serving with fixing, and oftentimes we do so in a way that satisfies our own agenda. If we truly desire to serve a community, we must be willing to immerse ourselves in it first, with no agenda other than genuinely ‘being with them.’
I made the same mistake we all do when crossing into foreign spaces. While the desire to help people is good, we tend to confuse serving with fixing, and oftentimes we do so in a way that satisfies our own agenda. Click To Tweet
Reality hit me quickly. I was walking into an established system and community that existed long before I arrived, and to want a seat at the table does not mean you are entitled to one. Who was I to insist that I be given a place of immediate trust? It was going to take time and consistency; most importantly, presence. I’m thankful that I didn’t have to navigate this space on my own, but rather I had an incredible mentor who had been about this work for decades. She lovingly pumped the brakes for me, redirected me when I needed it, and challenged me to think outside the box. She became a matchmaker and leapt at every opportunity to place me in any space she could, ‘spiritual’ or not. I began shadowing classes, helping conduct mock interviews, making candles on the job site alongside moms, and even sat at the front desk buzzing people in while I answered the phones.
If we truly desire to serve a community, we must be willing to immerse ourselves in it first, with no agenda other than genuinely ‘being with them.’ Click To Tweet
Over time, I realized that every spot she placed me in was intentionally chosen to embed me deeper into the community itself. I began to see the fruits of her thoughtful choices. I noticed the transition from blank stares and silent passes in hallways to warm smiles, inside jokes, waves, hugs, and moms stopping me to share stories about their day. The more I embedded into this beautiful community, the deeper my love grew for it. I was compelled to want to be the one to learn. Crossing into boundary zones is easier said than done, yet definitely worth it. The goal is not that we merely cross into these spaces, but to let those spaces change you, affect you, and challenge you. For me, it was the divine set up that cast a sobering and honest light on the Church itself. It took crossing into what some would deem to be ‘secular’ spaces to see what was flawed in the ‘sacred.’
One of the regular events we would host was a weekly lunch group called “Pizza & God,” where the moms could come with whatever was on their mind concerning faith. It wasn’t always a space to give a clear-cut answer, but rather to have an open, communal dialogue. One day, we posed the question “What comes to mind when you hear the word God?” As the young moms shared, I heard three underlying questions repeatedly asked:
- “Is God mad at me?”
- “Does God still love me?”
- “Am I going to hell?”
I grieved as these young women shared the damaging experiences they had with the Church. They experienced trauma at the hands of family members who proclaimed faith. Aggressive sidewalk evangelists confronted some as they waited at bus stops with their babies in tow. Many were cast aside and isolated from church communities that they once loved. Ultimately, to ask of God and faith was to bring up images of an Angry Judge and a ‘Mean Girl-esque’ Church that said, “You aren’t welcome to sit with us any longer.”
Several years later, that day still sits with me. The faces of these young moms still linger. As I consider the current state of the Church in 2023, I find myself wondering, has anything really changed? The power in the boundary zone is that it opens an opportunity to extend our reach beyond four walls and a 90-minute Sunday service. Yet within this reach comes the implication that we need to actually be a healthy and safe landing space for the hurting, because zones of pain are zones of vital response,3 or at least should be. There is a divine invitation that has been set before us to engage with our surrounding world in ways that authentically embody the gospel. This invitation welcomes us to encounter holy ground in ordinary spaces. Inside these new borders and boundaries is a community beckoning for us to come and sit for a while, lingering in a posture of listening. In this community, stories are held and honored in safety, dignity is restored, and love flows unconditionally.
Mayra Ramos is the Assistant Director of Admissions at North Park Theological Seminary. As a Latina first generation graduate with her Masters of Divinity, Mayra aims to be a bridge for students to gain equitable access to theological education.
There is a divine invitation to engage with our world in ways that authentically embody the gospel. Inside these new borders is a community beckoning for us to come and sit for a while, lingering in a posture of listening. Click To Tweet
1 Gunderson, Gary. Boundary Leaders: Leadership Skills for People of Faith. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004.
3 Gunderson, 12. Zones of pain create space for a community of faith to respond with the critical care that is needed.
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