Cultivating an abandoned place
The Rev. Ron Robinson's unconventional church in Turley, Okla., focuses on service.
Turley, Oklahoma, a suburb of Tulsa, was a thriving place until the 1960s when white flight and the movement of oil industry jobs out of Tulsa began Turley’s long slide into economic and social decline.
Today many houses in Turley are vacant and abandoned, some boarded up, others open to the elements and slowly falling down. Burned-out structures are nearly hidden by tall weeds and brush. The once robust main street is now down to a gas station, grocery, a pizza place that won’t deliver, self-service laundry, carwash, and a collection of auto repair and salvage businesses.
Most younger residents have no health insurance and little health care. Most children qualify for free school lunches. Residents live, on average, fourteen fewer years than people five miles south, in midtown Tulsa. Unemployment is twice the national average.
In the middle of this, Robinson, a Unitarian Universalist minister, has established A Third Place, a community center that includes Turley’s only library, several computers for public use, a free health clinic, food pantry, drop-in living room, and a place to get used clothing and household items.
On Sundays Robinson draws three to ten people to an informal worship service that might include a cappella hymns and readings from Singing the Living Tradition, brief Bible lessons, lessons from the life of Jesus, communion, and sometimes a video followed by a discussion.
But his ministry is not about Sunday morning worship. The numbers that Robinson tracks are not membership, attendance, and pledging. Instead, he’s interested in the number of people who come through his health clinic, the number of community groups he is partnered with, and the number of community events the center can sponsor.
This is a church whose ministry has left the building.
A “third place”—a term drawn from the work of sociologist Ray Oldenburg—refers to a place that is neither home nor work. “We are going to where the people are rather than making the people come to us,” says Robinson. “Our goal is to become embedded in the life of the larger community, providing life-giving opportunities. This also helps to get people out of the consumer model of church.”
To that end, Robinson spends a good part of each day out in unincorporated Turley and adjacent North Tulsa, meeting with local and state groups that he partners with, checking on neighborhoods, and simply greeting people in the grocery and elsewhere. He wears a clerical collar much of the time. Although Turley/North Tulsa has a number of churches, most are open only on Sunday because their ministers are part time. “The collar identifies me as someone people can approach if they need a prayer or just a pastoral presence,” he said.
On any given day the bed of Robinson’s Nissan pickup is just as likely to hold a decrepit sofa that someone has dumped on a roadside as it is gardening tools and plants. He and his small band of leaders (neither “followers” nor “congregants” would be correct) often engage in “guerilla gardening,” cutting weeds and brush when they threaten to take over public areas, and planting flowers without permission along the streets.
He is joined in these adventures by anywhere from one to dozens of people. When A Third Place announced a plan to landscape an elementary school and put in a vegetable garden behind it, forty people showed up to help. “When we do things for the community we get a big turnout,” he said. When the center held a Halloween party last year 200 came.
A Third Place, which is now almost four years old, just completed the purchase of an overgrown city block that it plans to turn into a demonstration vegetable garden/food preparation area as well as a park-like community gathering space.
The center has attracted some partners. A Third Place leader who is on the faculty at Oklahoma University–Tulsa connected A Third Place with OU graduate students in social work, community health, and urban design, who all needed places to do field work. That led to the creation of the health clinic and plans for the garden park.
Robinson identifies A Third Place with the growing “missional” movement in evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity, which focuses a church’s ministries externally rather than internally. A missional church takes resources that would traditionally be devoted to the maintenance of a building and developing programs for the benefit of a congregation and uses those resources instead to develop and support external ministries. Robinson says the missional movement emerged in the 1980s among Christians who shifted from a “come to us” mentality to a “go to them” philosophy, which Robinson said is really how Christianity existed in its first several centuries. “The missional church begins with service with and to others in the world, especially those who are very vulnerable, then forming a group for community and teaching, and only after that worshiping together to refresh themselves for more service.”
Robinson, who identifies himself as a Unitarian Universalist Christian, and who is executive director of the UU Christian Fellowship, a denominational organization of UU Christians, said that in Turley he presents “classic Universalist Christianity.” He added, “It’s definitely a liberation theology—the three ‘R’s: relocating to where people are struggling, redistribution of goods and justice, and reconciliation. We do the first two pretty well and we need to be a lot better at the third.”
He said the Unitarian part of Unitarian Universalism “doesn’t fit as well culturally with what we’re trying to do because people here identify it more with wealth and education. Universalism gives us our best connection.” He added that when people in Turley press him whether he is Christian, he says, “‘Yes, but you don’t have to be a Christian to be in our church.’ Then if people have more questions, I talk about following Jesus and ‘deeds, not creeds.’ People get that. If they ask, ‘Do you believe in heaven and hell?’ I respond, ‘I trust God’s love is for all time. The details we don’t know. You’re free to believe in heaven and stay and work with us.’”
Could a church become missional in a place like Turley without a Christian persona? Robinson believes it could. “A lot of the missional churches are not claiming Christianity today because of the ways it has been identified as bigoted, boring, critical, or irrelevant, and so many churches are now casting their faith in terms like ‘following Jesus’ rather than connecting to an institutional church. I think that question about whether you’re Christian, particularly for the younger generation, is becoming less important. Having said that, I do think that what you do have to have is a sense of the transcendent—a belief in something beyond yourself even if you only name it the human spirit.”
The liberal church brings a needed perspective to missional work, he noted, by its affirmation of diverse religions, sexual orientations, genders, and ethnicities. “That means we can channel our energies not into opposing these issues, but into the creation of relationships and communities of all kinds that reflect core progressive values.”
For two years before starting A Third Place, Robinson had a more traditional church in Turley, “The Living Room Church,” which was focused on weekly Sunday worship. Attendance was sparse. There were few people of color even though two-thirds of the people in the Turley area are of color. “We were identified as a small, white church. Once we reinvented ourselves as a community center, a third of the people who visited us were, and are, people of color.”
Robinson described his approach at the UUA’s General Assembly in 2010. “There was a lot of interest, but I have to say there wasn’t a big ‘How can I do this?’ movement. He believes every UU church could do something missional, however. “I’d like to see a church take five to six people and turn them loose in the community in places of need and say, ‘We don’t need to see you for three months or a year.’ Have them move into an apartment complex and create a space where they can start programs and meet people.”
“They would be serving souls rather than saving souls and they would be working on reconciliation, bringing communities together by focusing on the life of Jesus and the need for justice in the world,” he said.
Robinson urged congregations of around 100 members especially to try missional work. “Congregations of this size burn themselves out trying to get to 125 so they can support a full-time minister. That’s a huge number of our churches. If they were to reorganize themselves into groups of eight to ten people and go out and work in the community they could have a big impact. And maybe that larger church just gets together once a month.”
“Rather than a group that size putting money into a building, it could use that money to support a minister, maybe even a fulltime one, who might become more of a teacher, coach, and networker for these groups.”
He added, “We’re addicted to continuing to do the things where we burn out, creating a revolving door. We’re really ripe for a new way. Younger people especially are more inclined to want to be part of a smaller missional tribal group doing hands-on work. Rather than ‘church planting,’ this is ‘mission planting.’”
Marcy Janitz, 48, an occupational therapy assistant, grew up in Turley and moved back to take care of her mother. She is a regular with A Third Place. Unchurched for many years, she discovered Unitarian Universalism and attended All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa several times. Then a friend found the website for the church that Robinson had organized before founding A Third Place. “I couldn’t believe there was a UU church right here in Turley,” she said.
Now she attends Robinson’s Sunday services, stays for lunch, and often goes out with others after the service to work in the community. On a recent Sunday her pickup (trucks can be an important tool in missional work) was one of those loaded with gardening supplies. “I like the emphasis here on the teachings of Jesus,” she said. “To me, Turley epitomizes the places where Jesus would be.”
Timothy Nelson, 53, an appliance repairman, said, “For me, it’s all about the activities and the extended family. I come for church and then we usually do something in the community afterwards. It’s a chance to be around other people and make Turley a little better.”
Bob Cooper, 57, attends a Baptist church, but supports A Third Place for civic reasons. “My passion is supporting a safe and civil community, and that’s what this place does.”
Robinson’s partner in this ministry is his wife, Dr. Bonnie Ashing, a medical doctor who practices in Tulsa. When she’s not on duty Ashing can be found leading community events, pulling weeds, planting flowers, teaching nutrition, and supporting Turley school children.
One reason Robinson and Ashing chose Turley for their ministry is that they knew it well. They met in kindergarten at the town’s Cherokee Elementary School in 1959. (One of A Third Place’s key ministries is support for Cherokee. It has planted wildflower beds and a vegetable garden at the school, helped with a summer food program, taught nutrition, and removed graffiti from adjacent buildings.) When Robinson and Ashing returned to Turley, they moved into her childhood home, which had sat vacant for three years, buying it for $29,000.
Ashing makes it possible for Robinson to work without a salary, although she notes, “I’m sure he’d find a way to do this even if he had to live on beans.” (Robinson does draw income from his work for the UU Christian Fellowship, and from lecturing at his alma mater, Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa.) Without a congregation to pay a minister, money can be a sticking point in missional work. “Ministers tell me, ‘I love what you’re doing, but I can’t take it on,’ said Robinson, noting, “This work takes sacrifice and privilege.”
A Third Place, which has an annual budget of approximately $21,000, primarily for rent and utilities, gets a third of its funds from its approximately seven pledging families. Another third comes from people who give irregularly and from donations for services at the center. The final third comes from grants from Christian and Jewish organizations and the University of Oklahoma. The latter helps fund and staff the medical clinic. A Third Place recently became a 501c3 organization, allowing it to receive tax-deductible contributions.
A Third Place is preparing to move out of its rented storefront and into a home of its own. This month it is completing the purchase of a long vacant 90-year-old 10,000-square-foot church building into which it will move all of its programs, using the building more like a community center than a church.
This spring and summer Robinson successfully raised $15,000 through appeals on Facebook and elsewhere to purchase the city block where the gardens will go. He is using that property, and additional contributions, to leverage the purchase of the church for $75,000.
Living in places on the edge has its risks. The empty church building was vandalized in September, before A Third Place took possession. Graffiti was spray-painted inside the church; a chandelier, doorframes, and mirrors were destroyed; stained glass windows were broken. Thieves have also taken garden plants and materials from A Third Place projects around town. “That’s just part of living and working in what’s not really a policed area,” Robinson said, “and of our becoming more visible. It will all balance out.”
A Third Place has received some support from other UU congregations and individuals, including All Souls Unitarian Church and Church of the Restoration in Tulsa, and First Unitarian Church in Oklahoma City. The Lawrence and Topeka UU fellowships in Kansas have sent youth groups to help with projects. “We hope to create more opportunities like that so that other congregations can learn about this kind of work,” Robinson said.
In five years, Robinson hopes A Third Place will have become a fully functioning community center. “I hope we’ve lengthened people’s life spans a little by providing health care,” he explains. “By then I’ll be 60 and we’ll be training new leaders for the next generation. I know we’re not going to complete this work quickly. It took several generations for Turley to decline, and it will take several for it to come back. We will take it one step at a time, knowing that small acts of justice done with great love change the world.”
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