By Bekah Rhea
On a relatively busy street in Danville, Virginia, is a home that, in the past decade, has become the epicenter of a thriving intentional community.
In the springtime, you may recognize it by the flowers and plants attracting plentiful varieties of pollinators, giving the property the aura of a small Eden in this quasi-urban landscape. At any time of year, you may find a diverse group of friends on the front porch, sipping coffee and sharing stories. While it would appear to any passerby as just another home, if you ask around Danville, you will quickly discover that there is more to Grace and Main than meets the eye.
Grace and Main is “an intentional, Christian community devoted to hospitality, prayer and grassroots, asset-based community development in Danville, Virginia.” In November 2019, the community celebrated the 10th anniversary of their ministry that has, in many ways, become a staple of the community. Earlier that year, I was privileged to spend my summer under the mentorship of CBF field personnel Jessica Hearne and her husband Joshua, who are one of the founding families behind Grace and Main’s incredibly tangible, but sometimes uncategorical, network of hospitality, prayer and community involvement.
Asset-based community development (ABCD) is a core practice for the Hearne family and an important aspect of ministry in the 21st century. ABCD is designed in such a way that residents of a community are acknowledged as the experts. Instead of asking “what is it that this community needs,” ABCD asks “what are the assets of this community and who are the leaders?” Going forward, those are the people, places and things that ministers should look to and utilize when seeking to make sustainable, positive change.
ABCD also requires acknowledging systemic inequalities and police brutality is one of those relevant and persistent topics, a phenomenon that disproportionately affects those experiencing poverty and homelessness, including those with whom the Hearne family works every day.
Recently, Joshua was asked by Danville’s local police chief to develop and execute a four-week long (160 hour) community-led training focused on immersing new police officers into the community. Joshua alongside a diverse team of five grassroots leaders in the city designed a training to meet this need.
Joshua, an active leader in the community, recently finished his Doctor of Ministry degree with a thesis centered on the way familiarity affects neighborhood-based decision-making. In his thesis, Joshua posed the question: “What happens when you get people who are different from each other in the same room for unstructured time together.” His research revealed that face-to-face interaction with people who are different from ourselves starts to change the ways we think about our neighborhoods and their assets.” Particularly, each party can begin “assuming the other person has reasons for the decisions that they make.”
So, where does policing come in?
Under current circumstances, it is no surprise that historically oppressed populations are wary of law enforcement. The adverse reactions police were experiencing on their neighborhood walks were a logical reaction, even though the police meant well and were training to embrace a more constructive approach to their occupation. Joshua’s goal was to create a space for the development of face-to-face relationships of gross equality, a concept from 20th century theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman. Thurman wrote that transcending boundaries requires face-to-face interaction in as much of a context-free space as possible. This is a key component of Joshua’s thesis and just what the Danville Police Department needed.
Joshua, in a partnership with the chief of police, developed opportunities for officers to be immersed in communities and neighborhoods and hear directly from citizens and community leaders about what mattered most to them and what they loved about their community and neighborhood. In the process, Joshua said, “We start to see that to change actions, we have to change the way people think and feel, particularly about one another. We have to increase familiarity to make a difference.”
The skills training includes an introduction to the concept of implicit bias and analyzing racial, class and socioeconomic disparities. The training is built and structured on the principles of Asset-Based Community Development, so that it is training officers to treat people like “humans, not problems,” and how to “work with communities in ways that don’t damage relationships or compromise anyone’s integrity,” including compensating community leaders for their time and expertise
Ultimately, Joshua says the goal is “getting officers out of their comfort zones and into community engagement.” While the training is still in its infancy, the pilot was successful and Josh has already been asked to repeat the four-week training for new officers. When asked about future of the program, he said, “My hope in future cycles of the training is for me to continue to take steps back and put more and more of the training in the hands of other community leaders.”