(Second in the series on 30 Actions and Ideas that Create Good Cities)
Earlier this month I attended a breakfast that honored the Resourcefullness Award winners hosted by the accounting and consulting firm, Eide Bailly. Jill Kohler, Development Director for the Interfaith Outreach and Community Partners (IOCP), told the story of Plymouth, Minnesota’s Sleep Out Campaign.
This is one powerful expression of how unifying around what we care about brings a great result. Thousands of people from different churches, faiths, community organizations, businesses, and community members participate in the Plymouth Sleep Out each year to raise money to support holistic family care.
It all started in November, 1996 when local shoe repairman, Bob Fisher (featured in the photo courtesy of IOCP), decided to take up winter camping. The first night he was camping out in his own back yard, he was awakened at 2 a.m. with a clear message, “Take care of the needy people of Wayzata.” Bob said, “I didn’t even know there were needy people in Wayzata.” With this, Bob moved his tent to the front yard and set a goal to raise $7,000.00 to buy holiday meals for 100 families. He commited that he would sleep outside every night until the goal was met.
It didn’t take long; word got out about what Bob was doing and TV stations began giving him coverage. Within 2 weeks, Bob had raised over $10,000. He brought the money to the Interfaith Outreach & Community Partners (IOCP) nonprofit in Plymouth, initially thinking the had done his good deed and would move on. However, when he met with LaDonna Hoy, IOCP Executive Director, she helped Bob understand that while a hot meal at Thanksgving helps some families, there are families who can’t even receive a hot meal. She then told Bob about a family of four living in a car in the community after the death of the husband and father. It became clear that the complex issues of housing and homelessness represented an even greater need.
For two more years, Bob raised funds by sleeping out in his tent. He would have a little kick off with a bon fire with a few friends and community members followed by a prayer and then his sleep out would begin.
Bob credit’s Jill with the next breakthrough. She suggested to Bob that he invite the local Boy Scouts to join him. They might enjoy buidling fires and camping out. Although he was reluctant at first, Bob invited the Boy Scouts to participate and in 1999 2-300 Boy Scouts joined Bob in raising money by sleeping out. The next year eight church youth groups joined the Sleep Out. Businesses in the community began sponsoring Bob and others in this communitywide sleep out to raise funds and awareness for sustainable housing.
Bob’s initial few years sleeping out to raise funds for the hungry and homeless became a catalyst, Next Bob championed the effort. He engaged a cross-sector network around the belief that together, their suburban community could do something significant to provide sustainable housing for those in need.
The event gained momentum.The focus shifted from a single issue to holistic family care. In 2003 the Sleep Out Campaign raised over $1,000,000.00. This past fall on the 20th Anniversary in 2015, the Sleep Out raised $2.5 million with community members sleeping out in parks, back yards, and in the city’s commercial district.
Each year now, the Sleep Out begins the first Saturday in November with a community block party, a prayer walk and a poverty-simulation exercise. To date, 2,700 families have been kept from becoming homeless in the Wayzata/Plymouth area. Bob said, “It’s amazing that there can be homeless and hungry people in a country as affluent as ours. On any given night in Minnesota, some 9,000 people are homeless. Half of these are under 18 and many are as young as 5 or 6. We can all do something. We each need to discover our god-given gifts and put them into action. Obedience is a lifestyle. If God calls you to do something, go after it and stick with it.”
He went on, “When I was a child in Catholic School, my teacher said one day, ‘The most important concept in life is stick-to-it-iveness.’ Perserverance.”
While there are many individual beliefs and actions that create a successful communitywide initiative like the Sleep Out Campaign, at the core is a central unifying vision to help families in need. The involvement of churches in Plymouth and Wayzata in this initiative is an outward sign of belief in and application of the good news of the gospel in the context of these communities. When people unify around serving families in need they are coming together around what they care about. While this may reflect a transcendent belief such as the golden rule, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” it is not primarily a theological unity that is sought, but a humanitarian one. This is also known as centered set thinking.
Centered set thinking was first introduced through Dr. Paul Hiebert of Fuller Theological Seminary and popularized by Sam Williams and Eric Swanson. It’s at the core of my writing in my book, The Good City. In a nutshell, this concept advocates that Christians go beyond simply partnering around theological beliefs (as people do when becoming members of a church) and join others around those people, values, and things we care about (see diagram below).
Centered set thinking opens the door to all kinds of unlikely partnerships around nearly every issue that matters in cities and communities. As a coach, I work with community groups in cities working on issues of foster care, jobs, sex trafficking, alcohol and chemical abuse, education, hunger, housing, and more. When we partner with others who care about the same issues, it opens the door for myriad conversations that might not otherwise happen. This approach invites people to become engaged in a good cause that will transform lives and create good cities