16 August 2009

Community Exegesis

A few weeks ago, I organised a volunteer day with World Vision. The morning was filled with sorting, moving boxes, packing and unpacking items, organising and in general getting somewhat sweaty and dirty. And we all loved it because it got us out of the office and away from our computers for the day.

The Afternoon was spent in an area of Los Angeles called MacArthur Park, which is located just west of downtown LA. They call it "In the Shadows of the Skyscrapers." This is the area WV chose to get involved in and create an Urban Development Programme. We all headed out here to get a tour of the area, to engage with the community and to become skilled in doing a community exegesis.

Prior to this experience, getting involved in anything with the term exegesis in it returned me to my college theology course, reminding me of spending hours over a specific chapter of the Bible, writing down what specifically happened in each individual verse and what that meant, both to the verse and to the chapter as a whole. I did not really enjoy it. It was tedious, detailed, and did not bring me to some sort of deeper faith.

A Community Exegesis is something that is similar in theory, but very different in how you do it. And I thoroughly enjoyed it. So I would like to spread the knowledge we picked up, so that people can experience communities all over. Due to not wanting to make this blog a novel, I will likely leave the exegesis of MacArther Park to my next post.
The purpose of a community exegesis is to get to know a particular neighbourhood more in depthly. From this exercise you should be able to tell the history of that community, who lived there, who lives there now, and most interestingly where the community is headed.

1) First of all, you cannot do this exercise from a car or from your home. You must be out in and amongst the community - wear good walking shoes.
2) Work on your observation skills. Look very closely at:
- The People: Who lives there? What do they look like? What language do they speak? Where does it appear they are from? Be specific. Noticing that there are a lot of Spanish speakers and then assuming that they all come from Mexico is not good exegeting. And it is stereotyping - Refrain from stereotyping.

- The Buildings: What type are they? Are they all cookie cutter or do they each have their own distinct pieces? How far apart are they? What about from the street? Are there green areas in and around them? If they are apartment buildings, do they have balconies and do those balconies have personalisations or decorations on them?

- The Shops: What type of shops can be found in the community? Are they mostly chain stores? Do they cater to those who have excess or lack of incomes? Do they have an ethnic speciality? Do they offer deals towards one ethnicity over another?

- The Restaurants: Similar questions. What genre of food can be found in that community? Note any types of restaurants that seem out of place (such as a Vietnamese restaurant in a sea of Mexican food). If there are, consider if it is really out of place or just an additional piece to its history? Are there mostly chain restuarants or more mom & pop places? Are there high-end eateries available? What foods and types of foods are readily available to the community? Do they sell food only in sanctioned stores and restaurants or is some available just off the street as well?

- The "Art": Is there graffiti around? What does that graffiti look like? Is it indicative of a gang(s)? Do you see a symbol repetitive enough to be a 'signature'? Or is it graffiti art - a sanctioned mural created by the community? What does this indicate? Note - a community's morals and future are usually heavily depicted in this type of 'street art'.

3) After you have coallated all this information, look at the overwhelming themes. You should have a clear picture of who lives there, as well as their social class, ethnicity, and general age demographic. Finding their history and their future will take a bit more analysis and processing. Enjoy this.

If you have time, talk with some people living in the community. If you do not understand something, ask. Obviously, this is the easiest way to exegete a community. And you will probably meet some really awesome people if you do.