by Roger J. Gench
Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Ky. 145 pages
REVIEWED BY JEFF KREHBIEL
My friend and colleague Roger Gench’s new book (full disclosure: my name is in the acknowledgements and footnotes) reads like a day in the life of the busy urban pastor that he is. Part personal memoir, part sermon sampler, theological treatise, adult Bible study and urban church instruction manual, Gench covers a lot of ground in 145 pages. In the epilogue, he dedicates this effort to “all who love and serve the city, bearing its daily stress, and are grounded in the conviction that the risen Lord is there, summoning us to join in at the cruciform places where God is already at work, bringing life out of death.”
As a model for religious life (his own, and the congregations he serves), Gench offers the symbol of a three-legged stool: balancing the life of the heart (the contemplative life), the mind (including theological reflection) and the will (one’s activity in the world) into an integrated whole. The various chapters of the book are dedicated to fleshing out those three legs in the ebb and flow of urban ministry.
While Gench endeavors to describe how these three legs are integrated and balanced, the narrative focus of the book centers on his involvement in congregationally-based community or-ganizing through the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), first as pastor of the Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, and for the past 12 years as pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. He describes the rough and tumble of campaigns to bring a living wage to Baltimore and living-wage jobs to Washington, D.C., along the way offering tutorials on the art of relationship building in the congregation through community organizing tools of the individual meeting and small-group listening campaigns. Throughout, he shares how his own theological reflections and investment in the practices of Ignatian spirituality have sustained and grounded him and those he serves for this active life.
It is in the penultimate chapter that the three themes come together most fully as he describes the process of organizing a conversation about race and poverty between four urban congregations, two mostly white (one of them his own) and two predominately African American. All four are member congregations of the Washington Interfaith Network, the local IAF affiliate, and so were already engaged in common work to improve the lives of city residents. Through Gench’s initiative, they also covenanted to meet together regularly over two years to build relationships, worship, pray and study. The effort culminated during the season of Lent in 2013 when they read together James Cone’s “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.” Their work together engaged the head and the heart, but also the hands and the feet.
As an urban pastor, the terrain that Gench describes is familiar turf. For those new to urban ministry, this is an excellent primer. Gench’s enthusiasm for this demanding vocation is evident on every page. “When I speak of the ‘trenches of urban ministry,’” he writes, “know that there is nowhere else that I would rather be.”
JEFF KREHBIEL is pastor of Church of the Pilgrims in Washington, D.C., and author of “Reflecting With Scripture on Community Organizing” (ACTA Publications).