What Does Loving Our Neighbor and Doing Justice Look Like? Sometimes it Looks a Lot Like Soccer.

Written by Pastor Lydia Shiu, Director of Social Justice and Action 

Soccer Nights, a free, week-long summer soccer camp, has been a legacy of Reservoir for over a decade. I first heard about it while interviewing for the pastoral job here at Reservoir about 3 years ago. I was on the phone in my parked car in San Francisco, dreaming about a whole new life on the other side of the country. At the end of our interview, Connie (a long-time member at Reservoir) asked me if there were any questions I had for her. I asked, “What’s the thing you’re most excited or proud of at Reservoir that’s going on right now?” She said, “Soccer Nights.”  

She told me about Reservoir’s neighbors on Rindge Ave. Just a few blocks down from our church stand 3 tall affordable housing buildings. Residents are mostly black and brown, immigrants, and of other faith traditions than Christian. Soccer Nights was for them. Each summer, over 300 kids from the neighborhood signed up to play soccer. And there was no mention of Jesus or the Bible. 

It wasn’t VBS. (No knock on Vacation Bible Schools – I’ve been a part of plenty.) But doing church and ministry in this post-evangelical, pluralistic world means doing things differently. What I mean is, the question of how a church is doing a “missional” or “outward facing program” has changed over time. It’s no longer about just getting a Bible in hands or telling kids about Jesus. Colonialism has left enough bitter taste that people leave the faith and church alltogether just by knowing the history of what the church has done in the name of “mission” that was actually about conquering and wiping out cultures and nations. With that history in mind, we have to ask ourselves as a church: how do we do church that’s not that any more, not anything near resembling colonialism and conquering?

That probably wasn’t the original intent of how Soccer Nights started. I heard some people loved soccer and wanted to share it with our neighbors. But for me, this model of being a church in the city is powerful and innovative. Because I know how churches have in the past served, volunteered, and provided programs only to bait and switch to “accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior or you’re going to hell.” (Hey, maybe it’s just me, cause I have some baggage with church and Christianity…) I also knew what it meant to not do things like soccer growing up because it was too expensive. So hearing about Soccer Nights, a church program with no mention of Jesus and no registration fee, for me, was music to my ears, a new dawn of the Good News that I could only hope that I’d get to be a part of. 

This year, after a year of things being cancelled due to the pandemic, I got to be a part of Soccer Nights. And it was beautiful. The diversity. The playfulness. The joy. All of it. It was a light shining in the darkness of Covid this year. 

Russell Field was open with hundreds of kids running around. Kids of all colors and all ages playing. Soccer Nights has been around long enough that kids who grew up with Soccer Nights are now in high school, old enough to coach. They are called the Crew Team. Some Crew members even joined the leadership Core Team, helping to run the program. I chatted them up about their majors, the pressure of picking the right career paths, and going against that to take care of your mental health and enjoying the moment. Cause I knew a bit about the pressures of being a child of immigrants who just wanted the best for you at all costs. 

Jerry’s Pond Project 

About 9 months ago, an unexpected offshoot of Soccer Nights happened. I was connected with Reservoir member, Taylor Yates, a real estate professional, about the small pond next to Russell Field, right across the street with the affordable housing buildings on Rindge Ave. He told me that a biotech development company had bought the Jerry’s Pond area and that this could be an opportunity to bring the voice of the community to the development process.

I reached out to Soccer Nights Crew Core Team member, Anusha Alam, to ask if she might be interested in getting involved. She lives in the neighborhood and is a recipient of Reservoir’s scholarship turned Soccer Nights alumni. Together with Taylor, Anusha, and Sue Rosenkranz (who’s been involved with Soccer Nights over the years as well as Reservoir’s Faith Into Action team) we began working to bring community representation to the process. We showed up, partnered with other Cambridge organizations like Friends of Jerry’s Pond (FOJP), Just-A-Start (a nonprofit housing and service provider), and Alewife Study Group (ASG), and somehow got a seat at the table in a series of discussions of the multi-million dollar biotech lab development project. You can see Anusha quoted in articles like this one on WBUR regarding the work, and you’d never know that it came about through Soccer Nights. The myriad ways of relationships developed through Soccer Nights that played a role in this project alone can’t all be named in this blog post. 

IQHQ conceptual design draft for Rindge Ave. and Jerry’s Pond.

The development is still underway, so I can’t say too much about it yet publicly. Discussions of beautification for the once fenced-off pond with public access are being had as well as investment toward scholarships and career development, a community garden, and more. I can’t wait to tell you more about the exciting work towards environmental justice, equity, and representation that the Reservoir community has been stewarding and building. I am so proud of our work, our heart and love for the neighborhood. I just wanted to share the news in progress right now.

There’s plenty more work and potential opportunities. A parent at Soccer Nights was telling me about her son’s school and its broken systems. Working with Just-A-Start has opened my eyes to housing concerns and opportunities in Cambridge. And if the Jerry’s Pond project and work with the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization has taught me anything, it’s that the work of justice is sometimes tedious, sitting in many boring meetings. If you’d like to be involved, let me know and I’ll connect you with our Reservoir’s Faith Into Action network. 

Lastly, soccer is a great way to love our neighbor and do justice. Because sometimes, it’s not about being in the temples and meetings. Sometimes it’s just sitting in the bleachers, watching our kids play soccer together, that we build friendships and from friendships come the connection and the power to make a change together. 

Big thanks to everyone who showed up to Soccer Nights, volunteered, contributed financially to Reservoir to support this program, and a special thanks to Nick and Christy, the co-directors of Soccer Nights 2021. It was a highlight of my summer to be there.

How Cognitive Generosity Makes You a Better Neighbor and Citizen

This is part three in an occasional series on being part of diverse communities. These blogs are meant to explore in brief some of the why of diverse community involvement – why such a thing is great for us, great for the broader worlds we live in, and even central to the story of what Jesus is doing on earth, as I understand it. It’s also meant to speak to some how’s – how we can be more effective in our participation and building of diverse communities, how this can go better and more enjoyably for us and others.

We’re starting by reviewing some of the key insights from the powerful book by Christena Cleveland, Disunity in Christ. Cleveland is a social psychologist and public theologian who thinks and writes and speaks about the things that keep people apart, and the work of justice, empathy, and reconciliation that can bring people together. I’ve found her book really helpful and hope these entries will entice you to read it yourself! She says far more far better than I ever will on this topic.

While she’s discussing how humans erect divisions between groups, Cleveland introduces one of the antidotes to these divisions, which she calls cognitive generosity. Cognitive generosity involves developing a more positive perception of other people and groups. We tend to think less generously of people and groups we are not familiar with, or who we perceive to be very different from us. Cognitive generosity intentionally reverses this process, helping us consciously think better – and so likely more honestly – about these same people and groups.

Let me illustrate.

I grew up in the last years of the Cold War. My childhood and teen years were still full of movies and media portraying Russians as cold-hearted enemies of the great American way.


But then, in the opportunity of a lifetime, I had the opportunity to travel to Russia during the waning days of the Soviet Empire. Along with a couple of dozen mates from my high school chorus, I sang in St. Isaac’s Cathedral in Leningrad. I stayed with a host family in the 1000-year old city of Yaroslavl. I made my first ever black market transaction, trading American blue jeans for an old Russian army uniform. I traveled to Estonia in the month they first flew their own country’s flag. And while touring an old watch factory in Uglich, I was abandoned by my group while hobbling on a sprained ankle, only to be helped down some long stairs by a Russian factory worker.

That single act of hospitality, alongside many others on that trip, taught teenage me that Russian people were… well… people. They weren’t a class of foreigners, or spies, or enemies, but men, women, children, parents, friends… human beings. And some of them were inclined to show tremendous kindness and hospitality to this non-Russian speaking, clueless American teenager who had stumbled into their country on a choral tour.

This led to an increase in cognitive generosity in my attitude toward Russians, which in turn led me to study Russian language and literature in college and take another trip to that country. I had moved past entry-level stereotypes of a whole people group and on to the capacity to think well of Russian culture as a whole as well as individuals within that culture.

Here’s the thing. Cultivating cognitive generosity takes reflection and positive exposure. Even progressively minded White Americans, for instance, tend to harbor negative racial stereotypes toward Black Americans. However, positive interactions with and even viewing positive images of Black Americans has tended to lower these stereotypes by producing cognitive generosity. White people with little opportunity for actual relationships with Black Americans can also read books and watch films that focus on reality based, humane, or even heroic portrayals of Black Americans.

Certainly for White people in America like myself, the cultivation of cognitive generosity is an important practice. Whether it be going to a multi-ethnic church, living in a diverse neighborhood, or working on a diverse team, looking for positive interactions with people different from us gives us the opportunity to develop more respectful, reality-based assumptions about cultures we are not part of.

For all of us, we might examine if there whole classes of people we’ve begun to view with any level of disdain. If so, we can consider how to regain cognitive generosity towards others, cultivating a positive view of them unless they deserve or prove otherwise.

You can find the first entry in this series here. 

The second entry on the outgroup heterogeneity effect is here. 

One Reason You Want to Be in Diverse Communities

This past week, a number of us attended a Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) event called “Out of Many, One.” The inspiration was the United States founding motto, E Pluribus Unum, which translates as the title of this gathering. The founding fathers wrote this, envisioning a unity of the original 13 colonies, and also a united nation of people from various Western European ancestries. In the pledge introduced at this recent gathering, we had the opportunity to affirm the significance of this aspiration for all peoples of the United States. I gladly signed, as did many clergy and members of faith communities, as well as some prominent civic leaders.

This vision of one people emerging out of difference is core to the hope of the good news of Jesus as well. The first century faith entrepreneur, Paul of Tarsus, was animated by a vision of faith communities that brought previously separate and hostile cultures into a shared community of love. Paul wrote, For he (Jesus) is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Ephesians 2:14) The two groups Paul is referring to here are Jews and Gentiles, i.e. Roman non-Jews. Paul himself was both ethnic and religious Jew as well as Roman citizen, and so this Jewish/non-Jewish divide that was significant to the first century Roman empire was for him the great separator of human cultures. Throughout his letters, Paul argues for an end to such division, for communities to find common ground and practice mutual acceptance. This appears to be one transformation that will authenticate the good news of Jesus.

Two weeks ago, I wrote that community building across difference is one of the two big things I want to be part of and think God is doing at Reservoir Church in post-Trump-election America. Today, I’d like to follow-up on that post by introducing one of many tools from the powerful book by Christena Cleveland, Disunity in Christ. Cleveland is a social psychologist and public theologian who thinks and writes and speaks about the things that keep people apart, and the work of justice, empathy, and reconciliation that can bring people together.

In her book, Cleveland writes that “group separation and prejudice have a bidrectional relationship – that is, prejudice tends to result in division between groups and division between groups tends to result in prejudice.” (33) In other words, diversity isn’t window dressing. Being in diverse relationships and communities, or not, makes us different. When we’re around others more, we are less prejudiced, whereas when we’re around less diversity, we’re more prejudiced. Whether we want to be or not.

One reason for this, Cleveland explains, is a dynamic called the “outgroup homogeneity effect.” We tend to view groups we’re not part of as made up of people who are all similar to one another, while we tend to view members of our own group as unique.

For example, I was raised in an almost entirely White small suburb, with almost entirely White classmates, friends, neighbors, and family. I never thought that White people looked alike. I also knew several White people with various regional or national accents and different speech patterns and levels of education. I noticed these but never defined people by them.  The people in my group were obviously all very different from one another.

When I went to university, I became best friends with a Chinese-American woman and started attending a large Chinese church in Boston. At first, I noticed that Chinese people looked more alike to me. It wasn’t as easy for me to pick someone I knew out of a crowd of hundreds of Chinese-Americans. Everyone, for instance, had black hair. After years of membership in this faith community, though, most of my friends and social acquaintances were Chinese-American, and it seemed ridiculous to think they looked alike. After all, most of the human race has black hair! This outgroup becoming part of my ingroup had changed my perceptions. (I’ve also had the reverse experience now, being part of a Chinese-American’s process of discovery that White people don’t all look and act and think alike!)

This is a relatively small example and wasn’t, in my case, tied to any particular damaging effects. We don’t have to look far, though, to realize how the outgroup homogeneity effect impoverishes the experience of people that hold it and harms those who are subject to its resulting skewed perceptions. When we stereotype others, we don’t benefit from their strengths and experiences and we are potentially suspicious of or hostile to them. And when we combine the outgroup homogeneity effect with imbalances of power and privilege, we get discrimination and injustice.

Clearly this is one reason (not the only reason, but one) that White men maintain such disproportionate power in our society. We (we for a minute being White men) see people like ourselves as unique and different, and we lump all others into the same category of “other”, people we are less likely to hire or mentor or promote or vote for. White men like myself make up less than a third of the United States population. But based on our representation in positions of power, you would never know that. Picking just two data points, over 90% of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are White men and that the US Congress is overwhelmingly comprised of White men as well. There’s a hard but important phrase for the racial side of this dominance, which is White supremacy.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to unity amidst difference and the outgroup homogeneity effect.

One simple way we can be part of a more just society is to be part of more diverse communities. By being a robustly multi-ethnic community, Reservoir Church gives our members the opportunity to be in relationship with many people who are not like ourselves. In doing so, we benefit from the riches of human culture that we weren’t born into, and we also stop assuming that people who aren’t like us are all the same. “They” become part of “us”, non-uniform, interesting people God loves and that we might as well.