“What is your name – who are you – and can you find a way to hear the sound of the genuine in yourself?”  Howard Thurman


For the past year, I have been working with various marketing professionals to help us define more clearly the work of Embrace Richmond. The hard work of finding simple ways to describe the complex process of asset-based Christian community development is finally complete.

In Howard Thurman’s infamous commencement speech at Spellman College in 1980, he encourage the new graduates to discover their own unique calling which he referred to as “the sound of the genuine.” As our board and staff have wrestled with things like taglines and mission statements, I originally thought of this exercise as secular and a necessary part of being a non-profit. I believed that outside experts could tell us who we are. I was wrong.

What I discovered is that this has been a deeply spiritual journey that required me to define the sound of the genuine for Embrace Richmond which in turn required me to do the same for myself as the founder and Executive Director.

As helpful as the marketing experts were in this process, the resource that was most helpful to me was Jonah Sachs’ book, “Winning the Story Wars: Why Those Who Tell (and Live) the Best Stories Will Rule the Future” which was suggested by my coach Jonathan Reitz.

In “Winning the Story Wars,” Sachs argues that those who tell a more resonate truth in the face of a commonly accepted lie will shape the future. He also believes that the stories we tell should be guided by our core values and beliefs – in other words the sound of the genuine in each of us.

Embrace grew out of the desires of a homeless woman who wanted to help other homeless individuals. The commonly accepted lie was that she was the needy homeless person and that “the system” should meet her needs. Instead, this woman, who had no material wealth, had something the system did not have…a divine calling. Embrace Richmond helped her vision grow into the largest furniture bank on the eastern seaboard.

In 2011 after three murders in the span of three weeks, the residents of Hillside Court were seen as both “the problem” and “powerless pawns.” As the police raided apartments and confiscated enough guns to arm a small army, the system gave little consideration to those seemingly helpless citizens. Yet, four years later, the residents of Hillside Court have taken back their streets and are doing everything in their power to shape the future of Hillside for their children. They are the unsung heroes of the Hillside story.

The commonly accepted lie is that institutional systems are the solution to our complex social needs and that ordinary citizens have no real power. This is the lie that leads us all to see our role in society as consumers of services instead of active participants in the shaping of our society’s story (See insights from John McKnight and Peter Block here.)

The truth upon which Embrace Richmond was founded is that “great neighbors make neighborhoods great.” Not the government, not the police, not the social services agencies, not non-profits, not churches, not the President of the United State. Ordinary citizens working together for the common good are the real heroes.

I am continually amazed by how deeply ingrained the lie is in our society and even in our congregations. It is the lie that leads us to believe that if we just have the right program we, as outsiders, can change a community.  The biggest barrier to exposing this lie is our blindness to the richness of these seemingly “under resourced” communities. But in the words of my friend and mentor Mrs. Rosa Jiggetts, the truth is “Richmond is Rich!”

The key to unlocking the richness of our city, can only be found if we are willing to expose the lie of system-led solutions and embrace the truth of citizen-powered change.

This year, Embrace Richmond turns 10 years old. Over the past ten years, we have walked alongside more than 40 neighborhood heroes – great neighbors who are making their neighborhoods great.

This year, in honor of our 10 year anniversary, Embrace Richmond and our congregational partners will give away $10,000 to great neighbors who are striving to make their neighborhoods great by increasing civic engagement in their communities.

But we need your help.

Nominate a Great Neighbor: Do you know of a local resident who is living the truth that “Great neighbors make neighborhoods great?” We are looking for neighborhood residents who are bringing their neighbors together in a way that is changing their neighborhood and creating a culture of care within the community. If you know a Great Neighbor that you would like to nominate for our Great Neighbor Grants program, we would love to meet them. Please email Wendy McCaig at wendy@embracerichmond.org.

Become a Story Catcher: We are looking for volunteers who are willing to help us capture these counter-cultural neighborhood transformation stories. Do you have a camera and dependable transportation? Are you a good listener? Do you like to write? Do you have time this summer to hang out with some of the most interesting and dedicated citizens in our city? If so, please consider joining our Story Catchers team. To learn more email Steven Ebert at Steven@embracerichmond.org

As I think about all the great neighbors that I have walked alongside through the years, I can see the same process that I have gone through this past year. It is the process of discovering the genuine in ourselves. The call to love our neighbors as ourselves using our own unique gifts, passions and talents is the journey we are all called to take. Finding the genuine within is an exciting adventure and Embrace is blessed to play a part in each of these great neighbor stories.

Over the next nine months, we are going to be introducing you to some great neighbors both present and past. They are ordinary people who have discerned the genuine in themselves and who are living the great commandment in simple but powerful ways. We hope you will join us on this journey.