The Power of Proximity:
Moving Beyond Awareness to Action
Michelle Ferrigno Warren
Paperback: IVP Books, 2017
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Reviewed by Kevin Book-Satterlee
Michelle Ferrigno Warren may have been an unlikely choice as a community activist. In her book, which reads like a memoir, Ferrigno Warren notes her white-privileged, middle-class, conservative evangelical upbringing. She was a timid girl, it seems, perhaps before moving into proximity of the urban poor. Her voice and conviction in her book, The Power of Proximity: Moving Beyond Awareness to Action, is powerful, in a humble sort of way. This book is a quick read, touching on critical, timely subjects subjects, drawing from the lessons of her own story.
Ferrigno Warren begins her book discussing proximity. What does it mean to be close to the urban poor? She writes, “A commitment to proximate living means striving to be a good neighbor, to be deeply engaged from a personal space, to be willing to remain rooted and learn from the people around us, to glean from their strength, to admit the sobering reality that ours is a chosen place in contrast to their pain,” (25). Ferrigno Warren and her family made a choice, and most of the people in the community of her chosen proximity never had such a choice. This is the posture – long-term and personal – that dictates proximity. It is a rupturing contrast to the 9-5 approach that so many who engage marginalized communities practice, myself included. Her brief and simple definition sets the tone for the rest of the book.
It is one thing to make a geographic choice, but Ferrigno Warren shows time and time again how her quiet, myopic upbringing has to continuously choose vulnerability. Again, this demonstrates a posture that is so critically distinct from those who approach community development as a day-job rather than as life. The first key step to vulnerability and earning one’s place among a local community is to be an observant learner and to be teachable. In a fun, quirky, yet on-point anecdote, Ferrigno Warren discusses her tendency for barefootedness and her neighbor buying her slippers, (29-30). People in her community just do not go around without something on their feet. She notes that it is the trivial things that makes for the right kind of proximity. If an outsider cannot learn these subtle nuances, it is likely that any positive influence for effecting change will be dramatically limited.
The vulnerability that one has to open oneself to learn from the local community also implies a vulnerability to embrace brokenness. This is the subject of the third chapter in Power of Proximity. As a community worker myself, I come to embrace brokenness, but after reading this book, I once again am reminded of my own paternalism. Embracing brokenness means letting yourself be vulnerable to the difficulty, the despair, and hopelessness that your neighbors feel. It means having the very same worries of the local community. When Ferrigno Warren began her journey of proximity, she “looked at problems as cut-and-bandage situations instead of the gaping, bleeding arteries that they were. My view of God and his salvation for our broken world was shallow and quick. I was an urban Santa with toys nobody knew what to do with – least of all myself,” (45). She develops from being a Santa to the ghetto, and recognized that, “The closer we get to the pain of others, the bigger and more unfixable their problems seem. The prospect of dealing with these problems is scary. It’s scary because we don’t have much to offer in terms of guarantees for the effectiveness of our ministry in their lives, (49).
Where Ferrigno Warren mentions her scary nature of choosing proximity with the poor, the second part of the book demonstrates that this fear, by the Spirit, leads to transformative action. In this the orignal fear changes. Rather than fearing for her safety or that of her children, she worries that fear itself may immobilize her. When somebody knows what is going on in these communities, she cannot just keep quiet, hunker down, or let fear become a silencer. Rather she must use her voice and walk in spite of the fear. She writes: “It’s easy to get scared when you get in deep and your world changes in ways that make it hard to return. It can make you want to change your mind. Please don’t do it. We need you. The kingdom needs you,” (73).
Two key issues to the current discourse in the United States that Ferrigno Warren touches on in the second part of the book are: race and immigration. Proximity to the poor has made her an advocate against systemic racism as well as an organizer on behalf of immigrants. Despite her having moved into the neighborhood, and despite having earned her place over time with a humble posture, she still recognizes not just the irony, but the privilege she has to just be in a place where she can use her voice to fight against racism. She talks about offending her family members and surprising even some friends with her immigration advocacy, including a march from Tijuana, Mexico to Los Angeles. Just to read about these two key areas alone, The Power of Proximity is an inspiring and worthwhile book.
One criticism I have for this book is that it is written by white-privilege siding with the poor rather than being written by somebody from the very community in which Ferrigno Warren chose to be proximate. Her story is important, and the book provides me, a white middle-class male, with somebody that I can identify with. But what about the many in these marginalized communities who have maybe not had the choice to move there, but advocate and organize for and from that very community? I would have really appreciated his or her story discussing the potential of proximity. Ferrigno Warren does not give off a superiority or savior complex. She has no bravado in her sincere writing. She seems to have earned her place in her community. Yet, having had another voice or a co-author from the community would perhaps equalize the literature and enrich the dialogue. Let this be a challenge for the Christian Community Development Association and InterVarsity Press to pursue more opportunities along this nature.
While I don’t believe that The Power of Proximity will be as eye-opening to a generation as Irresistible Revoloution may have been in the early 2000s, this book is an important read for evangelicals who seek to be more holistic and proximate with the poor. Written as a memoir, key chapters touch on critical aspects in today’s U.S. society in the current political climate. Ferrigno Warren is not shy about her criticisms, even calling people out by name, yet she remains unoffensive in her approach, making it thought provoking, challenging, and nuanced enough so as to promote further dialogue. This book models a strong voice with humble a humble spirit. Humble that she is, she is clear that proximity with the poor is a daily, long-term choice of embracing brokenness and standing with neighbors.