Challenges of Organizing a Movement

On Fridays, we are posting entries for a weekly blog journey by Angela Williams, our Young Adult Volunteer, of the day-to-day work to organize and create positive social change in her community. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Angela Williams

When a group tries to bring together people from many different backgrounds, it can be unwieldy… and beautiful. Washington Interfaith Network (WIN), my local community organizing affiliate, has over 50 member institutions, including labor unions, Protestant and Catholic churches, a mosque, a synagogue, and community organizations representing thousands of DC residents. With such a broad base of people bringing their different perspectives to the table, it is definitely challenging to focus energy around a specific cause or plan of action. In these days of extreme polarization, one may ask how it is possible to build consensus or find common ground on anything. From my experience, inviting so many to the table is one of the most difficult parts of this work, but it is also one of the most essential. To lose any part of that broad base is to lose power, or, as organizing defines power: the ability to do something.

tsr_4472_webWIN meetings are some of the most diverse spaces of my week, but with that diversity comes different theologies, political ideologies, genders, races, sexual orientations, ages, values, and ideas. Maintaining focus on a given campaign or keeping interest in a particular method of action can be incredibly difficult. I greatly admire organizers who can read a room and smoothly run a meeting while respecting the voices of all at the table. I am committed to that broad base and keeping as many voices at the table as possible because I believe that’s how Jesus Christ lived. Our society is still segregated by race and class, but when we all join around a table, we live out the body of Christ. I see glimpses of heaven, the world as it should be, when we are in community around a table discussing door knocking, phone calls, listening sessions, and planning an action. I feel closer to this city and closer to God when I am in the room with folks I may have never met had I not been involved with WIN.

However, we all know situations when sitting around a meeting table felt more like hell than heaven, when one person derails the entire meeting to go on an irrelevant tangent, when not every person is on the same page regarding the agenda or planned method. Meetings can be particularly difficult for folks who are just getting a taste for organizing (an experience not unlike walking into our sanctuaries for the first time!). Maybe this is their first organizing meeting and a friend invited them to come, or maybe they are simply fed up with not having a voice in community changes. Perhaps this is the first time they are engaging with a particular issue agenda, and they are lacking the background context. Maybe this is the first time they have sat at a table and had real discussion with folks who do not look, think, or act like them. Just as it would be impossible to give 500 years of history of the Reformed order of worship at the beginning of every service, trying to cram all the philosophy of the organization and history of the issue into the first five minutes of every single meeting is impossible. Unfortunately, not every person connected to WIN comes with a background knowledge of community organizing and jargon dictionary at the ready. Often, they come in with a friend, some questions, perhaps some anger or agitation, and a desire to make change.

So, how do we welcome people into a movement? How do we welcome others into a conversation and community that is already in progress and will continue when they are gone? How do we invite others to the table to be the body of Christ with us? How do we invite them to make the world as it should be with us? How do we live out Christ’s call to love each other as we love ourselves? I think each of us could learn a bit about how to expand the we to include folks who may not have had a voice in the meeting and a seat at the table before.

What I have learned from organizing is that it is all about the relational quality of the gathering. Every organizing meeting begins with a rounds question, just so we all know who is in the room, a bit of where each person comes from, and what they are bringing to the table. Giving each person a voice at the beginning of the meeting can help those uncertain to speak the confidence to share their voice again later.

What are some practices that you have experienced that help to welcome people into a new institution so they feel involved and integrated quickly?

AngelaWilliams270Angela Williams is currently walking alongside the good folks at NEXT Church and New York Avenue Presbyterian Church as a Young Adult Volunteer in Washington, D.C., after serving a first YAV year in the Philippines. She finds life in experiencing music, community organizing, cooking any recipe she can find, making friends on the street, and theological discussions that go off the beaten path.

Leaving the No Wake Zone

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla has been curating reflections on being evangelical in the church. Have we connected our congregations to resurrection life? Have we taught them how to talk about it?  How to live it? How to connect others to that life-giving, life-abundant power? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Andrew Kukla

I am among the least likely people to be leading a conversation on evangelism. I am a pretty extreme introvert, particularly with regard to people I don’t know, and I don’t know many people. A good friend of mine likes to claim I’m the least networked Presbyterian pastor she knows. I have no sense of certainty about anything, so I love to conditionalize everything. You know, all those words we aren’t supposed to use: I believe what I am saying is that maybe this could be a good idea, if it happens to work for you…

I am, from a certain point of view, a horrible evangelist.

andrew evangelismAnd trust me, I have told God. Like Moses before me (the line is a lot longer than that), I have showed God my resumé and demonstrated how poorly it qualifies me for the job. But dammit…God just stared at me. So I kept talking. I talked up a storm about why going to seminary only made sense if it was step towards the academy… I stammered about how I ended up doing a year of mission work in the Philippines, I’m a Polish boy from Chicago… at least let it be somewhere cold! I blathered about a nice comfortable community of people who all knew my name… all the way to the 1,000-bed hospital where I worked as a chaplain, visiting only people I had never met.

So… here is the thing. I became pretty good at talking.  

God just stared at me. Only I detect the hint of smile now and then. I get it. I really do. Now. So I talk at board meetings of a local non-profit I serve about solving homelessness. We aren’t aiming for small adjustments; I’ve been given kingdom eyes by this God who stares down injustice (and blathering recalcitrant evangelists), and we aim for justice on a cosmic scale — nothing less. I talk to legislators and politicians about mercy and the common good and defending those who are made into objects of fear over their difference, be it sexual orientation or a country of origin. Because my kingdom good news isn’t for likeminded people, it’s from and for the God who created the heavens and the earth and all that is in it. I talk to eight or nine people who read my blog… because I’m vain. But also because I think the words and the way I am wrestling with them may just help someone else wrestle well too, because nothing can grow if the seed stays in the bag. You have to scatter it if you want it to become something. So I talk. And you know what? None of this talking adds members to my church. None of it adds souls to the list of saved persons. None of this is what I might have called evangelism once upon a time (dark and dreary). But it all is.

It’s evangelism by social justice, it’s evangelism by offering an ear to listen, it’s evangelism by articulating shared hopes, it’s evangelism by repairing breached personhood.

Maybe John expected the first kind of evangelist. He begins to doubt, and in Luke 7 he sends two of his disciples to Jesus to ask if he is the one to come or if another is coming. What Jesus does then is not build “a case for Christ.” He doesn’t reason John’s disciples into belief. He doesn’t defend his messiahship. He simply points to what stands in his wake: “Those people have had their eyes open, their wounds tended, and hope restored.” (Okay he actually says, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.”)  

Jesus doesn’t convert them or try. Jesus simply points to what happens in the way he lives his life and says, “you tell me what I am.”

This is the type of evangelist we are called to be — people in whose wake walk peace, justice, and love.

I am grateful to the many voices this month that have found ways to articulate that for us. I have had more than one conversation about what it means to have a ministry of repair, thought about for whom and when I offer to pray, and how we share what problems we are trying to solve and not just talk about the stuff with which we fill our calendar. I am asking new questions and looking at new role models for what it means to be caught up in God’s story — willing and able to come and see, go and tell, and hope that all this discerning, talking, and living is creating a wake that looks something like Jesus’.  

What wake is your community making?  

What lies in the rear-view mirror of you?

The evangelical task is nothing more, and nothing less, than making that wake be goodness and mercy.

All the days of our life. Thanks be to God.

andrew kuklaAndrew Kukla is a pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho. He is a graduate from The College of William and Mary and twice from Columbia Theological Seminary because he is slow on the uptake. He is constantly taught grace, curiosity, and wonder by his wife and four children… and patience, oh so much patience. In what free time is left he serves as the President of the Board at CATCH, Inc which seeks to end homeless in Idaho for through Housing-First solutions, advocates for people as a faith-leader at the Idaho State Capitol, and is begrudging becoming a runner in the foothills of Idaho in order to be heart healthy. He blogs at incoherently at and is rarely on twitter but pretends as @awkukla.

Evangelism: An Invitation to Journey

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating reflections on being evangelical in the church. Have we connected our congregations to resurrection life? Have we taught them how to talk about it?  How to live it? How to connect others to that life-giving, life-abundant power? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Jerrod Lowry

On a beautiful spring day when the tulips are blooming, the wind is cold, and the sun is hot; on a smoldering summer day when desert winds leave everything parched and dry; even in the winter when snow has blanketed the mountains peaks and the valley floor, you can find Mormons doing evangelism. I would be shocked if there were just one day in the state of Utah that I did not see two men dressed in white shirts, black suits, and neck ties out and about doing the work of the LDS Church, evangelizing. If you don’t live in Utah, if you don’t know much about the LDS Church, if you don’t know who Joseph Smith was, if you don’t know about Maroni, chances are you will still know Mormon missionaries when you see them. Before moving to Utah, all I knew about Mormons was that they send out their young men to evangelize. So when I accepted the call to serve Community of Grace PC(USA), located in the backyard of the international headquarters for the LDS Church, I decided that I needed to prepare myself for what I imagined would be an onslaught of aggressive evangelism efforts from Mormon missionaries.

To say that evangelism is important to Mormons is a gross understatement. There are nearly 70,000 mormon missionaries doing evangelism all over the world. Most are young men. However, according to Joanna Brooks, blogger and author of “The Book of Mormon Girl,” nearly ⅓ of new Mormon missionaries are female. She credits the recent influx of young “well scrubbed, well dressed young Mormon women [missionaries]” to a rule change that allows women to do missionary service at age 19 instead of waiting until age 21. Mormons, young and old, married and single, volunteer for the chance to evangelize the world as Mormon missionaries because evangelism is important to the LDS Church.

tsr_4647_webMormon missionaries can work for up to two years and are financed with funds raised by the missionary before leaving for service. When they return a crowd gathers at the airport with banners and balloons to welcome them home and the returning missionary’s name is placed on a plaque in their local ward (congregation). Mormons do not have to do a mission, but those who do are highly honored. Since moving to Utah, I’ve experienced elementary school children speak enchantingly about when the day arrives for them to “go on their mission.” I have had high school aged kids in my congregation say they wish that we offered a similar mission experience. I have even heard of young couples who have such high regard for their mission opportunity they plan their wedding date following a return from their Mormon mission. The missionary work of evangelism is a big deal to Mormons and because they are so dominant in this state, evangelism is a big deal in this state. Where else will you turn on the local evening news and hear, as the lead story, that some tragedy has befallen those doing evangelism while on their Mormon mission?

While I certainly disagree with much of the Mormon theology and doctrine, I applaud their zeal for making evangelism such a priority for their faith community. And when some Mormon missionaries knock on my door, I’ll welcome them and tell them how impressed I am with the commitment they have made. In contrast I think evangelism is prized from afar in Christian circles. In general, we think evangelism is important and someone should do it. I will confess that I have been guilty of thinking that I do not have enough knowledge to engage someone in a question about their faith. I believe, and my beliefs make great sense to me, but how do I convince someone else to believe as I do? Regarding Christian evangelism, some have shared that their hesitation is based on the idea that faith is as a personal and private matter. Evangelism for those who feel this way seems like intruding and prying into someone else’s deeply personal space. And there’s the apathetic approach to evangelism. “What business is it of mine to question your faith,” some may wonder.

However, I wonder if we are needlessly consumed with apprehension thinking about all it may take to convince someone to believe as I do. There is nothing wrong with approaching evangelism as a tool that grows the Kingdom of God or a particular congregation. Evangelism is often seen as the necessary work toward larger worship attendance or church membership. And if all of our exhaustive evangelism efforts lead to increased numbers, then we believe we have successfully done the work of evangelism.

But what if we reframed evangelism to simply be the invitation? What if evangelism is not about whether they accept the invitation, but simply defined as the offering of the invitation? What if evangelism is not about church membership, worship numbers, or making someone believe as I do? I wonder if it would be helpful to think about evangelism as just the invitation and not even the conversation that takes place after the invitation is offered. What if evangelism is simply the invitation to walk with me, talk with me, wrestle with me, join me on my journey of faith?

If evangelism is simply the extended invitation, then, I imagine the Samaritan woman at the well would be an excellent example of an evangelist. After her encounter with Jesus, she runs to her hometown with an invitation. “Come meet the man who has told me all about myself,” she says. She does not go into much detail. She does not tell them what this man has revealed to her about herself. She does not argue with people about why they should stop doing what they are doing to accept her invitation. She does not tell people they would be wrong if they did not accept her invitation. She does not say they have to believe as she does. She simply offers an invitation to “come and see.” Many accept her invitation and walk with her despite what they think about her. Nevertheless she extends an invitation that places her and the town’s people, who may think little of her, on a journey together. It’s no coincidence that Rev. Clinton Marsh, moderator of the United Presbyterian Church in the USA (UPCUSA) in 1973, would use this same story as the foundation for his book “Evangelism is…”. This Samaritan woman is a powerful and successful evangelist because she invites an entire town to journey with her.

If evangelism is the invitation, then we must also consider Jesus’ invitation to the disciples as evangelism. He invites them to drop their nets and follow him on a journey. Everything that happens after the invitation is extended could be considered faith formation or discipleship making, if evangelism is just the invitation. And we even have an example of Jesus’ efforts at evangelism being rebuffed by the “rich young ruler” who passes on the invitation. Nevertheless, the invitation was extended an evangelism success.

If evangelism is the invitation to join me on a journey, then we will surely experience acceptance and rejection as Jesus did. Reframing the definition of evangelism does not protect us from rejection. Reframing the definition of evangelism, however, means that success is solely in our hands as the ones extending the invitation. All I have to do is be bold enough to be vulnerable as I invite someone to walk with me, talk with me, wrestle with me, join me on my journey of faith. This also means I do not have to be as concerned with what I know or do not know. I am actually free to confess that I do not know everything. I am free to admit that I struggle to believe certain things and it may very well be that as we walk together and talk together that we both begin to understand and see clearly what I could not see before. If I am offering you an invitation, I do not have to be your teaching tour guide on this journey, we are cotravellers.

As I wrestle with this definition of evangelism, I invite you to join me. An altered definition of evangelism sounds like it would be more appealing to our modern selfish individualism. It could appeal to us as inviters but also empower those invited. It would also mean we need to redefine and be more intentional about how we walk together and wrestle over matters without being contentious. And I’ll admit there are things about this definition of evangelism that I do not like. Join me. Let’s talk about it. If evangelism is more than an invitation to walk together, it at least begins with this simple yet tricky step. And if evangelism is the invitation, then it coincides with the long held understanding that evangelism is our first intentional step on a lengthy faith journey. A journey, the African Ancestors remind us, we must walk together because we have far to go.

JBL bio pict 1Jerrod B. Lowry, a Teaching Elder in the Presbytery of Utah, pastors Community of Grace Presbyterian Church in Sandy. He hails from Augusta, GA. Before coming to his current church, Jerrod was the pastor of Saint Paul Presbyterian Church in Louisburg, NC and the Associate for Specialized Ministries for the Presbytery of New Hope. Jerrod is a proud graduate of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, GA.

You Better Tell Somebody!

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating reflections on being evangelical in the church. Have we connected our congregations to resurrection life? Have we taught them how to talk about it?  How to live it? How to connect others to that life-giving, life-abundant power? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Byron Wade

Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, my mother would take me and my two brothers to get haircuts occasionally. We always went to Scottie’s Barbershop, which was owned by Scottie and his brother who was also a barber. Both of them were Jehovah’s Witnesses and from the time you got in the chair until the time you left, all Scottie would do is talk non-stop about Jehovah while cutting your hair. Scottie never proselytized to me but always spoke about how good and awesome Jehovah is and what a difference he made in his own life. Plus, he seemed so happy doing it! I never came close to leaving the Presbyterian Church but his witness was so strong that I still remember it after all these years.

davie-stAs Presbyterians, we are known for a lot of things and evangelism is not one of them. Let’s face it – calling ourselves the “frozen chosen” is not a sure-fire way to get people interested in coming to our churches, much less developing a relationship with Jesus Christ. However, I believe that we have a God who is the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of the entire world and through the Holy Spirit we can tell others of what God has done, is doing, and will do in our lives. So how do we go about sharing the story of Christ? Drawing on my personal and communal experiences, I will share a few tidbits:

It starts with YOU – My homiletics professor in seminary always told us if you don’t have passion and excitement about what you are preaching, chances are the congregation will not either. It is the same way with evangelism – you have to have and convey excitement and joy in witnessing to other about Jesus Christ. We may begin by asking ourselves, “what do I believe about Jesus?”, “what is my relationship with Christ?” and “how can I tell others what God has done for me?”

…but not by yourself – Rev. Clinton Marsh, in his book, Evangelism Is…, says “Evangelism is the work of the entire people of God.” Our faith is not formed alone in a vacuum; it is formed by belonging, listening, and learning with others through the Holy Spirit in the community of faith as well. Evangelism is done differently in various ways. Some churches have evangelism committees; others commission individual church leaders for that responsibility. At Davie Street, we believe everyone has a story to share about their faith with others. Specifically, we engage the congregation during our Tuesday midday prayer studies and monthly family night dinners. In both events, members and invited guests discuss current events/issues such as justice, racism, immigration, gun violence, and others in light of what scripture says (or doesn’t say). In most cases participants have a better understanding of the issue and what “says the Lord” so when they go out into the world and encounter others, they can converse and share their faith through stories and examples. This is just one method, but whatever you do, make sure volunteers undergo some evangelism training to help them be able to share their faith in a way that is inviting and non-threatening.

Cast a wide net – In many places, communities and ways are life have changed. We are living in an increasingly diverse world, not to mention one that is moving at a faster and faster pace. This could cause challenges to evangelism as we come in contact with people, cultures and lifestyles to which we are unaccustomed. However the time is ripe to spread the Gospel of Christ. Evangelism today will move us into sharing faith with people who have a different faith or no faith, various races, ethnicities and sexual orientations, and those who have limited time and interest. But your story – and THE story – is still the same.

In the African-American religious and social tradition, we have a saying, “You better tell somebody!” My hope is you will have the faith and confidence to tell somebody the story of who Jesus is, what he has done for you, and how others can find this living water. Amen.

IMG_4166 (1)Byron Wade (@bawade) is the pastor of Davie Street Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, NC. A transplant by way of Southern California, he loves football (specifically college football), watching track and field meets, and travelling. He lives in Garner, NC with his wife Regina and teenage son Andrew, and blogs at  “The Word from B” –

Book Review: Earning Innocence

Earning Innocence by Andrew Taylor-Troutman
Resource Publications (an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers), 2015
Reviewed by Carol Ferguson

614dgwywrgL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_In his first novel, Earning Innocence, Andrew Taylor-Troutman gives the reader entrance to the mind of Rev. James Wheeler, a mind both precise in its renderings of the everyday and aware to the indwelling of the transcendent. Wheeler, a husband, father, and Moravian pastor, takes to the page to record his life, but more than that, to order, disorder, and reorder it again. Taylor-Troutman’s narrative is thick with the study of memory. Though the story is contained in just eight late summer days, Wheeler moves through the crash and eddy of a lifetime of memories, finding meaning in the way old stories slap up against the new ones.  Many of the events of Earning Innocence are familiar and ordinary—celebrating an anniversary, taking a dog for a walk, writing a sermon, eating a family dinner—yet in Taylor-Troutman’s hands they become windows into the faith that transforms ordinary into breathtakingly holy.

Throughout, Taylor-Troutman taunts with stories that might become The Conflict—an accident, a death, a combative son. Yet as soon as each rises, it slides away again, taking its place in the realm of memory, painful but past. In the end, Wheeler’s struggle is not with The Moment that Changes Everything, but with The Moment that Shouldn’t Have Changed Anything At All—an admission by his oldest son. The book concludes with a deep sense of hope, however, that the breach between them can be repaired, and that the innocence of a father’s love for his son can be re-earned.

Taylor-Troutman has created a true community on the page, and I find I want to be a part of it again. I am glad he intends to revisit these characters in another novel.

Wheeler’s mantra is this: “so much of prayer is a calling to mind.” In Earning Innocence, Taylor-Troutman calls to our minds the limping blessings of family and faith. If a book can be a prayer, this one certainly is. I found myself whispering Amen as I closed it.

Carol Ferguson is a native of Salem, VA, a proud graduate of Sweet Briar College, and a final-level MDiv student at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA. A candidate for ordination in the Presbytery of the Peaks, she is currently seeking her first call to pastoral ministry.

Activism vs. Organizing

On Fridays, we are posting entries for a weekly blog journey by Angela Williams, our Young Adult Volunteer, of the day-to-day work to organize and create positive social change in her community. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Angela Williams

Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in two direct actions, one focused on the federal government and the other directed toward local transportation authorities.

Planting the Seeds of Action

angela-dem-springFor the federal action, I first received news regarding the plans for massive acts of civil disobedience via email a few weeks beforehand. Democracy Spring was a 16-day action that began with an 8-day march from Philadelphia to Washington, DC, and culminated in 8 days of sit-ins at the US Capitol building in the name of getting big money out of politics.

When I originally received the emails, I thought about what brought me to DC. I first felt the call to activism, advocacy, and community organizing when I attended a memorial service and march of 20,000 people protesting the Philippine government’s response to Typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan. That day I felt God calling me back to my home country where I could use my voice to create positive social change. When the #BlackLivesMatter movement was marching in Baltimore, Ferguson, Chicago, and New York, I longed to stand in solidarity with people who have historically, and presently, experienced systemic discrimination. I have lived in Washington, DC, for seven months and participated in zero protests, demonstrations, or marches. Plus, the kickoff for the week of sit-ins was on Monday, April 11, my day off. I could totally make it work.

Within an hour of signing up, I received a phone call from a Democracy Spring organizer checking in to see if I had any questions and asking me if I was willing to risk arrest. Well that was not on my to-do list, but I considered it. In talking to my parents, my YAV community, my supervisors, and my site coordinator, I pondered a few questions. What would be the consequences of getting arrested? Would there be legal support? Would I actually go to jail? Would this go on my permanent record? Could I get a job with this on my record? How long would I be detained? What would that say about my privilege to be arrested and detained without experiencing police brutality and misconduct? As a YAV working with NEXT Church and New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, how would I be representing those organizations? Is ending government corruption and getting money out of politics the issue for which I want to be arrested? Is this the best way to use my time, body, and voice? Will my arrest actually accomplish anything?

After talking to the parties listed above and some faith leaders who have been arrested, I discerned that this was not my time to risk arrest. Another deciding factor was the fact that I was planning another action with WIN that was scheduled for the evening of Monday, April 11. I couldn’t quite organize my own action if I were sitting in a holding cell somewhere in the Capitol.

The Local Context

One of WIN’s campaigns has focused on safe transportation and fair wages for transportation operators. The DC Circulator is a bus line in DC that is funded by DC tax dollars but outsourced to a private multinational transit corporation. Even though DC Circulator operators do the same jobs as the Metrobus operators, the public bus company in the District, Circulator operators receive on average $8.22 less per hour than Metrobus operators. Additionally, a maintenance audit released in April showed that 95% of buses on the road had enough safety defects that they should not be in service. So what do we do with this information? As a WIN leader at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, I talked to members interested in WIN and young adults about the issue and encouraged them to take action. The plan was to meet and listen to Circulator operators themselves about the situation and then hop on a bus to tell passengers what we heard.

Who is in the Room?

Before I could participate in an act of civil disobedience at the Capitol, I had to attend a nonviolent action training. People from all over the country had traveled by train, plane, automobile, and foot to take a stand against big money in politics. Washington, DC, is one of the most diverse cities in the country and definitely the most diverse place I have ever lived in the US, so it struck me that the training room was predominantly filled with white people. I would venture to say that the vast majority of them support Senator Bernie Sanders for president. This anti-corruption movement had billed itself as a non-partisan action that brought liberals and conservatives of every background together, but that was not who I saw in the room. It was telling of who is able to drop everything to travel across the country and risk an arrest record in an effort to reverse Citizens United, end super PACS, and enact campaign finance reform. On the day of the action, it was difficult for me to be fully present and passionate about this issue because, based on my research, the five bills that Democracy Spring wants Congress to pass have 0-1% chance of becoming law. When we chanted, “I believe that we will win!” I was not convinced that we would win. What would winning even look like?

angela-parachuteMonday afternoon I helped to carry a parachute bearing the words “Democracy Spring: Protect Voting Rights,” and we approached the Capitol plaza, marching up to the steps where members of the Capitol Police Department were waiting for us. After ten minutes and two warnings, I had to move or risk being arrested. The police officers herded us back across the plaza so that about 150 feet stood between the group legally protesting and the group sitting in risking arrest. Those first moments of movement were the most tense with protesters chanting, singing, and even yelling at the police. I wondered why some were yelling at the police rather than trying to start a dialogue with them. I realized that organizing had ruined me for activism.

Organizing Basics

The root of community organizing is the relational meeting, one on one conversations with leaders and individuals in churches, neighborhoods, government, unions, and other institutions, in order to learn what drives people, where their self-interest or deepest passion lies. Thinking theologically, Roger Gench describes relational meetings as opportunities to encounter the risen Christ in our fellow humans. Organizing is a pragmatic alternative to yelling in the streets outside of a building where no one is listening. An organizing strategy would be to engage directly with those in power to act on your issue, learn their self-interest (it is in the interest of most politicians to be re-elected), and plan a campaign to build the power you need to create change around that issue that you care about.

Confrontation or Conversation?

Back at the Democracy Spring event, I stood in the sun for five hours, waiting for Capitol Police to arrest each of the 400 people who continued to sit in. During that time, I was able to have a pleasant conversation with one of the officers standing on the front line between the groups of demonstrators. From what I observed, all officers acted professionally and responsibly with both groups, for which I am extremely grateful.

Faith on the Bus

Eventually, I had to make my way back to church to meet my WIN action folks for our local action. Our group of seven concerned citizens, organizers, and Circulator operators discussed the issues that the operators face and learned the relevant facts. Then we took to the buses. During our rides, we talked to every passenger on our respective bus. About 25 people sent tweets and left messages for the DC Department of Transportation, holding them accountable for the safety of the buses and fair wages for the operators. While it was a much smaller action, the goal was clear, and success is much more probable since the operators are organized and currently in negotiations with the contracted company regarding bus safety and operator wages.

While I do not doubt that the organizers of Democracy Spring used relational meetings to set up the logistics of the action, it was clear that the marchers were a group of individuals who may not have had any connection to an institution that was working with Democracy Spring. For the WIN action, each person was connected to a member institution of WIN (New York Avenue PC and Amalgamated Transit Union). As leaders and organizers, we had to establish relationships with everyone at the action before we came together to tell others about the DC Circulator. Since the WIN action was focused on a local issue, it was easier to build a sense of community amongst everyone who showed up for the Circulator without needing a large social media presence. For me, the intimate setting and great efficacy of the WIN action was more of a win for me than sitting in at the Capitol with Democracy Spring. Our society probably needs both symbolic activism and long-game community organizing efforts to create the change we want to see.

In my heart and mind, organizing has won over activism.

AngelaWilliams270Angela Williams is currently walking alongside the good folks at NEXT Church and New York Avenue Presbyterian Church as a Young Adult Volunteer in Washington, D.C., after serving a first YAV year in the Philippines. She finds life in experiencing music, community organizing, cooking any recipe she can find, making friends on the street, and theological discussions that go off the beaten path.

Tell Me Something Good

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating reflections on being evangelical in the church. Have we connected our congregations to resurrection life? Have we taught them how to talk about it?  How to live it? How to connect others to that life-giving, life-abundant power? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Louise Westfall

Tell me something good, tell me, tell me, tell me. . . . . The Stevie Wonder lyrics have always reminded me that sometimes you have to use words to express feelings, values, meaning to another person. In our commitment to demonstrate the transforming love of God, we Presbyterians often forget to use our words to tell others something so good it changes everything. We’ve resisted reducing the breathtaking power of the gospel into a formula or four-step process. But as one preacher put it, “There may be many routes to the train station, but would you please tell me one?!”

tsr_5683_webTelling the story has prompted us at Central Presbyterian Church in downtown Denver to develop the spiritual practice of “witness.” For now, it’s an element in our traditional Sunday morning worship service, but it’s served to broaden our vision as well as sharpen our skills.  

A witness is a short (4-5 minute) testimony by a member, mission partner, or visitor with one primary purpose: to describe what God is doing in their lives. We’ve long had “mission moments” that described some ministry or initiative, ending with an invitation to contribute, get involved, or learn more. The focus was on information and persuasion. Nothing wrong with that, except it mostly felt like an “advertisement” for something the church thought you should be doing. For visitors and newcomers in particular, these announcements were filled with insider jargon and church-speak. I once heard a mission moment that used the acronym OGHS throughout, never once sharing the powerful impact of the One Great Hour of Sharing offering!

Because witnessing is different, we developed a simple template to help tell the story around responses to three questions: What is God doing in your life? How is God’s love demonstrated in this ministry? How has this ministry made a difference to you? I thought people might be uncomfortable with this personal approach and truth be told, some claim it more readily than others. Yet people long to experience God in daily life, and these witnesses make those experiences accessible.  

In a witness during the annual stewardship campaign, a woman spoke frankly about her husband’s job loss and their financial difficulties and the intentional decision they made to pledge nonetheless. “God has been there for us through every hard time; we want to share so that others remember that God will be there for them too.” A couple told of their gratitude for prayers, visits, meals and child care when their youngest son was diagnosed with a rare blood cancer. Though their son is in remission, the force of their witness came from their experience of God’s presence amid the terrifying diagnosis and debilitating treatments.  

Occasionally, members hesitate because they’re afraid to show tears or vulnerability. Several times, we’ve videotaped their witness and shown it in the service. John, for example, had served a long prison sentence for theft before he came to us through our transitional housing ministry. He described how he found Christ while in prison and wanted to share his transformation with the congregation that had been a friend to him as he struggled to reintegrate into society. His video witness, shown during worship moved the congregation deeply, and spiked contributions to the housing ministry (even without asking!). Exposing human vulnerability isn’t easy for any of us, but we’re learning that we’re safe in the company of God’s people. People receive our tears, our brokenness, even our regrettable decisions, with acceptance and kindness. That itself becomes a powerful witness to members and visitors alike.

Tell me something good. . . . tell me that you love me. . . . A witness is a love song, a way of telling others that the very heart of the universe is love. Why would we keep that a secret?  

The beauty of witnessing is that it becomes an expression of the variety of ways and means God’s love comes to us.             

Louise head shotLouise Westfall is pastor/head of staff of Central Presbyterian Church (@centralpresden) in downtown Denver, Colorado, one of the top five destinations for millennials (though not her son.  Yet.). Even after three decades of ministry in diverse settings, she believes congregations are the very best communities of transformation. An ardent church choir member and whistler, Louise enjoys making a joyful noise unto the Lord.  

Evangelism as Repair

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating reflections on being evangelical in the church. Have we connected our congregations to resurrection life? Have we taught them how to talk about it?  How to live it? How to connect others to that life-giving, life-abundant power? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Laura Cheifetz

When evangelical is used as an adjective not pertaining to religion or politics, I can identify with it. I can be very evangelical about certain things: eating, sticking to one airline as a frequent flyer, reading books of all sorts, the superiority of the Pacific Northwest, the business model of Costco, the existence of progressive southerners, adopting/rescuing dogs instead of buying from pet stores or unlicensed breeders, giving kids a lot of chances to figure life out, not wearing shoes inside the house… you get the idea.

tsr_4366_webWhen evangelical is used in terms of religion in the U.S., I often want to walk in the other direction.

I get that we are called to be evangelical. We are graced with the gift of having such good news to share. We love a God who loves us and all creation. We follow a Christ who challenges us daily in our lives and faith. We are sustained by a pesky Holy Spirit who will not let us off the hook. We are gifted with imperfectly beloved faith communities. Faith is not what makes life easy. It is what makes life (mostly) bearable. The delight and beauty I find in my faith, and the determination it gives me to face hard days (or weeks, or years) with gritted teeth and fierce love for my fellow travelers on the journey, is very good news.

But throughout my childhood, the evangelicals surrounding me were not sharing good news. They were narrow-minded, judgmental, anti-science, anti-woman, and supremely self-righteous. For a mainline Protestant double pastors’ kid who was pro-science, feminist, and eager to experience as much as possible, this was an incompatible worldview.

I will be eternally grateful for my first call: a position working with Asian American young adults and pastors, which necessitated I work with evangelicals. It was my first sustained exposure to evangelicals who are people of color, and I was able to see how many evangelicals did not align with the stereotypes I carried based on the experience I had growing up.

We are all evangelists, whether or not we like it. Whatever we are committed to, with words or actions, will be the news we share. Some people are evangelicals for a political cause. Some people are evangelicals for a brand (loyalists to a company named for a fruit, or adherents to a form of exercise that takes place in a “box,” I’m looking at you).

What is our evangelism?

We Christians are called to evangelize, but too many of us have been implicated in creation-destroying materialistic consumption borne of prosperity and dominion theology, war, conquest, colonialism, genocide, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny and sexism, and racism. We aren’t equipped to share good news without grappling honestly with the death-dealing legacies of Christians.

What is our evangelism if we are not always repenting for and seeking repair of the damage due to all the terrible things Christians have espoused throughout the years? I’m sure it’s possible to ask this question of people of other religions, but sin is not relative. It is ours to reckon with.

Not every Christian shares equally in this legacy, of course. Many Christian churches and traditions, even in the U.S., exist in defiance of racism, colonialism, homophobia, or misogyny, with a bias toward liberation. But most of us have, at some point, participated in a faith tradition that has been translated into not-so-good-news.

Evangelism requires us to live in dissonance: proclaiming good news while being humble enough to work to repair the damage done by violent, triumphalist, intolerant twistings of the gospel.

The news is so very beautiful, and the damage is great. This is our space for proclamation. Will you sit in it with me?

Laura CheifetzLaura Mariko Cheifetz serves as Vice President of Church & Public Relations and editor of These Days at the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. She has served with the Forum for Theological Exploration and at McCormick Theological Seminary. She grew up a double pastors’ kid in the Pacific Northwest and holds an MBA from North Park University and an MDiv from McCormick Theological Seminary. For fun, she watches television, reads fiction, delves into post-colonial feminism and critical race theory, and rages against the system of which, she is clear, she is a part. Laura blogs very occasionally at and tweets at @lmcheifetz . 

Understanding the “Good News”

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating reflections on being evangelical in the church. Have we connected our congregations to resurrection life? Have we taught them how to talk about it?  How to live it? How to connect others to that life-giving, life-abundant power? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Katherine Kussmaul

The Jesus I encounter in Scripture is relational, personal and engages in one-on-one (or small group) interactions in which “Good News” is embodied, experienced and then shared with others. Evangelism, as I experience it in Scripture, begins as an internal experience and becomes an external experience as individuals narrate their own experience of “Good News.”  We must experience “Good News” in a meaningful, intimate way. We must first understand “Good News” through personal experience. And then we can begin the relational process of evangelism: sharing the “Good News” with others.

tsr_4405_webWho are we? We are private, hidden people. We are individualistic, cautionary and afraid. We juggle the balls of “Who knows what?” “Who is trustworthy?” “What can I say?” and “What would THEY do if they knew I…..?”  And in doing this, we fabricate an artificial assurance, a false pretense that proclaims invincible strength, fierce individualism, water-tight certainty and wide-open authenticity while also denying a fundamental truth: we are fragile, we need each other, we exist in ambiguity (life is ambiguous; not everything is decent and very little is in-order) and we live in fear that who we are is not okay, not acceptable, not enough. A fundamental truth that, when acknowledged and addressed, can lead to more genuine living and authentic evangelism (sharing “Good News”) that really does make a difference.

We toss around the phrase “Good News.” We charge each other to “spread the Good News” but I believe we do not know what this “Good News” actually is. We, as an institution, do everything in our power not to define “Good News” – to keep “Good News” impersonal and distant. We buy into a system that thrives on vague generalities when Jesus models particular encounters. We reinforce and extend a system that leans on ambiguity when Jesus teaches authentic living marked by genuine relationships.

So either we have not experienced “Good News” or we have, but are super-saturated in ecclesial privacy messages: “Don’t talk about it”, “Don’t boast about it”, or more likely “Don’t push the church to endorse ‘Good News’ because the church is not ready to embrace what ‘Good News’ requires.” We keep “Good News” EXTERNAL – vaguely defined and vitally important but detached from our actual lives. Using the words “Good News” keeps us comfortable but ultimately the words become empty “church words” that further distance the church from the people with whom we long to connect.

So what IS “Good News”? “Good News” is connected to God’s love, commitment and promise: God’s love which accepts and cherishes us exactly as we are, God’s commitment to keep “breaking into our tombs” (think about what God does in John 20:19 – coming into a locked room to stand among the disciples), and God’s promise to stick with us: no matter where, no matter when, no matter what. THIS is Good News. And THIS Good News must be something we “get” deep in our heart, at a gut level – it must be INTERNAL.

So what should/could we, as denominational leaders, as women and men seeking to share Good News actually do? We have to STOP being denominational and institutional leaders. We have to START reclaiming our core identity as children of God: women, men, youth, children created in the image of God. We have to be authentic, genuine and honest. We have to be vulnerable enough – with ourselves and a handful of carefully selected others – to acknowledge the masked and hidden areas of our own lives: addiction (to substances, behaviors, control/power, even work), abuse (physical, sexual, mental, emotional, financial), eating disorders, anxiety, depression (relational, situational, post-partum, as part of bi-polar), invisible medical conditions, infertility, pregnancy loss, PTSD, estrangement, relational malaise, sexual orientation, gender identity, difficult relationships, infidelity, betrayal, job insecurity, professional doubt, this list goes on and on…

Having acknowledged these areas, we need to open ourselves to a complete, genuine, integrated experience of Good News – a deep-down experience in which we come face-to-face with the reality that God loves US exactly as we are (un-masked, no-longer-hidden and fully-revealed), God “breaks in” to be with US in our sealed-off tombs and God sticks with US: no matter where, no matter when, no matter what.

We need to have that INTERNAL experience. We need to take risks, be authentic, look into our shadows and face into our fear, shame and embarrassment. This is how we come to understand Good News. With that internal, gut-level understanding, we can then identify appropriate ways to talk about that experience, acknowledge these aspects of our core selves and share the Good News that “God loves me – even the ‘me’ I hide.”

And then we have to start creating spaces in which we, as communities, begin to cultivate and share these embodied Good News experiences, in which we talk less about abundant life and more about authentic life, in which we proclaim Good News that really matters, that changes lives, that focuses less on our institution and more on God’s incarnation which ultimately reveals one thing: God’s unconditional love for all creation, for all people – for you and me – exactly as (and who) we are.

Thanks be to God.

katherine kussmaulKatherine is the pastor of Saint Giles Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. Prior to this call, she has served congregations in Urbana, Illinois, Cary, North Carolina and Leeds, England. She enjoys preaching, teaching, pastoral care and opportunities to nurture spiritual development through conversation and reflection. She lives on the grounds of a plant nursery where she kills her own plants, cheers for her Pittsburgh Steelers and spends huge chunks of every day with her pup, Dibley.

Asking Better Questions

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating reflections on being evangelical in the church. Have we connected our congregations to resurrection life? Have we taught them how to talk about it?  How to live it? How to connect others to that life-giving, life-abundant power? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by John Vest

Whenever I give a talk or lead a workshop on evangelism I begin with the same exercise. I give people a minute or less to write down a 2-3 sentence answer to this question: What is the gospel? This usually catches them off guard, but I don’t stop there. I go on to ask them to find a partner and read to each other what they wrote. After they squirm around in their seats and chat uncomfortably for a bit—and there are usually a handful of people who refuse to do this exercise altogether—I make a blunt statement: if this is hard for you, especially if you are a church leader, we have a problem.

john vest evangSophisticated, well-educated Presbyterians tend to think that the gospel is too complex to reduce to a mere two or three sentences. We’ll spend thirty minutes on caveats and qualifications before we dare say something simple and straightforward about what God is doing in the world through Jesus Christ. We’ll tweak our language and nitpick details. We’ll offer substitute motions to substitute motions before calling the question, before answering the question: what is the good news?

And when Presbyterians finally get around to answering this question, it often comes in the form of theological statements, sets of core beliefs, doctrines, dogmas, or confessions. This is the language we speak. But it might not be the language the world needs most right now.

Implicitly or explicitly, the faith question Presbyterians most ask each other is this: What do you believe? It’s the basic question behind our Sunday School learning outcomes, our lists of things we want children to know before confirmation. It’s the question we ask confirmands as they present statements of faith and publically profess that Jesus Christ is their Lord and Savior. It’s the question in worship that prompts our recitation of the Apostles Creed or some other affirmation of faith. It’s what we ask candidates for ordination. It’s the reason that half of our constitution is a book of confessions.

But a better question is this: How do you know God is real?

In response, many people will say that we can’t really know God is real. There’s no way to prove it. We just have to believe. It’s why we call it faith.

I don’t think this is a satisfactory answer. Faith isn’t about believing an unbelievable story. It isn’t about believing something that can’t be proven. If that’s all it is, why choose one unbelievable story over any other unbelievable story? After all, every religion—and most non-religions—tell unbelievable stories.

Mature faith and transformative spirituality is rooted in experience. Evangelism is the art articulating that experience in compelling ways that just might resonate with other people.

To encourage this kind of faith-talk, we need to ask each other better questions than we are used to. Instead of “What do you believe?” or even “What is the gospel?” we need questions like these:

  • How have you experienced God’s presence in your life?
  • Where do you see God in the world?
  • What difference does following Jesus make in your life?

In the Unbinding the Gospel series, Martha Grace Reece notes that people who do evangelism well—regardless of theological orientation—have more complete, integrated, and faster answers to questions like these. Yet for many of us, these are difficult questions to answer. This is probably not the way were raised or trained to talk about faith.

Before we can ever say what evangelism is and how we ought to do it, before we develop strategic plans and programs, before we have any chance of successfully reaching out to new people, we need to learn—or relearn—how to talk about faith in meaningful ways with each other. We need to be evangelized by each other. We need to understand what’s at stake in the world and in our lives and how the gospel addresses these needs. We need to be able to articulate why Jesus matters.

This isn’t just head work. This isn’t simply a matter of getting our theology or our polity right. The gospel isn’t a doctrine to believe or an ethic to follow. It has to be more than that. It has to be a spiritual transformation grounded in experiences of the living God. Within our churches, this will require a significant culture change. Perhaps we might even be bold enough to call it an awakening—or a revival.

vest picJohn W. Vest is the Visiting Assistant Professor of Evangelism at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. You can learn about his various ministry activities at and connect with him on Facebook and Twitter. An enthusiastic pitmaster, John dreams of one day achieving the mystical union of church and BBQ.