Organizing in Esther

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Linda Kurtz are curating a series written by participants in the first-ever Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on the theology of power and how organizing has impacted the way they do ministry. How might you incorporate these principles of organizing into your own work? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Angela Williams

A sermon preached at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Scripture: Esther 3:12-4:17.

To the king’s satraps, to the governors over all the provinces, to the officials of all the peoples, to every province, and to every people: I hereby order you to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day…and to plunder their goods.

What would you do if you heard this message? How would you respond?

No, these words do not come from Hitler’s regime during World War II, but they do come from the Bible (Esther 3). But the question remains, how do you respond? What do you say when such a decree is proclaimed in your community? How do you respond when a city enacts a “stop and frisk” policy? What do you say when your state legislature passes a “show your papers” bill? How do you respond when a state wants to legislate the bathrooms people can use?

The text tells us that Mordecai, a Jew living in exile in Persia, responds by tearing his clothes, putting on sackcloth and ashes, going through the city, wailing with a loud, bitter cry all the way to the king’s gate. And he is not alone.

There was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping and lamenting. The targeted and oppressed people took their communal lament to the streets, disrupting the law and order of the empire.

They were activists. Perhaps you’ve heard their lamenting today in the chants of “Black lives matter!” or “Water is life!” or “No human is illegal!” or “Love is love!” or “No ban, no wall!” or “Enough is enough!”

I invite you to read this story of Esther through the lens of activism and community organizing. Activism is when people with loose relationships and shared ideals gather in a vigil or march against an idea or person who is not physically present. Activists try to shift public opinion and absolutely have a place in the public sphere. The work of activists can create an atmosphere where it is easier for organizers to create change. Community organizing, on the other hand, builds long-term relationships with people and organizations. It uses specific tactics to create change with powerful people at the table. Organizers build power to create a desired change.

Back in Esther, the Jews’ chants sounded in the king’s court. There, Queen Esther heard about her uncle Mordecai in his sackcloth and ashes publicly mourning at the gates. This distressed her, and she, with the best of intentions, wanted to fix the problem. Clearly, Mordecai just needed more clothes. Then he could stop causing such a ruckus. Then he could keep his respectable reputation. Then the queen would not be embarrassed by his antics.

When Mordecai refused the clothes, the queen sent someone to learn more about the situation. Hatach, the assistant, came down from the queen’s quarters to the open square outside the gate to deal with Mordecai. Mordecai told him exactly how Haman bribed the king for the edict condemning the Jews; he gave him a copy of the executive order. He beseeched Hatach to show it to Esther, the foreigner who was married to the most powerful man in the country.

In this moment, Mordecai shifts from being an activist in the streets to being a community organizer working to create change for his people. Reading the story of Esther through a hermeneutic of community organizing, it becomes clear that principles of organizing are also biblical themes.

Community organizing is people and money coming together in relationship to change the world as it is closer to the world as it should be. Theologically, we can say that the world as it should be is the kingdom of heaven flourishing on earth. Organizers work to build power. Notice the similarities between the English word power and the Spanish verb poder, to do. Power is the ability to do, and building power involves organized people and organized money. Organizers start by building relationships. They know that in the world as it is, everyone acts in their own self-interest, and that is ok. By tapping into folks’ self-interest, organizers build to a specific action with the goal of getting a particular reaction. They agitate and create tension in order to get that reaction. Through each action the moral arc of the universe bends just a bit closer to justice.

In the Jewish community, Queen Esther clearly has the most power to change the king’s decree. She has access to organized money and organized people in the court, and she can create change. Mordecai has a relationship with Esther. He asks her to leverage her relationship with the king to save the lives of her people. At first, Esther is resistant to Mordecai’s request. Anyone who goes in to see the king without an invitation will be killed. It is not in her self-interest to approach the king. Mordecai does not accept this and agitates her. He pushes back to create tension.

Mordecai identifies what is really at stake. Up to this point, Esther has kept her Jewish heritage a secret. The Persian king is only supposed to marry virginal women from prominent Persian families. If her secret is revealed, she will be killed for her deceit and due to the genocidal decree. But her silence means violence for her community.

If death is inevitable for Esther, why not at least die trying to make the world better for her people? Perhaps she has come to royal dignity for such a time as this.

Eventually, Esther acknowledges and accepts her identity as a Jewish woman who has the power in the palace to change the situation for her people. She recognizes that her self-interest is to keep her life and help to save her people from genocide.

Still, she cannot do this work by herself. Queen Esther needs a broad base of support. The community prepares themselves spiritually by fasting for three days and nights. The community includes not only the Jews in Susa but also Esther’s maids, who most likely were not Jewish, making it an interfaith community. Esther needs the support of organized people from many different places in order to successfully run the action on the king, which saves her people from destruction.

As the story continues, Esther confronts the king and corners Haman in his malicious plot. Esther, an orphan Jewish woman living in exile rises up to become Queen of Persia, exposes a corrupt plot to commit genocide, convinces the king to reverse his royal decree, and saves the Jews.

Let’s return to the question posed above. What will you do? How will you respond? Will you be an activist in the streets calling attention to injustice? Will you be a silent bystander in the Empire? Or will you organize to move the world as it is closer to the world as it should be? How is God calling you to act in your community?


Angela Williams is training to be a community organizer and a pastor at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, TX. She finds life in experiencing music, listening to podcasts, and exploring creation.

Using Power to Make a Difference

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Linda Kurtz are curating a series written by participants in the first-ever Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on the theology of power and how organizing has impacted the way they do ministry. How might you incorporate these principles of organizing into your own work? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Paula Whitacre

“From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”
– Luke 12:48b

I am a recent graduate of Lancaster Theological Seminary (MDiv, 2017). LTS is a progressive, United Church of Christ seminary which affirms and actively supports its diverse community of students.

My senior sermon was scheduled for Wednesday November 9, 2016, the day after the last presidential election. I thought that I had prepared a sermon that was an invitation to reconciliation, flexible enough that regardless of who won the election, the sermon would be relevant. I was wrong. Wednesday morning, I woke to a campus full of crying and scared men and women who, in that moment, felt hugely disempowered and vulnerable, fearful of what the future would bring for them, their family, and their friends. My sermon quickly changed from an invitation to reconciliation to a pastoral call to unity, determination, and hope in this unexpected reality.

That morning I was “woke.” In our modern vernacular a definition of woke might be a reference to how folks should be aware of current events in our society, especially as it pertains to the influence and use of power over people who are disenfranchised and marginalized. I wondered how I might use my white privilege, seminary education, and burning desire to make a difference in these days and weeks to come.

The language of power and the skills learned in the Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership certificate program has enlarged my understanding of not only the mechanics of power but that the crossroads of church community and the larger community has greater potential then I imagined.

One definition of power might be the ability to dictate norms, and create and enforce narratives in any given space. The opportunity to manipulate people, situations, and circumstances can bring out the best in some folks and the worst in others. Power in and of itself is neutral. The heart and ethics of the one wielding it will determine how that power is expressed and perceived by others.

Power may also be defined as the ability to organize people and organize money for specific purposes. The organizing of a diverse group of people for specific goals or long-term synergy is intentional and relational. It requires months, perhaps years, of face-to-face meetings between individuals or groups of individuals to find and articulate communal goals and paths to meet those goals. The ability to raise money in support of these goals, independent of grants or corporate streams, allows the group to maintain its independence and become a force to be reckoned with in local, county, and state agencies.

I believe Jesus’ words sit well within the context of community organizing, which is the local community coming together which forms an organization that acts in its common self-interest. It is identifying and training leaders as well as mobilizing people to take action towards a common self-interest. That action might take many forms, including public boycotts of products of services, and public shaming of officials for abuse of power or breaking of laws. It may include going to places of power – city hall, and state and congressional legislative bodies – to speak up for and even negotiate in the communities’ self-interest.

This community will consist of not only faith-based groups but civic organizations, schools, and likeminded individuals who are willing to use their own personal and collective power to reshape our world so that it better mirrors the Kingdom of God.

Moreover, I believe it is the leadership of the churches which must begin the conversations around power and organizing. To engage in relational meetings, cross social and political divides to create relationships is both time consuming and exhausting work. But it is imperative to meet others at their points of self-interest so that the self-interests of the community might be revealed and acted upon. To act upon an agreed upon self-interest takes power – organized people and resources.

It’s sometimes true that church members may be loath to consider investing resources into what might be construed as political activities. It can be difficult to persuade folks to see through a different lens. However, church congregations all exist as part of a greater community which may be quite diverse in their ethnicity, class, and faith communities. The boundary crossing to meet others where they are, to identify common interests to improve the life of the community is part of Jesus’ commandment to care for the least and marginalized. We recall that in Acts 4:32-35 that the apostles were out in the community giving their testimony and that the community came together under their leadership. Those who had much sold what they had (or used their skills) for the benefit for the community and none had need.

As Michael Gecan notes in Going Public: An Organizer’s Guide to Citizen Action, “There’s a powerful and fundamental tension between our political rhetoric…and everyday practices – a tension written into our founding documents and present in most of our public crises.” Community organizers and congregational leaders “live with the tensions, challenge citizens to confront it and … pushes the political world as it is in the direction of the world as it ought to be.”


Paula Whitacre is pursuing ordination in the United Church of Christ. She and her wife Marge share their home with their sixteen year old tabby, KC.

Keep Awake

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Linda Kurtz are curating a series written by participants in the first-ever Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on the theology of power and how organizing has impacted the way they do ministry. How might you incorporate these principles of organizing into your own work? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Julia Pearson

A sermon preached at Cathedral of the Incarnation in Baltimore, MD. Scripture: Isaiah 64:1-9; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37.

It’s the first Sunday of Advent, and we’re preparing to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Throughout the season we’ll hear about a baby in a manger, Mary and Joseph and the Three Magi; so why do we begin the season with these dark, apocalyptic readings? It seems a bit morose, doesn’t it? I think it’s because Jesus’ birth was about a lot more than a baby in a manger, and these readings are calling our attention to that. We’re being reminded that all is not what we think it is, and we’d better start paying attention or we’ll miss the whole point of why we’re here.

One of my favorite writers on the subject of incarnation is Ilia Delio, a Franciscan nun who specializes in science and religion. She writes, “In the person of Jesus of Nazareth, a new God-consciousness of love becomes radically expressed in a way that departs from other religions. This new religious consciousness evokes a new way of action. Jesus is a new Big Bang in evolution, an explosion of love that ignites a new way of thinking about God, creation and future.”

She continues, “Jesus’ God-centered life shows a way of relating to others that makes things whole where there are divisions. His love gathers and heals what is scattered and apart. He draws people into community and empowers them to live the law of love.”

Jesus is a new Big Bang in evolution? That’s a far cry from a sweet little baby in a manger, and that’s what today’s readings are trying to get us to see. It’s a wake up call to see reality from a different point of view – to, in fact, see it as it really is.

As of this morning, there have been 319 murders in Baltimore this year. That’s more than last year, and we still have a month to go. This past Thursday I walked in the Harlem Park West neighborhood with leaders from our outreach ministry BUILD, which stands for Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development. When I heard about the murder of Detective Suitor in that same neighborhood several weeks ago, my heart broke, and I know many people in the city felt the same way. It’s why we were there on Thursday.

I saw block after block full of vacant houses, with maybe two occupied houses on any given block. People hear gunshots every night. I talked with a woman named Talia who has a 15 year old son and she won’t let him go outside after dark. She has only lived in the neighborhood for five months, and in that time she knows of five people who have been killed, one right across the street from her. I listened to her story and I felt the despair of Isaiah’s lament, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence!” I pray that her son will make it out of that neighborhood alive.

And that’s just part of our current reality. We hear a new story almost every day of another man accused of sexual harassment or assault, as centuries of treating women as objects rises up to be healed and transformed. But that’s a subject for another sermon. What’s capturing my heart right now is what’s happening in our city, which we can’t afford to ignore any longer.

Recently at a BUILD Strategy Team meeting, we were looking at people’s responses to questions about what is causing the violence in Baltimore. Overwhelmingly, answers from throughout the city were lack of opportunities for youth. Many people also mentioned drugs, but when you added up lack of jobs, the closing of rec centers and lack of after-school programs, lack of youth opportunities was the top reason. As we dove deeper into the conversation, a youth member of the team spoke up. She said, “You know those guys who were picked up in Federal Hill recently? I know them. I grew up with one of them. He saw someone murdered right in front of him in his living room. We can’t begin to imagine what these kids have experienced in their lives.” And in that moment we all knew that we had to start telling a different story about the youth in Baltimore.

The disenfranchised neighborhoods of this city aren’t the Wild West, they are a war zone, and everyone living in them experiences the trauma of this on a regular basis. We need to address the trauma at least as much as the violence, because they go hand in hand. This isn’t to excuse the violence – violence should never be excused under any circumstance – but addressing trauma is the only hope we have of getting at the root cause of the violence.

Three years ago Dr. Nadine Burke Harris gave a TED talk about the adverse health affects of childhood trauma. She talked about how she used to look at childhood trauma either as a social problem to be referred to social services, or as a mental health problem to be referred to mental health services. This is how she was trained.

She started working with kids from a poor and underserved neighborhood in San Francisco, and a lot of kids came into her office who had been referred to her for ADHD – attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. But when she did a thorough history and physical exam on them, the diagnosis didn’t fit. Most of these kids had experienced severe trauma, and something wasn’t adding up.

One day a colleague handed her a study called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, and it forever changed the way she practiced medicine. This study asked 17,500 adults about their exposure to what they called adverse childhood experiences, or ACES. These include physical, emotional or sexual abuse; physical or emotional neglect; parental mental illness, substance dependence or incarceration; parental separation or divorce; or domestic violence. For every yes, you get a point on your ACE score.

It turns out ACES are incredibly common. 67% of the population had at least one ACE, and 12.5%, one in eight people studied, had four or more. The researchers also found that there is a direct correlation between ACES and health: the higher your ACE score, the worse your health outcomes. Dr. Burke Harris explains why this is: “imagine you’re walking in the forest and you see a bear. Immediately, your hypothalamus sends a signal to your pituitary, which sends a signal to your adrenal gland that says, ‘Release stress hormones! Adrenaline! Cortisol!’ And so your heart starts to pound, your pupils dilate, your airways open up, and you are ready to either fight that bear or run from the bear. And that is wonderful if you’re in a forest and there’s a bear. But the problem is what happens when the bear comes home every night, and this system is activated over and over and over again, and it goes from being adaptive, or life-saving, to maladaptive, or health-damaging.
Children are especially sensitive to this repeated stress activation, because their brains and bodies are just developing. High doses of adversity not only affect brain structure and function, they affect the developing immune system, developing hormonal systems, and even the way our DNA is read and transcribed.”

Identifying a direct link – through scientific evidence – between childhood trauma and health was groundbreaking. Dr. Robert Block, former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics said at one point, “Adverse childhood experiences are the single greatest unaddressed public health threat facing our nation today.” For Dr. Burke Harris, this was exciting news because it was easy to test for, which made it possible to address holistically. If we know someone has a high ACE score, we can provide wraparound services that help to mitigate the long-term affects. She expected it to become a routine test in every doctor’s office. But that hasn’t happened.

Here she is again: “You know, at first I thought that we marginalized the issue because it doesn’t apply to us. That’s an issue for those kids in those neighborhoods. Which is weird, because the data doesn’t bear that out. The original ACEs study was done in a population that was 70 percent Caucasian, 70 percent college-educated. But then, the more I talked to folks, I’m beginning to think that maybe I had it completely backwards.” She continues, “Even in this room, this is an issue that touches many of us, and I am beginning to believe that we marginalize the issue because it does apply to us. Maybe it’s easier to see in other zip codes because we don’t want to look at it. We’d rather be sick.”

This is where our Advent call to “keep awake” breaks in like a splash of cold water. How can we be present with all that we are, and all that we feel, without either disassociating from it or running away?

To sit with what makes us uncomfortable – to not look away, to not run away, to not numb ourselves with food, drugs, alcohol, or shopping. It’s practicing unconditional presence. This is what I hear Jesus saying when he implores us to “keep awake.” We have to be willing to feel our scariest, darkest places if they are to be transformed. Because in the staying, the abiding – the surrendering – God does break in, and transforms our suffering into something new. Our surrender is our participation in the divine workings of God. It’s letting ourselves be the clay in the potter’s hands, and it’s how we become active participants in creation. But we have to be willing to stay with it. This is where contemplative practices like meditation are so helpful, because they train us to stay present through consistent, steady practice. Because if we can’t be present to our own pain, how can we possibly be present to the pain of others?

When we try not to think about what’s going on in East and West Baltimore, isn’t it just a symptom of trying to avoid our own dark places? When we avoid eye contact with a homeless person, aren’t we really afraid of what we’ll see in ourselves? If we’re going to be Christ in the world today, we have to understand these connections, because that’s the example he lived. This is what it means to “keep awake.”

So how do we apply this unconditional presence to others? We listen to people’s stories, and we share our own stories with them. We allow ourselves to be vulnerable. We let go of thinking we have all of the answers, making assumptions, and stereotyping people, and we just listen to them. We work to “gather and heal what has become scattered and apart” by embracing others as our own brothers and sisters because they are our brothers and sisters, and they are also our children.
There is a program in East Baltimore that has been doing this for the past sixteen years. It’s called The Club in Collington Square. It is an after school and summer program that currently serves 90 children with a waiting list of 40.

Its program director, Vanessa Williams, is an incredible woman. She is a specialist in urban education and knows how to develop children as both learners and leaders. The kids call her their grandmother. Most of her staff of teachers and assistants are from the neighborhood, and they are passionate about giving back to their community. The program includes academics, enrichment activities like dance and martial arts, play, and homework help. They also provide a snack and a hot dinner every day. It is a structured, loving haven in a very tough neighborhood, and it works. If we had programs like this all over the city, it would transform the fabric of our communities. But even this one is struggling to survive. I highly encourage you to take a look at their video – I’ll make sure there’s a link to it on our Facebook page.

Programs like The Club give us hope, and as people of faith we have a unique relationship to hope. We hold it deep within us, and right now we need to let it shine like a beacon for this city because we are in a state of emergency. Just this week school officials in Carroll County have halted all school related trips to Baltimore, because of the violence. So the Francis Scott Key High School Marching Band won’t be playing in the mayor’s Christmas parade this afternoon. It’s bad. This problem affects ALL of us, and it is in all of our self-interests to help heal this city. We can’t wait for the mayor, or the police, or elected officials to fix this. It’s going to take all of us.

To that end, your voice matters, so today during the offertory, members of the cathedral’s BUILD Core Team will be handing out a card containing two questions about the violence in the city. PLEASE take the time to fill it out – we’ll collect them as you leave today. The team will be bringing the cards to a BUILD meeting this Thursday, where we will begin addressing the violence in the city based on our citywide listening. If you are moved to get involved with this effort, talk to someone on the BUILD Core Team, and come to Thursday’s meeting if you can. Team members all have BUILD logos on their name tags today.

I’m going to close with a poem by Jan Richardson, who did the artwork on the cover of this week’s bulletin. It’s called Blessing for Waking.

This blessing could
pound on your door
in the middle of
the night.

This blessing could
bang on your window,
could tap dance
in your hall,
could set a dog loose
in your room.

It could hire a
brass band
to play outside
your house.

But what this blessing
really wants
is not merely
your waking
but your company.

This blessing
wants to sit
alongside you
and keep vigil
with you.

This blessing
wishes to wait
with you.

And so
though it is capable
of causing a cacophony
that could raise
the dead,

this blessing
will simply
lean toward you
and sing quietly
in your ear
a song to lull you
not into sleep
but into waking.

It will tell you stories
that hold you breathless
till the end.

It will ask you questions
you never considered
and have you tell it
what you saw
in your dreaming.

This blessing
will do all within
its power
to entice you
into awareness

because it wants
to be there,
to bear witness,
to see the look
in your eyes
on the day when
your vigil is complete
and all your waiting
has come to
its joyous end.
Amen.


Julia Pearson is Canon for Evangelism at Cathedral of the Incarnation in Baltimore, MD. She is currently a student at the Living School, studying with Richard Rohr, Cynthia Bourgeault and James Finley. The program emphasizes an embodied lifestyle made up of practices that deepen a more conscious union with God, and empowers students to express that union actively through works of engagement and compassion in the world.

Growing Power by Sharing Power

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Linda Kurtz are curating a series written by participants in the first-ever Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on the theology of power and how organizing has impacted the way they do ministry. How might you incorporate these principles of organizing into your own work? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Jan Edmiston

As a person with power in Chicago Presbytery, I sometimes saw my role as one in which I tried to share power with young pastors who didn’t think they had much – either because of their age or levels of experience. My hope was to get out of the way when it was clear that the Spirit was working and to shift the culture from a “gotcha” mentality (i.e. those pesky oral exams on the floor of presbytery just before ordination) to a culture of curiosity (i.e. what can we learn from this person?).

This brings me to the unnamed woman in Matthew 26 who poured expensive oil over Jesus head as he reclined with his disciples. The woman never said a word but the men immediately expressed their indignance. Everybody was talking about her. Nobody talked to her. But then Jesus said something that has been dissected and studied for generations:

“Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.”

Jesus shared power with her despite her gender and their historical context. He lauded her theological chops, finishing with this:

“Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”

The community organizing training I have received through NEXT Church has shaped the way I’ll be stepping into a new role in Charlotte Presbytery in the coming weeks. I’ve learned that building coalitions – both in and outside the institutional Church – is essential if we hope to transform the world for good in the name of Jesus. When we share power, we find that our impact for good grows expansively.

Developing coalitions involves organizing the power of obvious leaders and the power of not-yet-obvious leaders together. As I look towards starting my new call on May 1st, I have collected a list of people recommended by my General Presbyter Nominating Committee with whom I plan to have one-on-one meetings with in my first six months. It’s interesting what names they have suggested. Some are well-known leaders (e.g. the mayor, a retired college president) and some are lesser-known leaders (e.g. a long time elder from a rural part of the area, a person from a small congregation with strong ties with the school board). Instead of decrying that the world is increasingly chaotic, we can take this opportunity to face the chaos, united in authentic relationships with many different kinds of neighbors. Serving together, we can do more.

I hope to continue to grow power by sharing power. And I hope that power results in deeper relationships and broader justice for the people of God. This feels especially right as I consider how Jesus lived.


Jan Edmiston is co-moderator of the 222and General Assembly of the PCUSA. She is a Teaching Elder member of Chicago Presbytery, soon transition into a new role as general presbyter of Charlotte Presbytery.

Front Porch Church

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Linda Kurtz are curating a series written by participants in the first-ever Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on the theology of power and how organizing has impacted the way they do ministry. How might you incorporate these principles of organizing into your own work? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Mary Harris Todd

A sermon for Morton Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount, NC. Scripture: Mark 1:29-39.

Jesus really did not cover a lot of distance during his ministry. He spent most of his time in the region of Galilee, an area about the size of two or three North Carolina counties, maybe Nash, Edgecombe, and Wilson.1

The region of Galilee was dotted with about two hundred villages, some larger, and some
smaller, and to get from one to another you walked. Think about the old days when people
around here used to walk up and down this road, visiting neighbors, and walking to school at Joyner’s Schoolhouse, which was across the road from where we are this morning — and it was the building in which Morton Church got its start. Picture what it would be like to walk from Easonburg to Langley’s Crossroads, and that’s a picture of the kind of traveling that Jesus did.

Capernaum, and specifically Peter’s house in Capernaum, was Jesus’ home base in Galilee. Located on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum was more what we would call a small town, maybe 1500 residents. It was a center for the fishing industry. Jesus would go places, and then he would come home to Capernaum.

The story we read from Mark this morning took place very early in Jesus’ ministry. It didn’t take long for word to get around town that Jesus had healed Peter’s mother-in-law from a dangerous fever. “Did you hear what happened at Peter’s house?” By evening excited kinfolk and friends crowded around and into Peter’s house, and Jesus healed many more who were sick or in the clutches of demons. No wonder Jesus went off alone for rest and prayer.

When they realized he was gone, Peter and his companions went looking for Jesus. “Everyone is searching for you!” they exclaimed when they found him. Jesus needed to come on back to the house and get back to work. There was so much more that needed doing right there at home at Peter’s house!

But Jesus said, “Let’s also go on to the neighboring villages so that I can proclaim the good news there, too. That’s why I came.” Yes, Jesus loved the members of Peter’s household, and his family and friends in Capernaum. But Jesus was also concerned about other neighbors and other neighborhoods. His concern reached to the ends of the earth. “Let’s go to the neighboring villages also,” he told his disciples. And before it was all over, Jesus was going to send them on to the ends of the earth.

Mark doesn’t tell us how Peter and the others reacted to Jesus’ plan to visit neighboring villages and interact with other people, but if they were anything like the members of Peter’s household now — the church — I think they might have been dismayed. How can Jesus suggest reaching out to others when there is still so much to do right here? Shouldn’t we take care of the needs at home in Capernaum first? Shouldn’t Jesus give them his attention first? Besides, surely people out there will hear about the wonderful things happening here and come join us!

But reaching the ends of the earth has always been God’s intention. Early in Genesis2 God called Abraham and Sarah to leave home, to move outward, and God plainly stated, “I am going to bless you. You are going to have a lot of descendants, and your family is going to be a blessing to all the families of the earth.” Abraham and Sarah got up and went. This is all the more remarkable because they were 75 and 65 years old respectively, and they had never been able to have any children.

Through the prophet Isaiah God reiterated that concern as we read in our call to worship today: “I want my salvation, my blessing to reach to the ends of the earth,” God said.3

When God’s people were in exile in the city of Babylon and filled with homesickness, God told them to be a blessing right where they were, to their Babylonian neighbors. Through the prophet Jeremiah God told them, “Seek the wellbeing of the city where I have sent you, for in its wellbeing you will find your own.”4

Or as Jesus put it, “You are going to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and to the ends of the earth.”5

And, as in today’s gospel lesson, the ends of the earth aren’t always far away. “We must go on to neighboring villages,” Jesus said. “Let’s take the message to the neighbors.”

We live in an age where you can get on a jet and fly to the ends of the earth, and yet not know your next door neighbor, even by sight. People often live in side-by-side isolation. It used to be that almost every house had a front porch, an in-between kind of space where people could sit and talk and watch the world go by. Porches helped neighbors see one another and talk more often. Now back decks and privacy fences outnumber porches. People stay inside in the air conditioning and watch TV or stay on the internet, and family members might all be doing this in different rooms.

What’s more, cars make it fast and easy to go somewhere else to work or shop, and not pay that much attention to the neighborhood. And that makes it easy for things to happen behind closed doors without anyone nearby knowing it. No, the ends of the earth aren’t far away at all.

I read a blog post entitled “7 Reasons Your Church Should Have a Front Porch.”6 Our church building does have a front porch, so when I saw the title, I immediately imagined rocking chairs on the church front porch, and us sitting out there visiting and having Bible study. A very pleasant scene.

But that’s not the author’s point. Front porch is a way of thinking. It’s an outlook. He says that front porch oriented churches have their eyes on the neighborhood. They spend time getting to know their neighbors, and letting the neighbors get to know them. Contrast this with backyard-oriented churches that are looking away from the neighborhood, or only looking inward.

Front porch churches listen to the neighbors. They want to be neighborly right there in the neighborhood where God has placed them. The post asks, “Does your church know its neighborhood well enough to know its urgent and persistent needs? Has the church developed trusting friendships that are there in times of need?”

Jesus said, “Let’s go also to the neighboring villages.” This is a call to listen to people, to listen for what is going on around here. And as we listen to our neighbors’ concerns, we will hear what God is concerned about. We will discover what God is up to. Eventually we will discover ways to get in there to work with God, and work with our neighbors.

What it’s not about is blanketing the area with flyers inviting people to come here and join us in what we are doing. It’s not about going around announcing our point of view or presenting a set of arguments we want to convince people of. I can hardly think of anything less appealing, and if that were our agenda, I wouldn’t blame people for hiding in their houses when they saw us coming.

What’s more, it’s also not about recruiting new blood for the church, and it doesn’t make people into mission projects. It’s not about dreaming up some program we think people need or developing a hook to get people to come through the doors. It values people around here just because they are here. It’s about seeing people through God’s eyes and listening to them through God’s ears.

The community organizing training that I started in Baltimore last fall is continuing, and we constantly talk about building relationships. There is power in making connections with people, building relationships, and then taking action together. A critical part of it is to spend time talking one on one with people, listening, sharing stories, finding out what’s important to them, what makes them tick.

In community organizing work they call these visits relational meetings. But to me, they sound a lot like good old front porch visiting, good conversation in that in-between front porch space where connections can happen, and sometimes grow deep.

God has richly blessed the family of faith that gathers in this house. And like all sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah, God calls this family to be a blessing. We could stay home in Capernaum, spend most of our time hanging out with each other here in Peter’s house, or we can visit neighboring villages with Jesus. We can stay inside, or we can find a way to get out on the front porch and spend time talking with neighbors. We can sit around and worry about our own wellbeing, or we can connect with neighbors and in their wellbeing find our own.

We can literally visit people with Jesus. Think about where our neighborhoods are. Think about where our homes are. There’s this little section of West Mount Drive right out in front of the church house. There’s Leaston Road down at the corner, and the trailer park there. There’s the Vick path. There’s the village on Great Branch Drive. And there are more. These are some of our neighboring villages. God has placed us here geographically. And God has placed us in workplaces and in different kinds of groups. These are neighborhoods, too. We can find out what brought these people to these neighborhoods, and what they’re concerned about, and what they need and hope for.

This is the place, and these are the places where God has planted us. These are the people we are called to listen to. These are the people we are called to love. Front porch churches are concerned about our neighbors because Jesus is concerned about them. “Let’s go to the neighboring villages also,” Jesus said. “I want to proclaim the kingdom there, too.”

Or as he puts it in another place, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Which also means, you shall love your neighborhood.

Amen.

1 Nash is our congregation’s home county. Nash, Edgecombe, and Wilson are the tri-county area that the congregation knows well.
2 Genesis 12:1-5a.
3 Isaiah 49:6.
4 Jeremiah 29:7.
5 Acts 1:8.
6 http://after.church/7-reasons-your-church-should-have-a-front-porch/.


Mary Harris Todd  has been a Presbyterian all her life.  She grew up in one small congregation, Kirk O’Cliff Presbyterian Church near Mineral, Virginia, and since 1990 she has served as the pastor of another, Morton Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Visit with Mary and her flock online at The Mustard Seed Journal, where you can find lots of resources for small church ministry.

Ecclesiology Informed by Organizing

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Linda Kurtz are curating a series written by participants in the first-ever Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on the theology of power and how organizing has impacted the way they do ministry. How might you incorporate these principles of organizing into your own work? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Ian Burch

I remember a chaplain supervisor years ago saying to our intern group, “I am a powerful person; it took me a long time to claim that.” He reflected that some people have charisma or passion that allows them to influence others. Power, in that sense, is related to charm and hopefully tempered by integrity. Our supervisor’s confidence and self-possession were a kind of power. His place higher than us in the organization gave him another kind of power. As baby chaplains, we were encouraged to think about the places where we have personal power — our gifts in ministry and our connections with others — and places where we have professional power — the collar, the title, the place in the institution.

That early introduction to personal and professional power has served me well in my ministry. I know that my ability to connect with others, my integrity, and my charm let me act persuasively in groups. I also know that my role in the church — as a priest, a senior pastor, a boss, a mentor — give me a place of power in the institution. From this position, I can influence policy, hire and fire, and release funds for projects I care about.

When we use the word power in community organizing circles, we’re talking about something different than the personal and professional power dialectic I was taught as a chaplain intern. The community organizer’s power can’t rest on charisma, and it certainly can’t rest on institutional position. To parrot back a common organizing mantra: power is organized money and organized people. Put another way, one person — no matter how gifted and no matter how well placed in an institution — simply cannot amass enough power for real change without first organizing money and people.

You might say that we’re not really talking about theology as classically understood — creation, sin, redemption, eschaton — rather, a discussion of an organizer’s power is really a kind of ecclesiology. What is the nature of the church? How is the Body of Christ organizing itself to be the hands of God in the world? In my Episcopal tradition, ecclesiology concerns itself with the proper roles and powers of bishops, priests, deacons, and the laity. It creates dioceses and provinces and calls councils to discuss pretty boring stuff. This is the inheritance of the church after Nicaea, with its mimicry of Roman hierarchies and state structures.

What if we looked at the pre-Nicene church for our inspiration to create an ecclesiology informed by organized people and money? I’m thinking about the book of Acts where Lydia is so moved by the preaching she hears that she brings her entire household — and her not insignificant checkbook — down to the river to be baptized (Acts 16). I’m thinking about the letter of Paul to the people of Philippi when he thanks them for their gift of money while at the same time sending them new co-workers for the building up of their church (Philippians 4). It seems that our pre-Nicene ancestors knew quite a lot about organizing money and organizing people to create change in the Mediterranean. Our ancestors created an archipelago of churches all over the world by connecting people and connecting money. That is a powerful witness that can inspire us today.

Church planters, by the way, know all this stuff. They meet, one-on-one, with people in the community to hear about their stories and share their own. Before you know it, four people are meeting in a living room and reading scripture. Those four meet four more. Now they are eight. Their concern is the connection between people. Those eight people each give ten bucks. Now you have some power to make some kind of change in the world. Eight Christians and $80 can do a lot, and not one of them has a fancy title. Organized people, and organized money — just like our sisters and brothers in the New Testament.

My modest proposal is this: our generation of theologians ought to look to the inspiration of the pre-Nicene church and their successes in organizing people and money as a blueprint for a new ecclesiology — one less concerned with rank and tradition and more concerned with being the Body of Christ as healing for a hurting world.


Ian Burch is an Episcopal priest and serves a medium-sized parish in Milwaukee. He is deeply interested in supporting and sustaining the growth of congregations and believes that community organizing principles have a lot to say about how to foster growth and vitality. The Presbyterians were very kind to let him crash the week-long community organizing training in Baltimore last Fall.

Getting Out of the Boat

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Linda Kurtz are curating a series written by participants in the first-ever Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on the theology of power and how organizing has impacted the way they do ministry. How might you incorporate these principles of organizing into your own work? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Denise Anderson

A sermon preached at Unity Presbyterian Church in Temple Hills, MD. Scripture: Jonah 3:1-5, 10 and Mark 1:14-20.

Unity Presbyterian Church, you may remember that recently we committed ourselves to being part of a number of new things. First, we are looking at dissolution of our charter and the possible repurposing of our facility for a new ministry that will meet the specific needs of our surrounding county. But there is also something afoot here in our county that has the potential to facilitate significant change in our community. For the past year and a half, a number of local clergy and lay leaders from a variety of traditions have been meeting, organizing, and working together to develop the Prince George’s Leadership Action Network, or PLAN. PLAN is on track to become an Industrial Areas Foundation-affiliated organization. Now, perhaps we need to examine what that means.

The Industrial Areas Foundation, according to its website, “is the nation’s largest and longest-standing network of local faith and community-based organizations.

“The IAF partners with religious congregations and civic organizations at the local level to build broad-based organizing projects, which create new capacity in a community for leadership development, citizen-led action and relationships across the lines that often divide our communities.

“The IAF created the modern model of faith- and broad-based organizing and is widely recognized as having the strongest track record in the nation for citizen leadership development and for helping congregations and other civic organizations act on their missions to achieve lasting change in the world.”

Our neighbors in the DC metro area and to the north in Baltimore all have IAF-affiliated organizations serving them. They have been effective at a number of efforts to benefit their communities, including ensuring jobs for local resident and fighting for access to healthy foods. Now we want to bring that sort of cooperative leadership and organizing to Prince George’s County. Unity is part of that.

As we do the work of building an organization here, it occurs to me that the Bible is replete with stories of organizers! Let’s frame what it means to organize. Organizing is the building of power across constituencies. Power is simply two things: organized people and organized money. Furthermore, people are organized not around particular issues, but around self-interests. There is a need in the community that, if not addressed, will have reverberating effects. For instance, I need to be able to pay my rent, so it is in my self-interest that a new company setting up shop in town would be intentional about hiring locally.

Today’s texts tell us about two organizers: Jonah and Jesus. One more reluctant that the other. Both effective at tapping into their eventual followers’ interests and abilities.

We may not think of Jonah as an organizer, but in a sense he was. In essence, what Jonah did is what good organizers do: agitate people around a particular need within their community. Jonah’s method of proclamation was necessarily disruptive. Friends, while I don’t advocate walking through Prince George’s County proclaiming its destruction, I think we who are residents would agree that there is deep complacency here. People are prone to cut themselves off from the needs that exist, and there needs to be a widespread calling of attention to those needs. God is not destroying us; we are doing a good enough job of that on our own! For every day we allow our schools to underperform, we bring about destruction. For every foreclosure that is handed down, we bring about destruction. For every bit of commerce that is wooed into our county without subsequent guarantees that residents will benefit, we bring about destruction. We need to be the Jonahs who will agitate the city (or county) and confront the people with a simple question: “What are you prepared to do about this?”

Organizing teaches us to identify leaders within a community. Leaders are simply those who have a following. Jesus after his baptism set out to build his following, and he did so in such an effective way. He honed their leadership using what they were already doing. Like any good leader, Jesus recognizes a need: the Kingdom of God is at hand. So he sets out to gather/organize those who would exist within that kingdom or reign. He sees the fishermen brothers Simon and Andrew, and astutely connects this important work with the work they’re already doing: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people!” He does the same with the sons of Zebedee.

Organizing is not gathering people to do things they have no interests in or training for. That would be a recipe for disaster. Organizing identifies those who already have the capacity for the work and building on that capacity. We know there are people with gifts and expertise to meet the very needs within our communities. Organizing connects those people to work they’re already equipped to do.

And in both Jonah and Jesus’ cases, the work could not start unless someone “got out of the boat.” Jonah initially ran from his calling and took a boat out of town, only to be met with a fierce storm and a fish’s belly. When he surrendered to the call and work, then he was washed safely to shore. Jesus called some of his first followers from their places of comfort and familiarity. These were men who were used to fishing for, well, fish! Jesus invited them to do something somewhat familiar, but markedly different.

Getting out of the boat means acknowledging our fears, but ultimately surrendering to our call. It means letting go of what we had hoped would mean comfort and security for us. It means taking on a vulnerability that defers to the needs of the many. But it’s not entirely selfless. It is also understanding that the liberation of those people for whom we fish is tied into our own. Getting out of the boat is an act of saving our own lives, for to not act is to act. To not make a choice is to choose something (and that something is rarely life-giving). Unity, as I have shared repeatedly since I first arrived three years ago, change will happen either with us or to us. The good news is we have the power to choose which that will be!

The Great Organizer, who hung from a tree on Friday but got up with all power on Sunday, continues to organize. He continues to agitate and push us beyond what we think are our limits. He continues to call us to greater work and faithfulness. And the best news of all, perhaps, is that we are not left without help to do what we’re called to do. In hope, in trust, and in the assurance of God’s love, grace, and empowerment, let us leave our places of comfort and complacency. Let us get out of our boat and into our calling. Amen.


Denise Anderson is pastor of Unity Presbyterian Church in Temple Hills, MD, and co-moderator of the 222nd General Assembly.

Power in Relationships

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Linda Kurtz are curating a series written by participants in the first-ever Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on the theology of power and how organizing has impacted the way they do ministry. How might you incorporate these principles of organizing into your own work? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Jon Nelson

Reflecting on power in the context of my tradition, I immediately think of Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthian church. Paul inverts assumptions about power. He writes, “Christ [is] the power of God.” And yet, Christ was crucified. Paul concludes: “God’s weakness is stronger than [so called] human strength” and “God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:18-31). This is Paul’s proclamation and he manifests it in his preaching, saying that God’s power is being revealed in even his weakness, fear, trembling, and faltering words (1 Cor. 2:1-5). Later, Paul writes that the whole ministry of the apostles is apparently weak. Apostles of Christ are of ill repute, hungry and thirsty, poorly clothed, beaten up and homeless, weary, reviled, persecuted, slandered — the rubbish of the world (1 Cor. 4:9-13). Paul is telling the Corinthians that what counts for power in the world is not the power of God. Any discussion of power, if it takes seriously Pauline discourse, must reckon with this inverse.

Since the summer of 2017, I have been involved in the organization of an Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) affiliate in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Additionally, I have been involved in the Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership training put on by NEXT Church, Metro IAF, and Johnson C. Smith Seminary. Through my involvement in these, I have encountered a use of power that at first seems counter to the Pauline presentation. I have been impressed by many stories of people of faith exerting power. As clergy myself, I have been encouraged by the manifestation of power among my colleagues. The stories that stick out are those where a pastor stands up and makes public demands of persons in political power. I have been inspired by people of faith who have stood up to powerful organizations and secured jobs. And I have been amazed by the way faithful people have organized large sums of money in responsible ways.

In an age where pastoral authority seems to be shrinking, I must confess delight in the assertion of will, clear demands and concrete actions by clergy. Community organizing enables people of faith to use power most commonly associated with wealthy institutions and federal government. And still, in the back of my mind, Paul’s depiction of inverse power has me wondering if stepping up to corporate and political power in this way is the way in which Christians ought to exert themselves.

However, those who have been in IAF organizations for long periods of time always insist on relational meetings as the basis for every powerful action. This is where I think there is an inverse. Our society places high value on positions of power that are gained by solitary means and are manifested by individuals. I am thinking of business executives and politicians who pride themselves on their own achievements. I am also thinking of the many corporations who are gaining strength by creating isolating job positions. Power, in the North American context at least, is solitary and personally secured.

IAF teaches the inverse. Power is achieved through relationships. Even the achievements wherein million-dollar deals are secured by organizers stand only on the ground of interpersonal relationship — the long slog of getting to know stories and passions, the tender moments where vulnerability leads to collective action. I suppose I am less and less impressed with the deals and public displays of personal and monetary assertion. I am more and more impressed by the many, many relationships that make for change. Here, people of faith are turning upside down and inside out power as it is often esteemed.

This seems evident in Paul’s discussion of the apostles. The “rubbish of the world” find strength in relationship. Think of the beaten apostle — the victim of abuse — who meets with the reviled apostle — the victim of systemic abuse. They find a mutual anger in meeting together. They have a mutual interest in disrupting patterns of abuse. United by faith in a crucified Christ, they find that the One who strengthens them is the One who was victimized by personal and systemic abuse. Their power comes from within and without. Power, in this Christian context, is realized as they meet the Crucified Christ in one another and commit to use their resurrection strength and will. The powers that be cannot stand against power that is built from the ground — even the grave — up.


Jon Nelson is the associate pastor at Ark and Dove Presbyterian Church in Odenton, MD. He enjoys a rigorous running routine, a good book, his talented wife and hugs from his one-year-old son.

Always Being Reformed

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Linda Kurtz are curating a series written by participants in the first-ever Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on the theology of power and how organizing has impacted the way they do ministry. How might you incorporate these principles of organizing into your own work? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Shannon Kershner

A sermon preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago on Reformation Sunday. Scripture: 2 Corinthians 5:14-20.

Today is the Sunday on which we focus on a major emphasis of our Reformed tradition – the promise that God is not done with us yet. The promise that we are always being called to ask the question – what is God doing here and now, with us, through us, in this world, in which we are called to be the church? Remember our Presbyterian motto – we are the church Reformed (big R, indicating the branch of our Protestant Reformation theological tree) always being reformed (little r, verb) by the Spirit of God. We are a part of the body of Christ who trusts that our work as God’s people in the world is ongoing and dynamic; a part of the body of Christ who trusts that we will never “arrive” at perfection; a part of the body of Christ challenged to constantly be about the work of disorganizing old ways of being that are no longer effective, in order to reorganize for faithfulness and witness.

So together, then, we are to continually be in prayer, in study, and in conversation with Scripture, the newspaper, and each other about “what’s next” for us. As we continue in this fourth programmatic year of our ministry together, who does God hope we will be here and now, for each other, for ourselves, for our neighborhood, for our city and world? And while it is undoubtedly a challenging way to live – always on the lookout for where God is calling us next – I cannot imagine any other more beautiful way to move through this gift of life with which God has graced us. Thus, on this 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, I ask you: where have you seen new creation lately? Where – in your life, in your family, amongst your friends, in the world – where have you seen new creation lately? Will you show me?

I began writing this sermon on the plane Friday afternoon while feeling quite bleary-eyed and mentally full. I spent last week in Baltimore where I joined 60 other folks for one week of clergy-focused community organizing training. The leadership training was put on by a consortium of leaders from the NEXT Church movement (in which I continue to serve in leadership), Johnson C Smith Seminary – one of our Presbyterian seminaries – and the Baltimore affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation called BUILD – Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development.

The group being trained was comprised primarily of Presbyterian clergy (with a smattering of Presbyterian lay persons, Methodists and Episcopalians), but we were quite diverse in terms of race, sexual orientation, church size, area of the country, etc. The week was jam packed, each day beginning with our first class at 8:30am and ending most days at 9pm, hence the bleary eyes. The week-long seminar was also, undoubtedly, the most powerful and challenging leadership development work I have ever done. I cannot recommend the training enough. We spoke a great deal about learning how to lead the church in the world as it is, while, at the same time, being fueled and inspired by what Scripture promises about the world as it should be and will be one day by God’s power.

I came away from the week deeply convinced that while what we think, what we believe, what we say is important, our more privatized faith expressions will probably not be what changes our world into being more just, compassionate, and merciful. Rather, the ways we actually treat each other and those we call stranger, the ways we act on and engage with our world, the concrete ways we demonstrate our love for each other – our relationships – will be the most powerful testimonies to the Reign of Jesus Christ, to the way the world should be, to the way of new creation. So though words are necessary; words are important; words carry power and shape our imaginations, it will be the relationships we develop with each other and with our neighbors, relationships fueled and sustained by God’s Spirit, that God will use to transform our church and our city.

We see this emphasis in today’s Scripture from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. Though Paul does use personal language, “if anyone is in Christ,” he does not simply concentrate on the individual. Rather, he immediately takes it to its communal end – in Christ God was reconciling the world to God’s self and entrusting us, as community, with that message, that purpose, of reconciliation. Preachers Boring and Craddock put it well, I think, when they say that in both Jewish and Christian apocalyptic hope God doesn’t just save souls; God renews the world. In Jewish theology it is tikkun olam, the repairing of the world. Therefore, “the meaning [of Paul’s words] is not that the individual becomes a person while the world remains unchanged. Nor is the meaning psychological, as though the world remains the same but for those who have come to faith, ‘everything looks different.’ No, Paul means the statement “If anyone is in Christ” objectively. In the Christ event something happened to the world (to everything), not just to individual souls.”1

Building on that foundation, New Testament scholar Tom Wright claims that if God was doing all this [death, resurrection, forgiveness, reconciliation] in the Messiah, that work now needs to be put into effect, to be implemented [by us]. The great symphony of reconciliation [being made new] composed on Calvary needed to be copied out into orchestral parts for all the world to play.2 So while God initiates the work of reconciliation, [that work does] require a response on the part of those whom God reconciles to Godself.3 Or, more simply put, “When a new world is born, a new way of living goes with it.”4 Remember our two words from the last two weeks – grace and responsibility.

So again I ask, on this day when we celebrate God’s constant work of reforming the church in and for the world, where have you seen God’s gift of new creation lately? While you are thinking about that, I want to do what one of my preaching professors once suggested strongly – in a sermon you have got to show people, don’t just tell people. So let me show you where I saw new creation during my time in Baltimore, just to start stimulating your own imagination and memory.

We took two field trips as a part of our training, so that we could see with our own eyes what a priority on building a relational culture and the power created by those relationships in the church and in the neighborhood looks like in real time. The first place we visited was a Baptist church in West Baltimore. As we drove through the neighborhood, I saw scenes that reminded me of neighborhoods in Chicago, several of which are not too far from here. Many homes had windows boarded up with no trespassing signs posted. Liquor stores dotted most of the corners while empty lots stood neglected, overgrown with weeds. But then, we walked into the church. And there in the fellowship hall were 70 folks from that neighborhood, many of them returning citizens (people who had recently been released from incarceration).

They were there because they desired to find meaningful employment, a new start. They were there to learn how to live as part of God’s new creation. Every Tuesday, those residents gather with clergy and other leaders from that neighborhood to be a part of the Turnaround Tuesday movement – a movement of/by/for those who need jobs.

Each week, for four hours, they meet for a time described as “one part AA meeting, one part religious service, one part boot camp, one part job-preparedness training, and all parts remarkable.”5 The movement has been gaining steam for the past two years and because of the leadership and commitment of those participating in the movement, as well as the deep commitment of Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, over 300 residents returning from prison or jail have found full-time, living wage work, with many more in the pipeline.

We had a chance to hear the stories of the participants and to experience their hard-won hopefulness. Frankly, even though we were at a leadership development experience, that afternoon, we had church. For at root of all of it, the very foundation, was a profound sense that God had made all of them and all of us new creation. The participants talked about this transformation openly and they challenged each other to see it both in themselves and in each other. For while the road ahead is undoubtedly going to be full of steps forward and steps backwards, as long as they stay in honest and accountable relationships with each other and with the Turnaround Tuesday movement, new creation will continue to be discovered. It is who they are. It is who God has created them to be, both as people and as important leaders in their neighborhood.

The participants are committed to figuring out their own orchestral parts to play in God’s transformation symphony. For not only does Turnaround Tuesday train people for work, but it also then stands alongside them so those newly trained leaders can help create more jobs for those following them. All of the people in the movement are helping each other discern the new way of life that goes along with the new world being created in their midst. They are being reformed, their neighborhood is being reformed, and the church is too.

On Thursday afternoon, we went on another field trip, this time to East Baltimore, where we gathered in another Baptist church sanctuary and listened as the pastor of that church, someone who had grown up there, told us about the work that congregation had been doing alongside other congregations and residents of that neighborhood, empowered by BUILD. In the 1970s and 1980s, the neighborhood had fallen into a state of disrepair and depression, a common story in many urban areas, including here in Chicago. When jobs and possibility moved out, the drug economy moved in and settled. People who dared to speak out against it were threatened. Some were killed. You could not safely leave your home no matter the time of day, not even to walk the block to church. No one, the pastor said, deserved to live like that.

66% of the homes of that neighborhood were vacant. The whole place felt forgotten by the rest of the city and its leaders. But then, encouraged by others, that pastor and other neighborhood leaders decided that God was calling them to both proclaim and embody new creation right there, in the community of that church. So after years of organizing work, last Thursday the pastor was thrilled to walk us around the neighborhood and show us the massive rebuilding that has been taking place for the past 7 years. Using a fund called The Reinvestment Fund, currently at $10 million, that neighborhood has redeveloped over 250 homes for residents currently living in the neighborhood, and built new ones. But it is not gentrification in the way we experience it here in our city, because people are not being priced out. And now, the home vacancy rate is 6% and more and more residents of the neighborhood are purchasing their own homes and learning how to be responsible homeowners and members of the neighborhood together. New creation. Right there, all around that church. And those are just two of the stories I heard. I have many more.

But I feel it is important to show you those two experiences because I know that we, too, are committed to being a church that tries to not settle for the way the world is, but who actively works with God for the way the world should be. That call to be a Light in the City has been a part of our DNA for decades. I also know, however, that we are still not sure exactly what that looks like for us in our immediate and long term future just yet, beyond doing what we are currently doing which continues to be vitally important. But do know I am committed to working alongside other leaders in this congregation and staff as we actively discern over the next year and following years our next steps into God’s transformative work for this church and for our city. That commitment was why I went to Baltimore.

And here is what else we do know together, today, what we base our life on together – God is not through with us yet. God is not done with us as people or as a people called Fourth Church. For God does not desire for us to simply maintain the way things are, no matter how good or how healthy they are. God does not call us to get all settled in and comfortable. Remember, we worship a God who is, according to the biblical story, always on the move. We worship a God who, through Christ, has made and is constantly making us new creation. We are always being invited to dis-organize and re-organize so that we can be wide-awake and ready to play our orchestral parts in God’s symphony of transformation and reconciliation.

For we are a church Reformed, for sure. But we are also a church, a people, trying our best to be open to God’s reforming power – a power we will not just speak of, but a power we will learn how to build and embody in relationships with each other, in relationships with our neighbors, in relationships with others in our city who also long to be a part of God’s making this world new. Thanks be to God for the gift of being a church Reformed who is always willing to be reformed by the wild, creative, powerful, free, active, on the move Spirit of God. Amen.

1 Boring and Craddock, p. 559. Quoted from a paper Jessica Tate presented at The Well, Montreat, 2012.
2 Wright, N.T. (2011-05-31). Paul for Everyone: 2 Corinthians. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition. p. 65.
3 Matera, p. 142.
4 Wright, p. 63.
5 http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/oped/bs-ed-turnaround-tuesday-20170313-story.html. Article written by Mike Gecan.


Shannon Johnson Kershner is the senior pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church (P.C.U.S.A.). She grew up in Waco, Texas as the daughter of a Presbyterian minister and an elementary school teacher. Shannon stayed in Texas for college and graduated in 1994 from Trinity University in San Antonio. In 1996, she began her theological training at Columbia Theological Seminary and received her Masters of Divinity degree in 1999. Her sermons and articles have been published in a number of journals, including The Journal for Preachers and Lectionary Homiletics. She is involved in leadership for NEXT Church and serving on its strategy team. Shannon is married to Greg, whom she met in high school at a Presbyterian summer conference at Mo-Ranch. They have been married for 21 years and are the parents of 15-year-old Hannah and 12-year-old Ryan.  

A Safe Space to Gather

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Leslie King

There is so much important work being done on diversity across our nation. Whether in public rallies, conversations on college campuses, city governance meetings, or around our family dinner tables, we all recognize the diversity challenge is not simple. Not only do we realize the unfinished work of the Civil Rights movement, we are also experiencing the disenfranchisement of the white working class that seeks to insert itself into the diversity conversation. More than ever, diversity requires intentionality and integrity.  

Intentionality found the First Presbyterian Church of Waco, just recently on August 20, when the Democratic and Republican parties of our county, led by an intelligent young millennial, requested to use the “safe space” of our sanctuary for a public gathering for racial unity. With intention, the political parties wanted to stand together and declare honor and respect for the diverse world in which we live.  

In the wake of their request, First Presbyterian engaged their own intentionality. Ask anyone in Waco: we are not a venue and we think critically about the way our space is shared. Will it strengthen the common good? We had to admit, it felt good to be asked to use the space. In the wake of Charlottesville, we all wanted to do something to respond. But our Session asked deeper questions, like who would be involved in such a gathering for racial unity? We knew that this was more a “left-leaning” sort of event. The request had been from both parties, but who specifically would be speaking and what would the message be? Would this be a biased gathering about diversity with an anemic call from like-minded voices?  

The organizers wrestled with our questions and with the details of the event. They made a courageous decision. They did not look for middle of the road mindsets. Each invited speaker was strong and passionate from a specific perspective. The event agenda revealed a balance between Democrat and Republican mindsets. Confirmed speakers gathered for a pre-event dinner where they discussed tone, etiquette, and content. All were given a time limit. As the evening arrived, individuals from so many walks of Waco life arrived to the sanctuary. A couple of news channels and the local paper were represented. Each speaker approached the podium with a tentativeness. Their posture and opening remarks confessed appreciation for the unusual opportunity to speak to such a diverse group of people. The tone was respectful and the content was provocative.  

The president of the local Republican club began his speech, “I am the most conservative person in this room. I believe we pull ourselves up by our boot straps. But I have come learn that many people are never even allowed to imagine their possibilities. Racism is real and we must work to eliminate it.” The Democratic party chair began her speech with a tender voice, “It has always been my dream to share a podium with the Republican party chair. I’m so glad to be here tonight.” The NAACP president of Waco cited a local Anglo pastor as the best example of leadership for a multi-cultural bi-lingual congregation.  As we listened to each speech, the room seemed to fill with the Spirit. Not only were we were talking about diversity, we were modeling and identifying concrete examples of it in our own community.       

The two political parties asked First Presbyterian for our sanctuary that it might be a “safe space.” We agreed to share our space that we might all address our biases and pursue diversity. Those organizers rose to the challenge of our questions. Diversity’s spirit manifested itself. By the end of the evening, we were no longer were as concerned about feeling safe because our confidence and trust were growing.  


Leslie King received her BA from Kansas University (’91) and her Masters of Divinity from McCormick Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Chicago (‘94). In 2010 she completed her Doctor of Ministry at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City Missouri with an emphasis in Spirituality and Organizational Change. She has been married to DJ King since November of 1996. They are the parents of three children: Cody, Katie, and Claire. Leslie enjoys reading, quilting, walking her dogs by the lake and the Texas heat.