Mission as Resistance and Struggle

by Rafael Vallejo, Ph.D.

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing”

                                                                                                                                    –  Arundhati Roy

Christian Mission has a long history and the meaning of the word “mission” has evolved through time. It used to be that  when people talked of “missions” they were referring to people from the North who went overseas to “evangelize” or live with poor communities in the villages in the Global South. These people were called “missionaries”. 

Today’s theologies of mission contain big words like evangelization, prophetic dialogue, contextualization, inculturation, inter-religious dialogue, common witness, liberation. 

What I would like us to do here is to revisit how different understandings of Mission evolved through church history.  Kwame Bediako from Ghana argues that church history is mission history.  

In the first century of the Christian movement, many of  the first ecclesial communities believed that the promised return of the Christ was happening anytime soon. The goal of mission then was to “preach the gospel” to as many people as possible so they may  be “saved”. Christianity spread from Palestine to the rest of the Mediterranean world until it became the official religion of the Empire in 380 CE. 

Given the diversity of groups and gospels, the Church focused its energies on “right belief” and in the process went to battle against those who held other beliefs (e,g. heretics). Seven ecumenical councils (e.g.Nicaea, Constantinople, Chalcedon) worked to create right language around Christian belief in the form of doctrines and creeds. In 1054, the Church of the East broke away from the Church of the West over  doctrinal  differences. 

During the 15th century,  powerful countries in Europe started explorations into distant lands. In what is now referred to as the “Doctrine of Discovery”, mission came to be understood as “civilizing mission” that went hand in hand with “discovering” and taking ownership of new lands  and turning them into colonies. Civilizing missions were conceived as bringing “the light of the gospel” to “the heart of darkness”, the backward, uncivilized colored indigenous peoples in the colonies. 

In the 20th century, after the experience of two world wars, former colonies struggled and won their independence. People from former colonies started to migrate and settle in the countries of their colonizers (eg. UK, France, USA). Migration gave rise to pluralist societies marked by a diversity of worldviews, languages, cultures, religions and traditions. By this time, the center of World Christianity had shifted to the Global South.

Now in the 21st century, much of the language around Christian mission has changed but some of the previously held interpretations are still present. In “Together Towards Life” (TTL) the World Council of Churches (WCC) during its 10th General Assembly in Busan, South Korea (2013) spoke of Mission as “resistance and struggle”. This is the frame I am working with in this series of blogs on “Refugees and Resistance: Enacting God’s mission in liminal spaces.”(Vallejo, 2020)

I think of Missio Dei as engaging the powers and domination systems that are operative in today’s world. I want to re-describe the heart of the Triune God’s work as struggle in a world dominated by “Empire”. Empire as defined by the Accra Confession 2004  refers to “the convergence of economic, political, cultural, geographic, and military imperial interests, systems, and networks for the purpose of amassing political power and economic wealth.” Empire is what stands in opposition to God’s purposes for the world. They “obstruct the fullness of life that God wills for all” (TTL 45)

I find support for this view in resistance literature embedded in the biblical narrative. In the people’s struggle in Egypt, the narrator shows the fragility of the Pharaoh’s power compared to the mighty arm of the deity, later to be known as YHWH. The same theme of resistance and struggle runs through apocalyptic literature in the First and Second Testaments. 

In many ways, border crossings performed by refugees/migrants today is an act of resistance against nation-states who consider it their absolute right to decide who may or may not enter their borders. Refugees are resisting not having voice or visibility by breaking the silence and showing up in huge numbers at international borders, even in the midst of the current pandemic. While this kind of resistance may not be enough to improve their situation or change the system, at the very least they hope to raise awareness that something needs to be done. I believe our God struggles with them as they travel through liminal spaces.

I invite us to think of our mission as mobilizing the church for social engagement and prophetic witness and the flourishing of all of God’s creation. Should we as Church choose to stand alongside refugees and migrants, we need to be prepared to resist and struggle alongside them.


Rafael Vallejo started his theological career at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and San Francisco Theological Seminary and from there continued on with a Master in Theological Studies from the University of Waterloo and a Master of Divinity at the University of Toronto. From 2011-2016, he travelled extensively and studied with indigenous communities in Peru, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina as part of his PhD dissertation (2018) on “Faith Perspectives of Mexican Migrant Farm Workers in Canada”. He serves as affiliate faculty at the Ansari Institute for Global Engagement with Religion at the University of Notre Dame.

Rafael is also part of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and his pieces focus on the experience of refugees and mission. 

 

What Is Your Yoke?

by Rob Hammock

COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. are now over 160,000 from over 4.9 million cases. In the wake of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, Black Lives Matter protests continue. The unemployment rate is back down to 10%, but individuals and families worry about the potential of eviction or foreclosure as federal financial support has lapsed. Meanwhile, arguments fly back and forth in the media and social media over “cancel culture” and whether or not wearing a mask is good public health policy or an affront to basic freedoms.

I am tired.

Beginning the sixth month of stay-at-home orders and lockdowns and masks and closed businesses, living in this time of uncertainty, fear, and frustration drains me. Sure, my canine co-workers love it and will probably be sorely disappointed if I ever go back to working in an office, but I miss the easy in-person interaction of others and the off the cuff conversations that happen throughout the day. Zoom calls have certainly lightened the load as I have figured out how to play trivia online and sing together in groups, yet Zoom fatigue is real. I miss being able to walk down the street and interact with neighbors as we visit stores and restaurants. I miss being able to come together over sporting events and cheering on my favorite teams. I miss being able to come together to work on challenges in our community together. I miss worship with actual people and tangible communion elements!

I am weary.

“‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.’” (Matthew 11:28 NRSV)

Photo by Ana Cernivec on Unsplash

These words of Jesus from Matthew have given me great comfort over the years, particularly when I have wrestled with depressive thoughts and anxiety. I imagine the welcoming, open arms of Christ beckoning me to sit and rest and absorb the love that is all comforting and unconditional in ways that I don’t fully understand and still have a difficult time believing might even be true for me. I am grateful for this invitation and long to sink into it. In corona-time, this invitation feels even more compelling as I await some return to normalcy away from Zoom and away from the constant din of social media and news that is ever frustrating and constantly imbued with anger, derision, scorn, and fear.

And yet, what is the “normal” I seek? What is the invitation to learn from Jesus that follows the call to rest? There may be a period of rest and comfort, but a return to “normal” in the context of the invitation is not the expectation.

“Learn from me” (Matthew 11:29)

If I am worn-down, depressed, and anxious, Jesus is calling me out of that confusion and inviting me to a different place to be open to a new way of being. Business as usual has not worked for my emotional, mental, physical, or spiritual sanity, so there needs to be a new way. “Normal” cannot be the answer, but Jesus is there to guide me, if I am open to surrender to the call.

“For my yoke is easy.” (Matthew 11:30)

I’ve missed the irony in the next verse regarding the easiness of the yoke. From Merriam-Webster, a yoke is a “a wooden bar or frame by which two draft animals are joined at the heads or necks for working together.” What in the world sounds easy about a yoke being placed upon me? This sounds like hard, grueling work! But it is simple if I am willing to be open and teachable.

The age of corona-time has offered me the space for reflection and contemplation. The welcoming rest to cast my cares and burdens upon Jesus is real, but it is for rejuvenation and restoration for a new path. To take upon his yoke is to learn and lean in and join in the work. Ultimately, if I’m not stuck too strongly in a place of comfort, I remember it is to join in the work that led Jesus on to the cross.

What is my normal?

In light of my frustrations and weariness, I look back upon what I’m tired from, and I’m struck by how privileged I am to be weary. Where I have legitimate struggles of heart, mind, and health, I can identify them and not minimize them, but I can also right-size my view to know how much I have to be grateful for and that I need to practice the act of gratitude remembrance to counter the negativity.

My family is healthy.

I have shelter.

I have enough food to eat.

I don’t fear being arrested.

My wife and I have jobs that allow us to make ends meet.

My “normal” in pre-corona-time was pretty good. And I am grateful. But, if I am to take on Jesus’ yoke and learn, then part of that task is to remember and know that I do not exist solely for myself. Having been able to find rest and acknowledge Jesus’ love, part of the yoke is to internalize it so I can share it with others whose burden isn’t light and who are indeed quite weary. 

What is my yoke?

Friends and neighbors who have sick loved ones from COVID-19.

Depressed and anxious people living with mental health diagnoses.

Folks worried about not being able to pay the rent or the mortgage.

Families who pray they can find ways to extend the groceries to feed their children.

Black people worried about whether or not they may be the target of the police.

Small business owners wondering if their livelihood is at risk.

Employees on edge waiting to find out if they’re the next to be let go or furloughed.

My privileged rest has the opportunity to take up Jesus’ yoke and be there for those who cannot find a way right now. For those who are fretting. For those who are frustrated. For those who feel powerless. For those who are disenfranchised. I need to listen, learn, and be present where possible to extend Jesus’ grace in solidarity to bear the burdens of my siblings in Christ and neighbors. I know my skills and resources, and I know I am blessed. I can do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with my God.

To whom can you listen? From what can you learn? And where can you be present?

What is your yoke?


Robert Hammock recently rolled off of the Session after a 3-year term at Caldwell Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC. Although trained at Princeton Theological Seminary (MDIV), the last 20 years of his career have been focused on affordable housing and community development efforts, primarily in urban contexts. He remains active in a leadership role through his church’s development of affordable housing through the re-purposing of part of its campus.

Rob is also a part of the NEXT Church blogging cohort, and his writing focuses on faith, ministry, and community development.

I Haven’t Called a Woman a “F****** B****”. That Doesn’t Make Me a Decent Man.

by Chris Dela Cruz

After a speech discussing poverty and unemployment as it relates to crime, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a representative in the United States Congress, was accosted and verbally attacked on the steps of the Capital by another representative, Rep. Ted Yoho. Rep. Yoho put his finger in the face of Rep. Ocasio-Cortez, a grown, adult woman, calling her “disgusting” and “crazy.”

Then, when walking away, in front of reporters, Rep. Yoho, also a grown, adult human who represents American citizens and swore an oath to serve his country, called Rep. Ocasio-Cortez a “fucking bitch.”

Rep. Yoho, on the House floor delivering a speech allegedly reported to be an “apology” according to some sources, denied he used “vulgar language” and said “I cannot apologize for my passion or for loving my God, my family, or my country” but he apologies for the “abrupt manner in which I spoke to my colleague,” never naming Rep. Ocasio-Cortez or admitting the incident as reported happened. Also, “having been married for 45 years with two daughters, I’m very cognizant of language.”

In response, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez gave a speech that I cannot emphasize enough how historic and important this speech is, on the floors of Congress. I ask that you watch it in full.

“Mr. Yoho mentioned that he has a wife and two daughters,” Rep. Ocasio-Cortez said. “I am two years younger than Mr. Yoho’s youngest daughter. I am someone’s daughter too.”

“What I believe is that having a daughter does not make a man decent. Having a wife does not make a decent man. Treating people with dignity and respect makes a decent man, and when a decent man messes up as we all are bound to do, he tries his best and does apologize.”

Of course my first response was “yeah!” and “you tell that guy!” Of course I did, after all, I am a “decent man.” 

Right?

So I have never called a woman a “fucking bitch,” mainly because I’m too embarrassed to say curse words like that about someone even to a friend. I suppose that makes me a “decent man.”

I have, though, chuckled lightly or smirked as some other guy said it. I have read the subtle cues in a group of people where the guys are belittling the women in the room, and stood there. I have benefited from being in a room of guys, many with power and privileges that I could benefit from, where I know I benefited because I was invited there and a woman was not, while the men belittled them. I have been at tables where there’s political discussion where there are women who know more than me, but I know that the men are looking for my opinion because I’m a man, and I feed into it.

Like Rep. Ted Yoho, I’ve not-really apologized to women, including my own spouse, with half-hearted excuses that actually sought to undermine the woman’s perspective, consciously or unconsciously knowing that women’s perspectives aren’t taken as seriously. All because in some vain effort to look “strong” I’m actually being too sensitive to my ego because men’s opinions are usually taken seriously. 

After all, if another man with power, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, can say with a straight face “I think that when someone apologizes, they should be forgiven” and “In America, I know people make mistakes, we’re a forgiving nation,” and even Democratic House Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer can say “the apology was appropriate,” then I can do a Ted-Yoho-apology knowing the boys club will defend me. And I do it knowing that the boys may turn on me if I step out of line.

Just as Rep. Ted Yoho has privileges as a representative who is a man, in my call as pastor, I have benefited from all sorts of privileges – I can share with search committees I have young kids without fear, rather than women pastors who have had to remind me how they might be perceived as “being distracted by their family duties.” I have had the assumption of some level of authority, I have biblical texts and “churchy” language that affirm my authority, which affect my career – and my salary.

I have never had the regular experience of feeling physically threatened even from people larger than me. I have never felt unsafe in a dating situation, or in any intimate setting, because movies, TV shows, songs, cultural taboos, and multiple laws in multiple levels of government protect me in these settings, not women. I don’t have scripture-clobbering texts justifying taking away my consent in sexual situations out of “submission” to my spouse, seen as a “head” authoritative figure.

And even as I type this, I know I will benefit from the fact that men say this stuff so rarely that it’s seen as somehow exemplary to say the basic thing of: don’t be physically or emotionally violent toward women with your actions or words, just like you shouldn’t with anyone.

So I guess I’m saying that I think Rep. Ocasio-Cortez is actually being very gracious when she talks about what a “decent man” should look like. Because we men need to do a lot of work, both internally and systemically, to live up to that.


Reverend Chris Dela Cruz is the new Associate Pastor of Youth, Young Adults, and Community Engagement at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Portland, Oregon. He has written for Next Church, Presbyterian Outlook, and other outlets. Prior to being an ordained pastor, he was a journalist for the Star-Ledger in New Jersey.

Chris writes about the intersection of faith, cultural trends, and American life.

Preach Racial Justice

by Holly Haile Thompson

“So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your heart. Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life, perfect your life, beautify all things in your life…” – Tecumseh

I honor my Narragansett siblings and mark their 345th annual August Meeting – I respectfully remember Dr. Ella Sekatau, Mrs. Eleanor Dove and their families. I acknowledge nearly 600,000 lives around Mother Earth now lost to Covid-19. Yet, unbelievably, this is not quite ‘real’ enough to wear a face-covering to perhaps save the lives of others; “I might save another person’s life by wearing a cloth mask” then justify not wearing one?!

Modern-folk believe ‘holy work’ is flashy, famous, wrapped in finery, but I’ve learned it’s not the one with the fancy abode who is the measure of goodness, it is the one whose ‘well-worn path to their door’ who may not even have a lot but they always have enough to share. It is ‘holy work’ to do what is in one’s power to do that others might live.
We have found ourselves ‘alone to pray’ more in 2020 than ever before. Cloistered life invites meditation, contemplation and can result in new insights. Indigenous Peoples observe many forms of devotion, thanksgiving, prayer and meditation out-of-doors, and we are called primitive and heathen for doing so; while in a land where water, air and soil gives life, sustains life, why wouldn’t all devout people protect, nurture and share these God-given elements?

Matthew’s lectionary readings for August come after Jesus’ experience of a death in the family, he needed solitude – still, was not given the luxury of a restorative quarantine. When might caring leadership look at unscheduled interruption as opportunity? When might influential leadership see the unsatisfied throng of humanity and manifest anything but pity for the rabble who hunger and thirst for fairness, decency, healing and hope? ALWAYS. To look upon the community and not see humanity is a problem: big time.

Photo by Wesual Click on Unsplash

Feeding 5000 in a patriarchal system means feeding 5000 men; can we see what’s wrong with this snapshot of helpless disciples and their inability to act? Looking upon this humanity demands a compassionate and humane response – they need to be fed. Not counselled, not removed, not reasoned with, not dismissed, not sent empty away: Feed them. Don’t imagine the dozens of reasons as to why it can’t happen, feed them.

Walking on Water (doing the impossible): some can and some can’t? Focus; and if one’s eyes are not on one’s own bellybutton and its inadequacy, and eyes and hearts are on the action leading to the goal – what seems impossible can be accomplished. So many times a quick re-read of an Allan Boesak sermon from the 1980s will set a wondering wanderer back on the Good Red Road.

Apartheid can’t be changed – but maybe it can;

Racism isn’t a problem in an all White church – well, maybe it is;

Unceded Native Territory will never be recognized – that, too, might come to pass.

“Who do you say that I am?” A question to all who have ears to hear. I say that you’re the One ‘calling out’ and admonishing those who, with impunity, rule using violence. Jesus asks, “Who am I?” The One holding to account people and systems that with astonishing regularity send the needy away hungry, broken, economically and physically crippled, in a system that, by design, creates and maintains conditions resulting in ever-growing populations of desperate dejected, destitute, depleted human beings.

Additionally, “Who have I shown myself to be?” One immune from humanity’s cultural influence, or One who grew up hearing about “Crumbs and Dogs”? In our creeds we mutter some such about ‘fully human and fully divine’ and if the former is also true we must admit to the encompassing influence of one’s own culture; i.e. the ‘White lessons’ given to everyone in the United States – escaped by no one. Enveloping cultural indoctrination perpetuates the ideals of White supremacy and White normalcy in our Nation, Churches and American society. Only those who see beyond these inclinations – and those who learn to see beyond these predispositions – have a chance to become anti-racist no matter who they were born and raised to be.

Don’t become distracted by the crumbs…” Natasha Cloud said to all who work for justice. This WNBA athlete spoke with strength and clarity about the life-path she is walking today in 2020; don’t try and tell her that ‘life’ is not for her, ‘health’ is not for her, she will seek with faithful determination and a singular focus to lift her voice for racial equity in this miserly United States. The wind and the waves are distracting – but they blow where they will because Creator has made it so. The ‘least’ effort to attempt to appease injustice is distracting – but that’s not the focus – ‘Justice in this world’ is the only objective because nothing less can bring Peace.

An Onondaga Elder taught me, “Respect your brother’s/sister’s vision. Can our church-related siblings take a lesson from the Ancient Human Beings of Turtle Island? I pray that they can.


The Rev Holly Haile Thompson, DD is a blood member of the Shinnecock Nation, Long Island, NY, studied at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, IA, was graduated in 1985, ordained by the Presbytery of Western Colorado in 1986 becoming the first Native American Woman to become Minister of Word and Sacrament/Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Holly served congregations in Colorado and in New York state, is a member of several churchwide committees including the Racial Equity Advocacy Committee (REAC), the Native American Consulting Committee (NACC), and serves on the Doctrine of Discovery Speakers Bureau, all of the PCUSA denomination. Currently, Holly volunteers with the United Methodist Church’s northeast Native American Ministries Committee – supporting the UMC ongoing ‘Act of Repentance’. Holly most recently concluded her service with 1st Presbyterian Church Potsdam, NY as Transitional/Supply Pastor to explore what an “Anti-Racist Church” might look like. She works with the Poor Peoples’ Campaigns of Northern New York and of Long Island. Holly is married to Kahetakeron Harry Thompson of Akwesasne, and together they share 7 children, 16 grandchildren and 6 great grandchildren. “May our paths lead us to a time when we shall live together in Peace on Good Mother Earth.”

Holly is also a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and her writing focuses on indigenous theology and the lectionary.

America’s Optimistic Spirit is Killing Us Because We Don’t Know What Faith Is

by Chris Dela Cruz

There are a number of expressions and philosophies I have heard that cut across various ideological and political lines that have a distinct American ring to them. Things work out in the end. Chase your dreams. The sky’s the limit. Your inner state is all about how you decide to see things.

In short, American optimism and positive thinking.

I don’t deny the truth and power in many of these sentiments. In the wake of the stresses of modern life, positivity and reframing situations internally seemed to have gotten many individual Americans through these struggles. These narratives can be powerful motivators for both individual and collective action, narratives that tie in with grand American mythology. We braved the frontier! We flew to the moon! We foster innovation and entrepreneurship!

However, it is now clear that America’s Optimistic Spirit is killing us.

These American coping mechanisms of super positive thinking, of “frontier” sky’s-the-limit mentality, and optimistic framing have ill-equipped us to take a horrific pandemic seriously, to confront the realities of long-embedded systemic racism, and to actually use our dream-thinking where it could matter – to pool our resources to deal with an unprecedented economic disaster with actual far-reaching solutions that help people.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

When it comes to our country’s unique COVID-19 crisis, America’s Optimistic Spirit has failed us on every level – our need for freedom has enraptured many to congregate bars, to open up businesses and churches too early, and to either wear masks haphazardly basically for show or not at all. While hindsight is 20/20, when the virus was first hitting the U.S. many officials failed to respond quickly, and many people dismissed its seriousness and wore their lack of concern as a badge of honor. So many people said this was just the media and government overblowing things as usual, that folks stocking up on goods were crazy. When the shutdowns started in March, I heard from many people “well, guess we’ll stay inside for two weeks, and then we’ll get back to normal,” even though basically every health expert was saying this could take over a year (at least) and require multiple lockdowns.

And this just scratches the surface of the systemic failure, of a President who asserted this was just going to be a blip that would go away, and all the ways we re-opened too early because America decided the virus was over. America’s Optimistic Spirit literally cannot cope with an emergency. It does not know how to acknowledge the negative in life, and it cannot handle things outside of its control. It is our demon, possessing us with a smile while we slowly die.

We know this because, in many ways, America has been in an emergency long before COVID-19. As the recent protests have brought into the open, there are entire communities that live in constant crisis situations that have been ignored for our entire history. Black people have been saying for decades that police officers were getting away with murder, that drugs and weapons were planted at crime scenes, that police reports weren’t telling the whole truth. If it weren’t for iPhones and pent-up lockdown energy, Americans wouldn’t ever have listened, because it gets in the way of our positive outlook on who we are and what we have done.

American optimism and positivity may have helped individuals cope with some of the stresses of our over-worked, capitalistic system. But did these mechanisms just help us soothe ourselves enough so that people don’t adequately process how inhuman and unjust the modern systems are, and therefore not stir the drive and desire to change the system itself? Rich people are optimistic that “things will work out” because they in fact always do – because they have rigged the system to make it so. Those who aren’t rich, unfortunately, also inherit that go-getter, dream big, things will work out attitude, because that’s what permeates our culture, because those with power put out a false mythology of meritocracy for the purposes of giving people false hope, not disclosing just how much privilege played a part in success. How many of those self-starting success stories started out with a loan from daddy?

What I am getting at is this: America’s Optimistic Spirit is basically a coping mechanism used individually and collectively to deny reality. Our entire mythology and national ethos is based on a lie lying to itself so it never has to confront the truth. The sooner we look ourselves in the mirror and purge ourselves of our grave certainty, the better.

There are many reasons we developed this Spirit, and many will rightly focus on the political, systemic roots – namely, a logical extension of our Manifest Destiny to wipe out, enslave, and exploit black and brown people in service of America’s never-ending colonial, capitalist “frontier” expansion.

I want to lift up a theological thread, though, that I think at the very least offers a foundation for the political. We simply don’t know what faith is. I’ve heard faith described colloquially from many faithful American Christians as believing really hard in a better future, because God will make things happen. “All things are possible with God” is a common refrain. Ask and ye shall receive.

Americans, because we have denied the existence of harsh realities and because certain privileges have shielded certain people from experiencing them, develop an immature faith that simply contends that things will just work out if you believe in your head hard enough. Our broken, corrupt systems provide goods for the privileged, the privileged call those goods “blessings” on TV, and everyone else recites the creed.

In practice, faith becomes a mastery of control, internally and externally. Internally, because the individual person is asked to control their emotions enough to deny the alarm bells those emotions are signalling about the harshness of reality and the injustice of the systems – yes, you should be angry that your back is against the wall, and yes you should be sad that people are dying for no reason! Externally, because America goes out into the frontier “by faith” while continuing the tradition of exploitation and oppression for anyone who gets in America’s way.

We don’t know a faith whose posture is more of surrender and mystery and loss of control. We don’t know a faith that allows for lament and doubt instead of explanation and certainty.

And so we are left with thousands of people dead of COVID-19 without acknowledging that it doesn’t have to be this way, with a country that cannot even deal symbolically with our racist statues without federal stormtroopers kidnapping people in rental cars.

And we are left to live by Faith alone. After all, demanding our government to provide a more sustainable, substantive COVID-19 response or to fundamentally change its racist systems would require us confronting America’s harsh realities in a way that our Spirit alone cannot cope with.

But I guess I should think positively. Sola Fide!


Reverend Chris Dela Cruz is the Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, a diverse, immigrant Queens, NYC congregation with over 30+ nations represented. His role includes building a co-working space for young adult entrepreneurs, coordinating kids and family ministries, and helping in community organizing efforts. He has written for Next Church, Presbyterian Outlook, and other outlets. Prior to being an ordained pastor, he was a journalist for the Star-Ledger in New Jersey.

Chris writes about the intersection of faith, cultural trends, and American life.

The Jealous God

by Whitney Fauntleroy

Did you know that the God we worship is jealous? We tend to describe God in the easier to digest terms: merciful, gracious, loving, forgiving, patient -or-in the chorus of omni’s- omnipresent, omniscient.  In general, we do not like the idea of worshipping a God who is jealous. While I am pretty familiar with the definition of jealous, I want us to wade into the definition anew today. From Miriam Webster:

1: hostile toward a rival or one believed to enjoy an advantage : ENVIOUS

2a: intolerant of rivalry or unfaithfulness

b: disposed to suspect rivalry or unfaithfulness

3: vigilant in guarding a possession

In Exodus 20 one of the places in the Bible where we find the Ten Commandments, I keep going back to God’s reminder of this particular attribute. God is a jealous god. God has at this point in the scriptural witness a history of punishing current generations for the sins and disobedience of their great grandparents. Why? Simply because God is jealous. Maya Angelou said, “When people show you who they are, believe them”. We seem to be skeptical that God is who God says She is, particularly when God defines herself in hard to swallow terms.

Photo by Robert Vergeson on Unsplash

As the debate over removing statues and monuments erected for problematic American figures rages on…again, I cannot help but think about our love of idols. Most of the time when I heard about idols in the worship or teaching spaces of church it was things like money or success but what about actual graven images? Perhaps we all got so used to these statues and monuments, that we never paused to think about who the person was or what it meant for all of God’s children to have them look over capitol buildings and public spaces. Idol worship is intrinsic to what seems like the real state religion of America which is America. The very idea of our country is an idol, the way many of our histories, documents, and thus those who made them possible in broad strokes of American ideals: courage, bravery, freedom means that many of us are taught to love this country before we are taught to love Christ. 

Civil religion is not the same thing as faith in the Triune God. That can be easy to forget when there are sanctuaries with American flags and some congregations sing to the idols of American exceptionalism on State holiday Sundays. My senior year of high school I attended Duke Youth Academy for Christian Formation and heard Dr. Stanley Hauerwas said, “If your church has an American flag in your sanctuary then your salvation is in jeopardy”. 

When the people who fill our pews (and our clergy too) love the ideals (even as corrupt as they can be) of these yet to be United States more than the ideals of the kingdom of God, how do we reclaim our allegiance not to flags and founding fathers but reclaim our fidelity to a God who already told us that they were jealous, and that idol worship, graven images no matter how noble the human may be is sin against God?

My prayer is that we sit with what American gods we serve, question whose freedom we seek ,and remember that God is indeed a jealous God and that might just be good news right now, always, and forever.


Whitney Fauntleroy is a North Carolina native. Now in her sixth year of ordained ministry, Whitney is grateful to have experienced ministry in many contexts. Whitney has served as Director of Youth Ministry at University United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill, a Designated Solo Pastor at Chestnut Street Presbyterian Church in Wilmington, NC. In the Spring of 2017, she began serving as Associate Pastor of Youth and Young Adults at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, Virginia.

Whitney is also part of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and writes at the intersection of popular culture, identity, and theology.

Chase, Kansas: Population 436

by Catherine Neelly Burton

By any standard, Chase, Kansas, is small. The 2018 census estimate put the population at 436. Of those 436 people, 13 are members of the Community Presbyterian Church which sits at the corner of Oak and Grove streets in the middle of the 186 acres that is Chase.

Photo by Kealan Burke on Unsplash

Chase was always small, but there was a time when small towns thrived. Fifty years ago, Chase had a movie theater, restaurants, and a hotel. Those things are long gone. There’s still a school and one gas station where you can get a burger. There’s also a part-time bank, a post office, a senior center, and the co-op, but you can’t buy groceries in town or see a doctor.

This scenario plays out again and again in Kansas and other parts of the country. Migration from small towns is not new. Nothing about this is remarkable. What’s remarkable is the impact that the Community Presbyterian Church continues to have.

The name of the church is important. Over 80 years ago members of three churches in Chase united and formed a community church. They wanted the structure of a denomination, and since none of the three were Presbyterian, they decided to become Presbyterian so as not to favor one of the three. The important thing was to be a community church, and in 2020 they are that more than ever.

  • A few years ago, the congregation bought the house next door to the church, gutted it, and turned it into a community food pantry where they serve about 30-40 families a month, or about 25-30% of the town. They fund this with donations, grants, and church resources.
  • Any time the school social worker needs shoes for a student, the church buys them.
  • The school social worker gives the church a list of gifts needed for children each Christmas. The church buys and delivers the presents.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

The people in the church love God and love their neighbors, and they want to show God’s love. The church is fortunate to have money, not tons, but a steady source of income in addition to tithes and offerings. Years ago, a church member left some land to the church. The church gets money from an oil pipe that goes across that land and money from someone who farms on part of it.

For a long time, church members insisted on saving the money. When “the Depression era” generation gave up power to those who currently lead (now retirees), they started investing the money in the community and in keeping up their facility. They put an elevator in at their church, so the building is 100% accessible.

When a woman who grew up in Chase moved back home, she tried to start Sunday School for children. She knocked on every door in town, and no one came. Not deterred, she adapted and created a Wednesday after school program, advertised at the school, and kids came. The children are fed, they play games, do crafts, and learn Bible stories. As the elementary children aged out of the program the church started a middle school youth group on Sunday nights. The church started paying for these children to go to the presbytery camp each summer. This year 26 children and youth were registered before camp was cancelled.

How do 13 people do this? They don’t do it alone. They pull in their friends and neighbors, continuing the mission of the community church. They do worry about what will happen when they can’t continue, but for now they keep going.

I asked if they had ever had conversations with the town 12 miles away, which has a part time PCUSA pastor, about a yoked pastorate. They wondered aloud about what a pastor would do. The pulpit is filled by church members, retired pastors, and commissioned ruling elders, and they – the members and community – do everything else.

It struck me that most of the conversations I hear around rural churches circle back to a clergy shortage. Chase hasn’t had an installed pastor since the 1980’s and has done quite well. Perhaps it’s time that the broader church stop centering itself around pastors and instead center itself on mission like they’ve done in Chase, though if a pastor were fortunate enough to serve in a place like Chase, I think they’d have a lot of fun.

Postscript:
Chase, Kansas, is in Rice County, which as of June 1 has four confirmed cases of Covid-19. The people in Chase deal with problems of the world such as poverty, drug abuse, domestic violence, and lack of opportunity, but the news cycles around the pandemic and protests seem very far away. I visited Chase (with my mask – good grief, I didn’t want to be a virus carrier from the city) on May 22, before any of us knew the name George Floyd, so I can’t speak to how the news resonates there.


Catherine Neelly Burton serves as the pastor of what is most easily categorized as a ‘traditional’ PCUSA congregation, even though that era is gone. She serves at Grace Presbyterian in Wichita, KS. Grace has about 350 members and is an amazing congregation with wonderful people. She is married to John, and they have a four year old daughter and a nine year old dog.

Catherine is also a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and her writing focuses on rural ministry in Kansas. 

The Suffering that Lingers

(Note: Some identifying details of those mentioned in this piece have been changed to protect their privacy.)

by Holly Clark Porter

I remember the first murder victim whose body and family I helped care for after her death.

While working for a funeral home, you learn that people die constantly. I won’t say you “get used to it”, because that isn’t quite right. You become familiar to the oddness, the smells, the sadness. You get comfortable. You’re comfortable with death at 10:00am or 3:00am. You’re comfortable because most of the time, the bodies who you take into your care are bodies ravaged by age or sickness. You can see that their body needed to die. As a pastor, it was easy to quote the Christian commendation and say in my head, “they rest from their labor, their suffering has ended, and they have found peace.”

But then there are deaths, faces, families, for whom those words were empty, empty to the family, but also empty to me, even though my theology, my faith tells me better. Sometimes, I’m not even sure I understand the commendation until I have heard and taken on the charge and benediction.

As I looked at this young woman, maybe 20 years old, on our embalming table, I didn’t know from what she rested. Her body hadn’t been suffering. She was an innocent victim of a gas station robbery. And, I looked in disbelief at her body, her body which seemed so normal, so healthy. Her face, perfect. Her face looked just like the pictures her family brought us; a graduation party and hanging out at Rehoboth Beach, smiling big. Other than the two marks in her torso made by a knife, her body didn’t look like it needed to rest.

Her suffering ended. But her suffering also lingered.

I cannot help but think of the funeral home who will take George Floyd’s body into their care—the people who will wash his body, stitch up his skin, who will put makeup on his bruising, and try to give his family and friends a glimpse of the life now taken. I wonder if they will step back and look at Mr. Floyd’s well-maintained muscles and striking jawline and wonder why he had to die.

His suffering ended. But his suffering also lingers.

Photo source: https://www.delawareonline.com/story/news/2020/05/30/wilmington-protests-george-floyd-turn-violent-night/5295496002/

In the lingering suffering, we have commended him with protests and signs of “I can’t breathe” and anger and sermons and posts—a commendation not everyone is sure what to do with. But, now it’s time we give power and understanding to the commendation by hearing our charge and our benediction.

One of our very own youth at my church, a 15 year old young man, gave me that charge and benediction. With anger, questions, yearning, he took to Instagram decrying the horrific murder of George Floyd and he lifted up so many other names of black people who have died at the hands of racism, but what he said that called to me was: “someone please.” “please” he said over and over. “Please someone.”

In this pandemic caused by Covid, we have been willing to completely change the way we do everything. In a matter of months, we have changed our eating habits, how we shop, re-imagined our rituals, we’ve taken Communion with Dr. Pepper and Doritos, and we were willing to endure a tanked economy all for the sake of people’s lives.

We’ve had years, decades, centuries to change the virus of racism and yet, because it’s uncomfortable or maybe unimaginable or too scary or there’s too much risk or there’s too many unknowns, we’ve just let it infect every cell in our social bodies.

In my more cynical moments, I think we’ve adapted so quickly to the Corona virus because “all lives matter” and this virus threatens the lives of all people, white people, black people, Asians, but that racism only threatens the lives of people of color. In my more whole, more realistic moments, I think it’s because you can’t put a mask on racism or socially distance ourselves from prejudice language and hope to end racism. It’s more difficult than that. It isn’t as simple as choosing to wash your hands; it’s choosing to notice the things we don’t notice. It’s choosing to hear the stories of people of color. It’s choosing to realize your heart just leaped because a black man is jogging behind you. It’s choosing to wonder why white people names are seen as normal and black people names are seen as strange. It’s choosing to notice who fills our TV screens, our town halls, our best schools.

Someone, please. Let us hear this charge to put an understanding around the difficult commendation that often ended in looting. Let us hear this charge as a way to grapple with that which we can only see as destruction instead of a release. Let us hear this charge and take it up with God who calls us, Jesus who walks with us, and the Holy Spirit who gives us breath so that before breath gets taken, we are the someone’s who act when we hear “please.”

And until all lives really do matter, may we take on the labor, the work, and suffering from which George Floyd rests.

(Author’s note: As a queer, white woman I know some forms of discrimination, but it pales in comparison to systemic, prolonged racism. Rather than write about Pride for June’s Pride celebrations, I felt it was necessary to continue to write about black lives. I hope that my words help rather than harm. May we continue to see the stories that are ignored, stories about black trans lives, stories about queer POC, stories that don’t make the news and may we never forget how each story is a part of our story, if we bother to hear them.)


The Reverend Holly Clark-Porter is an irreverent revered who adores people, even the annoying ones. In her work, she hopes to bring people back to Church by uplifting the importance of a joyful community, the strength of working together for justice, and by giving voice to the relevancy of faithful love over hate and destruction. She has a passion for preaching, writing, and nerdy church things. Holly received her B.A. in English at Schreiner University and her M.Div from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, where she was a recipient of the Charles L. King Preaching Award and a member of the Scotch Council. She has served as pastor of Big Gay Church and Calvary Presbyterian, both of Wilmington, DE. She was also a funeral director and funeral chaplain at McCrery & Harra Funeral Homes (DE). Holly and her wife, The Reverend Kaci Clark-Porter, recently moved from Delaware to El Paso, Texas, where they serve as Co-Pastors of Grace Presbyterian. They love camping, travelling the world in search of food and wine, and spoiling their pitbull, Hazel.

Holly is also a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and her writing focuses on how death shows up in the life of faith.

The SHIFT: It’s Time to Make That Change

by Freda Marie S. Brown

I was both mad and sad when I first became aware of the public murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. “Here we go again, I thought. No justice for injustice, no rest for the weary; how long must we endure this, O Lord, how long?” I am quite aware of the cries of my ancestral lineage that goes back almost 400 years. I will never get over the fact that THIS, is the place at which America has arrived; the place where her enduring ethos of white supremacy and racist hatred can now be seen and called what it is in the light of day. For most of the people who look like me, we have known all along the insidious cancer that has fed upon this soil. As an African-American Episcopal priest and mom I will NEVER get over the fact that the list of names has grown longer and not shorter in the past 4 or 5 years. Say their names: Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor. Four-hundred years and this s—continues? My heart literally hurts.

Besides all of this, I have been unable to get over the fact that the vast majority of my non-POC “brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus” in the Church have been reticent to speak with a single voice about this enormous and ongoing SIN of racism in America. Because I love Jesus Christ and his body deeply on this planet, I have a bone to pick with the Church in its whiteness. I am both mad and sad.

Governments come and go, but the Kin(g)dom of God—that governance which we claim rules forever— is given nary a thought in the minds and hearts of many of you professing Christians. Your submission to the ONE whom we call GOD is often lower than the recovering alcoholics to their higher power of the Big Book. It is simply amazing. Could this be because you are using a limited map of reality, one that no longer fits the current state of growing in spiritual (not necessarily, religious) awareness?

Albert Einstein is famously quoted to have said, “the mind that got us here, will not be the mind that gets us out.” You need a BIG PARADIGM SHIFT; indeed, we all do. A new cosmology is required to accommodate the work of the Holy Spirit at this time in creation. Along with that new map of reality, comes the practice of continuing repentance, instead of some one-shot deal that you have played with oh, these many years. The old mechanistic, predictive, hierarchical, anthropocentric, competitive cosmology will no longer do. It is time for new wine in new wine skins. A dynamic state of self-awareness, mindfulness, and readiness to change must take root within you.

The overwhelming masculine energies of the ages that have given us our current state of affairs, is no longer holding. Witness the state of the nation and of the world.

I want to be clear in my use of the term “masculine energy” though, as opposed to males or men. I am a woman who loves men. No problem there. But the grip of patriarchy has devasted both the world and the Church. For me, the Church’s influence has often been in death-dealing ways that fail to reflect the LIFE of Christ so that others want to live that life. Besides males and females are comprised of both masculine and feminine energies. The imbalance in these energies is expressed in the woundedness, anger, and outright hatred we are observing all around us and in the suffering of oh, so many. I often wonder, “do non-POC Christians really believe a ‘new life’ in Christ exists? No? Is that why so many of them can easily accept the status quo?”

The rise of compassion, collaboration, mercy, and kindness, generosity, and hopefulness are all feminine energies. (Again, not female) and are needed to balance the overly masculine-energized reality that has been created—primarily by you, I am sad to say. You have forgotten who you are.

Repentance, like conversion, is a returning repeatedly to Holy Mystery, whom we call GOD. I commend to you Jim Wallis’ very timely book, A CALL TO CONVERSION, written more than 30 years ago. It is the only way the mind of Christ might truly be formed in ALL of us. I am sorry to inform you that the concept of autonomy has no place in the Kin(g)dom of God. Let me know if you find it in the bible, please. We can remain in a state of continuing repentance by asking the Holy Spirit (with thanksgiving) for it. We pray for all sorts of things. Why not something that really matters?
The entire world, but America in particular, is on a highly desirable path of human evolution. So, discreetly discern when you judge what your eyes are seeing, or your ears are hearing. Human evolution is the telos for which we, POC and non-POC were all created; to be a paradise for the Beloved Community.

That evolution will hurt and be inconvenient to you. It will require the death of many dreams, hopes and most certainly ideologies. But it will not kill you; not if we hold faithfully to the truth of Ultimate Reality—that we are already ONE. As much as you like to feel comfortable and hate being inconvenienced, the Church in America can no longer remain as it is and go with G-D. G-D is on the move. LIFE is dynamic and changes abound. It is time for divinization. It is time to take on Christ-consciousness for the sake of the world.

I and so many other siblings of color can no longer tolerate your apathy, Church. Each one of us must become the change we wish to see in the world. We need you to step up. God grant you the grace to receive this gift and to live into it with us.


The Rev. Freda Marie Brown is a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland currently serving as Associate Rector at The Church of the Redeemer, Baltimore. She formerly served as the Executive Director of St. Vincent’s House in Galveston, a 501(c)3 non-profit and Jubilee Ministry of the Diocese of Texas. Prior to coming to the Diocese of Texas, she was the Associate Rector at the Episcopal Church of the Annunciation in the Diocese of Dallas. She received her undergraduate degree from Xavier University of Louisiana and was employed as a clinical laboratory director for 21 years at St. Paul Medical Center in Dallas before saying “yes” to God’s call to be ordained priest in His Church. She earned a Master of Theological Studies from Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, Dallas and a Master of Arts in Religion (with a concentration in Anglican Studies) from the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, TX. For 7 years she served as a Palliative Care chaplain in hospice and hospital settings and has spent many hours serving the dying and those who love them.

She loves her work among God’s people and is constantly amazed by the many disguises of Jesus Christ —especially among the marginalized. She enjoys yoga, gardening, cooking, hiking, reading, writing, and listening to jazz. She loves good food, good wine, and good conversation. She is Crystal’s Mom.

Freda is also a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort and her writing focuses on the intersectionality of Christian spirituality with what may commonly be called energetics or specifically energy medicine.

From My Neighborhood in Minneapolis

by Heidi Vardeman

I am writing this from my home in Minneapolis, half a mile from the Third Precinct police station that burned on Tuesday night and a block from a neighborhood bar that is still smoldering.  Military helicopters fly close overhead.  The air smells of tear gas and smoke. Images swirl in my head.  Guilt weighs heavily on my heart.   I worry about where we go from here.  

Images, sounds, smells—Day #1 The horrible video of George Floyd’s murder.  His black body face down on the pavement, his neck crushed by a white cop’s knee.  For eight minutes and 46 seconds. The policeman stares at the camera with a terrifying calm. Other cops press down on his body.  We watch George Floyd die. 

Day #2:   The Third Precinct building goes up in fire. Protesters heave shopping carts into the conflagration.  The crowd chants, “No justice.  No peace.” Over and over again.  Sirens, shouts, smoke, teargas, gunshots. 

Day #3:   Looted buildings, including a public library, health clinic, charter school, a Wendy’s and a Target, two grocery stores, countless small minority-owned businesses on Lake Street.   Sirens and helicopters. 

Day #4: In the daytime, people wearing masks walk by our house with brooms and garbage cans to help with the cleanup.  Late at night a car without license plates drives slowly down the same street. White supremacist websites have called for people to come to Minneapolis.

Feelings–I am tired, teary and have a strong sense of guilt. I and my fellow white Minneapolitans know that the Minneapolis Police Department is racist. We have known for years that there are white supremacist elements in the police, but since it did not inconvenience us, we did little if anything at all.  Despite Minneapolis’ liberal reputation and self-congratulatory self-image, there is a terrible racial gap in education, health care and home ownership. My neighbor, who is African-American and about my age, tells me he is bone weary of this bullshit that has gone on and on and on.

As my emotions swirl about, today I recognize a new element in the mix of things: a feeling of fear.  Late last night I watched a car stripped of license plates drive slowly down my street. Authorities tell us that bottles with accelerant are being stashed in alleys in order to set fires.  As I note this feeling of fear for  my personal safety, I wonder:  is this how my black and brown neighbors feel whenever the police drive slowly down their streets? 

Where do we go from here?  One police officer has been  arrested and charged with the murder of George Floyd, but what of the others?   No justice, no peace: no peace in the irenic sense of peace and quiet nor in the biblical sense of justice and well-being.  Jesus wept over Jerusalem.  Today we weep over Minneapolis.  

I don’t know where we go from here, but I do know that we can begin to make a start with prayer.  

Gracious God, help us white people in Minneapolis to go beyond superficial clean ups and food drives to pause, to ponder, to examine our political and economic structures and our complicity in their brutality and inequality.  Help us not to be distracted by fear for our personal safety and selfish interests, for you are our refuge and strength, our very present help in trouble.  Keep us focused on what started this mess:  the sin of racism in both its systemic and individual manifestations.  Deliver us from our blindness to white privilege and our easy toleration of discrimination and inequality. Wipe us clean of our sin so that we may be made fresh and new—today, and then again tomorrow, and again and again. we have left undone so many things that we ought to have done.  Ever cognizant that we will again fall into easy racism, strengthen us in our endeavors, inspire us with your spirit and gird us with your hope. 

Forgive us for our complicity in the death of George Floyd and the murderous brutality of the Minneapolis police.  

In the name of Jesus Christ we pray.

Amen. 


Over the course of her 40+ years in ministry, Heidi Vardeman has served Latino, African-American, and white congregations in the Northeast, South, and Midwest, ranging widely in size and economic standing. She has also done faith-based justice work both in D.C. where she was a national executive for United Methodists lobbying for peace during the Reagan administration and in Tampa, where she helped found the Tampa AIDS Network during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Additionally, she has done doctoral work both in speech communications and theology. She currently serves a tiny church in the suburbs of Minneapolis that nearly closed due to conflict prior to her arrival. The grandmother of three and the mother of two grown daughters, Heidi lives with her husband Frank and his service dog Zest in a diverse urban neighborhood of Minneapolis in a very old house that is always falling apart. Her hair is often highlighted with grout, plumbers putty or paint.

Heidi is also a member of the NEXT Church blogging cohort, and her writing generally focuses on how our religious tradition (Reformed Christianity) is relevant in a postmodern/post-Constantinian world.