Be Thou My Vision

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During August, John Wilkinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring where we are as a church through the lens of the new Presbyterian hymnal, Glory to God — what are we thinking about? how are we worshiping? what matters to us? where are we headed? Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Jeff Falter

In 1994, I was getting ready to graduate from seminary and looking for my first church. My first interview was with a small rural church where I had preached once before, on a controversial subject. During the interview, the chair of the committee asked me, “What other controversial subjects might you preach on?” I was flustered, and didn’t know how to respond. The chair said, “Let me give you an example. Through those trees is a small black Presbyterian church, but if you or presbytery or anyone else tried to make us worship together, you would hardly see a white face in the crowd.” I was stunned.

I was a thirty year old white man, married, with my first child on the way. I had the privilege of being raised by parents, and in a community, that believed in meritocracy–that all people should have the opportunity to succeed in life, and participate in society, to the best of their ability. I had the privilege of growing up in a church that believed all people are beloved children of God, that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. I had the privilege of believing that the racial issues that had confronted our society were a matter of history, not a present reality. That interview opened my eyes.

coneThis past year has awakened me even more. It started when I read The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone. Then came the death of so many African-Americans in our society: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Charly Keunang, Sandra Bland, the Charleston 9, just to name a few. Some died at the hands of police; others at the hands of a white supremacist. Some were saints; some were sinners. All died unjustly. My heart breaks for the lives lost, and for so many lives dehumanized. I want to stand at the top of the world and shout to the four corners of the earth, “Black lives matter.” It is what my parents taught me. It is what the Declaration of Independence taught me. It is what Martin Luther King taught me. It is what my faith taught me.

In heart-rending times such as these, I find comfort in the promise of God proclaimed in baptism, “You have been … marked as Christ’s own forever” (G2G, page 18; Hymn 482). I find hope in the central proclamation of the Christian faith, “In life and in death we belong to God” (G2G, page 37; Hymn 326). I find joy in the claim of God in Isaiah 43: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You belong to me.” Hymn 76, 177, 463). But this is not enough. Discipleship demands more.

In baptism, “we choose whom we will serve by turning from evil and turning to Jesus Christ” (G2G, page 16). In baptism, we pray that the same God who claimed each of us as God’s own child, will also send each of us forth “in the power of [God’s] Spirit to love and serve [God] with joy, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth” (G2G, page 21). In other words, in our baptism we not only receive assurance of God’s amazing love for us, we also receive commissioning to do God’s work in the world.

As long as I can remember, I have cherished the hymn, “Be Thou My Vision” (Hymn 450).

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart,
naught be all else to me, save that thou art;
thou my best thought, by day or by night,
waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.

I pray that I will remain true to that vision of God as the ruler of all–black and white, Anglo and Hispanic, rich and poor. I pray that I will remain true to sharing that vision with others, so that they too may find their souls’ shelter in God. I pray that my own life will proclaim that “Black lives matter”— matter to God, matter to me, matter to our society. And I pray for God’s wisdom in making that vision a reality in our society.

Jeff Falter

Jeff Falter is a member-at-large of the Presbytery of Genesee Valley, having served congregations in Washington, West Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama and New York. He is currently working for Community Computer Service in Auburn, New York as a computer programmer. Prior to attending seminary, he worked as a software and electronic engineer.

Racial Justice, Contemplation, and the Next Church

By Therese Taylor-Stinson

Harriet Tubman said, “I freed a thousand slaves; I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.” Her words are still true. Without trivializing the atrocity that slavery was to our ancestors, too many of us today have a false sense of freedom and equality in a country that was founded on white supremacy.

Today’s perpetrators, supporters, and beneficiaries of slavery, colonialism, and oppression suffer from the spiritual disease of racism, whose system enslaves even them and is a web of denial and separation. People who claim that they don’t see color deny their own experience and the experience of those who suffer the effects of racism. That denial prevents true freedom and the dismantling of racist systems that may not be the legalized slavery of history, but mirror those realities today in laws and a culture of white privilege.

For the 21st-century Church, which has always held that contemplation comprises method and inspiration, call and response, our deepest response in God to a suffering world, including the violence and injustice that results from privilege, should come through prayer and responsive acts of love. Frederick Douglass wrote, “Power concedes nothing without demand. It never has and it never will.” The 13th Amendment to the Constitution declared that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted [emphasis mine], shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Slavery was not abolished, however, by this amendment, but reconstituted to the penal system, where it remains today.

During Reconstruction (1865-1877), Black men were elected to Congress and to state legislatures. However, after Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws were instituted in the South. I believe we are witnessing something similar today. Several states have passed laws or attempted to pass laws that require voter identification requirements. In 2013, the Supreme Court weakened protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by deciding that “Preclearance laws for southern states with a history of voter discrimination are unconstitutional.” Lynching is not as prominent, but has happened in some form on occasion in our time, such as the murder in 1998 of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, after he was dragged behind a pickup truck for 3 miles. The militarization of the police, particularly in disadvantaged communities, heavily populated by people of color, has become prevalent, and states such as Florida have “Stand Your Ground” laws that endanger young black lives such as that of Trayvon Martin’s. The number of black men incarcerated, relegating them to the penal system, particularly for relatively non-violent crime, as well those targeted by police profiling, are grossly disproportionate to the number of white males committing the same crimes.

One of my past colleagues with whom I served in the federal government, a white man, told me that he was not surprised by the resurgence of racism since Obama took office. He observed that civil rights laws had suppressed racist practices but had not ended racism or racist attitudes, and thus, with a black President, racist attitudes that had been suppressed have resurfaced.

Racism is therefore America’s shadow. It is a spiritual disease, operating to maintain white privilege through cognitive dissonance.

Psychologist Leon Festinger wrote, “…cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time, or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas, or values.” Our civil rights laws establish equality without regard to race, gender, age, religion, sexual preference, or ability. Yet, when black people go out into the world, they are immediately challenged to make sense of their lived experience, which is contrary to the laws established to protect them.

Racism affects every area of life: Education, economics, entertainment, labor, law, politics, religion, sex, and war. In defining racism during the height of racial tension in the U.S. during the 1960s and ‘70s, Frances C. Welsing, a Washington DC psychiatrist stated, “Racism is a system of advantage based upon race. It doesn’t mean hating or not liking a race. It is White Supremacy.”

Romal Tune is a United Methodist minister. He left the gang life to graduate from college and receive a Master of Divinity degree from Duke University. He is the author of God’s Graffiti, and upon hearing about the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, he wrote:

“What most people don’t understand about poor black males on the inner-city streets, I can tell you now, they will not stay off the streets tonight, but it’s not just because they are angry and tired of mistreatment by police. It’s because they are tired of being ignored. Because of this tragic incident, the media has shown up and cameras are rolling. The world is watching! Brothers in the hood finally get noticed. The same brothers who were on the street before the shooting and nobody gave a damn.”

This is cognitive dissonance, where young men live invisible lives to a great extent, except when they break the law. In Ferguson, the young men had a chance to be seen for a good cause, yet were still treated as unwanted and unproductive agitators. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” These young men began rioting, looting, and burning property in their own neighborhoods because the need to be heard in a righteous act of protest, a civil right protected by the law, was met with rejection—cognitive dissonance.

Racism can only be healed from within, through contemplation. Both victims and perpetrators can be healed from the effects of white supremacy and racism. Contemplation is a willingness to be immediately awake to the present as it is—to us, to others, and to a Divine, Life-giving Presence that is always available to us. If racism is recognized as a spiritual disease, a person of contemplation engages both reflection and response. As I heed the words of the desert Ammas and Abbas to “pay attention,” I see people of color disparaged in the U.S. and massacred in Nigeria, while the dominant culture deplored the tragic deaths of fourteen in Paris. When Ebola swept West Africa, I see our concern was overwhelmingly for the Americans affected.

Contemplation is pure, existing before archetypes, and is the essence from which everything else flows. Contemplation needs both method (the pathway) and action (the sacrifice), which dwells within its tradition, to be authentic and effective in overcoming the spiritual diseases of white privilege and racism. The NEXT church, the church of the 21st century, should proclaim with one voice that Black lives do matter, as fully as the lives of all others. Let the healing begin!


Theres Taylor-StinsonTherese Taylor-Stinson is current Vice Moderator for National Capital Presbytery.  She is a spiritual director and Managing Member of the Spiritual Directors of Color Network.

Will #nextchurch2015 Move the Church Towards Racial Justice?


This week we are gearing up for the National Gathering! This series of posts first appeared on conference co-director Rocky Supinger’s blog and are shared here with the permission of the author. Check out the original posts at YoRocko!

By Rocky Supinger

NEXT Church is next week!

I’ve enjoyed blogging about past NEXT Church gatherings, for example herehere, and here.

This week I’m sharing four questions I’m bringing with me to my favorite annual gathering of Presbyterians [full disclosure: I helped plan this one].

So, my first question:

The fouled up racial reality of the American context is more clearly in focus today than it has been for years, at least as measured by the mainstream media discourse. Michael Brown and Eric Garner are household names, and #blacklivesmatter is necessary to state now. How will the urgency of racial justice inform what happens next week?

A colleague shared this in an email yesterday:

I still have my same concerns about the church in general and about NEXT in particular. The events of the past six months, especially events around Ferguson, have even heightened my sense of concern for organizations that are predominantly led and and membered by privileged white people, including organizations like the PC(USA) and NEXT Church. I’ll be interested to see if your conference makes any movement this year compared to the last several years I’ve attended.

One way to measure movement toward racial justice in a gathering like this is by looking at who’s up front. NEXT has always work hard at diverse racial representation among its leadership, even if the PC(USA) is a mostly white palette from which to draw.

Among others, this year’s gathering will hear from Chineta Goodjoin, the Organizing Pastor of a new African-American church in Orange County, as well as Tiffany Jana, who heads a consulting firm with her husband Matt that helps organizations harness the power of diversity (watch her TED Talk below).

This year’s theme, “Beyond: Our Walls, Our Fears, Ourselves” lends itself well to addressing the church with urgency to explicitly address its witness to a world in which police officers openly send racist emails, fraternity brothers at a prominent university chant “hang ‘em from a tree” with glee, and young black men are disproportionately more likely to be killed by police.

It’s on us to push things in the direction of justice and reconciliation. I expect next week’s gathering to offer concrete ways to do that.


Rocky Srocky supinger (472x640)upinger is associate pastor of Claremont Presbyterian Church in Claremont, CA and co-director of this year’s NEXT Church National Gathering. Connect with him at his website, YoRocko!.



Making Space for Challenging Coversations

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This December, Anna Pinckney Straight is curating a month of reflections on pastoral care in the 21st century. Join the conversation here or on Facebook. In the post today, Marranda Major (the PCUSA Young Adult Volunteer working with NEXT) reflects on care and concern that extends beyond the congregation and into the community.

By Marranda Major

I love coming home to my YAV family—to warm welcomes and space being made on the couch amid our communal blanket fort, to friends who will help me see the light in the day’s frustrations and join with me in laughing it off, and to justice-oriented thinkers who are always ready to engage in discussing what is happening in our larger community. Lately, we’ve been talking a lot about grand jury decisions and where we’ve observed racial division in our DC context.

Recently, we devoted an entire community day to processing together. We framed our discussion with a book we read together, The Heart of Whiteness by Robert Jensen, and a chapter from Pedagogy of the Poor that discussed the Watts riots in relation to Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. These texts grounded our conversation with an understanding of privilege and helped us to make comparisons to other social movements from the Arab Spring and #Occupy to the more historic Civil Rights movement and the Watts riots.

We took time to assess the kinds of reactions we had observed on Facebook and other social media platforms and tried to trace how folks from different communities came to view the events so differently. We compiled resources to help us better understand the larger social, economic, and political forces at work in shifting demographics in neighborhoods like Ferguson that resulted in having a police force that looks very different from the citizens it serves. We talked about the systems that led to Ferguson’s debtor’s court and how that creates a very different understanding of justice based on one’s race and class.

It was a powerful conversation. The intensity never wavered, though it lasted many hours. By the end, we felt both convicted and compelled to do something as a faithful community. But discerning what our public response should be was a messy process.

Second year YAVs march with 2013-14 YAV alums from Union Seminary. Photo cred: Amy Beth Willis

Second year YAVs march with 2013-14 YAV alums from Union Seminary. Photo cred: Amy Beth Willis

We tried on a few actions grounded in educating ourselves and others and in joining demonstrations of solidarity. We circulated the articles and resources we found most helpful on our blogs. We attended a lecture by Dr. Harold Trulear as part of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church’s McClendon Scholar in Residence program so that we could learn more about the relationship between our churches and our prisons, and the racial dynamic therein. We participated in a candlelight vigil that lined 16th Street and the National March Against Police Violence the following day.

Our efforts led to some frustration. The articles and blog posts we shared did not curate the online conversation that we were hoping would happen. While the lecture was illuminating, it only heightened our sense of urgency for systemic change. The candlelight vigil lacked order or a central message to help us feel united and committed despite the cold wind that numbed our toes and extinguished our luminaries. We felt lost in the protest because we could neither see nor hear what was happening amid the sea of people and contradictory factions.

While we are still seeking a faithful response that feels right for our context, our intentional community is committed to engaging in justice issues. For us, that begins with making space for thoughtful conversation. By creating a safe place to question and explore, we were able to move beyond a difficult discussion and into discerning how we are called to act.

Marranda Major is a Young Adult Volunteer serving with NEXT Church. Marranda Major