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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.

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.  

2018 National Gathering Testimony: Turnaround Tuesday

Members of Turnaround Tuesday, a campaign of Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development, give a testimony presentation at the NEXT Church National Gathering in Baltimore.

Turnaround Tuesday was born of the engagement of BUILD member churches with their communities and has grown into a jobs movement that is making a unique and powerful contribution to the fight against recidivism and for neighborhood revitalization in Baltimore City. Sponsored by BUILD, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, a broad-based community power organization, Turnaround Tuesday has connected 366 people to employment with living wages and high retention rates in 2.5 years. Turnaround Tuesday’s community-based, open door approach makes it uniquely accessible to jobseekers experiencing any barriers to employment, and it works especially hard to attract and employ returning citizens. A combination of intensive relationship building with participants and employers including the delivery of essential skills, leadership development, and issue organizing experiences has made Turnaround Tuesday into one of Baltimore’s most respected jobs pipelines.

Community Work, Transforming the World

by Angela Williams

When I was discerning a second year in the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program, I felt called to focus on activism, advocacy and community organizing. At the time, I did not know that working with NEXT Church would dip my toes into the world of community organizing. I did not know that splitting my time with NEXT and New York Avenue Presbyterian Church would place me in direct contact with pastors who have been organizing for more than 25 years. I did not know that I would become a part of a core team of leaders in the church organizing with Washington Interfaith Network (WIN), an affiliate of the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. I did not know that this would be my perfect placement.

tsr_5500_webIn the past seven months, I have learned practical and applicable skills to work in the world as it is in order to help transform it into the world as it should be. In the church, we use language like “redemption” and “reconciliation” to describe how God is working with us here and now to create the world as it should be. As resurrection people, we see many cases of injustice, indecency and death in the world around us, but we have faith in the good news of Jesus Christ that tells us God is not done working to reconcile, redeem and resurrect every part of Creation. Because of this truth, we must continue to have hope that God is working to make all things new, to make the world as it should be.

Together, as a community of beloved children of God, we are called to do our part in reconciliation and redemption efforts. Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), a sister organization to WIN, shared some of their organizing story at the 2016 National Gathering, which continues to inspire me. Their leadership illustrated what is possible when faith leaders, community members, governments and businesses, representing all colors and creeds, come together to improve the community. However, Alison Harrington reminded me, the nitty gritty work is not sexy, nor does it make headlines. Often, it is difficult, mundane and frustrating. Still, I remain committed to the idea that organizing is a necessary and essential part of creating the world as it should be. If you missed Alison and BUILD at the National Gathering, I encourage you to check out the videos of their time at the National Gathering, as well as all of our other challenging, yet inspiring speakers.

I invite you to join me on this weekly blog journey of the day-to-day work to organize and create positive social change in my community. Perhaps you may find possibilities to act in your own context.


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

2016 National Gathering Keynote: BUILD

Clergy affiliated with Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development (BUILD) share about their organization and its successes in Baltimore, MD.

Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), a local affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) and Maryland’s largest citizens power organization. For thirty-five years BUILD has helped identify and develop leaders to build citizen power for change in their own communities. BUILD is responsible for the successful passage of the first living wage ordinance in the world, the largest afterschool program in Baltimore (Child First), and the rebuilding of two blighted neighborhoods – Sandtown-Winchester and the Oliver community (in partnership with The Reinvestment Fund). Recently, BUILD led the effort to secure $1.1 billion dollars in public financing for the rebuilding and renovation of more than 1/3 of Baltimore’s public school facilities, the largest single increase to neighborhood investment in Baltimore’s history.

Andrew Foster Connors is the Senior Pastor of the Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD, a position he has held since 2004. A church “alive in the city and the world,” Brown Memorial Park Avenue continues to live into its mission to become a radically inclusive Christian community, sent into the world to work for God’s peace and justice. Andrew serves as clergy co-chair of BUILD and is an organizing member of NEXT Church. Andrew is a native of Raleigh, NC. He attended Duke University as a B.N. Duke Scholar where he received a B.A. in History with a focus on contemporary social movements. He holds a Master of Divinity from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA. Andrew is married to the Rev. Kate Foster Connors, also ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA). They live in Baltimore with their two children.

Glenna Huber has been a priest in The Diocese of Maryland since 2009. She has served as Vicar in three settings during that time with a consistent ministry at The Church of the Holy Nativity in Park Heights. Prior to joining the Diocese of Maryland Rev. Huber served for eight years in the Diocese of Atlanta her sponsoring Diocese. The Episcopal Urban Caucus, The Maryland Truth and Reconciliation education sub-committee, and Baltimoreons United in Leadership Development, a IAF affiliate, are among some of the boards and commissions on which The Rev. Huber serves. Rev. Huber earned her M. Div. at The General Theological Seminary in New York and her undergraduate at Spelman College in Atlanta. She and her husband are currently raising a 2-year-old son and a baby girl born April 2015.

Bishop Douglas Miles is a native of Baltimore. He has over 44 years of ministry experience in Baltimore, California, and Tennessee. In 1992, he organized Koinonia Baptist Church in Baltimore, which has expanded to two campuses and houses many different community outreach ministries, where he was consecrated Bishop of Koinonia. He is serving for the second time as a Clergy Co-Chair of BUILD. He has served in leadership positions with Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, Greater Homewood Interfaith Alliance, Maryland Health Care Initiative, Baltimore Interfaith Coalition, Maryland Food Committee, and Mission Baltimore. Bishop Miles is a national award-winning columnist with the Afro-American newspaper. He has preached and lectured throughout the world lastly serving as Jellicoe Preacher at Oxford University in England and is published in a book of sermons entitled Living in Hell. He is married to the former Rosanna White, the proud father of two sons – Harvey and Dante and grandfather of five.

Am I In the Right Room?

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating reflections from our 2016 National Gathering. Watch this space for thoughts from a wide variety of folks, especially around the question, What “stuck”? What ideas, speakers, workshops or worship services are continuing to work on your heart as you envision “the church that is becoming?” We’ll be hearing from ruling elders, teaching elders, seminarians, and more. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Cheryl Finney

Am I in the right room?

Most of my life I have used this simple question to gain direction. Is the space I have placed myself, whether it be graduate school, neighborhood, or church, putting me in contact with people that reflect collectively who I want to become?

tsr_4472_webInstitutions I join that are experimental, and open to new ways of being are “rooms” I will stay in. So it was inspiring to hear the way Presbyterians are redefining our “rooms” of worship at the NEXT Church National Gathering in Atlanta. Innovations like Farm Church, a new agriculturally-based Christian community in Durham focused on growing food and faith for the hungry intrigued me. Then there was Serious Ju Ju, a faith-based ministry in Montana centered on at risk teenage boys revolving around their love of skateboarding – really, how can one not love that? Both ministries have recently sprung forth and reflect new spaces of worship which excites me. So I found myself saying, “Yes!” If this is where my church is leading, I will stay.

But what has had me on edge and closer to the exit was publicly named at the conference and that is our primarily white demographic as Presbyterians. Questions were raised on how our church will respond to a world with a national legacy of structural racism born from white dominance. I was grateful to be reminded again by NEXT speakers of the vigilance needed on issues of race that I as a white American, Presbyterian, living in Baltimore, need to continue to name, own, and challenge.

While I am in the midst of this work through community organizing in Baltimore, where building relationships across racial lines is at its core, it is important to me to have the larger church own this collectively. Sharing ways we are engaging the problem of white fragility in our churches, I was reminded again of the importance of sharing public narratives of our experience with race within our congregations often.

Just as I am thrilled to hear of innovations in worship I want the church to be pioneering in the way we are being church in the racial arena. Housing voices experimenting and moving past the fear of a misstep in a conversation on race can be a space that uncovers unconscious biases that brought to light can move a people of faith into action.

I am trusting that relationships built along the way as we challenge structured systems that are racist in outcome will be fertile ground that just might change what we look like and move us to who we are called to be.

That’s the next room I want to be in!


cheryl finneyCheryl Finney is a ruling elder at Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore. A frequently challenged mother of four, she is currently working for BUILD, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, as a project organizer. Her current passion is working with “returning citizens” through a jobs movement of BUILD called Turnaround Tuesdays. She says, “developing leaders from the reentry community as they join the workforce and rediscover a civic life is the richest work I have ever had the privilege to do!” 

 

2016 National Gathering Ignite: Gwen Brown & Tim Hughes

Gwen Brown, organizer with BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development) and Tim Hughes, associate pastor at Brown Memorial Park Ave Presbyterian Church, share their collaboration in the Baltimore Youth Organizing Project.

Creating Tension is a Pastoral Skill

By Andrew Foster Connors

tension copy“Madame Mayor,” I said, opening the meeting as our group of leaders had planned, “we’re here today because we are disappointed in your lack of leadership.  You’ve told us you were going to double the number of jobs for youth and that hasn’t happened.  You said you would double funding for afterschool funding and that hasn’t happened.  And you’re closing rec centers after we agreed that Baltimore’s youth need more recreation, not less.  When you were elected you made a promise that you would be the Mayor for opportunities for youth.  We’ve come here today to see whether we can count on you to make good on your promises.”

Tension.  All community organizing expects tension at some point in time. Sometimes we introduce it intentionally.  We “agitate” leaders to produce a reaction.

Yet within the congregation, most of us are reluctant to introduce tension.  Some of us see introducing tension as inconsistent with pastoral ethics or approach.

Many of us in the pastorate either grew up in systems that trained us to smooth over tension, or were intentionally trained that reducing tension is part of our job description. Our comfort with tension has been further eroded by the qualities of tension that we have witnessed within our denomination and within our political environment that we have experienced as tension leading to the destruction of relationships rather than in the deepening of them.

And yet, even a novice student of the Jesus Way would recognize early on how much tension there is in the Gospels.  Anytime Jesus comes around, someone is likely to be challenged.  In any church that finds itself “stuck,” or leans toward a status quo that has or will endanger its ability to adjust to changing circumstances, tension is the fire that we light to get people moving.  Those of us who have completed Clinical Pastoral Education often report learning the most from the supervisor who asked the question that seemed too “impolite” or “aggressive” to ask.  “The patient said she was afraid of dying and you responded by asking her if she was enjoying the food. Why did you ask that question? Are you afraid of hearing her fears?”

We should expect tension in our communities and learn how to face it with more confidence.  In fact, we should learn how to introduce it in constructive ways that shift the burden and the opportunity of leadership off the pastor(s) and onto more leaders and potential leaders in the congregation.

Pastors who want to become leaders within and beyond their congregations can start by practicing creative tension in their own backyard.  Take one example – someone comes to you and says they are disappointed with the lack of small group ministry in your church.  In their previous church, they say, there were all kinds of small groups that were active.

Pastors afraid of tension are likely to react in a couple of predictable ways.  We might react as if this is our responsibility: “I really need to do something about the lack of small groups.  I need to work harder on this!”  Or we might react defensively: “Well, sorry, but this is not your former church, and we don’t have the resources for a small group ministry.” Both responses deprive the person of the possibility to grow as a leader.  They deprive the community of the potential gifts that arise as a result of this leader’s passion and willingness to act on that passion.

A pastor who is comfortable with tension, after listening well, might respond with all sorts of questions that preserve tension rather than dissipating it: “Have you talked with others who share your concern? Would you be willing to? Is this important enough to you that you would be willing to lead such a group or to recruit others to do so? How could I support you in that effort?” By placing some of the tension for the lack of small groups back on the person who first noticed it, the pastor gives that person the opportunity to demonstrate their leadership potential, and prevents the pastor from inadvertently becoming the fix-it person for everything that’s wrong with the church.

Of course, that person might not be a leader and might not be interested in becoming one.  But we’ll never know unless we’re willing to test them out.  Every pastor who introduces tension must be prepared to receive at least as much as she gives.  But this is a good thing.  Imagine the leader who returns to you and says, “I want to start three new small groups. I’m willing to recruit those leaders if you’re willing to train all of us.” Or imagine the mayor who responds to the tension our organization introduced into the room by coming back with, “I’m prepared to double afterschool funding, but I need you to meet with these five council people and pressure them to vote for my budget.”

Such leadership expands the involvement of all involved, asks more from everybody, and when directed by prayerful discernment, delivers more for the kingdom of God.

Admittedly this kind of agitation is an art, not a science.  Tension is only as effective as the strength of the relationships that bear it.  There is a fine line between effective agitation that challenges people to act in ways that are consistent with what they say is important to them, and irritation that poisons relationships unnecessarily.  But while irritation is never a good thing, neither is a boring church that never expects anything of its own members.  The best way to learn how to navigate tension is to practice it, evaluate it, and try again.

AFCAndrew Foster Connors is the pastor of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD. He is co-chair of the NEXT Church Strategy Team and co-chair of the IAF community organization, BUILD.

2011 National Gathering Testimony: Mission

Andrew Foster Connors: Lessons from Community Organizing for the Missional Leader

[Andrew’s talk begins at: 2:54] “Missional action almost always has evangelical results,” says Andrew Foster Connors in this 20-minute talk on missional leadership, or, as he calls it, “The Pastor as Organizer.” In this inspiring talk, Andrew names five leadership insights he’s gained from community organizing and how they’ve shaped the congregation he serves into more faithful, fruitful followers of Christ. Tim Hart Andersen introduces.

Andrew Foster Connors is the pastor of the Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD and serves on the NEXT Strategy Team. Tim Hart Andersen is the pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, MN and serves on the NEXT Advisory Team.

Beyond Better Preaching: Stewardship through a Community Organizing Lens

by Andrew Foster-Connors

It was high up in the glass-encased office of the CEO of one of Baltimore’s large corporate players that my mind started drifting to stewardship.  It was an odd time to be thinking about stewardship.  The Baptist bishop, the Catholic priest, the city school teacher, the organizer and I were in this office to find out whether this CEO was willing to exercise leadership among his peers to support a campaign to rebuild Baltimore’s City School facilities.  This would be the true test of whether his words about young people were just words, or the stuff of true commitment.

from the BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development) website

from the BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development) website

We laid out the vision – political leaders, corporate leaders, religious leaders standing alongside teachers and young people calling on the MD General Assembly to change existing revenues to make it possible to leverage $500 million dollars this year toward the $2 billion need.  This, we said, was our “kairos moment.”  The CEO stopped to write this down – “How do you spell that word?” he wanted to know.  He asked a few questions then we moved to commitment – Would he stand with us in calling on the corporate community?  Yes, he would.  Would he call on other corporate leaders to use their leadership to support the legislation?  Yes, he would.  “This is what’s best for our kids,” he said.  And it was true.

But I was thinking about stewardship.  Like a lot of pastors, I never really received any training in stewardship other than the theology behind it, roughly summarized as this: because God has redeemed us in Jesus Christ, we respond out of gratitude.  Stewardship naturally grew out of this theological training.  When stewardship season rolled around, I preached some stewardship sermons, and people would, presumably, give out of their gratitude.  The first several years, the budget went up by a few percentage points.  Not bad, but not inspiring either.  So I did what any theologically trained pastor would do – I improved my message.  I labored over the sermons, and preached some really good.  I waited expectantly, but the budget numbers didn’t look all that different from the previous year.

Desperate, I turned to our lead organizer, Rob English, for help.  He diagnosed my problem immediately.  “You know what your problem is,” Rob said to me not waiting for me to give him permission to speak, “you preach these sermons and get these people all worked up, but you haven’t given them anywhere to go.  You want them to give money for the ministry?  Then you have to ask them for it out of the relationships that you have.”  “But I shouldn’t have to,” I protested.  “I mean, according to Presbyterian polity, it’s not really my job.”  He shook his head in disappointment.  I was a difficult case.  “I know what you’re going to say,” I said, “I’m living in the world as it should be instead of the world as is.”  His face brightened.  Maybe I was going to get this.

The next campaign, I met with about 20 families and asked them directly for a specific amount connected to a specific need.  Surprisingly, not only did 99% of the people with whom I met seem to enjoy talking with me about the church and all the exciting plans for the future, I learned things I had never learned about them before; stories about important people in their lives who had instilled a value of generosity, or why the church was so important to them.  In my first campaign, despite my ineptitude, I helped raise six figures for a capital-style campaign in our then 250 member church.

But here in the office of the CEO, I realized where I had failed in that initial campaign.  Rather than cultivating leaders to share the burden of the work, I had taken a lot of it on myself.  Not only had I generated a lot of work for myself, I had deprived others the opportunity of developing relationships, and deepening their own leadership.  My instincts had been partially right– my job wasn’t to raise money for the church.  My job was to help raise leaders for the church.  Just as we were calling on this CEO to call on his friends to commit to God’s work of nurturing the children of Baltimore, I needed to be developing leaders in my congregation to call on their friends to commit to God’s work in and through the church.

The next year, I identified people in the congregation who knew something about inspiring generosity in others – the development director for a local school, the grassroots campaign masterminds who unseated one of Baltimore’s machine politicians through their face to face work, a membership director for a local club, a jovial philanthropist, and one of my skeptics who, nonetheless is listened to by many when she speaks.  I met with each of them individually and asked them to serve, teaching us all in the process about how to connect the joy that people feel in our mission with their generosity to the church.

It took me 6 years of broad-based organizing experience before I came to see that organizing is not about politics – it’s about relationships that can be organized to build all sorts of amazing, grace-filled agendas for God’s work in the world.  Raising $500 million dollars for justice in the schools isn’t all that different than raising a money for a church’s mission.  Call it a kairos moment.


Andrew Foster ConnorsAndrew Foster Connors is senior pastor of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD where he also serves as clergy co-chair of BUILD, an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation, the oldest and largest community organizing network in country.