2019 National Gathering Testimony: Suzzanne Lacey

Suzzanne Lacey, founder of Museum Without Walls, gives a testimony presentation on her work in experiential learning with young people at the 2019 NEXT Church National Gathering in Seattle.

An Outhouse that Became Bookshelves: Doing Ministry in the “Funk“ of Life

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Linda Kurtz is curating a series we’re affectionately referring to as our NEXT Church book club, which aims to share insights on a variety of texts – and how they have impacted our bloggers’ ministries. Understanding that reading in and beyond one’s field is important to offering good leadership, we offer this series to get your juices flowing on what books you might read next. What are you reading that’s impacting how you think about and/or do ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Lisa Janes

What happens when ministry requires you to not only get dirty, but funky? Dirt can be brushed away but funk in its true vernacular saturates everything and lingers in the atmosphere. The word “funk” as a noun can be defined as “a state of paralyzing fear; a depressed state of mind.” As a verb, the word “funk” is defined as “a strong offensive smell.” Doing ministry in the funk of life embraces not only the noun and verb described here but even evokes the other noun that defines “funk” as a music that combines rhythm and blues as well as soul music that is percussive, harmonic, and filled with bass and heavy downbeats.

In Bruce Watson’s book entitled Freedom Summer: The Savage Season of 1964 That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America A Democracy, I found a tantalizing tale of sanctuary and sanctity in the midst of savagery. In the midst of the sunflowers and the Delta topsoil was the brutal and arid landscape of segregation which was fertilized by terror perpetrated upon African-Americans in the American South. This terror consisted in the form of lynching, rape, and death threats as black people in the American South attempted to register to vote. Joining in this struggle were thousands of college students of all races who found themselves spending an entire summer as a part of The Freedom Summer Project which consisted of voter registration, the Freedom Schools, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

In chapter five of the book, entitled “It Is Sure Enough Changing,” the narrative begins: “On his first full day in Mississippi, Fred Wynn tore down an outhouse and turned it into bookshelves.” According to Watson, this outhouse stood behind a two-room shack on a road that divided sections of the black community and these places had names like Jerusalem and Sanctified Quarters. The shack was to become Ruleville’s Freedom School. What makes this image so powerful was twenty volunteers, black and white, male and female, native and foreign-born came together and created a sanctuary of empowerment for black citizens of Mississippi.

When I reflect on my ministry contexts, they – like the book Freedom Summer – center around a cultural, radical, educational, and empowering love-centered ethic. First, I serve as an associate pastor at Faith Community Baptist Church, a church located in the east end of the city of Richmond, Virginia. The senior pastor and founding visionary, the Rev. Dr. Patricia Gould-Champ, was given by God a vision and mission which focuses on three public housing communities: Fairfield, Whitcomb and Creighton Courts. In my second ministry context, I serve as a circulation supervisor at the William Smith Morton Library on the campus of Union Presbyterian Seminary.

In my former ministry context, I am learning how to do intentional authentic ministry in the midst of a radicalized sanctuary space whose external wall is adorned with a “Black Lives Matter” banner. At Faith Community Baptist Church, there is always a call to action to not only transform the Jericho Road as evidenced in Luke 10:25-37, but to remind those who abandon and/or walk away from our oppressed brothers and sisters left on the side of the road their need to be responsible and accountable to our community. Often individuals can center themselves around the sound bites of ministry which involve teaching and preaching. The grunt work like the tearing down of the outhouse to create bookshelves in the intense, oppressive heat of the day causes a disorientation that places us in the center of social justice for the least of these, those whose names and places of habitation are scandalized and stereotyped.

In my latter ministry context I take everything I have learned in the former and introduce it to the latter, creating and developing a sanctuary of holy dialogue and a pedagogy of the funk. This pedagogy will allow us to embrace what my pastor always calls “on the job revelation” that is not often in the books as it relates to our unique ministry context. In the midst of our feelings of inadequacy, we must trust God in the heat and offensive smells of the “isms” that oppress us and learn a new language and a new song.

Now we endure a political system in America along with a societal malaise that reeks of reality TV and narcissistic patriotism that diminishes, demeans, demotes, and demolishes. I think that every American citizen should read Freedom Summer and that it should be a required text in our school systems. I would only advise that when they get to chapter five, they allow the definition of a outhouse to be examined in order to understand that democracies are not made by avoiding that which stinks; they are only created by facing the collective funk of life together as a beloved community and creating something sacred and noble that will benefit all who encounter it.

Lisa R. Janes is an artist, teacher, curriculum developer and minister who serves as an Associate Pastor at Faith Community Baptist Church and Circulation Supervisor at the William Smith Morton Library on the Richmond campus of Union Presbyterian Seminary. She is also currently working on a social media project on Instagram which is a return to her artist and teaching roots. This project entitled “godintheskin” is a blend of music, politics, social history, spirituality, and art. Her goal is also to complete a book based on her experiences on Instagram and how it is shaping her faith journey.

The Civil Rights Movement: Important History, but Not in the Past

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Lee Hinson-Hasty is curating a series identifying books that Presbyterian leaders are reading now that inform their ministry and work. Why are these texts relevant today? How might they bring us into God’s future? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by MaryAnn McKibben Dana

I have a lot of friends these days who are reading books about the rise of fascism in Germany. I will leave it to the reader to consider the reason for consuming such reading material, and any resonances between that time period and our modern day. (For now, I am content with occasional binges of The Man in the High Castle on Netflix, which imagines a world in which the Allies lost World War II, and a small band of dissidents imagines a better, more peaceful and compassionate world. They call themselves the Resistance.)

Rather than fill my Kindle and nightstand with the history of Nazism, I’ve decided to focus my heavy reading on the civil rights era in America. At the beginning of the year I resolved to read Taylor Branch’s three-volume series, beginning with the 1,000-page Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963.

Some time after undertaking this project, a friend informed me that there’s a summary book that condenses this history into one volume. But I’ve committed at this point. As for how long it will take me to read almost three thousand pages? I can only promise that it will be less time than the 14 years that comprise the movement Branch chronicles.

At last year’s NEXT Church National Gathering in Atlanta, I heard loud and clear our call as an 89% white denomination to undertake conversations about race and racism, however uncomfortable these conversations may be, and however much some may push back at us for “dwelling on the past rather than moving on.” As I read Branch’s careful accounting of the ills of white supremacy, I consider today’s travel bans and border walls, and Iowa Congressman Steve King’s odious comment that “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” Meanwhile many of us carry signs and risk arrest, and we rejoice when the judicial branch puts a check on bigotry through legislative executive order. And I marvel at the truth of the words, attributed to William Faulkner, that the past isn’t dead — indeed it isn’t even past.

Like many of us, I knew much of this history only in the most cursory way. We studied civil rights in school, and I remember my AP Government teacher arranged for after-school showings of the magnificent documentary Eyes on the Prize. (He felt it so important for a bunch of white suburban smartypants to see it that he offered two additional points on our entire semester grade if we watched the whole thing. In retrospect, it was so wrenching and transforming I would have done it for free.)

I did not know, or perhaps didn’t remember, that Martin Luther King Jr.’s first major troubles with the law came when the state of Alabama tried to get him on charges of felony tax evasion related to his work with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. What ultimately saved him was his incredibly meticulous record-keeping; attorneys and accountants working on his behalf were stunned at the painstaking way he kept track of his expenses. I think about my haphazard financial records and how they would not hold up to such scrutiny. And I recall how African-American friends talk about learning from a young age that they must always, always “be better.”

I also offer my own confession, prompted by a section about the 1957 Civil Rights Act, signed into law by President Eisenhower. The bill was watered down as to be almost useless (though that didn’t stop Strom Thurmond from filibustering it for some 24 hours). Many civil rights leaders refused to support it because it was so weak. Yet King and other civil rights leaders ultimately signed on. As Roy Wilkins put it, “If you are digging a ditch with a teaspoon and a man comes along and offers you a spade,” he said, “there is something wrong with your head if you don’t take it because he didn’t offer you a bulldozer.”

As I read this section, I remembered King’s injunction that justice delayed is justice denied — and yet here he was, putting his stamp of approval on an almost useless bill. Here is the confession: I felt welling up in me a sense of self-righteous “gotcha-ism”: See! Even a civil rights icon acknowledges that progress is slow, and sometimes you take what you can get rather than hold out for real justice. Take that, Letter from a Birmingham Jail!

Except there’s a big difference at work here: I am white, and King was black. Yes, in the struggle for civil rights, sometimes the progress is slow. But there’s no way for me as a white person to push for baby steps and partial measures without getting tangled up in my own motivations: Am I really on the side of the angels, or am I trying to preserve my own sense of comfort? As an ally, it is my call to listen to the voices of people of color and follow their lead in terms of strategy. When they say it’s time to turn up the heat, we do. When incremental change is called for, they alone drive that, not my desire to placate white America.

When my kids come home from school every January with photocopied handouts about Martin Luther King Jr., I like to ask them if they knew what his profession was. The older ones are used to it by now, and sigh as they say, “He was a preacher, Mom, like you.” In my defense, I want them to know that the struggle for civil rights — whether it’s justice for the descendants of enslaved Africans, or the right of transgender people to use the bathroom with which they identity — is work we do in light of our Christian faith, not independent of it. But it’s also a sinful pride, I admit: a desire to hitch my wagon to one of the great heroes of the 20th century simply because we share a common vocation.

Reading Branch’s book, I catch a glimpse of King’s frail humanity as well as his gifts for ministry (prodigious beyond my own though they were). He soared and he struggled. He felt a strong sense of God’s call, and he wasn’t always sure which strategy was best. In that way, he resembled all of us who have had heavy hands laid on our head and shoulders, who try to do God’s will yet often muddle our way through.

The struggles of 2017 are different, yet frustratingly similar. King was a pastor, like me. But that also means I am a pastor, like King. And it’s time for me — for all of us who lead Christ’s church — to make that real.

MaryAnn McKibben Dana is a frequent retreat and workshop leader and has written for a variety of books and publications, including her website, The Blue Room. She served as a congregational pastor for 12 years. She and her husband Robert Dana have three children. MaryAnn is the recipient of the 2016 David Steele Distinguished Writer Award from the Presbyterian Writers Guild.