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Permission to Dissent

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Ken D. Fuquay is curating a series featuring an eclectic group of voices responding to the question, “Does church matter? And if it matters, how, and if it does not, why?” Some of the voices speak from the center of the PC(USA); others stand on the periphery. One or two of the voices come from other denominations while some speak to us from the wilderness and barren places. “To every age, Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of humans.” These voices are stirring up that imagination in their own way. May your imagination be stirred as you consider their insight. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Nathan Rouse

My story is little different than many others, but maybe not that different from yours. It starts in the pews of a church and ends… well, I suppose in the ways that matter most it hasn’t ended, but for this part at least it ends outside those walls in the wilderness. But the wilderness is where life is, where true Goodness and holy light may be discovered. And the place you had always thought to be identity reveals, upon sober reflection and the benefit of hindsight, its own decayed innards.

My story is a story of walking away — no, limping away — from religion and a subsequent stumbling, staggering, into Hope; and maybe these are the wrong verbs. Maybe it’s more of a ‘dying to’ religion or, if I’m being perfectly honest (and really it’s just you and me here so why not be honest) it was more a ‘being crushed by’ religion, a crushing which itself resulted, thankfully, in a subsequent ‘being born into’ Hope. Yes, being crushed and then being born. Those feel right.

See if you can chart this path with me, as odds are good you’ve borne witness to it, if not actually lived it yourself: idealistic young adult of faith hitches his (or her) fortunes to a community he loves and in which he feels loved, welcomed, even known, insofar as we can comprehend known-ness. Even when teaching that runs counter to instinct is posited, the love of the community and the belief in its perceived core integrity rivals the impulse to dissent. Until that one day, that day it all sours, that night it all withers; power abused, ostracism enacted, silence condoned, community lost, faith dimmed.

The place I’d known intimately had abandoned even the artifice of faithfulness to loss and revealed its ugly commitment to power and control and personality-worship.

Thank God for therapy.

Then, of course, in the middle of my own intimate faith doldrums, the presidential election of 2016 happened and the angst and grief I felt at the church locally ballooned and magnified, exponentially scaled up, into a wellspring of angst and grief at the church nationally.

This all sounds poetic, perhaps, but at the root of these experiences, at the heart of this forced questioning over these past 5 years, I keep being led back to a most basic line of thought: if adherence to the traditional forms of church and its mores can still result in catastrophe, then why bother? When pastors and presidents are guilty as hell of heinous wrongdoing; when leaders of faith and of civic life metaphorically and literally abuse those in their care; where, then, are we left to turn?

With unveiled faces and with tear-reddened eyes, I have come to think, to maybe believe that we turn — impossible as it may be — to the Suffering Servant; perhaps, ultimately, into the Suffering Servant. The face we had before the world was made is that of humility, lowliness, meekness. We are taught self-aggrandizement. We are modeled ego-stroking, even (and especially) by those in pulpits. Thus, only in the rubble of our old identities can we finally forsake the security of the puffed-up self; can we finally abandon the rigid language of religion and embrace the untamed and untamable spirit of Christ, adopting the posture of loss as the only example worth emulating. We’ve grown drunk following Christ, letting him do all our dying for us, forgetting that the end-goal of any following is embodying.

God help us, we’re so pathetic at embodying.

Reject the Cross as purely and solely substitution, and embrace the Cross as our own will to loss. Resistance only matters if we know what we’re resisting for, if we comprehend what our resistance has to offer instead. Merely holding back the hordes of corruption and decay is not enough. Resistance is painting a picture with our lives, by the aggregation of all our mutual loss into a redemptive counterforce; the very essence of light in darkness.

We dissent in practical ways, like holding our tongue long enough for our words to transmute our anger into tenderness; like truly attempting to conduct a life of love towards others, all others; like recognizing our own limited perspective and embracing the discomfort that comes in broadening it.

We dissent in our religious life by interrogating our biases; by insisting on accountability for our leaders; by fully and completely rejecting the notion of a national identity as a theological one; by recognizing that our own theology has an adverb; by seeing the true dignity of every life at all stages; by full and unfettered inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons and minorities in the life of faith, abandoning the extreme exegetical gymnastics required to keep others from Christ’s great feast; by dignifying the agency of all in our midst, especially our mothers and sisters and daughters.

Once the church I loved had expelled me into the wilderness, I ceased striving against what I’d come to know is true: Christ’s kingdom and its gates are offensively inclusive and insultingly wide, and I would no longer be party to bodies, religious or otherwise, that worked to keep others from the Feast of Plenty, the Great Table of Christ’s Welcome.

Forced exclusion from a church congregation pushed me deeper into the suffering servant’s state, and imbued within me a permission to dissent; from the imperially entwined American church leadership that trades its sisters’ safety for power, its parishioners’ presence for pleasure, others’ children for perceived security, and its witness for an empty electorate.

There do remain good churches doing good work. But Christ’s kingdom isn’t bound by four walls and a steeple, no, it is unwalled and elevated, raised high and visible, it is untamed and untamable in the hands and feet of those embodying His prophetic witness to speak truth to power and to issue forth a Kingdom of goodness, where mercy and justice flow like a river.

The church was never a place, but a people. We fashion this Kingdom where we are so those who don’t know the way Home can more easily recognize it and find themselves amidst it. In the life to come for sure, but the life to come begins with the life at hand.

Repent, for the Kingdom is at hand. So, too, dissent, for the Kingdom is in your hands.


Nathan Rouse is a husband, a father, a pet-owner, and a fool for hope. He can be found on Twitter at @thenathanrouse, and also co-hosts a podcast called The Fear of God, discussing horror movies and faith, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Confronting the Dominant Gaze of White Culture

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Jen James are curating a series featuring videos from National Gatherings and suggestions for how they might serve as resources for ministry. We’re revisiting speakers from this most recent National Gathering in Seattle as well as speakers from previous years. Our hope is that inviting you to engage (or reengage) their work might invite deeper reflection and possibly yield more fruit. What is taking root and bearing fruit in your own life and ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

In his keynote at the 2017 National Gathering in Kansas City, Dr. Soong-Chan Rah discusses the changing landscape of our culture, how that affects our churches, and how the dominant gaze of white culture continues to divide and disconnect us from our neighbors. Dr. Rah’s keynote would be a great resource for a committee, session, or team to watch and discuss, or even for a youth group as a way to dig into the surrounding culture.

What changes in the culture do you see in our world? In our country? In your neighborhood?

Dr. Rah describes two commonly used images of diversity:

  • Great American melting pot
  • Salad bowl

What are the images you have heard? As you reflect, how are they helpful or harmful?

Dr. Rah discusses how the dominant gaze defines everybody else – that culture is defined by the dominant group. Those not in the dominant group are either viewed as a pet or a threat.

Where have you seen people of color viewed as a pet? Where have you seen people of color viewed as a threat?

Can you think of examples where dominant culture saw a pet become a threat? How did the dominant culture react? How did you react?

Dr. Rah says that white dominant culture isolating itself has created a loss of connection and that the church needs to step in. He leaves the audience with two challenges to consider:

1. What is the world you have surrounded yourself with?

The last 10 books that you’ve read – who are the authors?
The last 5 people you’ve had in your home – what race and culture were they?
The furniture in your home, how would you describe it in terms of culture and ethnicity?
What are the books on your coffee table?
Who are the main stars in the top 5 tv shows that you watch?
What other questions might you ask to examine yourself?

2. Who are those who have shaped you? What race and ethnicity are the mentors in your life?

What step might you take to intersect with cultures different from your own? How will you hold each other accountable to take this step?

Exegeting Culture for Ministry

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating a series on officer training. We’ll hear from various perspectives about how churches might best equip those they call to the ministry of ruling elder for that service. How might we feed, encourage, and enable the imagination of our church officers? How can we balance the role of officers as discerners of the Spirit alongside church polity? How might we all learn how to fail — and learn from it? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Melodie Jones-Pointon

I first felt the call to professional ministry in the church when I was 21 years old. At the time, I made a “deal” with God: I would go anywhere God called (almost). I imagined this deal with God would lead me to ministry in Hawaii. But that has not yet been the case. So far, my calls have led me from my hometown in Idaho to Washington State, from Arkansas to New Jersey, from Michigan to Mississippi. Currently I call Lincoln, Nebraska my home.

In the Presbyterian call system, church professionals are often called far from home to lead in congregations and communities that have unique cultures. Discovering those cultures and naming them help us navigate those cultures in ways that make our leadership connected and effective.

Here are three insights I have gleaned over the years:1

If you want to know how something really functions, ask the custodian. Okay, so my current church has a professional cleaning company, so this doesn’t always work. I would happily insert the office manager, administrative assistant, or maintenance/security personnel in this spot. The larger point is that oftentimes the pastor and leadership aren’t around for some of the important happenings at the church.

Here’s the truth – as the senior pastor, I love to rattle off the list of things we support and believe in at the church. I am proud that we currently are a meeting site for AA and Girl Scouts, non-profit board meetings and senior citizen groups. I read the calendar every week and am thrilled at how we are growing into using our building better. It’s my job to look at the big picture.

But I don’t always know what is really happening. I recently learned that our new AA meeting is growing quickly in number and that our food pantry is hosting their first volunteer staff and client picnic where they anticipate at least 40 people. I learned this because our office manager brought up details for set up at a staff meeting so she could pass these details on to our maintenance staff.

Sometimes the most important conversations and decisions are made outside of the committee meeting. I learned this in my second call, in a small town in Mississippi. I found myself frustrated that I would sit at committee meetings where items were discussed, decisions made, and then changed later in the week.

I started paying attention, and discovered that the most important discussions in the community took place at the ball field and the grocery store parking lot. That particular congregation and community was (and is) relationship-driven. So they couldn’t make decisions without those conversations. In other areas of the country, the Catholic or Lutheran church has been a large community influence, and committees would never make a decision outside of a meeting with a pastor present. These are issues of culture and influence that affect how we lead.

Cultures aren’t “one-size fits all.” I am often asked how I like my current call and current city. The truth is, I love it. And I know why. It’s a growing larger-sized farming community with an emphasis on higher education. It is very similar to my home congregation and community. I’m comfortable here because I understand the culture.

But it’s just a culture. There’s no one ultimate right or wrong way to run a church. In today’s culture of change, it’s important for us to focus on the vision and mission of our congregation and community. As new people move into the community, they bring different experiences and ideas that are valuable. Don’t let the established culture run them off! Pay attention to it, be able to name it, and learn to either work within it (if it works) or change it (if it’s toxic).

For further reading and reference, see the works of Eric H.F. Law, Nancy Tatom Ammerman, and Israel Galindo.

1 These are in chronological order of discovery, not in order of importance.


Growing up in Idaho, Melodie has always had a great love for Christ and for the church. Melodie received her Doctor of Ministry degree from McCormick Seminary in May 2017 and has served at Presbyterian churches in Idaho, Washington State, Arkansas, New Jersey, Michigan, Mississippi, and finally here in Nebraska! Her pastor husband, Steve, is from Belfast, Northern Ireland, and together they have two children, Phoebe and Eli, and a 4-legged friend named Pebbles.

Life and Ministry in Eastern Kentucky

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Anna Pinckney Straight is curating a series on ministry in West Virginia and Appalachia. We’ll hear perspectives of folks from there and folks who’ve moved there, as well as depictions of the area in book, song, film, and photo. What makes it a place where people choose to live? What are the particular challenges and opportunities of ministry there? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Janice Stamper

When coming to Morris Fork, Kentucky, a GPS will tell you to take turns that don’t exist through the Appalachian hills of eastern Kentucky through many windy roads traveling over many hills. I live on the family farm that was settled by my great-grandfather after he served in the Civil War. I returned to help my father after spending thirty years in ministry in Alaska.

I was raised on this farm deep in the hills about 100 miles from the closest city and 25 miles from the nearest town. We raised tobacco and my grandfather ran a small country general store.

Photo by Anna Pinckney Straight

Each summer, work groups would come to the local Presbyterian church, which was a mission of the northern Presbyterian Church. I would be teased by group members for the way I talked, asked if I owned any shoes when I went barefoot, and asked if we had electricity. I didn’t realize until I was much older that they had assumed that stereotypes of Appalachian hillbillies were true. Despite all that, I wanted to travel beyond the hills to help others the way they had come to help our church.

When I sensed the call to ordained ministry, I went under care in Alaska because in 1986 my Kentucky church and presbytery would not accept me as a candidate. Regardless of what the denomination said, I was not welcomed. Following seminary, I received a call to Alaska and served several places there before returning to Kentucky in 2010 as a middle-aged woman.

The part-time ministry I have carved out since returning is providing pulpit supply to small churches without pastors and for pastors on vacation. There are still churches that won’t accept women pastors, while others have welcomed me with open arms because I was raised here and know the culture. Ministry here involves making time to learn about the culture, familial relations, and history of the area served. I see people from the outside make decisions without ever speaking directly to people. That only perpetuates the long-held belief that outsiders don’t care and think they know it all because they don’t listen.

The hardest part is watching Presbyterian churches disappear. My home church no longer exists. Some have left the denomination. The isolation is hard for ministers. One must be intentional about meeting colleagues and that can mean driving for several hours one way.

The richness I’ve received is learning long-time traditions from many folks. I’ve sat on porches and around tables talking about God. I’ve attended wakes and funerals. I’ve listened to church folks genuinely struggle with deep faith questions. I’ve worked the fields in the farm and shared our garden’s bounty with hungry folks. I’ve seen God in the eyes and hearts of strong mountain people.

All the books in the world cannot adequately describe the beauty and hardship of life in rural eastern Kentucky, nor can they tell the depth of love and pride of Appalachian people. Come visit me. I will be waiting for you.


Janice Stamper is a graduate of the Warren Wilson College and the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. She served in ministry in Alaska for thirty years then returned to KY in 2010 to care for her father, who recently died in March.

The Privilege of the Magi

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Kate Morrison is curating a series featuring reflections on Advent and Christmas from our 2018 National Gathering workshop and post-Gathering seminar leaders. Over the course of the month, we’ll hear what this season means to them through stories, memories, and favorite traditions – and how they see the themes of Advent connecting with the work of NEXT Church. We invite you to share your own memories and stories on Facebook and Twitter!

Editor’s note: J.C. is leading a post-Gathering seminar (a 24-hour opportunity to dig deeper into a topic, new this year!) called “The Color of Whiteness: Engaging White Privilege In and Through the Church .” It will take place from Wednesday afternoon through Thursday morning following the 2018 National Gathering. Learn more and register

by J.C. Austin

One of my favorite poems that is related to Advent and Christmas is “Journey of the Magi,” by T.S. Eliot; one of my personal Christmas traditions is to read it every year about this time. I’ve always loved how, from the very beginning, Eliot relentlessly strips away the layers of sentimentality and idealization that have accrued to both this particular part of the story and, by extension, to the larger Christmas story and certainly the ways we remember and celebrate it ourselves. In the voice of one of the Magi, Eliot describes how long the journey is, how bad the weather is, how the camels were ornery and sore-footed, how the men who handled them weren’t any better, how the towns they passed through were dirty and hostile. He describes how the Magi dreamt of the privileged life they had left behind to make this journey: “There were times we regretted / the summer palaces on slopes, the terraces / and the silken girls bringing sherbet.” When they finally stagger into Bethlehem and make their way to the inn, their entire experience of the Epiphany of the Christ Child is summed up in one gloriously underwhelming line: “Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.”

The Adoration by the Magi – an Ethiopian artist’s impression (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The remainder of the poem is one of the Magi reflecting on the meaning of what they saw in the Christ Child. It concludes this way:

Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
we had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
but had thought they were different; this Birth was
hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
with an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

I’ve always read that passage in relatively removed terms: the Magus realizes first that, with the birth of God Incarnate, all other kings, all other purveyors of wisdom, have been effectively cast down from their lofty places. And second, having had his epiphany, he himself no longer fits in where he once thrived; knowing the truth of God taking human form in Jesus Christ in order to save the world, he can’t return to a place that doesn’t (or perhaps just refuses to) know that truth, that clings to its idols and acts like nothing has happened, that simply rings a bell for another silken servant to bring more sherbet. The Magus knows that the days of palaces and sherbet is numbered, and yet still identifies solidly with “the old dispensation,” so that, in the end, he can only hope for the relief of death to deliver him from this limbo of unbelonging.

This year, though, it strikes me that the Magus’ response to the Epiphany of Christ is similar to the way in which most people of privilege respond to the recognition that their privilege will not or even cannot continue: with grief. When one is accustomed to a life of privilege, they inevitably grieve the loss of that privilege in some form or fashion. We are all familiar with the five stages of grief; using that framework, the Magus appears to be somewhere in a dialectic of depression and acceptance.

When it comes to us here in the time of Advent/Christmas 2017, though, the most obvious people of privilege who are in grief are those with white privilege. There are some who, like the Magus, are no longer at ease in the old dispensation, who have accepted the reality and injustice of white privilege and who are working to disrupt and dismantle it. But many, many more white people (both within the church and the larger society) are in other stages of grief: the “All Lives Matter” crowd is rooted firmly in denial; those who “agree with the cause but not the methods” of those protesting racial injustice in our society find themselves in the stage of bargaining; and the white supremacists in Charlottesville and elsewhere are clearly absorbed with the stage of anger.

And then there are those who are trapped in the stage of depression, who have realized that they no longer belong in the old dispensation, but cannot see possibilities for our church or our society beyond discord, division, and even death, just as the Magus concludes. In this season of anticipating and celebrating the Incarnation in Jesus Christ, though, it is my prayer that more and more of us will be able to push beyond depression and death not simply to acceptance, but to confidence that the birth of Christ really is an announcement of “peace among those whom God favors,” which is not white people or any other people of privilege, but rather all those who bear God’s image and follow God’s will. It is a message of life, not death, for all those with ears to hear and the wisdom to see. Losing white privilege is hardly the same thing as losing life; it is gaining life, embracing life, aligning ourselves and our society with the abundant life that Jesus can for all of us, all of us, to have. And that, truly, is an extraordinary gift of Christmas.


J.C. Austin is Designated Pastor/Head of Staff of First Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), Bethlehem, PA. He received his Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1998. After spending a year as a Visiting Fellow at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, he was ordained to serve as Associate Pastor for Evangelism and Stewardship at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, where he helped lead a historic but declining congregation into its first experience of significant growth in vitality, resources, and size in several decades. Following that experience, he went to Auburn Theological Seminary (also in New York City). There, he built a national reputation as an expert on innovative congregational leadership for the 21st century, conceiving and establishing a range of new initiatives to build personal resilience, entrepreneurial spirit, and practical wisdom in pastoral leaders. As a teacher and public theologian, he also developed a particular focus equipping faith leaders to disrupt racial injustice and white privilege in both church and society.

Beyond Our Comfortable Sameness

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

by Glen Bell

(D) > fP

Embracing our diversity is greater than the force of our privilege.

Genuine openness blows apart our assumptions.  

As a straight, white, male, upper middle-class Presbyterian, I am privileged beyond measure. I am grateful for the patience of others. So many have taught me about their lives, the world and the power of the gospel, far beyond my predictable domain.

  • On a pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine with two dozen other pastors, I was surprised by a wretched realization. I listened to the female participants. One painful story after another testified of the discrimination and abuse of women in ministry.
  • On staff of an urban ministries center, I was encountered by the bedrock truth of homelessness. Street life demands and challenges and twists. It is expensive, body and soul. The disrespect and sense of invisibility burn deep.
  • Candor leads in unexpected directions. After the General Assembly voted to divest from three American firms engaged with the Israeli military, I welcomed the opportunity to sit with several local Jewish leaders. One was angry, and shared his perspective with clarity, calm and grace. Another completely agreed with the decision.  

What have I learned from these few instances and so many more? There is always more to discover from our diverse neighbors. Every part of the journey promises the opportunity for new learning. Listening from the heart (and offering an open space and safe place) is critically important – and requires continuing recommitment on my part.

This ongoing commitment is a challenge given to each Presbyterian seminary graduate who is seeking a call from a congregation. As leaders in the PCUSA, we learn one of the important values in our denomination is cultural proficiency. Such proficiency involves understanding “the norms and common behaviors of various peoples, including direct experience working in multiple cultural and cross-cultural settings.”

Some of my friends do not enjoy the privilege I often take for granted. Shiraz Hassan, the president of the local mosque in Sarasota, was born in South Africa and came to United States over twenty-five years ago. Today he urges other participants in the mosque to reach out into the community. “We all live here,” he says. “Whatever you get, you need to give back.” When asked about the all-too-common association of Muslims with terrorists, he responds, “The major thing is that every [Muslim] person living in Sarasota is American. Everything else is secondary. We are not the other.”

Perhaps we cannot discover the gospel today unless we live and love across cultures, renouncing the ease with which we call our neighbors “others,” entreating the wind of the Spirit to fill our sails toward new horizons, building relationships with people and communities beyond our comfortable sameness.  

In response to this growing need, almost a decade ago Louisville Seminary created Doors to Dialogue as a central part of its curriculum. Students are introduced to distinctly different faith communities. They – and we – learn through the crucible of diversity, because we all are immersed in communities with a variety of cultures and beliefs.

Such diversity invites us to grow and develop as disciples of Christ. It calls us to express our faith in ways that demonstrate genuine acceptance and care, even through our own uncertainty and questions.

In his book How Your Congregation Learns, Tim Shapiro points out the church “is often in a situation where it is expected to think and behave in ways it has not yet learned with knowledge it does not yet hold.” This learning cannot happen when we assume that all Presbyterians look, act and see the world like us. They do not.

If our churches are to mature, we must engage different perspectives. Shapiro concludes that in addition to creativity, “the central and most important behavior for congregational development is the congregation’s ability to learn from an outside resource.”

Are we open to the outside to shape us and teach us?

Shiraz Hassan is such a resource for me and First Presbyterian Church. Wally Johnson is becoming that kind of resource as well. He is the new pastor at Northminster Presbyterian Church, five miles north of downtown Sarasota. Northminster and Wally are distinct from me and the congregation I serve; he and I think significantly differently on issues important to each of us.

But along with our diversity is one bedrock theological truth that drives us into rich conversation.  We are brothers in Christ. We are Presbyterians together.  

With kindness and conviction, Wally invited me a few weeks ago to preach at his installation service as pastor at Northminster. Through his welcome and hospitality, Wally is graciously teaching me.  

Embracing diversity is a blessing.  

Crossing boundaries transforms us.


Glen Bell is head pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Sarasota, Florida, and serves on the NEXT Church strategy team.

Sabor y Sazón

Editor’s note: We have Danny and all of the people who have been and will be impacted by Hurricane Irma in our prayers. We encourage all interested in supporting hurricane relief to contribute to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, which continues to support relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Matthew.

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

by Daniel Morales

I’m somewhat of a rarity here in Miami – I’m a native! My parents fled Cuba June 25th, 1971, and took up residence in Miami mainly because like so many other Cubans at the time, they felt their migration would be a short-lived one. In those days, Miami was not the glitz and glamour it is known for today. In those days, it wasn’t even referred to as the banana republic, a term some white folks sarcastically use today. As a matter of fact, Miami was actually pretty white back then. My father shared stories of the few occasions in the early days when renting a home for the family was a challenge, either because they were Cubans, or because he had too many kids; four to be exact. I sealed the deal a few years later.  

All throughout my childhood and adolescence I never really thought much about what it meant to be multi-cultural. Quite frankly, I never really gave much thought to diversity either, perhaps because I was so accustomed to being in the mixture of both a homogenous and diverse culture (stay with me for a bit, that will make sense shortly). The little Free Will Baptist church in which I grew up was its own homogenous community of Cuban immigrants in the middle of this growing pot of ajiaco or sancocho that Miami was slowly becoming. (Ajiaco and/or sancocho is a traditional soup/stew from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and various other Latin American countries.)

Beginning with the 70s and most especially in the 80s and 90s, Miami was notorious for being Cuban town. As a matter of fact, my early elementary school years were at a private school right in the middle of Calle 8 in Little Havana. And while it is true that for a while my people made up a large percentage of the Hispanic immigrants of Miami, I have to tell you, I was always surrounded by diversity and it was the most perfectly normal thing in the world to me. My classmates were Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Nicaraguan, and Colombian. They were Black, they were White, and truth be told, we made nothing of it; rather we lived and we did what kids do.

Diversity was not something I was completely in tune with – that is, until I became more immersed in my theological studies. Truthfully, I didn’t learn to embrace my own cultural diversity in light of the broader composite of the United States until I left my bubble of Miami and found my way up to Chicago, where I was no longer a part of the dominant culture.

McCormick Theological Seminary was crucial to my understanding of both the complexities and richness of my diversity. That understanding meant that I saw God not through the lens of the scholarship that has dominated theological studies for centuries; instead I came to understand God through the lens and experience of the people of the largest island of the Caribbean. And with that understanding also came greater appreciation for the sazón (seasoning) with which my culture and the various cultures of the Caribbean bring depth to the redeeming grace of Christ.  

El sabor y sazón de mi gente (the flavor and seasoning of my people) adds a certain flare and spice to the body of Christ, and to the broader body of the Presbyterian Church USA. Some would argue our rhythms accentuate the rich and bold ways in which Christ moves in our midst. And that is precisely where the beauty of diversity lies, because though we are all one in Christ, each one of us – each culture, race, and ethnicity – bring to life the unforced rhythms of grace.

For us Caribbean folks, Paul’s exhortation in Galatians 3:28 would read something like, In God’s family we are all one; there is no Cuban or Puerto Rican or Dominican. We are all equal. In the Caribbean we all dance to the same sweet rhythms of salsa — be it from Marc Anthony, Celia Cruz, or Jonny Ventura. (Well sadly, except me, I can’t dance!)


Daniel Morales is the director of university ministries at Riviera Presbyterian Church in Miami, FL. He also serves on the NEXT Church strategy team.

A Method in the Midst of Madness

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 Bridgett Green

What happens when chaos steps in and disrupts our present circumstances? We become dizzy and disoriented us as our world changes beyond comprehension. We lose a sense of who we are and what we’re doing. And we wonder what is God doing and trying to show us.

When the method to the madness is lost and we are simply left with just madness, how are we to respond? Examining the courageous leadership of Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow nation, Jonathan Lear offers Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. His anthropological analysis with theological insight into Chief Plenty Coups and the Crow nation’s experiences of radical hope provides insights about how to face an uncertain reality with courage and conviction.

Chief Plenty Coups led the Crow nation at the turn of the 20th century when seismic cultural and political shifts devastated their way of life. Preserving their land, living off wild buffalo, and having a rich spiritual life were central to their culture. Invasions by white settlers, wars with other Indigenous nations, broken treaties with the U.S. government, and the utter annihilation of the buffalo created a massive shock wave to the Crow’s way of life and concepts of living.

Devastated by their reality, the Crow nation engaged in a radical hope to confront their present circumstances by synthesizing their traditions with a new conceptual framework for flourishing. Radical hope is the exercise of imaginative excellence for generating creative responses to world challenges. Rooted in vibrant ideals, it allows for a rewarding life in the face of hard realities. To have a radical hope, one must have a faith, or what Lear calls a psychological flexibility, to believe in possibilities without knowledge of how they would manifest.

As a young man, Chief Plenty Coups received a divine message warning him of future destruction and encouraging him to listen carefully and to learn from others. The elders and the community adopted his dream. Not knowing how it would manifest, the people allowed the dream to generate a radical hope for survival that would surpass their understanding.

With radical hope, the Crow nation kept their lands and mountains despite the pressures and broken treaties by the U.S. government enacted in the reservation system. Chief Plenty Coups encouraged generations to go to white schools, explaining that knowing what the white man knows would keep him from being able to oppress them. Eventually, the Crow nation built on their reservation Little Big Horn College that incorporated their history and traditions with western education. The Crow nation developed a new conceptual framework for flourishing.

When we experience a loss of identity, culture, or vocation, it’s an opportunity to follow the wisdom of Chief Plenty Coups: 1) access the real challenges; 2) seeks God’s will; 3) discern with community the vision; 4) have faith God’s vision (versus the prescription); 5) listen and learn from various sources; and 6) respond creatively and courageously to the present reality (and not a reconstructed version of the past).


Bridgett A. Green is a teaching elder and is completing her dissertation as a Ph.D. candidate in New Testament at Vanderbilt University. Living outside of Nashville, she serves the church as an acquisitions editor at Presbyterian Publishing Corporation; as a trustee on the board of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary; and as a trustee on the board of the Mountain Retreat Association (aka Montreat). She resources people as they practice Christianity with the tools of sound biblical interpretation, rigorous theological inquiry, and good questions.

Resist Right Now

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 Kathy Wolf Reed

Earlier this year I was fortunate to read Walter Brueggemann’s Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now. Like many of Brueggemann’s works, the book is both brief and powerful, making it (somewhat ironically) an ideal choice for those in professional ministry.

Striking to me was Brueggemann’s description of ancient Egypt: defined by anxiety, overly concerned with productivity, and overcome with an idolatrous worship of commodity. This exhausting mode of existence is not only an apt description of modern day society but modern day mainline Protestantism as well. I suppose that’s why I have not been able to get this book out of my mind.

Amidst threats that somehow our hard-earned commodities might not be safe or our ability to be productive could become compromised, human fear propels us into overdrive. We believe that if we could just do or have more, we might attain the peace our hearts long for – peace that in truth comes only from relationship with God. In the church, the tendency toward commoditization manifests itself as measuring ministry in numbers: membership, budgets, baptisms. We look across the street at what others are doing and think, “Maybe we should start a new program for singles/coffee ministry/contemporary worship service.”

Brueggemann names the flaw in our logic, describing the “endless pursuit of greater security and greater happiness, a pursuit that is always unsatisfied, because we have never gotten or done enough… yet” (page 13). He reminds us how in the Sabbath commandment, our God “nullifies that entire system of anxious production” (page 27). God gives us not just an option but a direct order to place boundaries on our inclinations to perpetuate anxiety.

“Such a faithful practice of work stoppage is an act of resistance.” Brueggemann writes. “It declares in bodily ways that we will not participate in the anxiety system that pervades our social environment” (page 31). He goes on to remind us how Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matt. 11:28)

I cannot think of a more relevant book for today’s world and church. I am grateful for the gift of a biblical framework through which to understand my own anxieties and the restlessness of the society and systems in which I serve. I recommend this book to all church leaders as we continue to navigate anxious times.


Kathy Wolf Reed has served as co-pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Auburn, AL since 2014. The Mayberry-esque setting of Auburn provides a context in which Kathy and her family (co-pastor husband Nick and their three small children) can enjoy all the perks of small town life while the presence of a major university offers them constant opportunities to attend interesting programs and cheer on the Tigers from football games to equestrian meets.

The Courage to Die

by Jessica Tate

I’m an Apple (computer) enthusiast. While I’ve resisted temptation of the iPhone 5, I have been paying attention to its press. In an article for the Washington Post, columnist Steven Pearlstein noted a trend in the tech world. Three of the most dominating firms have tanked in recent years.

  • Nokia was once the mobile phone leader with 40% of the global market. It had a smartphone prototype a decade before iPhone came out, but didn’t turn technology into competitive product quickly enough. Now their marketshare is cut in half.
  • Blackberry sales are down 95% and business experts wonder if Research in Motion (its maker) will survive.
  • Best Buy killed Circuit City and Sears once upon a time, but now it is getting creamed by cheaper on-line options.

“One lesson to be drawn from all three stories,” Pearlstein writes, “is the danger faced by dominant firms that refuse to cannibalize themselves–to give up existing sales in order to get the jump on next-generation products and services.”

Apple, he says, ruled the personal music player with the iPod, but realized that if someone developed a phone that could play music as well as the iPod, they’d be toast. Rather than try to shore up the iPod market, Apple cannibalized themselves, introducing the very product they feared most. The results speak for themselves.

Franklin Golden, co-pastor of Durham Church, shared the inspiring story of Durham Church’s revitalization effort at the NEXT gathering in North Carolina this summer. Durham church is a multi-cultural congregation devoted to reconciliation, service and evangelism. They have some grace-infused stories to share about overcoming racial and cultural differences and dealing with issues of power head-on.

“Other pastors say they want the deep ministry Durham Church has,” Golden said. “No, you don’t,” he replies. “You don’t what this. Not until you’re ready to give up all the trappings of church.” The hard-earned wisdom they’ve received is this: “When privilege and power come up against the reign of God you can run away or you can die.”

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  — John 12:24

I wonder what we, as a church, might be holding onto too tightly? What part of ourselves must we let go, let die, so that we might bear much fruit?


Jessica Tate1Jessica Tate is Director of NEXT Church.