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Confronting and Claiming Power for the Gospel’s Sake

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series written by participants in the second Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership cohort offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from various church and community leaders as they explore the key organizing concept of power. How can these reflections on power shape your own work and ministry? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Sarah Cooper Searight

Day one, in processing our very first activity together, those of us gathered for the week in Baltimore were told the truth: If we were serious about making change we would have to have power, and if we wanted power then we would have to “unlearn all of our clergy stuff.” That statement has been agitating something in me ever since. Somehow, in the midst of our best attempts as leaders to challenge the powers and principalities, we have inherently set up a dynamic whereby we’ve locked ourselves out of claiming power. We are supposed to confront power, aren’t we? Name it, shame it, reframe it, but certainly don’t claim it. So how can we claim what we also condemn?

Community organizing training participants gathered in worship

We begin with who God is. We know, based on Genesis 1:26 and John 1:1-2 (among many others), that God within Godself is in relationship. Father, Son and Holy Spirit; Mother-Sophia, Jesus-Sophia, and Spirit-Sophia, as Elizabeth Johnson points out: “The mutual coinherence, the dancing around together of Spirit, Wisdom, and Mother…this defines who God is as God. There is no divine nature as a fourth thing that grounds divine unity in difference apart from relationality. Rather, being in communion constitutes God’s very essence.”[1]

Further, we read throughout the biblical stories how God is not only in relationship within Godself but yearns for, makes way for, initiates again and again relationship with humanity and indeed with all creation. Though certainly God is capable on God’s own, God consistently transforms by raising up leaders who then raise up communities of power: God in Moses and Aaron with the Israelites, Jesus with his disciples and masses who were fed on the hillside, the Holy Spirit with Lydia who grew the church in Philippi, to name just a few. We learn, in knowing who God is and how God works, that power is generated through and used in relationship with others.

Of course we all know that relationship can be manipulated to generate power that wields the tools of violence and fear. Howard Thurman shares the story of a young German woman who escaped from the Nazis. Talking to Thurman, she describes just how thoroughly Adolf Hitler manipulated the isolation felt by German youth. “It is true,” Thurman reflects, “that in the hands of a man like Hitler, power is exploited and turned to ends which make for havoc and misery.”[2] Hitler convinced them that he was the only one who could love them, ensure their belonging and their safety. Of course, there are any number of stories we can tell of power built by manipulation and fear in relationship to others wreaking havoc on our communities.

God isn’t about any of that mess, never was and never will be. God cultivates relational power. Thurman contrasts the story of Nazi youth, pointing to how Jesus spoke of God’s care for humanity and all creation as that of a loving parent. God creates the conditions for belonging, and trust in belonging empowers both the individual and the community as a whole towards acts of transformation. “A [person’s] conviction that [they are] God’s child automatically tends to shift the basis of [their] relationship with all [their] fellows.”[3] [brackets are mine].

This is the same belonging that we preach and enact in the church through the sacrament of baptism. God does not manipulate us into it, but rather makes it the ground of our being. Thereby, if I am a child of God then you are a child of God. We, together, belong to God — we have a common identity and a common purpose. That common purpose is set out explicitly in Scripture and in the person of Jesus Christ — love God and love neighbor enough that we act upon these things now, not later.

As church and community leaders we can (I think we have to) both confront and claim power for the sake of the people we love and minister with and for the sake of any hope in real transformation of our communities. Confront that which is manipulative and abusive, and at the same time claim power that is more accurate to God who is the one who got us into this ministry-game in the first place.

[1]Johnson, Elizabeth A. (1992) She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing Company. p 227.
[2]Thurman, Howard. Jesus and the Disinherited.(Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1976), p. 40.
[3]Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, 40.


Sarah Cooper Searight serves as Associate Pastor at Swarthmore Presbyterian Church in Swarthmore, PA. She delights in both her ministry life and her home life where she is partner to Bill (also PCUSA clergy) and mom to Maggie and Ella (PKs extraordinaire), and every so often in the midst of these two she gets in a good run.

Reading as Good Leadership

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 Jessica Tate

“What have you read recently that has been worth passing on?” the leadership coach asked.

I sighed and thought to myself (only half jokingly), “Oh, wow. I remember reading… Back before I was a parent and moved and worked a (more than) full time job and tried to have some sort of social life and tended to extended family.” These are constraints, of course, and they are very, very real.

It’s also real that reading in and beyond one’s field is important to offering good leadership. And secondly, that passing on what has been worthwhile is also a mark of good leadership. NEXT Church is committed to developing leaders and to continual growth and learning in the context of community. We hope this month of blog posts will offer some good food for thought as we put reading/learning back on the front burner. To kick us off, here are five titles that I read (or re-read or read most of!) this past year that are worth your time.

Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by Adrienne Maree Brown
Brown’s work is like no other leadership book I’ve read. She pulls together lessons from community organizing, science fiction, the natural world, poetry, and her own experience. At times it reads like a stream of conscience, and it is rich. She argues for an adaptive and relational way of being that becomes a strategy “for building complex patterns and systems of change through relatively small interactions.” That seems to me to be the sweet spot for the church – transformation on the small scale in individual encounters, sermon by sermon, prayer by prayer, project by project that is connected to a more complex and strategic system to change the world. Perhaps my favorite line of the book is quoted from a sign in the home of the late Grace Lee Boggs: “Building community is to the collective as spiritual practice is to the individual.” How do we lead in ways that shape community so that our communities and the world around us find abundant life?

Dare to Lead: Daring Greatly and Rising Strong at Work by Brené Brown
I’ve been a big fan of Brené Brown’s since I read The Gifts of Imperfection about five years ago and listened to hear TED Talk on shame and vulnerability. This new book pulls on all the previous work and research of Brown and her team and puts it directly in the context of work and leadership at work. She illustrates how vulnerability works (and doesn’t work) at work. She talks about what it takes to lead with a whole-heart. She unpacks what shame does to colleagues in the work place. I’m finding that her research and its applications are pulling together the best of what I have learned through the disciplines of community organizing, the work of Cultivated Ministry, and what I’m learning about dismantling racism. It’s not a theological book per se, but helps me embody (I pray) a servant leadership and the best of what is meant by our call to lose our lives to save them.

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo
“Well, that explains a lot.” That has been my consistent reaction to DiAngelo’s book on why white people have a hard time engaging and dismantling racism in a serious and lasting way. She has helped me understand systems I work and live within, the reactions of people around me, and (most importantly) helped hold up a mirror for me to see myself and my own reactions more clearly. It’s not been a particularly comfortable read, but I believe it is a sanctifying discomfort in service of a more honest view of myself and a commitment to repentance in the fullest theological sense of going a new way.

DiAngelo mixes it up with helpful frameworks for understanding systemic racism and the “pillars of whiteness” alongside tangible examples of what it looks like in practice to build up my racial stamina, to be willing to enter discomfort for the sake of honoring the experience of people in marginalized groups, and to take every opportunity to learn. The NEXT Church Strategy Team read and discussed this book this fall. We are working toward building racial stamina in the white folk in our leadership and to work together to ensure that people in marginalized groups are not undercut by practices that diminish all of us.

Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman
We ask the participants in our certificate for Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership to read this book and I’ve been re-reading it along with them. Thurman argues that the Christianity most of us have been taught does not deal much with those who stand “with their backs against the wall” at a particular moment in history, other than to have them be the beneficiaries of our “mission.” Further, he reminds us that Jesus – in his personhood – is one who speaks Good News directly to and for those with their backs against the wall. It’s a good reminder to de-center my own experience as I think about what is next for the church. I am also seeing more clearly in the text this time around the importance of the liberating work of Jesus to a “weary, nerve-snapped civilization.” Thurman wrote these words in 1976, but goodness they seem an accurate description of our culture today.

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1953-63 by Taylor Branch
In all fairness, I’ve been reading this book for the last TWO years. At 1088 pages, it is a tome, but it is also an illuminating look at the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The level of detail paints a much fuller picture than the broad brushstrokes that colored much of my knowledge of the movement from history class. I am finding it a helpful read because it giving me broader perspective on the current political and cultural moment in the United States. This is significant for several reasons. First, there are different philosophies and strategies and tactics for social and cultural change. What can feel like dysfunction in the current social movements is human nature and has been part of this work all along. It’s part of the struggle. Second, organizing for effective social and cultural change is messy and hard. This perhaps is obvious, but it has ben a good reminder that the Montgomery Bus Boycott wasn’t simple to pull off. It required a lot of coordination, grit, and huge sacrifice by the folks who participated. I shouldn’t expect that social change today would require any less sacrifice of me. Third, the role of the church! The church (and mostly the Black Church) played a huge and important role in supporting, equipping, training, and praying for this movement. The church was essential to the movement. I pray the church today is seeking to have such impact.


Jessica Tate is the director of NEXT Church. She lives in Washington, DC.

Meditations of the Heart by Howard Thurman “Sheds a Little Light”

by Lee Hinson-Hasty

Eighty years ago (1937) this month, the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. published a poem by the Rev. Howard Thurman, an African American Baptist minister, professor of theology, and dean of the chapel at Howard University. The title of the poem was “O God, I Need Thee.” Thurman poetically describes our need of God’s sense for time, order, and future.

This month, the NEXT Church blog will help us all investigate God’s timing, order, and future by recommending and reviewing books that shed a little light on what is happening all around and within us in these seemingly chaotic days of 2017. The inspiration for this phrase, “shed a little light,” comes from James Taylor’s song, “Shed a Little Light.” You can watch a video of it being performed by the Lowcountry SC Voices in Columbia here.

Lent, if nothing else, is a time for reflection on what has been and living toward what is possible with God’s help. We die to our old selves as we pray to rise to newness of life in fullest form.

Thurman published Meditations of the Heart in 1953, the second in a volume of meditations that were originally written for personal and congregational use at Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco where he served as co-pastor with Alfred G. Fisk, a Presbyterian minister, and professor of philosophy from 1944-1953. Both were deeply concerned about building bridges of understanding among varied races, cultures, and faiths.

The purpose of these meditations is, as Thurman puts it, “to focus the mind and the heart upon God as the Eternal Source and Goal of life.” The meditations in this 210-page book are chock full of insight, centering prayer, and nourishment for the journey. For me, all three are needed in these days as they were for his congregation in the 1940’s and ’50’s. Meditations are the type of sustenance that fed civil rights leaders including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr,. who was, in many ways, mentored by Thurman.

Mentoring voices from around the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and beyond will follow this post throughout the coming weeks, each from various walks of life and ministry contexts including those leading theological schools, congregations, presbyteries, the General Assembly, and non-profit organizations. Each will identify their context for ministry and call, a book they recommend, what the book is about, and why they believe it is critical reading today. My prayer is that these will become timely and descriptive “meditations of the heart,” so to speak, for a holy pilgrimage into God’s imagined future: the NEXT Church.

My sincere hope is that these posts will also provide a foundational backdrop for the conversations many of us will be having at the 2017 National Gathering on Well-Being in a Thirsty World.


I am Lee Hinson-Hasty and my call to ministry centers on vocation of leaders in the church and the world. I am always curious about how we find what Thomas Merton described as “our true selves.” Discerning vocation is, I believe, a personal, spiritual, religious, and theological journey, and, for Reformed Christians, it is a communal process. Vocation discerned becomes educational and, ultimately, economic in a particular social context. As a resource and advocate for theological education in the PC(USA) for more than a decade, I find my current call as Senior Director of Theological Education Funds Development at the Presbyterian Foundation provides me the best opportunity I know to invite and embolden others to used their gifts to glorify God in ways that will empower leaders of Christ’s Church by supporting future ministers. I pray regularly with James Taylor and others that we will all “Recognize there are ties between us… ties of hope and love, sister and brotherhood. …. We are bound together by the task that stands before us and the road that lies ahead. We are bound and we are bound.”

Intersectionality of Racial Justice and the Contemplative – Part 4

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During June, Therese Taylor-Stinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring Contemplation and Social Justice, featuring posts by member os the Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Ltd. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

Editor’s note: This post is the conclusion of a four part series. Read part 1 herepart 2 here, and part 3 here

By Lerita Coleman Brown and Jacquelyn Smith-Crooks

Making the Thurman Connections

Thurman had the uncanny and prophetic ability to make a connection between the silence and scrutiny of one’s inner life with the work for social justice. He encouraged Dr. King and other organizers of the Movement to utilize contemplative practices. In particular, Thurman stressed the importance for marchers to examine their inward journeys and to use nonviolent responses to what was often very violent confrontation.

In light of this, Lerita and Jacquelyn designed a workshop to share with participants the social advocacy of Howard Thurman through group reading and reflections of excerpts from lectures, sermons, or meditations by Thurman. Participants engaged in reflections on their own ways of using the contemplative to prepare themselves spiritually for their call to engage in the work of non-violent and transformative responses to racial oppression.

The focus on Howard Thurman in this workshop was no coincidence. Clearly, his social justice gospel continues to serve as both an unofficial spiritual director for the Civil Rights Movement of those who were and continue to be marginalized or disinherited. Thurman was on the fringe even in doing what he felt called to do; yet, his “voice” was heard and continues to be heard throughout the world.


 

Lerita Coleman BrownLerita Coleman Brown, Ph.D., is a professor emerita of psychology and a spiritual director. Brown is a graduate of the Shalem Institute. She lives in Georgia, USA, and writes and promotes contemplative spirituality in everyday life.

Jacquelyn Smith-CrooksJacquelyn Smith-Crooks, Ed.D, is an associate minister at Alden Baptist Church in Massachusetts, USA. A spiritual life coach and researcher, Smith-Crooks works with individuals, and leads workshops and retreats with faith-based and other organizations.

Intersectionality of Racial Justice and the Contemplative – Part 3

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During June, Therese Taylor-Stinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring Contemplation and Social Justice, featuring posts by member os the Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Ltd. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

Editor’s note: This post is the third in a four part series. Read part 1 here, and part 2 here

By Jacquelyn Smith-Crooks

Jacquelyn:  “Social Justice as a Lived Experience/ The Contemplative as a Learned Process”

Memories of my introduction to social justice activism begin with the Civil Rights/Racial Justice Movement of the 60s that was based in the African American church. To a large extent, this movement was an outgrowth of that very same source to which I link my involvement with the contemplative.

It was my father, Jack Smith, Jr., who exposed me to the movement and to a key community-based organization, the NAACP Youth Division, which taught me about the “contemplative in action.” The leaders in the organization did this by training and preparing us for the picketing, demonstrations, marches, and other acts of nonviolent resistance to forced segregation and unequal access to resources that were available to white people; e.g., schools, hotels/motels, restaurants, housing, employment in department stores (especially women’s shops), and more.

This took place several years before the huge cross-burning in front of the house, located at the end of a predominantly white neighborhood; we were purchasing it through a white realtor. The incident occurred the week before our family and that of a family friend were to have moved into our “new to us” duplex that was located at the end of a street in an all-white neighborhood.

Many years later, I “met” Howard Thurman in my search for a theology with which I felt “at home”—one which offered me both the freedom to connect with another dimension of my spiritual self and do so within the context of myself as an African American woman—tapping my inner and outer existence. I had found many books that supported my search for clarity around my theology and spirituality, but never with racial reflections of myself. The images were of European/White Americans or people from the Eastern religions. This included Joel Goldsmith, Thomas Merton, and others.

While addressing one aspect of my being, this was not sufficient for me as one who had become disillusioned with institutional religion after encountering subtle and stinging acts of racism in the college church I attended during my undergraduate years.

When I discovered Thurman, it was like the situation for the woman with the issue of blood. I found a theologian, who chose to engage in work that would speak to me as an African American woman on my quest for centeredness through a contemplative experience as a path to inner peace, joy, and power. He wrote about this desire—especially for oppressed people—in Jesus and the Disinherited, which became a cherished favorite of Dr. King, and one that he carried whenever he marched.

In the next blog, we will make the connections….


 

Jacquelyn Smith-CrooksJacquelyn Smith-Crooks, Ed.D, is an associate minister at Alden Baptist Church in Massachusetts, USA. A spiritual life coach and researcher, Smith-Crooks works with individuals, and leads workshops and retreats with faith-based and other organizations.

Intersectionality of Racial Justice and the Contemplative – Part 2

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During June, Therese Taylor-Stinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring Contemplation and Social Justice, featuring posts by member os the Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Ltd. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

Editor’s note: This post is the second in a four part series. Read part 1 here!

By Lerita Coleman Brown

Lerita:  “Social Injustices Revealed”

I grew up in Pasadena, California, in the 1950’s and 1960’s with the vestiges of social injustice not quite as visible as they were in the South. I remember our father setting us down as young children to have the “race conversation” as we prepared for a family visit to Arkansas. He explained that things were different “down there,” and we would see signs for “Colored” and “White Only” at restrooms, restaurants, and neighborhood pools. Racism in California more subtly reared its ugly head with neighborhood covenants barring Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and sometimes Jews from purchasing homes. I had not yet learned about the loss of homes and livelihoods as Japanese “citizens” were carted off and sent to internment camps during World War II.

My first clear taste of racial injustice occurred as a Black college student entering as a member of the first wave of Black students desegregating University of California campuses in the early 1970’s. Although I attended a legally mandated desegregated high school with Whites, Blacks, Asians, and Latinos, the result of Brown vs. Board of Education decision and subsequent suit, the White students and professors at UC Santa Cruz appeared different than the ones I encountered at John Muir High School. They frequently acted as if I were an alien from another planet and many believed that I was “let in” as an Equal Opportunity Program (EOP) student at University of California, Santa Cruz. I was very aware that I entered through the regular admissions process and with a California State Scholarship.

The university setting, however, provided an opportunity for me to cross paths with Jan Willis, a then young assistant professor of religion and also African American. A budding Tibetan Buddhist scholar, she taught my roommate and me how to meditate. This simple act of learning about cultivating a divine inner connection altered my life forever.

Since that time, I have allowed messages emerging from my contemplative practices of silence and stillness to guide me as I choose to engage the inner and the outer, or contemplative responses (the inner) with necessary external action (the outer), to address social injustice.

I have been most intrigued with Howard Thurman’s notion of “inner authority,” the idea that each individual has some power over what he or she allows into one’s inner sanctum. Thurman was reminded in his many contemplative moments, and communicates in his sermons and writings, the same truth as Jesus did—that each of us is created by God, is a child of God, and that is what we must always carry in our hearts.

In the next blog, your will read Jacquelyn’s story….


Lerita Coleman Brown

Lerita Coleman Brown, Ph.D., is a professor emerita of psychology and a spiritual director. Brown is a graduate of the Shalem Institute. She lives in Georgia, USA, and writes and promotes contemplative spirituality in everyday life.

Intersectionality of Racial Justice and the Contemplative Part 1

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During June, Therese Taylor-Stinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring Contemplation and Social Justice, featuring posts by member os the Spiritual Directors of Color Network, Ltd. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Lerita Coleman Brown and Jacquelyn Smith-Crooks

Behold the miracle!  … Love loves; this is its nature.  But this does not mean love is blind, naive, or pretentious.  It does mean that love holds its object securely in its grasp, calling all that it sees by is true name but surrounding all with a wisdom born both of its passion and its understanding.  …  Such an experience is so fundamental in quality that an individual knows that what is happening to him [or her] can outlast all things without itself being dissipated or lost.

~Howard Thurman

Introduction

We came together, two African American women who are also members of the Spiritual Directors of Color Network (International), to bring to the conversation about the contemplative and emerging wisdom a discussion on Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman. He was an African American theologian and mystic. Reared in an African American Baptist Church, he was co-founder of the first interfaith, racially and economically integrated church in the U.S. Moreover, he was spiritual advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and he played a critical role as a “behind the scenes” leader in the development of an alternative to violence in the dismantling of racial injustice in America—through the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s.

In coming together to develop this workshop, Lerita Coleman Brown and Jacquelyn Smith-Crooks found a way to continue a journey of the Spiritual Directors of Color Network’s recently published book of essays, Embodied Spirits: Stories of Spiritual Directors of Color (March 2014).

All too often, in mainstream secular and sacred education experiences, where implicit and explicit racism may not always be recognized for what they are, there is a conspicuous absence and/or underrepresentation of the presence of African American people in the stories that are used as images, tell the stories, highlight the roles and contributions almost exclusively of those representing the dominant culture to present the teachings. There is, thus, little likelihood that there will be at the intersection evidence of matters of race, racism, or racial justice, and this includes the contemplative experience.

With that in mind, conference facilitators Brown and Smith-Crooks made a conscious decision to both create space for conversation about the intersection of racial justice and the contemplative, and to also focus on a less familiar spiritual leader, who played a pivotal role in a movement that was felt around the world. This was first done in the workshop entitled, “Howard Thurman: Contemplative Spiritual Advisor and Prophet for Civil Rights.”

In doing so, it was deemed necessary to heed an African proverb, “Beware of the naked man/woman who comes bringing you clothes.” By reflecting on our own personal journeys of the socio-cultural, racial, and spiritual experiences at the intersection, we shared a glimpse the ties (of stories of race, racism, and the contemplative) that bind us even as we grew up hundreds of miles apart.

In the next blog post, you will read Lerita’s story….


 

Lerita Coleman BrownLerita Coleman Brown, Ph.D., is a professor emerita of psychology and a spiritual director. Brown is a graduate of the Shalem Institute. She lives in Georgia, USA, and writes and promotes contemplative spirituality in everyday life.

Jacquelyn Smith-CrooksJacquelyn Smith-Crooks, Ed.D, is an associate minister at Alden Baptist Church in Massachusetts, USA. A spiritual life coach and researcher, Smith-Crooks works with individuals, and leads workshops and retreats with faith-based and other organizations.