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Diversity, Hospitality, and the Face of Poverty

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 John Wilkinson

The Reverend William Briggs died this July at the age of 86. Bill Briggs was a Presbyterian minister born in Pennsylvania, whose distinguished ministry was lived out in Ohio. Among other things, Bill served with my dad as the minister for community outreach at Central Presbyterian Church in Zanesville, Ohio, a medium-sized, county seat congregation.

Bill Briggs was the first exposure I really had as a kid to a vision of the church’s mission beyond its walls. In this case, his ministry was extensively with the Appalachian poor who dwelled throughout southeastern Ohio. Bill Briggs worked hard at an important task, dismantling the boundaries and blurring the lines between those with means and those without in that very economically diverse community. He remains a kind of iconic role model for me.

Our Confession of 1967 states that: “The reconciliation of humankind through Jesus Christ makes it plain that enslaving poverty in a world of abundance is an intolerable violation of God’s good creation. Because Jesus identified himself with the needy and exploited, the cause of the world’s poor is the cause of his disciples. The church cannot condone poverty, whether it is the product of unjust social structures, exploitation of the defenseless, lack of national resources, absence of technological understanding, or rapid expansion of populations. The church calls all people to use their abilities, their possessions, and the fruits of technology as gifts entrusted to them by God for the maintenance of their families and the advancement of the common welfare. It encourages those forces in human society that raise hopes for better conditions and provide people with opportunity for a decent living. A church that is in different to poverty, or evades responsibility in economic affairs, or is open to one social class only, or expects gratitude for its beneficence makes a mockery of reconciliation and offers no acceptable worship to God.” (9.46 c., Inclusive Language Version)

Read that paragraph over several times. Though 50 years old, it could have been written this very day, with its political and cultural analysis and its theological clarity. That phrase in particular, “enslaving poverty in a world of abundance,” convicts us, does it not?

There is no doubt in my mind that among the important discussions about equity and justice, the church is called to have a sustained conversation and hatch a rigorous action plan to combat “enslaving poverty.” Our political and economic worlds ignore it. The church is not sure where to begin, let alone what to do. This is a confession – it is not as if I have a clear plan as well. I simply know the gospel mandate and the demands of our confession and ordination vows.

In Rochester, New York, we discuss the “crushing concentration of poverty” that has educational implications and racist underpinnings. Black and Hispanic people in our community, and particularly children, fare worse than white people in nearly every measure of quality of life. Even with blue ribbon panels and significant public money going to the effort, the needle moves barely, if at all. “Blessed are the poor,” Jesus said. Do we believe that? And if so, what are we doing about it?

But in a blog series about diversity, the question takes on even deeper meaning. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning is “the most segregated hour in this nation.” That was true racially. It certainly remains true economically, and perhaps even more so.

Along with every other form of diversity, what would it look like for the church to pursue economic diversity? What would it look like for rich and poor to co-exist in the life of a congregation, so that those surface differences would remain just that?

It’s a difficult challenge. Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, where I am privileged to serve, seeks to address the despairing impact of poverty through housing and hunger ministry, through educational ministry in public schools, through direct service and efforts to change the economic status quo. Yet as important as those programs and efforts are, they rarely take the next step of engaging the poor in the journey itself.

Our presbytery recently closed a congregation called Calvary-St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. We are attempting to resurrect mission and ministry in its former building. What I loved about Calvary-St. Andrew’s was that it was one of the few congregations I’ve ever experienced where there was no distinction in participation and membership between those with financial means and those without. No distinction. That caused people to recalibrate expectations all over the place. And such recalibration was very good.

What would it look like for more of us – congregations in rural settings, in suburban and urban ones as well – to embrace the vision of seeking true economic diversity? Can we imagine and envision it? Can we move beyond whatever barriers that we’ve constructed within our own spirits and within our own congregations?

Paul wrote in Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

What if we simply extended that metaphor to say “there is no longer rich or poor…”

Bill Briggs modelled that vision for me long ago, and then lived that vision in his ministry. I am grateful for that witness. May we “raise hopes for better conditions and provide people with opportunity for a decent living.” And having done that, may our congregations and communities reflect the true diversity and full hospitality that God dreams for us all.


John Wilkinson is pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, NY. He has been active on the presbytery and national levels, including on the Strategy Team for NEXT Church, and loves our connectional culture and confessional legacy.

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.

Racial Justice, Contemplation, and the Next Church

By Therese Taylor-Stinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.


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

Will #nextchurch2015 Move the Church Towards Racial Justice?

 

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

By Rocky Supinger

NEXT Church is next week!

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

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

So, my first question:

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

A colleague shared this in an email yesterday:

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

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

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

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

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


 

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