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You, Me, and White Fragility: Open Letters from the NEXT Church Co-Chairs

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!

A dialogue between Shavon Starling-Louis and Adam Fronczek

Shavon: Hey, Adam!

So we are drawing near to the end our year of overlapping as co-chairs for the strategy team of NEXT Church and it has been quite a year! We have had amazing opportunities to stand side by side to celebrate the innovative, creative ways in which the people of God are sharing Christ in the world, like at the National Gathering in Baltimore, and we have had times when we have navigated tension and discord – particularly around issues of systemic and interpersonal experiences of racism in our work.

I have to admit that despite having met through NEXT Church a few years back, I was curious as to how we would work together. We come from different church setting backgrounds – you, larger predominately white; me, mostly serving a smaller multiracial, multicultural church.

Our time of shared leadership started with a rather shaking experience that reflected the systemic and personal messiness of racism. For some of us it was a shock, a rip, a rending of the relational fabric which NEXT Church builds itself upon; for others its was an unmasking of holes that already existed.

In response, the fuller NEXT Church leadership looked, felt, searched for a way forward grounded in our Christian call for justice and mercy. There were times when as an African-American woman, the weight of my deep love for NEXT Church and the PC(USA) combined with the piercing of the heart, mind, and spirit that comes when racist ideas erupt so closely seemed like too much for me. I was particularly pained when I saw racism wound other leaders of color who are precious, beloved friends and colleagues.

In hindsight at the beginning of our shared tenure, there were times when I could have used a bit more support particularly when a systemically oppressive idea was shared in our work.

Recently, I was wondering about those moments. I wondered, could Adam sense that something needed to be said? Was I expecting him to be a mind reader or was there something else going on there?

Without being accusatory, it seemed like those earlier moments that I struggled with were actually examples of white silence and the white solidarity that it promotes. Both of which, as you know Robin DiAngelo discusses in White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. But I also wonder if it’s me or did you also notice a shift in our co-leadership once we read White Fragility along with the fuller NEXT Church strategy team? I have noticed you have stepped into have certain situations with a posture that is supportive of the leadership I bring and yet volunteers to carry weight that might be extra heavy if I had to carry it. I have felt that White Fragility (the book, not the phenomenon) has been a helpful conversation partner in our co-leadership, but would love to hear your thoughts.

Adam: Shavon,
Thank you for your honest, challenging, and compassionate letter. Across this difficult season we’ve shared, I’ve learned so much from leading with you. Among your many gifts, you know how to name an issue – to call it like it is – and here you’ve done it again. And you always do so speaking the truth in love.

White silence – the idea that white people maintain their safety in difficult conversations about race by being silent – was a new idea for me this year. You and I became co-chairs just as our strategy team agenda unraveled into a long-overdue conversation about racism and white privilege. My first reaction was to become silent. My rationale went something like this: “The last thing this conversation needs is another white male to be a dominant voice. The best thing you can do, Adam, is listen and try to learn something.”

Then, as our hard conversations progressed, I heard that one of the worst things well-meaning white people do in conversations about race is remain silent. When something uncomfortable or racist is said by another white person, white folks expect the persons of color in the room to bravely name it, rather than taking responsibility to speak a challenging word to our own white brothers and sisters and try to be brave ourselves. I first started internalizing this feedback thanks to you and other people of color on our strategy team. Then, when we read White Fragility, I found a name and definition for it: “white silence.” So in that sense, the answer to your question is “yes,” our reading this book together has given me language to name behaviors I’ve been struggling with all year long.

The more complicated response to your question is that I still haven’t figured out the best way to break out of my white silence. While I have a renewed conviction about calling out white privilege and white fragility when I see it, I know also that there is much to be gained if me and the other white folks spend less time talking and more time listening.

There is no rule book or manual that helps me know when to speak up and when to shut up, and I continue to struggle with that – it makes me feel vulnerable, unsafe, and ill at ease, like I don’t really belong. I’ve tried to make peace with those unsettling feelings by reminding myself that, especially in the 90% white PC(USA), people of color are almost always in contexts like that. They are asked to play by a rule book of white behaviors that cause people of color to feel unsafe. For generations, people of color have figured out how to bravely navigate those situations. I confess that in my own white silence I have been a coward, and I hope to be more brave in the days ahead.

I promised you a question back. I know that you have thoughtfully engaged your congregation and presbytery in some of the same work we’ve been doing at NEXT Church with White Fragility. What is your vision for where those conversations go in the PC(USA) and how can I and other white folks in our denomination help to advance that vision?

Shavon: Thanks Adam!
Truly. Thank you.

My vision is that the PC(USA) will be a denomination recognizable for cultivating and liberating Christian community with the theological, spiritual, and interpersonal courage and stamina to overcome the atrophy of the faith which is reflected in all forms of systemic and interpersonal expressions of oppression – including white fragility. In order to fulfill the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves, we will edify the faithful to be stewards of power or privilege for divine justice in ways previously unseen.

Regarding how to help advance that vision – God willing, all of us, but particularly our white siblings can begin with a counter-cultural expectation of discomfort, vulnerability, and failure. To do so is to expect to learn, to grow, and to experience God’s grace in their lives and the lives we touch.

Adam, I am truly blessed that God has allowed our lives to have touched.

With Gratitude and Hope,
SSL


 Shavon Starling-Louis is the pastor at Providence Presbyterian Church in Providence, Rhode Island. Adam Fronczek is pastor at Knox Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. Both have served as co-chairs of the NEXT Church strategy team for the past year.

Radical Reconciliation Reimagined

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 Glenn McCray

I love to read, but if I’m honest, I rarely read books cover-to-cover. Radical Reconciliation: Beyond Political Pietism and Christian Quietism is not one of those books. I’ve read this book 3 times! What I appreciate about this book, among many things, is the amazing job co-authors Allan Aubrey Boesak (2016 NEXT Church National Gathering keynoter) and Curtiss Paul DeYoung do of engaging the topic of reconciliation from a theological, historical, political, social, and racial perspective. While they use South Africa’s struggle against apartheid and the important work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as a practical example, they esteem Jesus as being central not only to the work of the TRC but the real, radical, and revolutionary work of reconciliation as well.

Boesak and DeYoung deconstruct the Jesus painted by dominant culture, referencing liberation theologian Miguel de la Torre: “Those wishing to ground their understanding of reconciliation within the Cristian tradition are forced to deal with the figure of Jesus Christ.” The question they pose is, “Which Jesus?” Boesak suggests, “It cannot be the Jesus as we have seen, the one captured Africans first met when we saw his name carved in the sides of the slave ships that carried Africans from their homelands into slavery. Neither can it be the Christ of the church doctrines who evolved into the blond, blue-eyed Christ of Western culture so alien to the enslaved, oppressed, exploited peoples who were baptized in his name. Nor can it be the Jesus only known as the one who offered unconditional forgiveness to all. For us, as for the Gospel, this Jesus first and foremost has to be the Jesus who stood in the synagogue in Nazareth, according to the Gospel of Luke, and proclaimed himself the Spirit-anointed One of God.” I resonate with this wrestle.

As a person of color, born to an immigrant mother from the Philippines and an African American father from Louisiana, raised in a marginalized community, I was raised to be suspicious of dominant culture. Understandably so. I eventually gave my life to Jesus and, naturally, I had my suspicions about him too. It wasn’t until later in my faith when I realized that my issue wasn’t with Jesus but rather the Jesus that was presented to me and communities of color for centuries. The Jesus that I’ve come to know is not a Jesus of comfort and convenience but rather a Jesus who inconveniently and nonsensically disrupts the status quo theologically, historically, politically, socially, racially, and personally. This Jesus is the Jesus we were always meant to follow.

The work of Boesak and DeYoung, along with so many others, greatly influence the way I understand and live into ministry. As someone who is passionate about reconciliation it is important to me to have an ongoing hunger to learn from those who have and continue to wrestle with what it means to be reconciled people (to God, self, and others); however, reconciled does not mean that we’re simply diverse. As my mentor Tali Hairston (a 2019 NEXT Church National Gathering keynote speaker) reminds me, “If diversity is our objective, we still fall short. Unity is the objective.”

As we continue engage this challenging work, and even as we gather at the National Gathering, it will be an aesthetically beautiful, yet challenging space considering we represent various theological, ethnic, cultural, socio-economic, gender, and political backgrounds and beliefs. It will be an exhilarating (or not) first-time experience for some and an exhausting (or not) “here we go again” experience for others. And while we might pause every now and again to appreciate the diversity of the gathering, be reminded that diversity is not the objective. Unity is. And I would suggest that reconciliation (to God, self, and others) is how we get there. Allan Boesak suggests, “The issue is not reconciliation. The problem is our understanding and interpretation of it…Are we ready to imagine reconciliation?


Glenn McCray is married to Rev. Tasha Hicks McCray, lead Pastor at Mt. View Presbyterian Church in Seattle, where he also worships and serves. Vocationally, Glenn serves as the Director of Church-Based Community Development with Urban Impact, a para-church ministry in Seattle. Together, Tasha and Glenn also serve as high school girls basketball coaches at their neighborhood high school, Evergreen.

Black Congregations Matter

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Gregory Bentley

A high school classmate and clergy colleague of mine, Reverend James Ross, argues that the African American experience can be seen through the lens of five ‘Ps’: property, problems, performers, purchasers, and paranoia.

  1. Property: For 250 years African Americans were seen as chattel and worked from “can’t see to can’t see” to enrich the slaveholding class in particular and the nation in general. This is the foundation, along with the genocide of the Native people and the theft of their land, for the wealth of America and its super power status today.
  2. Problems: After Emancipation, what do we do with these four million ex-slaves? Houston, we have a problem, so let’s enact Black codes and vagrancy laws, keep them in their place with terrorist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, and return them to a form of neo-slavery called sharecropping.
  3. Performers: Well, they sure can sing and dance and play ball. So let’s use them as entertainers for our amusement.
  4. Purchasers: Some of them have some money and want badly to spend it with us, so let’s do away with this pesky thing called segregation so that we can have unfettered access to their pocketbooks.
  5. Paranoia: Y’all see racism in everything. If you learn how to follow the rules, work hard, and be people of high character, you will make it in America. Stop blaming everything on racism. Y’all have had enough time to get your act together.

These five ‘Ps’ still persist in our day and time and are seen in the dynamics of the various responses to the non-indictment of Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and many others like it. It seems that the legacy of another legal case associated with Missouri – the Dred Scott Decision, which essentially concluded that no Black person in America had any rights which any white person had to recognize – still haunts us to this very day. So what is the Good News in light of this persistent and pernicious reality relative to the PCUSA? Is there a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole? Is there a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul? Yes there is! That balm is love and the application of that balm begins with affirming that BLACK CONGREGATIONS MATTER!

This love of Black congregations must be expressed in concrete, tangible ways in every council of the church from session to presbytery to synod and General Assembly. These councils must be intentional about serving as “Paracletic ministries” to come alongside Black congregations to equip and empower them to be the mission stations and face of the PCUSA in our local communities. And yes, that means putting the critical question to struggling Black congregations that Jesus put to the man at the pool of Bethesda: “Do you want to be made well?” Those who answer “Yes,” let’s put every resource available toward that end. Those who answer “No,” allow them to die with dignity so that we can focus all of our energy and effort on those who will and not those who won’t. The challenges facing our communities are too daunting and dreadful to be preoccupied with a self-referentialness that doesn’t allow us to see clearly what is right in front of us. Another way of putting this is that we’ve got to love our communities more than we love being Presbyterian.

I believe there is still a vision for the appointed time if we would but summon the courage to see and to seize it. The choice is ours and I hope we move forward with the spirit of an old hymn of the church, “A Charge to Keep I Have”:

A charge to keep I have, a God to glorify
A never dying soul to save and fit it for the sky,
To serve this present age, my calling to fulfill,
May it all my powers engage to do my Master’s will.


Gregory J. Bentley has served the Fellowship Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Alabama since January 2012. When not juggling one of his many roles in local political and civic affairs, he enjoys good music, reading and playing chess. Rev. Bentley lives in Huntsville with his wife Diann and his daughters Miriam and Johari.

Our Challenge is Not Decline. It’s Racism.

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Kerri N. Allen

It is often the case that General Assembly resolutions do not feel connected to our local congregations. As much as anything, that is because resolutions are statements about our life as a corporate body. This resolution is about how our larger denomination relates to Black Presbyterian congregational ministry and, as such, I believe that it can only go so far to address the challenge of being Black and Presbyterian. Black congregational instability is only one issue that is facing Black Presbyterians, and in 2018, I dare say that it is not the most significant. The challenge of being Black in the Presbyterian Church (USA) is not about decline. It is about racism.

Recently, I heard a preacher say that racism was not a stain on the American flag, it was the thread that sewed the flag together. The challenge of being Black in the PCUSA mirrors the overall challenges of being Black in the United States. That thread of racism that exists from the earliest days of European colonizers is embedded throughout every corner of this nation and, as such, is part of the very ethos of the PCUSA.

I know this from my own painful personal story on the “challenge of being Black in the PCUSA” that I shared publicly a few years ago. This experience resonated with many and I heard from close to 40 other ministers of color (including many Black Presbyterians) who thanked me for sharing a narrative that is all too familiar. Shortly after the election of Donald Trump, Dr. Camille Dungy wrote about the challenge of being Black in the PCUSA from her view from the pew.

As Christians, we should understand that racism is a sin. Sin demands a theological response of confession and repentance. While a generalized, sanitized lip service of “racism is bad” is commonplace in the PCUSA, explicit naming of the structural sin that permeates the life and history of the denomination has failed to occur.

When we are able to be honest about the Southern Presbyterian slaveholder money that built institutions, congregations, and denominational relics – many which are used for good – we will begin some real work of confession. When Northern Presbyterians recognize that many of their good intentions in “reunification” that led to the creation of the PCUSA also decimated the infrastructure of Black Presbyterian institutions, we can claim that we have made some honest progress toward confession.

From confession, the real work of repentance can take place. Real, biblical repentance is the only faithful path. Genuine biblical repentance is what Jesus shows us in his encounter with Zacchaeus. It goes beyond apology and requires actively turning away from previous actions, acknowledging the good pain and even anger that exists by those who have been wronged, and actively committing to do better. Biblical repentance is costly and uncomfortable, and it is the only path to reconciliation.

When those of us who claim to follow Jesus begin to take seriously theological imperatives that bring about justice and reconciliation, the frustrations that are expressed by Black Presbyterians will be addressed because there will no longer be excuses in addressing them. It is from that place that we can see real progress and wholeness in our relationships with one another.


Kerri N. Allen is a Reformed and womanist theologian, PhD student, and hospital chaplain. Originally from St. Paul, MN, when Kerri is not buried in a book or writing a paper, she enjoys hiking, travel, watching sports, cooking or spending time with one of her many nieces or nephews.

National Words for Local Work

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Carlton Johnson and Denise Anderson are curating a series highlighting African American Presbyterianism. We’ll hear from individuals serving black churches about their ministries and the challenges and opportunities they encounter. How do resolutions or decisions made on the denominational level impact these churches, if at all? What are we going to do as a denomination to address the systemic racism that brought us where we are today? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Cecelia Armstrong

Let’s get this straight. I am a cradle Presbyterian, which means my church membership has only been in Presbyterian churches all my life. I happened to be raised in a congregation that eventually identified as a Black Presbyterian congregation. Yet, my experience as a cradle Presbyterian from Detroit, Michigan is totally different than my current experience as the associate pastor of the largest Black Presbyterian congregation in the denomination. In this congregation, a cradle Presbyterian falls short in status. For example, one of the very active children in the congregation acknowledges herself as a 4th generation Presbyterian. So, yes, she is a cradle Presbyterian but so is her mother, her grandmother, and so was her great-grandmother. In this environment, as I suspect in other traditionally Black Presbyterian congregations, there is more to existing than the standard stamp of being Presbyterian.

Photo from St. James Presbyterian Church Facebook page

In these historically Black Presbyterian churches, there is a culture that guides, governs, and determines the future for the survival of these congregations. The Black church of the PCUSA is steeped in rich tradition that seemingly gets lost in translation when being acknowledged at the national level. It is obvious that there is a reduction of Black Presbyterian congregations across the denomination, but it is also true that most Black Presbyterian congregations are buried so deep in tradition that it hinders the potential for some of them to survive. Sadly, the drastically needed support for the Black Presbyterian congregations comes with the risk of losing the rich tradition that made them who they were in the first place. This dilemma cannot and will never be resolved at the national level. Yet, the valiant efforts in the production of resolutions offers a glimpse of faded hope since the corrective issues may very well lie within the congregations themselves.

Here is what I mean:

  1. There was a resolution offered at the most recent General Assembly that stated that there are over 400 Black congregations and 80 percent are without a pastor, mainly because they are unable to support one. Yet the qualified pastors who are willing to serve with the minimal amount of support are usually not African American or are discounted because of their age and/or gender. Now neither of these criteria are legally binding deal breakers, but for a traditional Black congregation, these attributes are usually not sought to fill the pulpit. This is nothing a resolution at the national level can resolve.
  2. Most pastors who are selected to provide pastoral leadership fitting the desired criteria (based on tradition) are not traditionally Presbyterian. Furthermore, it seems that there is an unwillingness to seek the necessary credentials or the congregations are not willing to enforce the issue at the risk of losing the pastor. Those Black, relatively young, usually male, eligible pastors are bi-vocational, which impedes their ability to attend traditional seminary and complete the 18 required steps to be fully ordained in the PCUSA. Sadly, there are congregations who are willing to set this standard aside to embrace having the presence of a pastor at the cost of Presbyterian identity. This is nothing a resolution at the national level can resolve.
  3. There are far too many qualified Black female candidates who are deemed ready to receive a call who are continuously overlooked merely because of their gender, age, or lack of experience. Sadly, there are congregations willing to receive Black female clergy as pastor if she fulfills the duties of a hospice chaplain. These are congregations willing to die because they have given up hope to capture the prize young Black male candidate. This is nothing a resolution at the national level can resolve.

I agree with another member of our denomination who said, “It has been my experience that resolutions occurring at the national level of the church do not trickle down and do not have tangible impact at the local level.” Being a part of the Black church of the PCUSA has peaks and valleys. My encounter with the peaks and the valleys were based on traditions and not resolutions. My challenge to any reader is to revisit the many traditions that have gone unchallenged and see if there is room for actions to actively resolve resolutions made for Black Presbyterians.


Cecelia D. Armstrong, an ordained Minister of the Word and Sacraments in the Presbyterian Church (USA), serves as Associate Pastor of St. James PCUSA, Charleston, SC.

2018 National Gathering Testimony: Betsy Nix & Sheri Parks

Dr. Betsy Nix and Dr. Sheri Parks collaborate on a testimony to the 2018 NEXT Church National Gathering in Baltimore, MD, about race in the city.

Elizabeth Nix (Betsy) is an associate professor of history and the chair of the Division of Legal, Ethical and Historical Studies at the University of Baltimore. Sheri Parks is the associate dean for research, interdisciplinary scholarship, and programming for the College of Arts and Humanities, and an associate professor of American studies at hte University of Maryland.

Deeply Moved by Grief

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series on the Sarasota Statement, which we unveiled a year ago and continue to promote for use in our congregations and communities, along with the accompanying study guide. You will hear from a variety of voices and contexts throughout March, reacting to phrases in the statement, and sharing ways it is being used. How have you used the Sarasota Statement? What is your reaction to these phrases? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Jarrett McLaughlin

It was a rare moment of thinking ahead when I submitted my bulletin information for Sunday, February 18th, a full NINE days ahead. True confession though – it wasn’t actually me thinking ahead but rather the fact that our administrator was out of the office at the beginning of the next week and so the deadline had shifted.

At the time, all I knew was that I was preaching on the story of Jesus raising Lazarus in John 11 and that in my initial reading of the text, I was particularly struck by the emotional journey Jesus takes. As I would later observe in the sermon to come, John’s portrait of Jesus shows us a son of God who is so confident, so unflappable, so maddeningly divine. He never seems to get angry or sad but rather floats above those human emotions. At the beginning of the chapter he even speaks so mechanically about the death of his friend. But then he comes to Bethany and Mary is weeping and everyone is weeping and he’s face to face with real death and real grief and something inside of him breaks. John then gives us the shortest verse in all of the New Testament: “Jesus wept.” Christ’s tears are so important that they receive an entire verse just to highlight this moment of extreme pathos. It’s almost as if John shows us a Jesus who is learning what it means to be human and this scene is pivotal.

I hadn’t articulated all of that when I submitted that bulletin information, but even a cursory reading of the story shows Jesus in the midst of a profoundly emotional encounter. And yet he is not simply one who grieves and wallows in that grief. Instead he is moved by that grief – John specifically tells us that Jesus was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” He was moved to act – and this is when he performs his seventh and final sign – the raising of Lazarus and his haunting command to his disciples and to the Church in every time and place: “unbind him and let him go.”

What I didn’t know when I sent the bulletin in was that the next Wednesday, seventeen students and educators would be shot and killed at Marjory Douglas Stoneman High School. What I didn’t know is how profoundly I would be affected by that shooting, especially as I sat with this text where Jesus is deeply moved by real death, moved to act. What I didn’t know is how I would be haunted by this Jesus who – when his disciples are standing speechless before Lazarus who is literally tangled up in the trappings of death – says to them “unbind him and let him go.”

What I didn’t know was how poignant the words of the Sarasota Statement would be – chosen nine whole days before they were spoken aloud, five days after another deadly mass shooting.

We are people of hope who confess Jesus is Lord over a kingdom in which no one is hungry, violence is no more, and all suffering is gone.
So strong is this hope that we lament any and all instances of its absence. When we witness hunger, injustice, discrimination, violence, or suffering, we grieve deeply and repent of our sins that have enabled such brokenness to persist.
Furthermore, we are incited to act and to be vehicles of change through which God’s kingdom breaks into the world and our earthly lives. Our commitment is to acts that feed, clothe, instruct, reconcile, admonish, heal and comfort – reflecting the power of God’s hope and an eagerness to see the Kingdom made manifest.

There are days when I am so tired of that kingdom’s absence. I’m tired of the flags flown at half-staff and the endless debates about guns and mental illness that never go anywhere. I’m tired of looking at pictures of tear-streaked mothers, fathers, siblings, and friends discovering their loved one is no more. I’m tired of flowers and ribbons and candlelight vigils. I’m tired of this kingdom’s palpable absence and I do feel moved. A statement of faith is just that – a statement. But at least it tells me and this community I love that when we are greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved – maybe we’re not so far off from the Christ whose love is stronger that death, whose passion is as fierce as the grave.


Jarrett McLaughlin serves with his wife Meg Peery McLaughlin at Burke Presbyterian Church in the suburbs of Washington DC.  This is a blog post about the Sarasota Statement, but it’s also a blog about a mass shooting in an American school, so perhaps this background is worth sharing: “During my first year of high school in suburban Raleigh, NC, a fellow student was shot and killed in the park next to my school – a student not even involved in the altercation but who came over to ‘watch a fight.’  That story and the trauma to the student body that followed forever shaped my views on guns and their place in society. As you read this post, you should understand this about me, because all of our stories shape who we are and how we react to any given situation. This is my story and these are my reactions – nothing more, nothing less.”

Comforted and Challenged

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series on the Sarasota Statement, which we unveiled a year ago and continue to promote for use in our congregations and communities, along with the accompanying study guide. You will hear from a variety of voices and contexts throughout March, reacting to phrases in the statement, and sharing ways it is being used. How have you used the Sarasota Statement? What is your reaction to these phrases? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Frances Wattman Rosenau

Passing the peace can be the most uncomfortable part of worship. You know, the time when some congregations invite everyone to stand and even get out of their pews in order to shake hands and greet other people who have gathered in worship. It’s not just uncomfortable because there are those inevitable awkward church people who pass the peace with exuberant enthusiasm and purpose. It’s awkward because of, well, the other people.

Greeting other people, indeed touching other people in worship, forces us out of our God-and-me bubble. If we came to worship to escape the world, we find ourselves right smack in the middle of it anyway, shaking hands with strangers. It’s so much easier to slip in quietly during the first hymn, sit unassuming near the back semi-anonymously, and pretend we’re there to be with God. We know what to do.

But other people just get in the way.

The Sarasota Statement offers us an encounter. Through the claims and stances in the statement, we may very well find ourselves “both comforted and challenged.” Like passing the peace in worship, we get the opportunity with the Sarasota Statement to be changed both by radical affirmation as well as boldly facing the truth.

In this phrase “both comforted and challenged,” I hear an echo of the oft-repeated call to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Religious leaders have latched on to this phrase as a battle cry — our purpose as Church. These words, from Finley Peter Dunne, were originally written about the role of newspapers in public life.[1] And yet, it seems such a great fit for the Church, when we are our truest selves.

Indeed the Sarasota Statement does comfort and challenge. We are all here in this statement: no matter our identity or what side of what spectrum we’re on. We are heard and accompanied in experiences of being excluded. We are challenged in our own privilege or our histories of exclusion. We are called to something better.

The whole endeavor gets to the core of what church is for. Why don’t people sit at home by themselves, sing songs to themselves and read the Bible by themselves? I mean, maybe some people do. My suspicion is that it isn’t very fulfilling, and certainly not very transformational.

Those of us who engage in church, and who value a vibrant faith community do so to be a part of something bigger than what we could do on our own. We need other people, as awkward as they are, to comfort and challenge us. That’s what the Sarasota Statement has done for our congregation when we have used it in worship: it amplifies the truest purpose of church. Through voices long-silenced and calls to action, the Sarasota Statement enriches worship to its greatest call – to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable – in order to move boldly forward as the people of God.

[1] https://www.poynter.org/news/today-media-history-mr-dooley-job-newspaper-comfort-afflicted-and-afflict-comfortable


Frances Wattman Rosenau is the Pastor of Culver City Presbyterian Church in the Los Angeles area. Her DMin studies focused on multicultural and multiethnic worship. She has a passion for the global church and has lived in India, Scotland, Arizona, Upstate New York, Paris, Chicago, and Tulsa. When Frances is not at church you will find her training for a race, reading about bulldozers with her boys, or searching for her husband in a used bookstore.

Road Signs and Tough Topics

by MaryAnn McKibben Dana

Last fall, after much cajoling from my children, we spent an afternoon at Cox Farms for their fall festival, a beloved institution here in Northern Virginia. I say “cajole,” because after many annual pilgrimages when my children were younger, I was ready for some new autumn traditions for our teen and tweens. But they are adamant about going. For them, it’s a connection to childhood and a pleasant place to be together as a family. (I suspect the giant cylindrical bags of fresh crisp kettle corn can’t hurt.)

Thanks in part to my connection with NEXT Church and our emphasis on inclusion and diversity, I like to look around the places I go to see how racially and culturally diverse they are. Who is here? Who is conspicuously not here, and why might that be? That day last October, I noticed way more people of color at Cox Farms than I ever had before. I couldn’t be sure whether the demographics of the clientele had actually changed, or whether I was seeing with new eyes groups of people who were always there… but the difference was striking.

It was only later that I found out about Cox Farms’s tradition of feisty signage. It began many years ago with two rainbow flags flying over the hay-bale tunnel. Then, a Black Lives Matter sign in the window of the family home, followed some time later with a message on their marquee expressing love for their immigrant neighbors. Again, I’m not privy to Cox Farms’s statistics on clientele. But it stands to reason that in a culture in which whiteness is considered the default, historically marginalized populations won’t simply assume they are welcome somewhere unless they are explicitly welcomed. I couldn’t help but think of the church: what topics we take up together, what remains unspoken, and how we express our welcome. If we’re not specific and heartfelt in our language, if we rely on generic words like “all” and “everyone,” our message will not get through. It’s too easy for “everyone” to be followed by an implicit “…who looks like me,” especially when the community and its leadership are homogenous already.

This month’s focus for the NEXT Church blog will be on the Sarasota Statement, which we unveiled a year ago and continue to promote for use in our congregations and communities, along with the accompanying study guide. You will hear from a variety of voices and contexts throughout March, reacting to phrases in the statement, and sharing ways it is being used.

There are many themes woven into the statement — the nature of Christ’s kindom; the need for the church to be a vehicle of change — but a major theme is our call to dismantle forces of oppression, notably systemic racism. And guess what? Cox Farms took on that one too, with a sign a couple of months ago that said “Resist White Supremacy.” It didn’t take long for some folks to respond with angry letters and calls for a boycott. Thankfully, the overwhelming majority of comments and messages on the business’s Facebook page were positive (and I vowed never again to push back on my kids’ nostalgic desire for hayrides and fresh-pressed apple cider).

The Cox family was baffled by the negative response. As an article in the Washington Post put it, “Who, other than a white supremacist, would be offended by a message condemning white supremacy? [The family] also understood, though, that this is America in 2018, a time of such fierce division that even voicing opposition to the ugliest beliefs could be twisted or taken out of context.”

I am not so coy as to pretend there isn’t political resonance in words like “Black Lives Matter,” “resist,” and “white supremacy.” That doesn’t mean that the church should avoid them, but should lean into them even more. The church is a unique institution, ideally suited to talk about these matters in a deeper way, in communities that pledge to be with and for another not because we agree, but because we are united in Jesus Christ. If tough topics make us recoil, it’s probably because we’re feeling implicated, and that’s never a comfortable feeling. But our bristling may also be a sign that we haven’t talked about them enough. We need to push into that discomfort; otherwise we will never change and grow. The Sarasota Statement provides language — and the study guide, a framework — that allows for such faithful proclamation and exploration. Onward.


MaryAnn McKibben Dana is a writer, free-range pastor, speaker, and leadership coach living in Virginia. She is author of the forthcoming God, Improv, and the Art of Living, and 2012’s Sabbath in the Suburbs. She is a former chair of NEXT Church’s strategy team, and was recognized by the Presbyterian Writers Guild with the 2015-2016 David Steele Distinguished Writer Award.

Engaging the Sarasota Statement

by Linda Kurtz

Back in March 2017, NEXT Church released the Sarasota Statement, a new confessional statement in response to the current state of the church and world. At the time, this is what Sarasota Statement facilitator Glen Bell had to say about it:

We believe in times of need or crisis, we are called to turn to the biblical and theological roots of our Christian faith to remember our identity as disciples of Jesus Christ and say anew what we believe.

Since then, the Sarasota Statement has given me words to say when I had none. In the aftermath of the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA (just an hour across the state from me in Richmond), I quoted Part I of the Sarasota Statement because it was the only thing I could possibly do.

To the people we ignore, reject, or demonize for living outside the tribes we claim:We trust our Lord and Savior who…

Posted by NEXT Church on Saturday, August 12, 2017

When our national discourse conflates patriotism with anti-immigration or safety with fear of the “other,” I remember the Statement: “We commit to welcome and protect refugees and immigrants…. We denounce a culture of violence that brutalizes or alienates bodies on the basis of ability, sexual or gender identity, ethnicity, or color of skin.”

But the Sarasota Statement speaks in times of hopeful anticipation, too — like in Advent. Each Sunday this past Advent, I posted excerpts from the statement that spoke to that week’s theme, because the statement speaks of hope, peace, joy, and love.

On this third Sunday of #Advent, we recognize our joy comes from God – and that it compels us to act. #SarasotaStatement https://nextchurch.net/sarasota-statement-text/

Posted by NEXT Church on Sunday, December 17, 2017

I am grateful for all of the ways this document, written by a small representation of the PC(USA), has led me and challenged me throughout the past (almost) year.

And now, I’m excited about a new way to engage the Sarasota Statement and look more deeply into its core convictions. The writers of the Sarasota Statement just published a study guide so that you and me and communities of Christians all over can faithfully engage with the statement, scripture, our confessional heritage, and one another. The guide is broken down into five parts: Preamble, Part I, Part II, Part III, and Closing. With the exception of Closing, each part contains multiple questions about biblical themes, theological themes, and contextual themes, drawing upon scripture, our confessions, and our contemporary context to engage each part of the Sarasota Statement.

Their prayer — and mine — is that this study guide will  encourage each of us to examine our own faiths and core convictions, moving towards the development of faith statements across the Church. May the Sarasota Statement continue to be a resource in your own ministry, a reminder of the light of Christ, and a call to justice and radical love.


Linda Kurtz is the communications specialist for NEXT Church and a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA.