I Can’t Breathe

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 Kelle Brown

We are the church that is becoming, the church that is and will be. The church and all of her people are in the hands of the Maker God, who never has stopped the act of creation, and who is never disinterested or disconnected in God’s creation. God’s love and presence flows. Pours. Showers. Floods and splatters. For this, we give thanks.

In lieu of this assurance, I support the words of a fellow Presbyterian concerning the limitations of the resolution regarding the Black church and its connection and support, or lack thereof. The colleague shared, “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. Despite the resolution’s merit in naming the diminution of Black Presbyterian congregations as a significant problem, it does virtually nothing to stem the tide.”

Photo from the Plymouth Church Seattle United Church of Christ Facebook page

The tide has not been stemmed, and African American churches are ceasing to exist because of it. I resist saying dying, because Black churches are more rightly succumbing to the institutional supremacy that is pervasive without much challenge. The theology of the African American Presbyterian church is strong and life-giving. The people of the churches are as faithful as ever they’ve been. The intelligence, deep wisdom, willingness, and energy are all in place. Yet, no church is an island unto itself, and the best sense of our connectional covenant binds us together for the sake of our shared faith and sustenance. The PCUSA is gifted by the presence of all its peoples, and is blessed by its churches of color — not simply to fulfill some quota of diversity — but so that God can forge and knit us together as a vision of the Beloved Community.

While the acknowledgement of the larger church by way of the resolution is necessary and in many ways hopeful, we must acknowledge that it is a particular privilege to lament, assess, and consider while the most vulnerable congregations struggle. Black churches have been sharing for many years the disparity and being treated less-than-equally. Strategies are dreamed, and curricula are created, and prayers for reconciliation go forth while the systems of oppression churn along unhindered. Often, there is collective jubilance that comes too easily. Many celebrate the agreements of process that may one day down the road lead to equity. In the meantime, another church has died.

The slow pace of “justice” and creating inclusion in itself is an injustice. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned, “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” We have waited and watched, and this kind of church is exhausting and debilitating when the realities of the world call for the church to be a place of refuge and respite. It’s like taking the time to debate oxygen’s worth and efficacy while holding the hose and watching a person gasp for air. We have to become more spiritually agile and open to God’s movement when folks whisper, “I can’t breathe.”

In essence, the trickle down concept of which the quote references is a problematic American norm, and the myth of its effectiveness is perpetuated again and again, all while knowing that the paradigm is not infused with spirit, equity or justice-making. Reconciliation and healing don’t happen in a vacuum. Repair isn’t begun with thoughts and prayers, when clergy of color are often culled rather than cultivated. Repair in this sense has to be dedication to the clergy of color who dare to remain a part of the church. Repair must be dismantling systems of oppression, and acknowledging the present trauma of participation. Repair must be authentic discipleship, journeying alongside one another in courageous and liberative ways.

Let us honor the African American church and her resilience which is often the needed authentic voice in the world, and thank our Creator that God is endowing us grace to move forward. Let us believe that our collective right action will grow and sustain all of our churches. And let us endeavor on until we have stemmed the tide, and joined in the vision of Amos where God justice rolls down like a mighty stream upon us all.

Kelle Brown is the current lead pastor of Plymouth Church United Church of Christ. She is a recent graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, completing her D. Min, and is involved in justice work and reframing church as it pertains to systems of oppression and authentic welcome. She enjoys writing, singing and loving life with her daughter Indigo and grandmother Dorothy.

A First National Gathering

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jeff Bryan is curating a series reflecting on the 2018 National Gathering in late February. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on their experiences of the National Gathering and what’s stuck with them since. How does the “Desert in Bloom” look on the resurrection side of Easter? What are your own thoughts of your National Gathering experience, or on what these reflections spark for you? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Jojo Gabuya

The NEXT Church National Gathering, themed “The Desert in Bloom: Living, Dying, and Rising in a Wilderness Church,” was my first ever opportunity to meet, dine, and interact with 675 Presbyterian pastors, lay leaders, and students. I was one of the students who registered and got a scholarship to be able to participate in the event. Although I heard some disturbing news about the Maryland’s current peace and order situation from a young man who I happened to sit with on the Metro train en route to the City Centre, it did not deter me from fully participating in the 3-day conference.

The superb venue, the warm hospitality, the healthy lunches, the out-of-the box worship services, and collegial atmosphere, made my first three days in Baltimore an unforgettable and worthwhile one.

On the first day of the National Gathering, Rev. Billy Honor brought the house down with his humorous yet insightful sermon. The altar, covered with used Amazon boxes and filled with baskets of bread and dozens of juice-filled cups, rekindled my sense of the Holy and Sacred. In his keynote presentation, David Leong, who describes himself as an accidental academic, talked about Detroit as an urban desert. He posed this challenging question, “What if abandoned places of empire and other places associated with decay or neglect are actually fertile soil for renewal?” He shared the story of Vincent Chin, whose murder gave opportunity for Asian Americans to come together in Detroit. So, he stressed the importance of speaking about one’s experience of racism. “Not to speak is to speak and not to act is to act”. And, I was impressed with the story of Grace, a Chinese American who finished her PhD in 1940. He stressed that the desert in Detroit was about the lack of resources for the common good.

The heavy Vegan sandwiches for lunch were a welcome treat that got me through the first session of the workshop on “Creating and Planning Worship for Freedom.” The succeeding two sessions gave me more ideas on crafting a worship service, grounded on people’s struggle for freedom. And, I had the honor of being the only MDiv student/seminarian and UCC member among ten other workshop participants, who are Presbyterian pastors and lay leaders of their own Presbyteries around this country.

Jojo V. Gabuya is a Master of Divinity student at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, CA. They are an international student, who identifies as an Asian non-binary transgender person. They are also a Member in Discernment for Ordained Ministry in the United Church of Christ. And, they are currently serving as Minister in Training at El Cerrito, where they have been trying to dance the Word of God, instead of reading it.

Using Power to Make a Difference

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Linda Kurtz are curating a series written by participants in the first-ever Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on the theology of power and how organizing has impacted the way they do ministry. How might you incorporate these principles of organizing into your own work? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Paula Whitacre

“From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”
– Luke 12:48b

I am a recent graduate of Lancaster Theological Seminary (MDiv, 2017). LTS is a progressive, United Church of Christ seminary which affirms and actively supports its diverse community of students.

My senior sermon was scheduled for Wednesday November 9, 2016, the day after the last presidential election. I thought that I had prepared a sermon that was an invitation to reconciliation, flexible enough that regardless of who won the election, the sermon would be relevant. I was wrong. Wednesday morning, I woke to a campus full of crying and scared men and women who, in that moment, felt hugely disempowered and vulnerable, fearful of what the future would bring for them, their family, and their friends. My sermon quickly changed from an invitation to reconciliation to a pastoral call to unity, determination, and hope in this unexpected reality.

That morning I was “woke.” In our modern vernacular a definition of woke might be a reference to how folks should be aware of current events in our society, especially as it pertains to the influence and use of power over people who are disenfranchised and marginalized. I wondered how I might use my white privilege, seminary education, and burning desire to make a difference in these days and weeks to come.

The language of power and the skills learned in the Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership certificate program has enlarged my understanding of not only the mechanics of power but that the crossroads of church community and the larger community has greater potential then I imagined.

One definition of power might be the ability to dictate norms, and create and enforce narratives in any given space. The opportunity to manipulate people, situations, and circumstances can bring out the best in some folks and the worst in others. Power in and of itself is neutral. The heart and ethics of the one wielding it will determine how that power is expressed and perceived by others.

Power may also be defined as the ability to organize people and organize money for specific purposes. The organizing of a diverse group of people for specific goals or long-term synergy is intentional and relational. It requires months, perhaps years, of face-to-face meetings between individuals or groups of individuals to find and articulate communal goals and paths to meet those goals. The ability to raise money in support of these goals, independent of grants or corporate streams, allows the group to maintain its independence and become a force to be reckoned with in local, county, and state agencies.

I believe Jesus’ words sit well within the context of community organizing, which is the local community coming together which forms an organization that acts in its common self-interest. It is identifying and training leaders as well as mobilizing people to take action towards a common self-interest. That action might take many forms, including public boycotts of products of services, and public shaming of officials for abuse of power or breaking of laws. It may include going to places of power – city hall, and state and congressional legislative bodies – to speak up for and even negotiate in the communities’ self-interest.

This community will consist of not only faith-based groups but civic organizations, schools, and likeminded individuals who are willing to use their own personal and collective power to reshape our world so that it better mirrors the Kingdom of God.

Moreover, I believe it is the leadership of the churches which must begin the conversations around power and organizing. To engage in relational meetings, cross social and political divides to create relationships is both time consuming and exhausting work. But it is imperative to meet others at their points of self-interest so that the self-interests of the community might be revealed and acted upon. To act upon an agreed upon self-interest takes power – organized people and resources.

It’s sometimes true that church members may be loath to consider investing resources into what might be construed as political activities. It can be difficult to persuade folks to see through a different lens. However, church congregations all exist as part of a greater community which may be quite diverse in their ethnicity, class, and faith communities. The boundary crossing to meet others where they are, to identify common interests to improve the life of the community is part of Jesus’ commandment to care for the least and marginalized. We recall that in Acts 4:32-35 that the apostles were out in the community giving their testimony and that the community came together under their leadership. Those who had much sold what they had (or used their skills) for the benefit for the community and none had need.

As Michael Gecan notes in Going Public: An Organizer’s Guide to Citizen Action, “There’s a powerful and fundamental tension between our political rhetoric…and everyday practices – a tension written into our founding documents and present in most of our public crises.” Community organizers and congregational leaders “live with the tensions, challenge citizens to confront it and … pushes the political world as it is in the direction of the world as it ought to be.”

Paula Whitacre is pursuing ordination in the United Church of Christ. She and her wife Marge share their home with their sixteen year old tabby, KC.