Fifty Christian leaders from this Nebraska city traveled to the Deep South on a mission of racial healing and reconciliation. Now, they’re working together to pass on the lessons learned from their life-changing Justice Journey.
In an earlier article I explored the “event” of the Justice Journey that 50 Christian leaders in Omaha, Nebraska, embarked on last spring. In this installment I’ll look at the ongoing journey of reconciliation happening among the churches of Omaha.
The Justice Journey as a reconciliation activity for local churches was an idea formed in 2005 at Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago. Based ondeveloped by the Evangelical Covenant denomination called Sankofa (West African for “going back in order to move forward”), leaders with the mostly white Willow Creek partnered with leaders from the predominantly African American Salem Baptist Church of Chicago to embark on a bus tour through the Southern U.S. to sites made famous in the civil rights marches of the 1960s.
After attending a Willow Creek ministry conference, Ron and Twany Dotzler of Abide Ministries felt that the Justice Journey model needed to be brought to Omaha, a city whose national reputation as a pleasant, family town masked deeper issues of economic disparity and racial division. Soon, other churches were on board with the Dotzlers’ brainstorm and Omaha’s Justice Journey became a reality.
Making the Journey Last
One question that many people have about Justice Journeys is whether they can produce more than tears and hugs? Can they truly lead to churches coming together for the long haul to transform a city?
It is too early to tell the impact in Omaha, but the outlook is positive. For example, one of the goals of the Justice Journey is to raise awareness of social justice issues and how they are rooted in the past. Many of the church leaders who participated in Omaha’s Justice Journey are now aiming to raise awareness within their congregations.
One example comes from Christ Community Church (CCC), a large, primarily white congregation that historically has not been involved in justice issues in Omaha. This summer, Tim Perry, the pastor of spiritual discovery at CCC, has been an integral part in raising awareness within his church.
CCC recently did a sermon series entitled “Kingdom Color.” The lead pastor and Justice Journey participant Mark Ashton delivered messages that looked at the impact of racism internationally, nationally, and locally. He challenged the church to spend a Sunday at Salem Baptist Church in North Omaha and experience worship with their sister congregation. The church staff even created a map of Omaha’s various communities and encouraged people to go places they normally don’t to experience the different cultures within their city.
When Tim gave the third message in the series, he challenged the church to stand if they would commit to doing a myriad of things ranging from getting involved in ministry in North or South Omaha on a long-term basis to becoming a lifelong learner about issues of race and justice. He also partnered with Pastor Andre Sims, Christ Community’s only black staff member and a Justice Journey participant, in teaching a class on social justice.
An encouraging sign came when CCC’s high school ministry began leading the way in taking the “Kingdom Color” charge seriously. The youth group has connected with the youth of Salem Baptist for various events and are enthusiastically building relationships with believers from different communities and cultures in their city. Tim’s hope is that the entire congregation will follow the example of the youth.
Demanding Results Beyond the Status Quo
Another reason for optimism that Omaha churches can change their community comes through the leadership of John and Viv Ewing, of Salem Baptist Church, and others close to them. John and Viv (see their photos below, with Tim Perry on the far right) were part of the core planning team for the Justice Journey and continue to meet with the other participants.
John, an Omaha native who has climbed the ladder from police officer all the way to Deputy Chief before becoming the first African American elected to county office in Nebraska as the Douglas County treasurer, is taking the same high standards he has in the workplace to the group of Justice Journey participants. He asks tough questions. He challenges the church leaders to think about how they can make Omaha a great city. He asks them if they are going to accept the challenge to be great or stay comfortable with the status quo. Do they want their city to work for all or just for some? He’s working with the group to set tangible goals related to justice — especially as it relates to a Christian’s role in hiring, promoting, and providing opportunity for growth in the workplace. His desire is to help Omaha churches build ministry partnerships based on mutual dignity and respect.
“I will not feel that the Justice Journey is a success until the negative statistics in Omaha start turning around,” he says. “I want to see that everyone’s success in Omaha is based on ability, work ethic, and talent.” John cites Martin Luther King’s famous “Dream” to have everyone be “judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.”
One gets the feeling that John’s high standards will keep the Omaha Justice Journey movement on track toward truly transforming the city and not just facilitating feel-good fellowship between churches.
Viv Ewing also is using her extensive leadership skills to challenge this group. She identifies issues ranging from providing more above-minimum wage jobs to reducing the number of working poor.
“I want to keep challenging the churches here in Omaha to intentionally diversify their staffs and congregations,” says Viv, who is also involved in planning an annual community worship event to help bring churches of all races and ethnicities together in Omaha.
There are encouraging signs that the Justice Journey movement can make a difference. “This first Justice Journey was a huge success,” Viv continues. “A bond was formed between the black and white churches, and it’s starting to feel like an extended family.”
Viv is encouraged to see Justice Journey participants at Omaha city council meetings and Empowerment Network gatherings. She notes that there is more openness to the idea of working together than there was before from both the white and black churches. A member of one of Omaha’s white Justice Journey churches who is working on a development project in North Omaha has reached out to the Ewings for a meeting.
“This is a sign that the goal of partnering with the community is being heard and heeded,” Viv says.
Acting Like the Church
In my interviews with five of the Justice Journey participants, I heard one resounding theme that ties all their feelings and ideas together: collectively we need to act like the body of Christ.
Pastor James Patterson, of the mostly black Trinity Hope Church, said it best when he talked about how easy it can be to bury our heads in the sand and say “this is not my issue.”
“I want people to realize that God is a God of justice and the poor,” says Patterson. “I hope that Omaha’s churches will stand together and embrace that truth, so that when injustice occurs we won’t be missing in action.”
Pastor Patterson’s vision is that we would “just be the community of Christ.” He has been committed to that vision for many years, working with white churches on events like the March for Jesus and through long-term partnerships with his Good News Bears Club for Children. He would love to see all the churches involved in the Justice Journey sit down together and dream about “the kingdom impact we could make with more people and resources involved.”
Only time will tell if the Justice Journey of 2009 was a catalyst to get God’s church in Omaha working together to make their city a great place for all its residents. At the very least, there has been a profound change within the men and women who traveled south on the Journey. Their energy, passion, and faith has already led to profound developments in a city that is in need of unity and healing.
Our hope and prayer here in Omaha is that our city will become a beacon that churches all over the nation will one day look to as an example of how Christians from all backgrounds and cultures can work together for justice and reconciliation in their communities.
Related Article: Omaha’s Justice Journey, Part 1.