Taking Back the Summer

Taking Back the Summer Urban FaithIn Chicago and cities around the nation, our youth are dying in the streets. As public officials brace for a summer spike in violent crime, some are even calling for military intervention. It’s time to stop the madness and address the root of the problem.


It’s About Time

Urban Faith It's About TimeWhether it’s the passing of a loved one or the end of a favorite TV show (goodbye Lost and 24), our losses, big and small, have much to teach us if we’ll just pay attention.

In times like these, times of economic uncertainty and turmoil, the natural response is to take stock of our most precious commodities. As many of us have suffered our losses, we’ve done our best to tighten our belts and get the most value from our assets.

In this respect, my life is no different. But the losses I’ve seen have helped me to bring into focus a need to evaluate the most precious asset of all: My time.

See, some people think money is our most precious asset, but I disagree. You can always make more money, but you can’t make time. We all get what we get, and none of us knows beforehand exactly how much.

Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about some of my losses, great and small.

And each loss in my sphere of experience — from the most emotionally poignant to the momentary and trivial — each loss, over the last few weeks, has served to bring about a fresh sense of urgency in how I think about time.

And try as I might, I can’t get away from it.

Recently, I “lost” my grandmother Lucille, who passed away after 90 years of life. She was my dad’s mom, a phenomenal, red-haired-in-her-prime, card-sharking, tell-it-like-it-is, firecracker of a woman. She was an outspoken critic, a warm source of encouragement, an emotional rock, and my last remaining grandparent. (As a bonus, she was also an enthusiastic hip-hop lip-syncher — check the 4:03 mark of this video.)

She was the type of woman who never seemed to waste her time, not because she was particularly organized or fastidious, but because she was always fully present. To spend time with her was to be in the presence of someone who made it a priority to be with you, even if it was only for a few minutes. And she carried that quality with her, even as her body began to cooperate less and less.

I remember once, when I came over to her room to visit with her and found her asleep. Not wanting to wake her, I left and mentally vowed to return later. The next time I saw her, she told me in no certain terms: “If that happens again, wake me up, child! I can sleep anytime.”

As her time here in this world grew more scarce, she did her best to make every moment count. That is one of many things I will miss about her.

And, turning to the trivial, it is also one of the things I will miss about the hit Fox series 24, which wraps up an eight-year-run on May 24.

I feel a little silly waxing eloquent about a TV show (though I’ve done so before), but the truth is, 24 has always held a special place in my pop culture universe. Among its numerous memorable characters was Dennis Haysbert’s fictional portrayal of America’s first Black president — an idea that in 2001 seemed so distant and fictional. Ever since that first season, I’ve been hooked.

Kiefer Sutherland as Jack BauerIn its eighth and final season, 24 has waned in ratings and overall popularity, but I started tuning in again for old time’s sake, and I must say — it’s still quite good. Even in the slower moments — where recent plot developments have [SPOILER ALERT!] forced Jack Bauer to experience his own profound sense of loss — even in those melancholy moments, the show has a way of reminding you, through the ever-present running clock, that every … moment … counts.

Indeed, this might end up being the most significant legacy of the show. Despite all the graphically violent torture scenes, despite the ridiculous, I-thought-she-was-dead plot twists, 24 has helped to influence a generation of viewers toward the idea that time matters. Even when we think nothing is going on, something is going on. In this way, 24 is teaching us what to think about time.

This is something 24 has in common with my other favorite show, Lost, which is also ending this May.

(Both 24 and Lost ! What am I going to do with myself?)

Say what you want about Lost, but one of the biggest reasons why it’s a hit among both critics and fans alike is its unique treatment of, and relationship to, time.

And it’s more than just the cerebral conundrums of time travel. The characters of Lost are constantly having to confront the universal character struggles that all hinge around time. Echoing in its plots are questions like, Will I ever outrun my past? Can I change my future, or am I doomed to repeat the past? Is it better to plan for the future, or just live in the moment? And how can I make the most of my present situation?

These questions are, pardon me, timeless.

And the proof is not simply that fans all over the world wrestle with them in their own lives, but that these themes continue to extend into unscripted television.

(Some of you probably shuddered at that last sentence because you’re expecting me to delve into Jersey Shore or something, but no … I’m talking about the original reality TV… sports.)

April and May for me have always meant watching the NBA playoffs and cheering for my hometown Portland Trail Blazers. But when Portland’s all-star Brandon Roy suffered a torn meniscus two days before the start of the postseason, Blazer fans wrestled over the question of which is more important — the present or the future?

Winning a first-round series in the playoffs had been the goal all season long, but without their star player the Blazers’ chances were grim against the higher-seeded Phoenix Suns. And yet, to bring him back early from his surgery, even at his own request, would risk further injury in the future and possibly threaten his career. It’s a conundrum no coach or general manager could face without suffering an avalanche of criticism.

Thankfully, they didn’t have to.

Portland's Brandon Roy guards a shooterRoy made his choice clear on April “24”th, when he shocked everyone by suiting up and taking the hardwood during Game 4, accompanied by the theme from Rocky and the thunderous applause from fans in the Rose Garden. Later it was revealed that he sent coach Nate McMillan text after text message, begging to play.

Although certain sportswriters were quick to condemn the move as reckless, I understood the decision. Brandon knew that his teammates were counting on him, and more importantly, he knew that there was no guarantee that if he sat out the current postseason he wouldn’t reinjure something else next year. Matter of fact, there was no guarantee that his team would even make the playoffs next year. By coming back early, he rallied his team to win Game 4, ensuring the possibility of a Game 6 at home.

I’m not saying it was the right thing to do. But it was his choice, and I’m glad he made it. Though my Blazers didn’t win the series, and the Suns are now facing the Lakers in the Western Finals, I know that Roy and his team gave everything they had to try to win.

All of us are faced with similar choices every day, and many times the stakes are much higher than the outcome of a basketball game. For those of us committed to following Christ, we have the weight of eternity hanging in the balance with every decision that we make. Most of these decisions do not have easy, obvious, this-is-right-and-that-is-wrong solutions. And we make them knowing tomorrow is not promised to any of us.

But there is good news in all of this.

As Chris Tomlin puts it, “age to age He stands, and time is in His hands.” We may not know what the future holds, but we know Who holds the future.

Convinced of God’s sovereignty, Christians can choose to regard the future with an open hand — anticipating with hope, but open to unexpected changes. And we don’t have to fret about not having all the answers, because we know that God freely gives wisdom to those who ask Him.

I hate to see my team lose. I really do. This team that I’ve followed faithfully since grade school, the only pro team in my small-market city. I live vicariously through them. When they lose big games, I feel a sense of profound loss.

But character matters more, and so does playing the right way. It hasn’t been until lately that I’ve really taken this to heart.

But man … it’s about time.

Photo of Brandon Roy by Keith Allison from Wikipedia.

Redefining ‘Urban’

Urban Faith Redefining Urban with Regent University religion scholar Antipas HarrisThe term “urban” once described people, places, and things related to the city. Then it became code for anything related to modern “black” culture. Now, according to Regent University religion scholar Antipas Harris, the word needs to be fine-tuned once again.

What is urban? Is it a category of music heard on the radio? Is it a lifestyle or category of clothing? Or is it simply a codeword for black people? Antipas Harris has been working this question out since he was a child growing up in Georgia. He began playing piano at age 2 and knew he was going to preach and teach by age 7. He’s currently best known as a musician and songwriter with the urban soul group A7, which he formed with his five brothers. The group blends R&B and gospel to deliver inspiring songs. But as a professor of practical ministry at the Regent University School of Divinity, with degrees from Emory, Boston University, LaGrange College, and Yale Divinity School, Harris has focused his attention on the changing definition of urban and its implications for the church.

This year Regent announced Harris would lead its Divinity’s School’s new Youth and Urban Renewal Center, which will provide opportunities for students, scholars, and ministers to learn and collaborate. UrbanFaith columnist Wil LaVeist met with Harris at his Virginia Beach office to discuss the Center and Harris’s passion for “urban” ministry.

URBANFAITH: When did you begin to focus on being an educator?

Antipas HarrisANTIPAS HARRIS: I’ve been knowing since I was very young that I was called to teach, but I was also on the music scene. I was a choir director and music director for my dad’s church. By the time I was 15, I was preaching. I had spent a lot of time working with youth, so that was a focus. By the time I began my graduate work, I knew I was going to do it in theology rather than music. But I didn’t know for sure if it would be biblical studies or theology.

How did urban ministry become a focus?

While I was at the Candler School of Theology at Emory, I had the opportunity to experience contextual education — a required practical course. I chose to do it at a random place, Metro State Women’s Prison in Atlanta. I got there and loved it. I would say that was the beginning of my urban ministry interests. I saw it not as a shift, but an expansion of my theological interests.

What did you discover at the prison?

I grew up with a “You live by the sword, you die by the sword” mindset. I had a very strict idea about people in prison, but when I went there I said, “Wow, God is in prison because there are a lot of people who don’t belong there who are suffering.” It changed my world view. I went from being pro-capital punishment to anti-capital punishment. Even if the principle is sound, the practice is corrupted. The justice system becomes a mechanism of injustice among the powerless.

I observed that some of the women in prison had been victims of abuse. Some of them landed in prison as they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. There were even women there since age 16 who had been there all of their adult lives. Behind prison bars were people with situations that were way more complex than my conservative Pentecostal mindset was prepared to consider with compassion at the time.

So how did this change your direction?

Through prayer and study, I came to terms with my own theological limitations. Influenced by Liberation Theologians and Mujerista Theologians such as James Cone and Ada Maria Issasi-Diaz, I have come to terms with the fact that God works through the body of Christ. Our purpose is to participate in God’s suffering by helping to alleviate the problems of people. I discovered a whole new paradigm of church. It’s not some social club that we join or some building. I am convinced that the church that Jesus founded is the living organism of Christ that has the responsibility to continue the work of Christ in the world. The institutional churches are challenged to conform to the primary image of the body of Christ — an organism and not organization.

How will Regent’s Youth and Urban Renewal Center address this?

The center I’m developing brings together the church in the urban communities. What is the responsibility of the church in light of the depravation of urban communities? It ranges from issues of immigration like in Arizona, to poverty, to sexual crimes like pedophilia, to sex trafficking, to gangs and violence — just to name a few. What about the issue of health care, HIV/AIDS? The Center poses those questions to the church, and attempts to identify the divine responsibility of the church in light of our increasingly urbanized word. We want to prepare present and future pastors to think theologically about the role of the church. Furthermore, we want to promote the value of holistic education — mind, body and spirit — that, I believe, is key to dealing with many of the urban problems. Next February, for example, we’re scheduling the first Urban Family Conference. I’m calling Christian leaders together to think about the problems of the urban family and what churches can do to respond to them.

The word urban has gone from meaning “city,” to “Black,” to anything related to hip-hop culture. You have a new definition?

My new definition of urban springs primarily from the issue of gentrification. The inner-city, or urban, problems were such because originally it was the result of a dense population squeezed together — more concrete than trees, more people than jobs. But the point of gentrification was to reclaim the inner city, but it didn’t do anything about the people who lived there and the problems they faced. Instead, it basically ran them out. Atlanta, New York, LA, Chicago — whatever city it is, the people displaced from those places are now in the suburbs with the same problems.

So then, I proffer a definition of “urban” that refers to a suffering people in and beyond the metropolis, infiltrated and surrounded by violence, pollution, diversity, and a high concentration of poverty and need. This situation-centered definition of urban includes but has mushroomed beyond the inner city. Urban areas now include many areas just outside of the inner city and are quickly advancing to the rural areas as well.

So urban is less about culture and more about a particular socioeconomic condition and its related problems?

There’s an increasing influx of other ethnicities that muddies the idea that urban is African American. What I’m trying to articulate at Regent is that this is not a Black studies program or Hispanic studies program, but we cannot ignore the fact that the folks who primarily are the victims of urbanization are blacks and Latinos.

What does this mean for black churches in cities?

We need an urban church that both addresses issues that are lingering with African Americans, but includes other groups, like Hispanics, that are now being racially profiled. In the same way that the black church responded to racism in the South, with boycotts and advocating for people to vote, now the problem is broader. The paradigm has shifted a bit. It still includes issues of particular concern to African Americans, but we need to expand that to include the collective urban problems.

What does an effective urban church look like?

Everybody should consider the existential situations that are surrounding their church. For example, in Southern California, the urban church may look different than Bankhead in Atlanta. The churches need to think theologically about the issues that are immediately surrounding them.

How should churches embrace various cultures within their congregations?

The church has the opportunity to re-imagine what worship is like. Traditionally, it’s been so black or white. Music is one of the key expressions to culture. But even in church leadership and leadership style, we have the opportunity to share culturally and glean from the strengths of different cultures. Issues like family bonds. What can blacks learn from the Asian or Native American cultures that we might glean for sacred worship? What can be learned from Hispanics? And I’m not talking about a separate Spanish service, for example, but a multicultural service that incorporates Latino culture.

In my travels, what I’m observing is a black church where there are many Hispanics, but they have to buy into an African American way of doing church. Or, here in Virginia Beach, a church with a white pastor and white leadership but a large number of African American congregants. It looks diverse, but it’s a white church with a lot of black people in it. A truly urban church takes seriously and equalizes all of the cultures that are present. There needs to be more corporate koinonia where people fellowship and learn from each other. Diversify the senior-level leadership. Include more diverse cultural expression in the music. These aren’t the only things we should be doing, but they are key.

Sounds like what hip-hop culture has done, particularly in its music.

All throughout history cultural adaptation has been part of the church. Charles Wesley and Martin Luther, they took songs from the taverns and gave them Christian lyrics. There’s a difference between affirmation and critique. The gospel critiques the materialism and the love of money you see in a lot of rap music, but it also affirms its musical expression. Unfortunately, many in the black church reject hip-hop altogether because of its materialism, while at the same time accepting that materialism, such as what you see glorified in the prosperity gospel. Hip-hop celebrates the body way too much. It does not promote modesty. It promotes exploitation of women. The gospel critiques that, but it affirms the musical expression. That’s why it’s very important to look theologically at culture. Culture doesn’t drive the church, but it does participate in the reality of the church.