Singing and Praying Justice

Singing and Praying Justice

“What’s going on?” — Marvin Gaye

The soundtrack of the 1970s still speaks to us. Life, as many had known it, was rapidly changing back then. A generation had found its revolutionary voice and was confronting oppression domestically and abroad. Disenchantment with status quo Americanism had sparked the nation’s social consciousness. And from the center of this whirlwind emerged a cry for deep justice.

A singer captured the ethos of the age: “What’s going on?” he asked.

War, social decay, and racial unrest conspired against a generation. Too many mothers were crying, too many brothers dying. “We don’t need to escalate,” he urged. Please stop judging and punishing picket signs with brutality. “We’ve got to find a way to bring some lovin’ here today.”

Fast-forward almost 40 years and Marvin Gaye’s music feels as timely as ever.

Where’s the “Lovin’ Here Today”?

At its core, the Gospel is a story about a loving God who reconciles humanity into loving relationships with Himself, themselves, and each other. Justice fits into the story as Christ rights the wrongs that prevent those relationships. Worship as both music and lifestyle should reflect this. But does it?

In a world marked by wars, genocide, street gangs and terror thugs, ethnocentrism, generational poverty, famine, AIDS, substandard housing and education, rampant materialism, religious hatred, and environmental degradation, where’s the lovin’ in our church music? The kind of lovin’ that rights wrongs and reconciles relationships?

The songs that typically rank as the “most popular” in mainstream evangelical churches today are filled with beautiful expressions of God’s holiness and love. But they seem to lack a consistent emphasis on worship that moves beyond a personal experience to include a clear declaration of the social-justice dimension of God’s activity in the world.

Sadly, too often our church music is directed inward as a distorted, selfish facsimile of worship. We long for God to meet personal needs and mediate justice on our own behalf, radically reducing our songs to individualized laundry lists of wants. Consider these popular contemporary worship song lyrics:

“Every time I turn around there will be blessings on blessings, blessings on blessings / The favor of the Lord rests upon me, in my hands I have more than enough” (from Blessings on Blessings from Anthony Brown & group therAPy)

“I’m gon’ praise Him, praise Him ’til I’m gone / When the praises go up, the blessings come down / It seems like blessings keep falling in my lap” (from “Blessings,” by Chance the Rapper featuring Jamila Woods)

“I can feel [the ‘presence,’ ‘spirit,’ and ‘power’ of the Lord] / And
I’m gonna get my blessing right now”
(from “The Presence of the Lord is Here,” by Byron Cage).

“I can feel [the ‘presence,’ ‘spirit,’ and ‘power’ of the Lord] / And
I’m gonna get my blessing right now”
(from “The Presence of the Lord is Here,” by Byron Cage).

“In my life I’m soaked in blessing / And in heaven there’s a great
reward / … I’ve got Jesus, Jesus / He calls me for His own / And He lifts me, lifts me / Above the world I know”
(from “God Is in the House,” by Hillsong United).

“(I got the) anointing / (Got God’s) favor / (And we’re still)
standing / I want it all back / Man give me my stuff back / Give me my stuff back / … I want it all / … I want that”
(from “I Want it All Back,” by Tye Tribbett).

Contrast those with the three recorded songs that accompanied Jesus’ birth. While the melodies have been lost to time, the lyrics reverberate through history.

The first, a spontaneous soulful utterance by a pregnant virgin, marveled about the Mighty One who miraculously conceived His child within her. “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53). What of the Rolls Royce-driving, private jet-flying, multiple mansion-dwelling, high fashion-wearing preachers and modern Christian subculture profiteers? What about the good life to which their songs and sermons aspire? What fills them?

The second, a choir song performed by heaven’s finest angels for an audience of outcast shepherds, proclaimed: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). The peace of which they sang is shalom, and favor refers to “the year of the Lord’s favor” embraced within Christ’s mission (Luke 4:18-19, quoting Isaiah 61). More than the absence of strife, shalom is what the Prince of Peace came to reestablish: The interdependency of vibrant communities; the vitality of healthy bodies; the manifold mysteries of parental love; and the majesty of the cosmos. The condition of sin robs shalom, but Jesus’ justice restores it. When the most affluent people in recorded history attempt to co-opt Jesus’ favor as a rationale to get more stuff, we cheapen everything the gospel represents.

The third song, by an old man long past his prime, declared Jesus, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” He then explained the lyrics to Jesus’ parents: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:32, 34-35). Not much touchy feely hoopla here either.

Not one of these songs celebrates the themes that predominate our weekly worship services. No mention of “me,” except in the context of calling and responsibility beyond oneself. No focus on “blessing,” except as it relates to our ability, empowered by God, to bless others. No pursuit of personal comfort; rather, the promise of a sword to pierce one’s soul.

Indeed, the soundtrack that accompanied heaven’s lyric — the Word made flesh and dwelling among us — bears little resemblance to popular songs we sing in our churches. When that timeless Word “moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message) his manner of doing so invited shame and ridicule, not material bounty. He lived among us as a child of poverty (born in a barn); political refugee (in Egypt); social pariah (survivor of unmarried pregnancy, a capital crime); ghetto immigrant (“What good comes from Nazareth?”); and blue-collar subject (carpenter) of an imperialistic colonizer (Rome). He was a friend of prostitutes (such as the woman who anointed his feet with perfume), crooked bureaucrats (tax collectors like Matthew and Zacchaeus), and terrorists (including his disciple Simon, the Zealot, a card-carrying member of a first-century Palestinian terror organization).

If He actually showed up to one of our stylized worship experiences, He may well sing a different tune, one that sounds more like the warning He gave through the Old Testament prophet Amos:

“I can’t stand your religious meetings. I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making. I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. When was the last time you sang to me? Do you know what I want? I want justice — oceans of it. I want fairness — rivers of it. That’s what I want. That’s all I want” (Amos 5:21-24, The Message).

Taking Amos at his word, if all God wants is oceans of justice rather than egocentric noise, then the needs of a broken world must reclaim center stage from personal blessings during corporate worship experiences. Notwithstanding the public repentance for neglecting the poor by high-profile leaders like Bill Hybels and Rick Warren, many churches remain mute on such issues and have abandoned prophetic moments in lieu of religious protocol.

What to Do?

How can worship leaders help navigate oceans of justice within congregational gatherings? First, in the music and expressions of worship we embrace; and second, by facilitating worship as lifestyle, not just musical ritual.

Marvin Gaye’s opus reminds us that music ennobles ideas, emotes passion, and defines eras. Because we feel it, music penetrates hearts and stimulates a response. Combine inspired notes with well-crafted lyrics and the results can be liberating. Or lethal.

In Call and Response, a 2008 documentary about sex trafficking, Dr. Cornel West describes music’s power to accentuate and ultimately eradicate injustice:

“Music is about helping folk … by getting them to dance. Getting them to move. Getting them to think. Getting them to reflect. Getting them to be themselves, to somehow break out of the conventional self that they are.”

As musicians use that power to draw attention to injustices, people cannot help but get involved, West contends, because “justice is what love looks like in public.”

Historically, some denominational traditions have embraced justice-oriented hymns and music (e.g., Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance and “O Healing River“), and Native Peoples have more than most (e.g., “Every Part of this Earth,” words by Chief Seattle). CCM pioneer Keith Green was an anomaly among evangelicals through the ’70s and early ’80s with songs like “Asleep in the Light,” which challenged: “Open up, and give yourself away / You’ve seen the need, you hear the cry, so how can you delay.” But increasingly music ministers across traditions are giving voice to justice within worship services (e.g., Jason Upton’s “Poverty,” Brian McLaren’s “A Revolution of Hope,” and Aaron Niequist‘s “Love Can Change the World”).

Jesus’ mission — Good News for the poor, sight for the blind, and liberty for the oppressed — requires the courage to break free from convention, perceive the new things God is doing in our midst, and zealously pursue them.

How We Get There

1. Refocus. Reductionist Western worship is possible because we have lost a sense of awe and reverence for Who God is, fashioning instead a God in our own image. Mark Labberton in his book, The Dangerous Act of Worship, writes:

The God we seek is the God we want, not the God who is. We fashion a god who blesses without obligation, who lets us feel his presence without living his life, who stands with us and never against us, who gives us what we want, when we want it.

Rather than appealing to God on account of his character — a holy, righteous, just, and mighty God — we have become gods unto ourselves, presupposing long before we encounter His presence what He needs to do on our behalf and prejudging what matters most. Let’s refocus on Who really matters.

2. Repent. The failure to incorporate laments for justice into corporate worship underscores a much deeper problem. Fundamentally we misunderstand what worship really is. Worship is neither the rhythmic pursuit of a euphoric high nor the somber embrace of silent reflection. Such either/or myopia forgets that Jesus describes true worshipers as those who worship “in spirit and truth” (John 4:23).

Paul elaborates that “our spiritual act of worship” requires offering our very selves as “living sacrifices” (Romans 12:1-2). First century Romans familiar with ritual sacrifices understood that phrase to be a contradiction. One did not sacrifice living bulls, for example. The peril of potential impaling demanded that sacrifices be dead first. Yet God invites worshipers to voluntarily self-sacrifice. Paul continues: “Do not conform any longer to the patterns of this world” — white picket fences, trendy fashions, and such — “but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.” Where our will conforms to the world’s patterns and trumps God’s will, let’s repent for rejecting true worship.

3. Remember. The holy God we revere is also our righteous king who exacts justice on behalf of his people. Moses and Miriam remembered in Exodus 15 when they praised Yahweh for demonstrating justice in his dealings with Pharaoh and liberating his people. Hannah remembered when she thanked God for his justice on her behalf (1 Samuel 2). King David remembered when he declared, “The Lord reigns!” and embraced a heavenly King who ruled above him and all other powers, whose eternal justice and righteousness are irrevocable. Let’s also remember that our “Lord loves justice” (Isaiah 61:8).

4. Reconnect. No longer should worship gatherings embrace the first part of the Great Commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength,” at the expense of the second part, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Let’s reconnect His love in a coherent whole.

5. Realign. Justice and worship at their core both deal with power and the abuses of power. By emphasizing God’s kingship, his rule over all creation, and his impeccable character, we intentionally create space for the Most High to address the fallen powers in our churches, states, nation, and world. Let’s realign our congregations under God’s power as work within us rather than the abusive power structures dominating the world.

6. Rediscover. As we identify and proclaim the laments of the marginalized with a deep understanding that their cries are our cries, we will begin to see our perspectives shift and the power of God move in ways that we never would have imagined.

Let’s rediscover the unleashed, all-powerful God, not our tempered and tame God in a box. Like Aslan of Narnia, He may not be safe, but “He is good.”

In the Zone: Geoffrey Canada Is Changing the Odds in Harlem

In the Zone: Geoffrey Canada Is Changing the Odds in Harlem

SCHOOL REFORMER: Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada believes under-resourced communities, where the odds are stacked against kids, must be changed to give their young people the same shot at success as kids in more privileged communities. (Photo: Tom Fitzsimmons/Center for Public Leadership/Wikipedia)

“There are many places in our nation that we have allowed to become areas of hopelessness,” said educator and activist Geoffrey Canada last month at the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit. “Despair rules and young people who grow up there have no way of knowing right from wrong.”

Canada, the founder and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, told Willow Creek ministry leader Nancy Beach that youth become “contaminated” with negative values and principles that must be counteracted. It’s a message he’s been proclaiming in New York and now around the nation for more than twenty years.

Perhaps you’ve seen Canada discussing education on television. He was prominently featured in the controversial 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman, which took a hard look at the tenuous condition of American public education. These days when any serious conversation about public schools turns toward the topic of real solutions, it’s difficult not to reference Canada’s name and work.

In inner cities where overcoming the odds is the only way for children to achieve success, Canada contends that the odds need to be changed. This conviction, coupled with a waiting list for the after-school and summer youth programs Canada directed through the mid-1990s, convinced him to scrap a model social services organization in favor of what The New York Times Magazine calls “one of the biggest social experiments of our time.”

As we begin a new school year, and our nation’s system of public education continues to falter, it’s worth taking a look at Geoffrey Canada’s efforts as a case study on what might be possible if we’re willing to work hard, think innovatively, and put our children first.

The Great Experiment

Founded in 1997 as a corporate reorganization of the Harlem-based Rheedlen Centers, which ran various after-school, violence-prevention, and summer youth programs for 500 children with a $3 million annual budget, Harlem Children’s Zone has embraced a mission to prove that poor children, especially poor black children, can succeed in big numbers. Success means good reading scores, grades, and graduation rates for average students, not just the smartest or most motivated or the ones with involved parents.

The catalyst for Canada’s changed approach was a perpetual waiting list at Rheedlen. Canada became dissatisfied that no matter how many children his centers served, their services merely treated symptoms of far deeper social ills for hundreds of children while thousands went unattended every day.

He was also frustrated with an “apartheid” type of school district where kids living below 96th Street were super achievers and kids above 96th Street chronically underperformed. Grappling with the disparity, he wondered whether it’s even possible to transform the system so that success might become the norm for Harlem too.

INVESTING IN LIVES: Canada (left) works with students in a Harlem Children’s Zone classroom. “We can’t afford to lose another generation,” he says.

Fueled by the belief that individual children will do better if the children around them are doing better, Canada set out to prove that success can indeed become normalized. Unapologetically, HCZ is a social experiment designed to amass evidence that demonstrates how to equalize the playing field so that poor children perform on the same level as middle-class children. Canada foresees a day when, “This isn’t an abstract conversation anymore. If you want poor children to do as well as middle-class children,” to become “typical Americans” who can compete for jobs, “we now know how to do it.”

According to the Times Magazine, “If [Canada is] right, the services he will provide will cost about $1,400 a year per student, on top of existing public-school funds. The country will finally know what the real price tag is for poor children to succeed.”

In 2005, U.S. News & World Report described Canada as having “the street walk and Harvard talk.” That combination generates enough credibility to be given a legitimate shot at making his experiment work.

Holistic Programming, Tightly Networked

Geoffrey Canada’s political philosophy is both liberal and conservative, meaning he believes the economy systematically disfavors poor people no matter how hard they work, but he also believes poor parents need to raise their children better. His solution is a holistic approach that invests in traditional services such as public schools, day care, and after-school programs to remedy structural inequities, while also teaching parenting and life skills to enhance personal responsibility.

None of the Zone’s programs, by themselves, is unique. What is unique is how they create an interlocking web of services designed to nurture poor children in a particular neighborhood from birth through college. The Cleveland Plain Dealer describes HCZ’s distinctive this way: “The Zone is a network of tightly connected initiatives. … What sets them apart is the unifying vision Canada has imposed, creating a single, womb-through-college cocoon for thousands of poor kids … and fierce determination to achieve measurable outcomes.”

Each individual initiative fits into an expansive strategy that meets different needs differently. There’s no one right, cookie-cutter formulation for what every individual child needs. Instead, HCZ offers a panoply of services, including:

• Harlem Gems, a computer-based, pre-kindergarten program teaching Hooked on Phonics

• Employment and Technology Center

• TRUCE after-school program for teens

• Family Support Center and foster care alternatives

• Baby College co-ed class for pregnant parents

• Promise Academy charter school

All of HCZ’s programs are geographically located within a 100-block area of Central Harlem, a neighborhood characterized by a poverty rate of nearly 50 percent and foster-care placement rates among the highest in New York City. The 10,000 children living within this community Canada describes as “my kids,” and his goal for them is “fairness … just give my kids a fair shot.” Once they have completed college, “they’re as equal as anybody else, and they’ll be able to fend for themselves.”

Four Pillars

Harlem Children’s Zone rests its various program initiatives on four pillars.

1. Rebuild the community from within by developing indigenous leaders who already live in the neighborhood. “Mostly we found that to change a block, you had to get between 10 and 20 percent of the people engaged.” Hope spreads and negative elements move elsewhere.

2. Start early and never stop. Provide services from before birth through prenatal parenting classes and continuing through the completion of college. “Our theory is you never let the kids get behind in the first place.”

3. Think and plan big. Overwhelm the negative with positive influences. Make success and hard work normative.

4. Evaluate relentlessly. HCZ holds 1,300 full and part-time employees accountable to predetermined results. “If you took a salary to deliver an outcome and you didn’t deliver the outcome, you can’t stay here in the organization.” All programs have ten-year business plans with goals, targets, and timetables.

Measurable Results

Canada asks no less than 15 years from stakeholders to demonstrate that HCZ’s approach actually works, calling quick fixes to entrenched social problems “pipe dreams.” In exchange, he promises a rigorous reporting and evaluation methodology to track progress and identify program weaknesses.

His management style runs the non-profit like a business and treats philanthropists like venture capitalists. The HCZ business plan focuses on business-oriented ideas like “market-penetration targets” and “new information technology applications” and a “performance-tracking system.”

The Zone regards clients as “customers” and outreach as “marketing.” Administrative staffers wear suits; every meeting starts on time; and reports, budgets, and evaluations flow constantly.

HCZ focuses its energies and resources on what it can control — namely excellent supportive services for children — and not issues beyond their control such as adult marriages and underemployment. Then it recruits relentlessly to register its target market — the most “at-risk” youths in the neighborhood — through door knocking, fliers, sign-ups, raffles, prizes, and give-a-ways (even “bribes”); and promises to deliver excellent results. For example, HCZ called its first charter school Promise Academy because, “We are making a promise to all of our parents. If your child is in our school, we will guarantee that child succeeds. There will be no excuses. … If you work with us as parents, we are going to do everything — and I mean everything — to see that your child gets a good education.”

HCZ’s educational philosophy emphasizes both testing and accountability. They work within the existing public school system while simultaneously opting-out by starting two charter schools. HCZ’s charter schools operate a longer school day, from 8 a.m. – 4 p.m., with supplementary after-school programs until 6 p.m.; and their academic years extend into July. HCZ has met resistance from the Teachers Union because, even though charter school teachers get paid more than union teachers, they work longer hours, a full 12 months a year, and without the possibility of tenure.

The Zone supplements its own service offerings by partnering with parents, residents, teachers, and other community stakeholders to create a safe, nurturing environment that extends beyond its programs. By collaborating with churches, parks, local businesses, and schools, HCZ advocates for education reform, economic development, and crime reductions while proactively rebuilding the neighborhood.

The Challenge of Fatherlessness

The issue of fatherlessness is deeply personal for Canada, both as a central subplot in his own “against the odds” story and as a driving factor in the culture the Zone seeks to overcome. Canada tackles the subject specifically in one of his books, Reaching up for Manhood: Transforming the Lives of Boys in America (Beacon Press 1998).

Raised in the South Bronx by a single mom with four children, Canada’s father left when Canada was only 4. His mother supported them through a combination of odd jobs, welfare, and food donations. He found solace, and trouble, in the streets as a teenager — drinking, smoking pot, and resolving conflicts with his fists. But mom’s work ethic rubbed off, as he secured a factory job after school and ultimately earned a scholarship to attend Bowdoin College, where he majored in psychology and sociology. He then went on to earn a master’s in education from Harvard.

Canada speaks with conviction about the need to “father the fatherless” in part due to his own experience, but also because of the degree to which the absence of fathers has ravaged his community. “It is so much more dangerous for boys today because there aren’t any role models around for them. There’s some 15-year-old telling a 12-year-old what it means to be a man, and these children are really growing up under so much stress.”

Compounding matters is a cultural environment that “preaches anarchy.” Despite a rich tradition within the African American community of music that “always tried to lead us to the light … [and] get us through the tough times,” the current generation of hip-hop stars espouse “a message that is leading us to destruction. The message is, ‘Go out and do things that will destroy you, that will get you locked up in jail, that will ruin your life, that will ruin your relationships, that will estrange you from your kids.’ That’s what this music is preaching. And we’ve never had any music like that in our history before. … The street isn’t driving the music anymore. The music is driving the street.”

The two-fold solution, Canada contends, begins by reconnecting young boys to men in meaningful, long-term relationships that he calls, “loving men and not just mentors.” Mentors are needed, “but mentors do not replace a responsible adult who loves you, who disciplines you, who’s there when you’re afraid at night, who’s there to really talk to you about school and work. That’s what young boys need, and we have to figure out a way to get uncles and cousins and other folks re-involved with these young people for long periods of time so these boys have role models on what it means to be a man.”

For kids who lack a father’s love, these “re-involved” adults must “not only give them the good, solid, love, and support they need, but the tough love that says to them that you’re going to be held responsible, but I’m going to help you, I’m going to hold your hand; I’m going to make sure that when you are crying, there’s someone wiping those tears out of your eyes, picking you up and saying you can do it, try again.”

Only then will boys get messages contradicting pop and street culture values about sex, alcohol, tobacco, clothing, sneakers, and other “stuff that means absolutely nothing when we really look at what it means to be a caring, responsible father, a real responsible adult in today’s society.” What really matters are values like working hard, saving money, and investing in education. There are no “quick and easy” shortcuts, just hard work over a long time modeled for boys by grown men who are willing to take them by the hand and live life together.

The second piece of the strategy is teaching boys necessary skills to care and nurture children as fathers. Canada argues that if a dad is uninvolved in a child’s first three months, meaning not directly supporting, interacting, and bonding with the child, then that father is able to leave without feeling like his abandonment of the child is a big deal. But a boy who hasn’t had a fathering role model lacks basic skills for bonding with children. Worse, they have to overcome street culture biases by insisting that poor boys and girls refrain from exploitative sexual relationships, and redefining manhood to include nurturing as well as providing. To this end, HCZ’s Baby College intentionally works with both pregnant mothers and fathers.

Challenges to Replication

VISION CASTING: Canada during his interview at the Willow Creek Global Leadership Summit in August.

Over the years, many groups and individuals have studied Geoffrey Canada’s work with the intention of duplicating it in their own cities. But Canada identifies three main challenges to replicating the Harlem Children’s Zone model in other communities. The first, and most fundamental, is finding the right leadership. An appropriate leader is someone whom the community and donors are going to hold accountable while giving that person the authority to hold others accountable. “This won’t work with a collaborative of equal partners.”

Second, groups and individuals must have the discipline and resolve to stay true to the four pillars, including: empowering indigenous leadership to own the transformation process; embracing large and scalable strategies; adopting a long-term, comprehensive, birth through college service commitment; and evaluating and improving performance constantly.

Finally, group leaders must mobilize and sustain the commitment of staff, volunteers, community stakeholders, funders, and residents.

Staying the Course

Back at Willow Creek, Nancy Beach engaged Canada in a wide-ranging conversation on faith and leadership that offers additional insight into his way of thinking and the things that have made him successful.

“I grew up in the ’60s and lost faith in the church because the church wasn’t making a difference in the world around me,” he said. But his grandmother taught him a profound lesson. “She told me, ‘It’s easy to have faith when everything is going great, but the real test of faith is when you’re faced with something where only your faith will keep you believing in God.’”

It’s evident that Canada has taken his grandmother’s words to heart as he goes about the work of transforming education in America. “I’ve never lost this sense that we can test it, but in the end if you have faith, it will pull you through anything.”

Sources

+ Harlem Children’s Zone website: www.hcz.org
+ Sam Fulwood III, Bob Paynter and Sandra Livingston, “Central Harlem program combines leadership, commitment to rebuild a community,” Cleveland Plain Dealer (Dec. 13, 2007)
+ Chester Higgins, Jr., “Vision,” New York Times (June 7, 2006)
+ Anderson Cooper, “Stop Snitching,” 60 Minutes (April 22, 2007)
+ Deborah A. Pines, “America’s Best Leaders: Thriving in the Zone,” US News & World Report (Oct. 31, 2005)
+ Paul Tough, “The Harlem Project,” New York Times Magazine (June 20, 2004)
+ Transcript, “Moving Toward Manhood,” The News Hour with Jim Lehrer (Jan. 20, 1998)
+ Felicia Lee, “Being a Man and a Father Is Being There,” New York Times (June 18, 1995)

How Did 9/11 Change Urban Ministry?

How Did 9/11 Change Urban Ministry?

The Cross at Ground Zero.

 

Sunday marks the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and Flight 93, so we asked three urban leaders who will be participating in memorial events how the attacks impacted urban ministry.

Here’s what they said:

Jeremy Del Rio, Esq., New York

Jeremy Del Rio is executive director of Community Solutions, Inc. a faith based youth and community development agency in New York City. On September 10, Del Rio will participate in Reaching Out, A Sacred Assembly, a prayer and worship service in New York City.

September 11, 2001 exposed gaps in urban ministry in ways that could not be ignored any longer. The church’s response to those gaps demonstrated grace and hope and provided a glimpse of what might be one day.  For me, here are three lessons learned over the last decade:

1) The magnitude of the attack and the scope of its impact required a Jesus who was far bigger than any one ministry or personality to heal. It forced the Church to confront the sad reality that we were too disconnected from each other to be a useful partner to our city during a crisis. It’s impossible to mobilize 7,000 churches quickly when they aren’t already connected and coordinated, so the city didn’t call us initially for help. Pastors and church leaders had to repent for being lone rangers and intentionally link arms during the common crisis in order to respond effectively and be Christ to a city that was collectively grieving in unprecedented ways.

2) September 11 also exposed fear and bigotry among many Christians towards our Muslim cousins.  Suddenly, many who professed a love for Christ and people were parroting suspicions about our immigrant neighbors and perceiving threats where none existed. The Church had to embrace that Jesus’ imperative to love our neighbors as ourselves includes those individuals and communities we might otherwise fear, and wrestle with how to build bridges during and beyond the crisis.

3) The inertia of normalcy has obscured the need to remain vigilant in nurturing the kind of relationships that build trust across denominations and congregations, and with neighbors regardless of their faith and cultural traditions. My prayer for the Church on this tenth anniversary is that we would recapture what it means to love each other in such a way that the world will know we are His disciples.

To read more about how Jeremy and his father Rev. Richard Del Rio ministered in lower Manhattan post-9/11, go here.

Rev. Dr. DeForest Soaries, Somerset, New Jersey

DeForest “Buster” Soaries is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, New Jersey, and a pioneer of faith-based community development who has also served as New Jersey Secretary of State and chairman of the United States Election Assistance Commission. On September 11, Rev. Soaries will speak at the September 11th Remembrance Service in Ocean Grove, New Jersey.

I’m not sure the impact was greater in urban areas or not. The short term impact was to motivate people to think more about God, faith, and church. But long term, we have seen a return to a preoccupation with materialism versus a focus on God. The major ministry need that I’ve experienced and seen around the country is a greater need for focus on mental health ministry. We’ve added a full time therapist to our staff.

Black America has historically been the most optimistic and today all of the data describe African Americans as being more optimistic than the general population on the one hand. On the other hand, in terms of concrete expectations, we’re finding that there’s a greater sense of hopelessness and despair. The way that’s related to 9/11 is that prior to 9/11 our culture perceived itself as being almost invulnerable. What 9/11 did was begin a process of perceived vulnerability. After 10 years of being constantly reminded how vulnerable we are, it has begun to affect us emotionally and psychologically. The church has to create the connection for people between our emotional, psychological, and spiritual status.

While 9/11 was a terrorist attack, we’ve also been victims of a global economic meltdown and I would argue that our sense of helplessness in response to the economic meltdown is directly related to the decline in our sense of national self confidence. Prior to 9/11 we had this sense of “we can make it if we try.” In post-9/11 America, we have a sense of “there’s no way out.”

The economic crisis that we’re experiencing is probably more difficult to climb out of emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually then it perhaps would have been before 9/11. In 1987 we had a tremendous stock crash, but the general sense of the country was “we can make it through this.” Then in 2001, we had another traumatic decline in the stock market, but now what we’re finding is that the kind of optimism that would normally accompany economic decline seems to be accompanied by a general sense of pessimistic projection. I think 9/11 was the singular date when we began to question our ability to really manage our circumstances. The challenge of the church is to make the case that our psychological, emotional, and therefore poltical status, hinges on our spiritual strength.

Shane Claiborne, Philadelphia

Shane Claiborne is co-founder of The Simple Way community in Philadelphia, a best-selling author, and a social justice/peace activist. On September 10, he will co-host Jesus, Bombs, & Ice Cream, a 90 minute variety show, with Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream co-founder Ben Cohen in Philadelphia.

My initial thoughts about the impact of 9/11 on urban ministry relate to the increases in military spending where we’re spending like $250,000 a minute. As the country goes bankrupt, it raises all kinds of questions. In our neighborhood, we can really see what Dr. King meant when he said, “Every time a bomb goes off overseas, we can feel the second impact of it right here.” We’ve got thousands and thousands of abandoned houses, a bankrupt school system, folks needing healthcare. The interconnectedness of that is really evident.

In addition, I think that what one veteran from Iraq called the “economic draft” has become a really urgent reality for our kids in the urban neighborhood here, where they’re selectively recruited. The fliers that they give out say, “Everybody told you to go to college. They just didn’t tell you how to get there. Join the Army.”

We have a drop out rate over 40 percent in Philadelphia. At a graduation I attended this year, they said more kids will be going into the military than will be going to college. That really struck me. The post-September 11 military ethos has grown and affected things dramatically.

This year we’ve got a mentoring program called Team Timotheo, where young men are mentored and  discipled by older men. It’s a football league that was started by guys in our neighborhood. Part of what we’re trying to do is to teach young people non-violence and out of it, deeply rooted faith in Jesus and the non-violence of the cross. We’ve got a homicide rate that is almost one a day in Philadelphia right now. All of that is very interconnected because we’re trying to teach kids not to hit each other and then they see this mess of redemptive violence kind of perpetuated all over the world after September 11.

There’s a kind of spiritual dimension to it. There’s an economic dimension to it. So those are all things that we’ll be talking about on Saturday. Particularly the testimony of the Iraq veteran, Logan. He’ll be sharing about his collision with the cross and the gun. Terry Rockefeller, whose sister was killed on 9/11, has said there was never a moment when she thought violence would be the answer or would solve the tragedy of September 11. Those are credible, important voices. We planned Jesus, Bombs, and Ice Cream before we realized it was the tenth anniversary of 9/11, but then when we realized it was, we decided that there’s no better way to honor those who died on September 11 and those who are continuing to die now than to try to celebrate the possibilities of another, better world.

*DeForest Soaries’ and Shane Claiborne’s comments were edited for length and clarity. Jeremy DelRio submitted his via email and those were not edited.

Our Call to Public Education

Our Call to Public Education for urban faithHow many eighth-grade Bible studies lead with Lamentations? Or Leviticus? Not many that I’m aware of.

Yet last I checked, Lamentations and Leviticus are part of the biblical canon, along with Romans and Revelation and lots of other heady reading material.

Should it matter to pastors, then, that the average graduate of America’s city schools reads at an eighth-grade level and that many high school graduates don’t even rank that high?

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