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What are we rebuilding and why?

Bethel AME Church in Morristown, New Jersey, has been a catalyst for collaboration in providing a feeding ministry to the community. Photo courtesy of Bethel AME Church

Congregations should see with new eyes as they re-envision ministries in a world reshaped by twin pandemics, writes the executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

As chaplain in a volunteer fire department, I accompanied survivors wandering through the wreckage of fires, picking up pieces of the past and pondering next steps. I think of those moments as we move beyond lockdowns and start charting the future.

Many are assessing the damage to health, careers, families, neighbors and institutions. Some continue to feel the initial shock of loss. Some are moving through the debris looking for treasures to salvage and recalling what came before. Others recognize that they never had a place in what was lost and hope that whatever comes next will be different.

Those with energy are ready to make decisions about the future. They are considering the condition of structures and processes that are still standing. Some are deciding to raze everything and start from scratch. Others are looking at the insurance money and any other resources they have to determine what seems possible and practical.

In the case of a home that burned, at some point the family asks, “What sort of life do we aspire to live in this place?” They consider both their present circumstances and their hopes for the future.

Some are determined to replicate what has been lost. Almost all want to make improvements. A few want something very different — a new place with new neighbors. But most feel pressured to decide what is next before they feel ready.

What have we learned in these last two years about our lives, our neighbors and our world? What is our vision for the future? What do we rebuild, and why that thing? How have we been changed by seeing injustices that we had previously ignored or accepted as facts of life? What will we do differently? Can we take the time to decide?

More than a decade ago, I facilitated a visioning and planning process for an affluent white congregation that had a reputation for generosity in missions and a vision for justice. In the process, the congregation looked closely at its immediate community and realized that they had focused their attention on the major thoroughfare and the connected neighborhoods that their building faced. They had completely blocked out the neighbors behind their building, who had socioeconomic situations and racial and ethnic identities very different from those of the neighbors on the thoroughfare.

In discussions, the congregation decided to open itself to the neighbors in the back. The fence and bushes that shut out those neighbors were removed. This had an immediate impact, because it cleared a pathway for the neighbors to reach a bus stop in front of the church property. The congregation looked to cultivate relationships with both the neighbors and those the neighbors trusted.

The visioning process was complete and the fence down when the church sanctuary burned. The education and recreation facilities were spared, but the sanctuary was gone. In the next years, the congregation decided to build a new sanctuary that looked similar to the previous one but was oriented in a different direction. The new front doors would face the side yard and parking lot. Church members would no longer enter and leave worship looking at the thoroughfare.

They would see all their neighbors and be reminded at each service of their place in between.

What have the viral and racial pandemics exposed that you need to acknowledge in the rebuilding of your congregation or organization? What neighbors have you now seen? With whom are you joining forces? What public policy have you challenged that needs further revision?

This is a moment when we can examine fundamental assumptions. For congregations, this can be as basic as considering how we measure effectiveness.

For generations, congregations have gauged their vitality by average worship attendance. In the 20th century, this was an elegant measure that told insiders and outsiders much about the dynamics of a congregation, from the number of staff to hire to the size of facilities needed. Those who attended were the most likely to give money, serve on committees and attend Bible study.

COVID-19 made average attendance worthless as both a measure of vitality and a sign of faithfulness. If we need to measure effectiveness now, we need something else.

Recently, Reginald Blount invited me to consider how to measure the impact of Christian discipleship on the world. How could we measure social impact from Christian witness? How might that measure help us figure out what to rebuild and where?

Surveys by the Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations project at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research indicate — and even the casual observer knows — that many congregations made redesigning worship their highest priority during the COVID-19 lockdowns. For example, congregations figured out how to do outdoor and virtual services. The second priority for many congregations was what sociologists call social outreach — meeting human needs for food, clothing, shelter and more.

In the 20th century, congregations saw worship as the gateway to deeper involvement in their activities. The implication was that the number of times people came to the church building was the mark of their engagement as Christians.

But what might happen if we saw worship as the occasion of focusing on God, from which flowed an invitation to engage our neighbors? Instead of rebuilding programs to attend, congregations might address the working conditions in the community. Instead of planning a building for the members to gather, congregations might re-envision the property as a staging area for life-giving resources or quality working conditions.

If we need examples of this life, we can look to the stories of many Black congregations. I recently visited the Bethel AME Church of Morristown, New Jersey. Their building is a place of worship and home to a feeding ministry that extends throughout the county.

This relatively small church is the catalyst for collaboration among multiple organizations and individuals. The number of people participating in the feeding ministry on a weekly basis far exceeds the number attending the congregation’s worship. By engaging in ministry, the people see with new eyes.

In rebuilding, perhaps we should start with why we are rebuilding and who is at the center of our rebuilding. If God’s love for the world is our why, then our neighbors can be our who. If so, what we rebuild might have renewed purpose and profound impact on the world.

Leadership Education at Duke Divinity logo

Faith & Leadership

This was first published in Faith & Leadership, the online learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

The Thriving in Ministry Coordination Program is a service of Leadership Education, which designs educational offerings, develops intellectual resources and facilitates networks of institutions.

iStock / Aleksandr Golubev

As Orthodox Christians celebrate the most holy season of Pascha, they mark belief in a life free from the reign of death.

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life! — The Paschal Hymn

Shocking images have emerged from Ukraine in these last several weeks. Civilians lying dead in the road with their hands tied, apparently executed. A family with children burned to death in their car. Two young boys shot dead while trying to flee. Parents writing emergency contact numbers on their children’s backs, in case the children are orphaned. Death appears to reign supreme in Ukraine.

A few years ago, I visited Kyiv as part of a peace delegation with the Orthodox church. Though Ukraine is a religiously diverse nation, approximately 70% of Ukrainians identify as Orthodox Christians. The majesty of the Ukrainian nation and its people astounded me.

I visited Maidan, also known as Independence Square, where the Euromaidan took place, a largely nonviolent, pro-European popular uprising that overthrew the Russian-aligned Viktor Yanukovych. From November 2013 to February 2014, protestors camped in Maidan, marching and demonstrating, until Yanukovych was ousted with the Revolution of Dignity.

The people of Kyiv braved the winter to do this; more than 100 of them were killed by government forces. I was awed visiting the memorials around Maidan. How could people so willingly brave death, in some instances marching directly into police gunfire? The government’s message was clear: we rule by force of death. Yet Ukrainians defied this order of death.

In the weeks leading up to the invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces, I began having nightmares. Kyiv has beautiful, ornate, cavernous subways, and I would dream that the city’s noble people were sheltering from Russian shelling in these tunnels. The nightmares soon came true. Despite the horror, Ukrainians again defied this order of death by gathering and singing songs of hope, of nation and of prayer in those same resonant tunnels.

As news of the Russian invasion spread, what captured the world’s imagination most was the defiance of death by the people of Ukraine. Take a few of the earliest viral moments of the war as examples. Within a day of the invasion, with more than 100 dead already, a woman approached a Russian soldier and offered him a gift of sunflower seeds, telling him that he should keep them in his pocket so that if he were to be killed, flowers would grow.

In another case, a Ukrainian man approached a broken-down Russian tank and joked with the soldiers that he could tow them back to Russia. Not only was the Ukrainian army resisting militarily, but civilians were saying “no” to the Russian reign of death, in small and nonviolent ways.

Where does such courage come from?

One possible answer is faith. Last month, as Russians occupied the Ukrainian town of Slavutych, three civilians were killed as they protested the occupation. Days later, the Rev. Ivan Shepida addressed a gathering of Russian soldiers directly, saying, “You heathens! Take off your crosses, for Christians do not point guns at innocent people.”

Reportedly, when reprimanded by a soldier, he replied that he was not afraid and was already dressed in white vestments so that they would not have to change his robes to perform his funeral.

This religious attitude toward death is essential to Orthodox Christianity. The highest feast of the liturgical year for Orthodox Christians is Pascha (celebrated this year on April 24) — or Easter, as it is known in the West. Consider these excerpts from the paschal hymns.

"The dominion of death can no longer hold men captive, for Christ descended, shattering and destroying its powers! Hell is bound, while the prophets rejoice and cry: The Savior has come to those in faith! Enter, you faithful, into the Resurrection!"

"By Thy Cross, Thou didst destroy death!"

"As God, Thou didst rise from the tomb in glory, raising the world with Thyself, Human nature praises Thee as God, for death has vanished!"

"Death is overthrown! Christ God is risen, granting the world great mercy."

In hymn after hymn, the Orthodox church celebrates the resurrection of Christ as the death of death, the destruction of destruction. The Greek Catholic Church, the second-most populous church in Ukraine, also sings these same hymns at Easter. For these Orthodox and Greek Catholic Christians, this means that Easter is not just about the salvation of our souls but about an entirely new way of living in the world, a life free from the reign of death.

What would it mean to celebrate such freedom? For one, it would mean celebrating the end of war. The Rev. John Meyendorff, one of the most prominent Orthodox theologians of the 20th century, once wrote about this dimension of Pascha:

[T]he laws of this mortal world of ours are made in such a way that their main purpose is to preserve my rights and my property. They justify violence as a form of self-defense. And the history of human society is one of conflicts and wars in which individuals and nations struggle and kill others in the name of temporal benefits which will be destroyed by death anyway. …

On Easter Day (Pascha) however, we celebrate the end of this reign. Christ came to destroy it. “Death is swallowed up in victory, O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:54-55). “Christ is Risen, and no one remains in a tomb” (St. John Chrysostom).

How can Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic Christians celebrate the end of war and the death of death when death is so ubiquitous? This is a deep mystery of the church, but it is nothing new to Ukrainians of faith.

In 1930, something remarkable reportedly occurred in Kyiv. Soviet leader Nikolai Bukharin gave a speech on atheism at a time when thousands of Christians were being imprisoned and killed. The horrors of the Soviet period mirror those of today. At the end of his speech, he asked whether there were any questions.

One man stood up and said, “Christ is risen!”

The crowd responded, “He is risen indeed!”

Leadership Education at Duke Divinity logo

Faith & Leadership

This was first published in Faith & Leadership, the online learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

The Thriving in Ministry Coordination Program is a service of Leadership Education, which designs educational offerings, develops intellectual resources and facilitates networks of institutions.

Book cover detail from "Resurrection Hope"

In her recent book, Kelly Brown Douglas speaks about how resurrection hope means working toward a future where Black life can flourish.

Our children can ask tough questions.

One of the tough questions that Kelly Brown Douglas faced from her son, a Black man, was whether Black lives would ever matter.

It was in the summer of 2020, when the pandemic and public killings of Black men were all over the news. The question was crucial, but the answers weren’t so simple and pushed Douglas to examine what she really believed about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

“I get it that Christ is Black,” he said to Douglas. “But what difference is that making to us right now? Black people are still getting killed.”

It’s answering this question that drives Douglas’ book “Resurrection Hope: A Future Where Black Lives Matter.” In the book, she articulates how she, and this nation, can get stuck on the crucifixion, where death becomes the end of the story. Instead, she argues, Christians should turn to meet Christ in Galilee, finding him and joining him in the work of making a new life.

Douglas spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi about the book and what we can learn from our children’s questions. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: What led you to write this book?

Kelly Brown Douglas: All of my books begin with a journey of “faith seeking understanding,” to quote Anselm. That’s what I think theology is; that’s what it has been for me.

And so my writings always begin with these issues and questions of faith as I try to understand the justice of God amid the realities of white supremacy, anti-Blackness and ongoing systemic, cultural sin.

In this instance, those questions of my own faith were exacerbated because I was also facing the questions of my son, as a mother. My son and I often find ourselves in various conversations as he navigates what it means to be Black and male in a culture and a society so thoroughly saturated with white supremacist, anti-Black realities.

And my son kept asking me a question in 2020 that I could not turn away from: “Will Black lives ever really matter?”

That question cut to the core for me, what it meant for me to be a mother and my concern for my son and his future and the future of his kids. And it also cut to the core of my faith, because that question — “Will Black lives ever really matter?” — was really the question, “Can we really trust in the promise of God for a more just future?”

If Black lives are never going to matter, then that promise of God is a false promise, so we cannot trust him. And so the many different ways in which he asked that question, and sometimes directly, is what pushed me into this journey through this book.

My son grew up in the church and grew up with the notion of the Black Christ. But he was asking a question of theodicy.

In the midst of the pandemic and the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, what did it matter that Christ identified with us? And what I realized is that I was stuck on the cross and this Christ that was Black was dying with us. But Black death was being sanctified and became necessary.

His question took me there. What does the Black Christ really mean?

F&L: What does resurrection hope look like, then?

KBD: It took me a while to get there. This book was a journey through despair, to faith, through doubt, back to faith, through crucifixion, to resurrection. It affirmed and made me really believe that faith and doubt go together.

Even though I can come out and say at the end of this book that there’s resurrection hope, that doesn’t mean that it’s a once-and-for-all journey, and that I won’t have to walk through this journey again.

Faith is not a one-time journey. Hope is something that, I think, takes work.

And so what does that look like, on two levels? First, it means understanding what got us to this place and the depth of the reality that we live in, where Black lives have come not to matter.

We keep repeating this crucifying reality; we keep repeating Good Friday over and over and over again. I had to ask myself, “Does God allow us to die?”

One of the things that was happening in the nation because of George Floyd’s death, everyone was coming to this sort of new awakening of racial injustice. It required Black death to get us there, but we’d already had a number of crucifixions. We already went through Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and Philando Castile; Rekia Boyd and Atatiana Jefferson.

How many Black deaths does it require just to get us to recognize that there’s racial injustice, and how many more Black deaths are going to happen before we create a racially just society?

I was stuck on Good Friday, but this nation is stuck on Good Friday, too, when it comes to Black lives.

So I said, “Maybe if that’s where we are, then this isn’t the faith for me.” But then I heard the scripture of the resurrected Jesus telling the disciples to meet him at Galilee; I literally remember hearing that in my head. And I went in search of Galilee.

The only Galilee that I could think of at that point was the Black Lives Matter protests down in D.C. And to be in those protests, among those protestors, I knew then that it is in this movement for a more just future that we really see the movement of the resurrected Christ. You really see God, and you feel the presence of God. Because I felt, I felt the presence of God, and my hope was reawakened.

And that’s the resurrection hope. Hope is a signal of transcendence, but hope is always an active thing, as the resurrection is an active thing. It required people to move and to go back to Galilee and to recommit themselves to the ministry of Jesus.

In that protest, these people believed, really believed, that a future where Black lives could matter would indeed become a reality, because if they didn’t believe it, they wouldn’t be down there fighting for it. And that to me is hope, what hope looks like. And that is what resurrection hope looks like, because it calls you to life so that we can partner together in creating new life.

F&L: Looking toward Easter, how do you think our Easter hopes should be influenced by the events of the world?

KBD: If we’re going to talk about the resurrection, the Easter resurrection, we cannot talk about that apart from the crucifixions that are happening in our society and in our world.

We have to ask ourselves, “Where would the resurrected Jesus be calling us to?” Where’s Galilee for us, and what does that mean for us in terms of the ways in which we have to partner with God to move toward new life?

When we talk about Easter Sunday, we can’t just talk about it and say, “I believe the Lord is risen.” What does that look like practically, in reality, in history? We only know what that looks like when we have an appreciation for the crucifying reality, from which God has freed us or is trying to free us.

F&L: You talk about the silence of the white church in the book — what should Easter look like for them?

KBD: It should look like the courage to claim their voices and to really claim their faith.

We hear the voices of the white church when it’s George Floyd. We didn’t hear that much around many others who have died. Why don’t we hear those voices when it’s not a big thing on TV? Black people are being killed every day; where are those white clergy voices now?

I think that the white church has to reclaim its faith and what it really means to have faith in a resurrected Jesus.

I think of the white church like the religious leaders and disciples after Jesus’ death cowering behind closed doors in fear.

Who are the enemies that they’re scared of? Are they afraid of losing some kind of privilege? Easter for the white church should mean being called out from behind those closed doors.

Leadership Education at Duke Divinity logo

Faith & Leadership

This was first published in Faith & Leadership, the online learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

The Thriving in Ministry Coordination Program is a service of Leadership Education, which designs educational offerings, develops intellectual resources and facilitates networks of institutions.

Book cover of "This Here Flesh" by Cole Arthur Riley

In the second chapter of her new book on spirituality, liberation and story, Cole Arthur Riley writes about place.

I was sitting in McDonald’s with my first Bible-study leader when I told her I didn’t want Jesus in my heart. I was in my first year at the University of Pittsburgh and she, her last. She was gorgeous to me, even exposed to the fluorescent light rattling around us, but she spoke like the incarnation of a Hallmark card, which both aggravated and saddened me. I told her I wanted God out there doing something, nodding to the street beyond the glass window. Why confined to a heart? She tried to defuse a look on her face by sipping on coffee that tasted like ash. I, embarrassed (whether on my behalf or hers, I did not know), began alternating peeling my bare legs off of the plastic booth to fill in the silence between us. Until finally she said, That’s where you’re changed, pointing to her heart not mine. And I didn’t have the courage to say, I like my heart just fine. She motioned toward our fluorescent canopy and back to her chest. For eternal life, God looks to the heart, she said. And I couldn’t tell her I had no desire to live forever.

As someone who is made of more doubt than faith, I find that Christians tend to want to talk to me about salvation. They seem quite concerned with the future of my faith, but they make the mistake of showing little interest in my present conditions. If asked to choose, I want a God who is someplace. Not just in “the heart,” but God standing on Fifth and Lothrop — God beyond the glass. I don’t just want to be rescued; I want to be taken someplace safe and good.

I think of Abraham’s descendants leaving the promised land and being forced into bondage. God didn’t raise up Moses just to free them from Pharaoh. They were liberated to somewhere. They left their chains and began making their way back home. What healing can manifest when place is restored, when those once dislocated from their home are delivered into it once again. It seems to me God’s promise was always a place. A liberation born of location.

And such a freedom does not unfold in a vacuum but stretches out through those who have known a place before us.

This is what they don’t tell you. You might think Abraham’s promise from God begins with him, but before Abram, there lived a man named Terah. Terah took his family and set out toward Canaan, but for reasons unknown to us, he settled somewhere along the way and never saw the end of his journey. Yet, years later, his son Abram would, by the mouth of God, set out on a journey to a promised land, a land we now know as Canaan. Abram’s promise did not occur in a vacuum. Whether he knew it or not, it remained connected to his father’s journey. Our question is not only What is this place to me? but also What has this place been to those before me and those who made me?

I do not know from where my ancestors were abducted. I cannot tell you what the air smells like there. I don’t know what sound the waves and soil speak. These things were stolen from me as they were from them. I think it is one of the deepest evils to become a thief of place, to make someone a stranger to their home, and then mark their relationship to the land by bondage instead of love. To steal place has less to do with power than with hatred. How much must one hate oneself and one’s life and one’s own land to run around chasing everyone else’s? I used to think colonization was about ego, and maybe it is. But maybe it’s not that the oppressors think they’re worthy of more but that they believe their present self is, in fact, worthless. It’s the work of people incapable of perceiving their dignity without attempting to diminish someone else’s. It is no surprise to me then that these same powers, in the end, care so little for the land they are desperate to conquer. It was never about love or curiosity or care but a violent act of self-soothing.

I am mystified when I read stories of enslaved people who liberated themselves with the hope of owning and caring for their own land someday. Didn’t they hate the cotton that pricked their bloodied fingers raw? Wouldn’t they have cursed the sugarcane as they sliced through it again and again, feeling their lower backs gnarl? They gave their bodies for a place that didn’t belong to them and to which they did not belong. I could understand if their bondage and demonic tethering to such land would drive them to a hatred of it. In mystery, it seems many found glimpses of freedom in it. Love, maybe. I am learning from this.

I hope God really is preparing a place for us. When God talks about getting her house ready, is she expecting us all at once? Does she have a gate, and if so, does she keep it open all through the night? Maybe there she will tell me the secrets of where I come from. She’ll pull me into the kitchen just before grace and whisper all the secret things once stolen from me. All the places that I’m made of and don’t yet know it. There I will learn the site of my soul. And we’ll saunter back to the banquet fuller and more whole than I’ve known.

From “This Here Flesh,” by Cole Arthur Riley. Copyright © 2022 by Cole Arthur Riley. Excerpted by permission of Convergent Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Leadership Education at Duke Divinity logo

Faith & Leadership

This was first published in Faith & Leadership, the online learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

The Thriving in Ministry Coordination Program is a service of Leadership Education, which designs educational offerings, develops intellectual resources and facilitates networks of institutions.