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Cole Arthur Riley: Collective memory as liberation

To read Cole Arthur Riley’s “This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation and the Stories That Make Us” is to meet her family and learn how they formed her, in particular her father and grandmother. She tells her story, their story, with beautiful language and lush emotion framed by her contemplative nature and sharp awareness of this moment in time.

Early in “This Here Flesh,” she writes:

My father was born smooth. He glides and sways when he walks, cuts his hands through the air in meaningful arcs when he talks, like he’s in a ballet. I’ve never seen the top of his head because I’ve never seen him look down. He told me from a very young age, Keep your head up, relax those shoulders, look at that skin shine. He told me that Black was beautiful. It seemed to me that he was a man who would never think to apologize for his existence. Some people are born knowing their worth.

At 32, Riley is a New York Times bestselling author, the creator of Black Liturgies, and curator of The Center for Dignity and Contemplation. Her next book — a collection of letters, prayers, liturgies, questions for contemplation and breathing exercises — is in the editing process.

Riley spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Aleta Payne in March after presenting the Jill Raitt Lecture for Duke Divinity School’s Women’s Center. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: Could you speak about the importance of the liturgies you’ve written — what those mean to you in the work you’ve done and in the work you continue to do?

Cole Arthur Riley: Liturgy, for me, has been a long journey toward finding spiritual practices that feel authentic to who I am. I wasn’t a very verbal child. I was a very quiet child. I found a lot of comfort in writing from a very early age. I was probably 24 when I first went to a church that had any kind of liturgical, or overtly liturgical, form. And something about the beauty and the writing really connected to me and felt like, if there is a God and if I am going to speak to God, this is how it would happen.

I’m biased, because I’m a liturgist, but I think it’s such a beautiful form for solidarity. What does it mean to stay in words, to stay in a phrase together, even if that phrase doesn’t immediately resonate with you, even if you don’t immediately understand its meaning? To decenter yourself and center the emotions of maybe one or two in the presence of the collective?

I think it’s a beautiful symbol or practice of solidarity and also very restful for me to not always have to manufacture the words on the spot but to just come and accept and receive words without having to try so hard.

F&L: In an interview with Drew Hart, you said that your book is grounded in the Christian tradition you were formed in but your spirituality is more than creed or doctrine. Could you talk about that?

CAR: I’ve definitely known what it is to reduce my spirituality to religion. I’m not one of those “I’m spiritual, not religious” beings. I sometimes feel like my words are misunderstood to be in that camp. I don’t really resonate that much with those words, but what I resonate with is [whether I can] have this larger container for my spiritual life, and religion be one part of that but not to fill the whole cup.

[In the book], I travel into the stories of my father and my grandma. My father is not the least bit religious and would never claim to be Christian or anything like that. My grandma was Christian but endured a lot of abuse that was enabled by the church and so had a really complicated relationship with the Christian church.

As a way to honor their stories and that spirituality, I had to tap into maybe a spirituality that felt more primary in my home growing up. If it wasn’t religion, what form did that spirituality take? I thought a lot about this. I want to put better language to it eventually, but when I was writing the book, I thought about myth.

These are the things, these are the spiritualities of my family — myth, humor, storytelling. Those are the moments where the sacred and the mysterious feel a little more present. So I’ve incorporated myth and story into the book as a form of spirituality.

Now, what could happen if others felt liberated to do likewise? I feel a sense of freedom and not needing to confine my spirituality strictly to doctrines and creeds.

I’m someone who really struggles with belief, and there are people who have a very strong sense of belief. I admire them. I have just never been one of them. It feels authentic to me and my own life to say that I don’t need to be so concerned with answers or this very clear idea of defining my spirituality on this day, but I can just ask questions and allow it to be fluid and drift more into the myth on one day and more into Genesis on another day. I think there’s some degree of freedom in that expansion.

F&L: I’m also mindful in your writing and in your speaking about the toll taken on the bodies of people who live in systems of oppression. I don’t know that people feel very liberated, either in faith spaces or, for people of color, people who are living in poverty, in their bodies.

CAR: If you were raised in a Christian tradition that focuses really heavily on escaping hell someday in the future, it’s very likely, not always, but it’s very likely you are also trained in some level of disembodiment in the present. I think it can train you in a kind of escapism, in escapism from the present with the promise [of the future].

It’s not true hope. I think it’s an illusion of hope, a promise of, “Well, someday you won’t suffer.” And it kind of trains you to forget about the very true physical injustices that you are living and breathing daily. And you just think, “Someday heaven, someday heaven.”

I think it deteriorates our imaginations for good and health and joy and healing in the now. I don’t mean to be so hard on that particular brand of Christianity, but I think it’s a real risk of that kind of theology.

F&L: Another theme is memory and history making. In the Drew Hart interview, you said, “Collective memory is a liberation practice.” We are in this moment where it feels like collective memory is being denied, inverted, perverted, ignored, hidden. Could you talk about the danger in that — when we lose both the personal and the larger version of that?

CAR: I mean, you’re right that this is the moment that we’re in right now. I’m only 32, and I think about this trajectory that we’re on toward trying to limit collective memory and the threat that collective memory is to systems of injustice, systems of oppression in the world. Obviously, if it were not a threat to these systems, they would not care about your AP history classes. Something is happening in those classrooms where collective memory is being curated and preserved.

I think of it as a liberation practice, because I think it’s almost subversive. Because who has gotten the privilege to be the historians up until now, in our country specifically, and in others as well? Whiteness is given the pen and is placed in the role of historian, and we are meant to trust whiteness’s rendering of the past and pass it on in our classrooms.

When we practice collective memory, the role of the historian is shared across a dinner table — between my grandmother and me and her mother and me. This intergenerational, this almost more personal form of memory, I think, can be shaped in resistance to the memory that was delivered to me, these false memories that were delivered to me in my classrooms growing up.

We could subvert the white historian by just electing a few really smart Black historians. I think the resistance is, “No, we’re not going to do history the way you do history. We’re going to practice memory.”

It will contain history, but it’s also going to contain stories and myths and traditions and rituals, and it’s going to be just as meaningful at a dinner table as it is from an academic. There’s meaning in both forms of exchange, not just people who have access to the academy.

There’s a little bit of liberation there as well. I could talk about this for a while, but I think I want to write a book on memory. The role of story in terms of understanding myself — it helps me understand what I’m worth as well, and it reshapes the things that I’m hoping for.

People tend in Q&As to ask me about hope. And the thing that feels most true to me in this season is that my hope is actually found in looking back in memory and kind of bridging that space. Because once I remember rightly, or as rightly as I can with the people that I trust, I feel like my appetite for good and health and well-being in the world is refined.

Our generation is being confronted yet again with the chronic racial sickness of our world. It is good and right for disciples of Christ to do what we can to heal the world of this sickness. At the same time, as a national discipleship leader, my concerns go deeper. I am concerned for Jesus followers not only to bring racial healing to the world and its systems but also to experience deep inner healing themselves. The two are connected.

three books

In recent years, I have devoted myself to writing “Color-Courageous Discipleship,” a trilogy of age-tailored books for empowering disciples to make fresh connections between following Jesus and dismantling racism. In the process of writing — and especially while conducting interviews with multiple anti-racist disciples — I have discovered how healing, discipleship and mission are intimately intertwined in a traumatized world. Even now, Jesus is seeking to bring about in you the kind of Spirit-filled inner transformation you need to transform the world in God’s way.

Consider this: the miracles that Jesus performed were always signs and pointers to subtler, yet more significant, miracles. Take, for example, Jesus’ healing of a paralyzed man (Mark 2:1-12). When the man was brought to him, Jesus did speak words of healing — but certainly not the words we might expect. “Son, your sins are forgiven,” he said (Mark 2:5 NIV). This is a curious thing. Instead of responding to the clear and obvious request for physical healing, Jesus perplexed everyone by first talking of spiritual healing. Might he be speaking a similar word to us?

When it comes to race, our world has been deeply traumatized. The word “trauma” comes from the Greek for “wound” and can be used to refer to the wide array of spiritual, emotional and relational wounds that racism has caused. As we seek to dismantle systemic racism, we need to understand the trauma that we are dealing with on a massive scale. Even more, to become true agents of racial healing, we would do well to name our own wounds and seek healing for ourselves as we pursue the healing of the world.

There is a dizzying array of traumas that racism can inflict — both on people of color and on people who identify as white, as Sheila Wise Rowe outlines in “Healing Racial Trauma.” Let’s start with people of color and first acknowledge that people of color have not all been affected by racism in the same ways. As a Black woman, I recognize that there are some forms of racial trauma I can personally relate to and others I can’t. Yet all anti-racist disciples know that when we are aware of the varieties of racial trauma, we can better facilitate lasting healing in diverse communities.

We must open our eyes to how people of color have experienced racial trauma on multiple levels: individual (personal, vicarious, internalized); corporate (historical, transgenerational/epigenetic, environmental); and even divine (raising faith-shaking questions about God). When racial trauma in people of color is not named and addressed, it can produce a variety of damaging effects, including spiritual toxins such as bitterness, apathy, rage and despair.

Yet here is a surprising fact: racial trauma also comes in white. Trauma affects perpetrators too. God created humanity to thrive as a community of equals. So when God’s design for equality is distorted, the perpetrator must also pay an existential price. Today, psychologists call this phenomenon “perpetrator trauma,” or perpetration-induced traumatic stress (PITS).

Just as we recognize that all people of color have not experienced racism in the same way, we would be wise not to make blanket statements about “all white people.” That being said, if we were to understand white Americans as another traumatized group, we might more sympathetically recognize in them symptoms of trauma. We might gain insight into certain reactions that white communities often have when confronted about racial inequity: shock, denial, avoidance, delusion, guilt, shame and more. These are trauma responses, and they point to unresolved and possibly unidentified wounds.

As Resmaa Menakem explains in “My Grandmother’s Hands,” the trauma of racism “has resulted in large numbers of Americans who are white, racist, and proud to be both; an even larger number who are white, racist, and in reflexive denial about it; and another large number who are white, progressive, and ashamed of their whiteness. All of these are forms of immaturity; all can be trauma responses; all harm African Americans and white Americans.”

Faithful anti-racist disciples recognize that we all need healing from the trauma that racism has caused. We all need God’s healing touch. And as we experience healing, we can more effectively become agents of healing to our world in embodying supernatural, Christlike characteristics such as love, serenity, forgiveness, gentleness and grace.

Without the character of Christ, we will be far less capable of bringing lasting healing and reconciliation to the world. This is precisely what the great faith-based anti-racist leaders have understood. As Martin Luther King Jr. taught in “Strength to Love”: “Forced to live with these shameful conditions, we are tempted to become bitter and to retaliate with a corresponding hate. But if this happens, the new order we seek will be little more than a duplicate of the old order. We must in strength and humility meet hate with love.”

When apartheid finally fell in South Africa, many predicted that the country would descend into chaos. South Africans of color finally had their opportunity for revenge. But to everyone’s surprise, chaos didn’t happen — thanks largely to the faith-filled leadership of Desmond Tutu. Through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Tutu reached out to both victims and victimizers. First and foundationally, he urged victimizers to confess, apologize and make restitution. Yet he also inspired victims to experience the freedom and joy that can come only by yielding to forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation.

Tutu understood that there was no other way for the nation to move forward together. In his words, there simply can be no future without forgiveness. Our best future emerges as we embrace the holistic healing that Jesus offers to each and every one of us. The mission of God has always been as wide as the whole world and as intimate as each individual soul.

The vicious cycle of racial trauma has repeated itself throughout human history, with evil all too often giving birth to more evil. As Miroslav Volf put it: “People often find themselves sucked into a long history of wrongdoing in which yesterday’s victims are today’s perpetrators and today’s perpetrators tomorrow’s victims.”

But we can put a stop to the cycle.

As we pursue healing in Christ, we are liberated, not to be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). The more we pursue this healing, the more deeply we will understand the many ways in which healing is an integral part of our journey toward true and lasting beloved community.

Excerpt adapted and expanded from “Color-Courageous Discipleship: Follow Jesus, Dismantle Racism and Build Beloved Community,” by Michelle T. Sanchez. Copyright © 2022 by Michelle T. Sanchez. Published by WaterBrook, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Used with permission.

Peter Storey’s ministry has been dedicated to dismantling the South African apartheid regime and rebuilding the country after liberation.

He served as chaplain to Nelson Mandela and others on Robben Island and spent decades working with Desmond Tutu to build a just society. He helped select members of the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission and has worked to stem violence in his home country, among many other efforts.

Peter Storey

Storey is the former president of the South African Council of Churches and served as bishop of the Johannesburg/Soweto area. After retiring as bishop, he taught at Duke Divinity School, where he was named a distinguished professor.

Drawing on those experiences, he has a warning for American Christian leaders: Take your prophetic role seriously.

“I love America. I really do. I love this place. I’ve traveled here 56 times since 1966. And I’ve preached in about 130 of your cities. I’ve got a feel for the country, I think. I would hate ever to come across as a kind of distant moralizer,” he said.

“I come as somebody who has a country which has been this way and has suffered deeply for it, and is still suffering for it. I wouldn’t like it if this country has to go through that kind of horror in the days that lie ahead.”

Storey, who lives near Cape Town, spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Sally Hicks on a recent visit to the U.S. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: What is the work of the church in times of division?

Peter Storey: Well, I think those are the times when the church is called to be the church. And very often, it’s only such times that begin to stir the church into reexamining what it means to be the body of Christ in the world.

In our experience in South Africa, I think the church was just about as sleepy as the American church is now, the mainline churches. Quite happy to go along in its little religious bubble, doing its little religious things and rituals, until it became evident that something was happening in the society that was more than the ordinary issues that you face in every society.

Something much more sinister, something that involved a determined attempt to take over, to capture, if you like, a new and different ideology from the one that you have gotten used to and were told was the way life was in your country.

You need to ask yourself what it means to be the church before that happens. And that’s what I see in the situation in the United States at the moment. There’s a determined attempt to take the country “back” for a small minority that has been outraged ever since a lovely Black family moved into the White House. It’s been hard for many white Americans, many more than I expected.

And my shock, frankly, goes back to 2003 or so. I was teaching here for seven years, and it was the time of the Bush-Cheney invasion of Iraq. And I was asking Methodist clergy, “What have you been saying about this?”

And they said, “Nothing. We can’t say anything.” Why not? Some of them said, “Well, it’s because it doesn’t matter what we say. We’re irrelevant these days. People don’t listen to the church.” And I said, “Well, there may be a reason for that.”

And then the other [response] was, “If I do speak out, my congregation will move up and out.” And my question was, “Since when did the prophets of God keep silent just because they felt they would be irrelevant?”

So don’t use that as an excuse. The reason why you don’t have influence is because of your silence, your continued silence, and the emptying of the church of any prophetic content.

You know, it happens to be Election Day today [Nov. 8, 2022]. And I went to church last Sunday and there was not one single mention of the election in that church, not even in the prayers. There wasn’t even a tiny little prayer of, “Lord, please help people to vote according to their conscience.”

What kind of terrified church is going to have any impact on what is happening in this country if it’s silent two days before the election, any election? Ask yourself who is going to come with you into that voting booth when you go. Are you going to carry with you the pain and the suffering of any people here, or are you going to think only of yourself?

So it’s whether the church is here for the world or for itself. That, to me, is the fundamental question.

And I think long ago the mainline churches, so called, have decided that survival is really our priority. And what in fact is happening is that while buildings and structures and bureaucracies survive, the actual heart of the church is gone. It’s gone.

And so we have to come back to a church that realizes that God is much more in love with the world than with the church, and that God cares more for the world than the church.

F&L: What’s your advice about sustaining justice movements when oppression feels overwhelming and insurmountable?

PS: Part of it is knowing the end, knowing how the book ends. Desmond Tutu, when things looked totally hopeless, would say to the regime, “Why don’t you join the winning side before it’s too late?”

And he wasn’t being funny, because he knew, ultimately, the arc of the universe, as King would say, bends toward justice.

But you have to have a framework to hold you. And the framework that I found very meaningful was something that came to me as I was in Australia doing some study and the question of returning to South Africa, just at the time when it was sliding into the abyss, arose.

If I was going to return, it seemed to me, I needed to know: What does it mean to obey Jesus in apartheid South Africa?

photo with Desmond Tutu
Methodist Bishop Peter Storey with Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu; the pair worked together to end apartheid.Photo courtesy of Peter Storey

These are the four principles that came to me, and I’ve found they’ve sort of stuck with me through thick and thin.

Be a truth teller without fear. If I’m afraid to tell the truth, I must back out of it now. You’ve got to be a truth teller. You’ve got to be willing to lose members. You’ve got to be willing to incur the wrath of the authorities. If you waver from being a determined truth teller who exposes what is happening in the light of the gospel, then you will fail, and you will buckle under it.

Bind up the broken. If you happen to be somebody my color in a country where white people are oppressing Black people, then you’ve got to make every effort you can to somehow enter into the lives of those who are suffering most.

Not that the white person can ever enter into the soul of Black suffering. But you can touch the edge of it. I don’t believe that any preaching that engages the really hurtful issues in the world has credibility unless it is preached from a platform of involvement with those who are suffering.

I would go further: Churches that are in relatively well-off situations and comfortable situations — and that often means white situations — if they want to save their soul, it’s for their sake that they need to do the journey into the places of pain.

It’s for the sake of our own souls, because that’s where we find Jesus. He identifies there far more than he would in any comfortable suburban church.

Live the alternative. If the issue is race, then we’ve got to make sure that our churches begin to reflect God’s dream for America rather than our fears of other people who are different.

In Johannesburg, I lost 200 white members when I integrated the Central Methodist Church, which was the cathedral in South Africa of Methodism. It was scary, because it looked like at one point I might be the guy who closed it all down.

But it didn’t happen. Instead, we got a beautiful community of people of all colors. We could say to the whole of South Africa, “You think it can’t be done? Of course we can live together like this. This is the kind of South Africa that God dreams of, and that’s what the church should be representing.”

I’ve got a photograph of my old congregation in Johannesburg. That photograph is a witness. It’s a prophetic statement. No one has to say a word. They just have to look at that and say, “Wow, did that happen in South Africa?” And it did. So that’s better than all the preaching in the world.

Join Jesus in the energy for change in your country. And I think that comes to your question, finally, about sustaining movements, prophetic movements. The church must get rid of its triumphalism and its arrogance. The suggestion that we are the only people that God is using to change the world is nonsense. In fact, half the time God has to abandon us because we are so useless and use other methods.

We should very humbly seek a place among other people of faith, of other faiths, of no faith, of different approaches, if you like, who seek justice.

My experience in South Africa was that if the churches had not gotten together in the South African Council of Churches, which was the spearhead of church resistance to apartheid, led by Desmond Tutu, and then broadened to include other faiths and then broadened further to include people of no faith but who were passionately committed to justice — if we hadn’t done that, we would not have been able to play the role we did.

When nonprofits and churches and religious movers and nonreligious justice movers got together and became the United Democratic Front in South Africa, it suddenly had the kind of heft and weight for the regime to really get anxious about.

And I think the lack of ecumenical engagement — serious ecumenical action — in America is troubling. The denomination still very much overpowers any kind of ecumenical thinking and action.

And that troubles me, because you [need to] take on the powers that are beginning to coagulate in this country and are beginning to think they can actually do it, which is to take over this country for the right wing and for so-called Christian nationalism. Which, incidentally, is exactly what the South African regime called themselves — a Christian nationalist regime.

I think if we think we can take them on piecemeal, we mustn’t bluff ourselves. They play very hardball, and power is a very important thing to defend in their case. And so we used to say back home, “When the church speaks out, their knees don’t knock.”

They get together to decide how they can chop our knees off. That’s what they do. And so we’ve got to be very wise about how we go about this. But we have to go about it.

It’s the absence of that going about it that troubles me when I look around here.

F&L: Do you think that something like a truth and reconciliation commission, as you had, would be helpful in our context?

PS: Oh, I do think it could. It would be very different. I’m working at the moment with a group of people in North Carolina. The center of it is the Beloved Community Center in Greensboro, who, of course, you might know, were responsible for the first truth and reconciliation [project] in America.

Now, our commission in South Africa was post-conflict, and I think this movement hopes to preempt conflict by getting conversations going. One of the things we struggled with in South Africa was how do you oppose something passionately and in principle without compromise and at the same time hold a hand out toward the people who represent that idea. We’ve got to get beyond the kind of hatred that is being generated between people.

If I claim to serve the Prince of Peace, and if that is what motivates me, then I’ve got to find a way to use the lovely phrase of Pastor Nelson Johnson of this truth commission movement: “I’m moving toward the other rather than walking away.”

I’ve moved around a lot in the last few weeks in the South, and people have asked me time and again, “Where can we start? What can we do?” And I would say, “Break the silence between you and those people who are on the other side of this chasm. Break the silence.”

Find a way of doing so, even if it’s having a coffee with somebody and asking, “I really need to know why you feel so angry.” Now that’s not easy.

I think it’s perilous times that this country is in. And I don’t believe the church has begun to think really deeply about what are we called to be in these times. I think they’re just hoping it will all blow away. And it won’t.

On a bright Sunday morning in September, the congregation of Turner Memorial AME Church gathers at its Hyattsville, Maryland, building. A pastor is delivering an impassioned message. Applause crackles through the space as worshippers lift their hands under the sanctuary’s vaulted ceiling.

But the person speaking from the pulpit is not the Rev. Dr. D.K. Kearney, Turner Memorial’s pastor since 2015. The preacher is the Rev. Cesar Moreno, a minister originally from Guatemala, who is sharing the day’s word — in Spanish.

Moreno preaches during the “Soul Saving September Revival.” 

For nearly two years, the pastors’ churches — one an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) congregation more than a century old, one a largely Latino nondenominational congregation established in 2010 — have been sharing the Turner Memorial building.

It’s more than just a transactional arrangement. Church members have worked carefully and intentionally to build the relationship between the two congregations, which includes regular shared services and, this fall, the “Soul Saving September Revival,” a four-week joint endeavor.

It involves the close friendship of the two pastors, as well as the efforts of 16-year-old interpreter Josary Moreno Mejia (a preacher in her own right and the granddaughter of Cesar Moreno).

Mejia, 16, interprets for Kearney and Moreno before the start of worship. Mejia is Moreno’s granddaughter and a preacher in her own right.

“In Christ, there is no Jew or Gentile. There is no race or color,” Kearney says later that Sunday from the pulpit, after Moreno’s message concludes.

The Turner Memorial pastor looks out on the congregation, which includes members of Iglesia Evangelica Horeb Asamblea de Dios (Mt. Horeb for short) — the church pastored by Moreno and his wife, first lady Loly Moreno.

“We cannot allow the world’s culture of division to separate us. We cannot allow the enemy who comes to steal, kill and destroy to separate us,” Kearney continues, getting louder. “We are one in Christ Jesus.”

It is this focus on unity that exemplifies Turner Memorial’s activities, efforts deeply rooted in the church’s traditions — including, for example, its long-standing relationship with a local synagogue. Kearney is now working to unify the Turner Memorial and Mt. Horeb congregations under one roof, as together they reach out to the surrounding community.

This work is important to both pastors.

Tent Revival
Worshippers gather to hear preaching and songs in both Spanish and English at the four Friday evening services.

“As followers of Christ, we are to follow Christ’s example. And the example which he laid out during his ministry here on earth centered, in my opinion, around community, and building community, and living in community,” Kearney said. “As a church, that which represents Christ, we are to serve our community with the hope [that] by serving the community we win persons over to the family of God.”

Moreno agreed. “Speaking spiritually, people need salvation. People need to be on a better path. This is the objective, to teach people the path of God, … so that new generations can have hope and live better,” he said.

A ‘God-ordained’ relationship

When Kearney became pastor of Turner Memorial in 2015, he was working on his doctorate of ministry with a focus on liberation theology at Payne Theological Seminary. He found, through his research, that the church’s surrounding community was in large part Latino.

He wanted to reach those community members and began considering different ways the church might connect beyond its walls. He also began leading the church in a series of workshops focused on deploying spiritual gifts to make an impact.

Time passed — Kearney calls it a period of “preparation” — and in 2017, Moreno and his granddaughter began attending Turner Memorial services while seeking a space for Mt. Horeb.

When the two pastors met, they realized they could create opportunities for their congregations — one English-speaking, one generally Spanish-speaking — to worship together. They began partnering in December 2017.

Are you open to opportunities that might come your way?

The two developed a friendship that Moreno’s granddaughter Mejia describes as “a brotherhood.”

“They both have said and shared that when one comes to preach to the other’s church, they speak and help lift the other’s spirit,” she said.

Kearney elaborated: “It never fails that every time when we are together, even when we are meeting, I cannot help but to feel the presence of God. … It gives me the confirmation that what is happening is God-ordained.”

Today, Mt. Horeb holds its own services in the Turner Memorial building. But on the second Sunday morning of each month, its members join Turner Memorial’s. There, Moreno preaches in Spanish while his granddaughter interprets.

And on the fourth Sunday evening of each month, Turner Memorial members go to Mt. Horeb’s service, where Kearney delivers a message that Mejia translates into Spanish.

Congregants greet one another
Worshippers greet each other during the service. Members of both congregations say the partnership has helped them grow as Christians.

For Kearney, the combined worship reflects a core value of intentionally building relationships. Turner Memorial also has a partnership with the historic Washington, D.C., synagogue Sixth & I — located in the building that housed Turner Memorial for 50 years before the congregation moved to Hyattsville.

Kearney and Senior Rabbi Shira Stutman speak at each other’s place of worship each year during the weekend of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

“[Kearney] is amazingly generous with the pulpit God has assigned him to,” said the Rev. Dr. Natasha Jamison Gadson, Turner Memorial’s minister of leadership growth and development.

As long as Kearney senses that speakers have the Holy Spirit and that they are focused on the same goal of serving God, she said, “he is open with the pulpit for other pastors to come and share.”

Being open to others — interacting with diverse communities — provides an opportunity “to learn something we don’t know about God, our neighbors and the Christian life at large,” said Ismael Ruiz-Millán, the director of the Hispanic House of Studies, Global Education & Intercultural Formation at Duke Divinity School. He also directs programs within the divinity school for non-Hispanic clergy and laity who want to serve the U.S. Latino population.

In what ways could your congregation expand its notion of Christian life, and act upon it?

“If we really believe that all human beings are made after God’s image but we insist in keeping ourselves in circles with people who are just like us, then we really have an incomplete notion of who God is and what the Christian life is about,” Ruiz-Millán said.

The community commitment

In general, both community and church members have responded to this outreach. For instance, on the Sunday before the first Friday revival in September, representatives from the two churches handed out more than 7,500 flyers to share information about the coming events.

Volunteers chat as they pass out flyers with information about services and community offerings.

“I think it is such a great experience,” said Joan Goodluck, a Turner Memorial member originally from Guyana who identifies as black. “I am seeing God’s work being revealed, because he wants the nations of the world to come together.”

Now 78, Goodluck grew up in a Christian home and attended church with majority-black congregations for much of her life. She said that hearing the word in both Spanish and English has been a learning experience for some worshippers, adding that the preaching of the word “helps me to grow more.”

Mejia, who devotes her time to ministry while taking high school and college classes as part of her high school’s dual enrollment program, is a big part of this growth.

She regularly interprets for services at both churches — including translating from Spanish to English at Mt. Horeb for young people who don’t speak Spanish.

In this way, she provides clear messages to congregants and community members even as the pastors speed their cadences and raise their voices.

Are there ways in which you serve others that you could reframe as ministry?

“I thank God overall, because it’s a blessing,” Mejia said after one Sunday morning service at Turner Memorial.

She asks God to speak through her lips when she preaches as an individual and when she interprets for the pastors, she said.

Mejia sings with both congregations as well as interpreting.

During the service, Kearney noted that Mejia does a “wonderful job” (a message she humbly interpreted).

And as Mejia stood outside the sanctuary afterward, people hugged her, with one woman telling her, “You are such a blessing.”

Others too have positive thoughts about the churches’ union.

“I think it’s something really good — good because God calls us to be one body in Christ,” said Evelyn Chávez, a Mt. Horeb member.

“We share the gospel, first. But we are not only sharing the gospel. … There are people with needs. They need clothes; they need many things,” Chávez said.

A new kind of innovation

A pillar of the young partnership between these churches is the September revival series. In past years, Turner Memorial has held revivals featuring pastors from outside the community. But when planning this year’s activities, Kearney said he felt he needed to go out to the people instead of waiting for them to come into the church.

He committed to having the two churches gather outdoors along with neighbors from the community. Members of both churches worked together to plan events.

On the first Friday in September, rows of colorful chairs were lined up outside the building, under a large white tent.

A band that included a singer, a keyboardist and a drummer played lively Christian music with Spanish lyrics as children toddled around in the grass and older attendees wearing everything from T-shirts and jeans to dress shirts and pants wandered among various outdoor booths.

At one booth, stacks of clothing ready to be given away were so plentiful that the church halted donations for the revival’s second week. One booth offered voter registration; another, immigration information.

Reaching out together with Mt. Horeb, and having activities in both English and Spanish, including those offering community aid, may be an innovation on the traditional revival.

Health information and voter registration are offered along with the services and are part of the congregations’ outreach to the community.​​​​​​

“When I look at tradition and the church, what we are doing is traditional,” he said. “Because on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit fell, Scripture says that everyone heard the gospel being preached in their native language. And that day 3,000 souls were saved.”

In what ways could you innovate on tradition in your context?

But people can allow personal preferences about language, race and social class to separate them from others, Kearney said.

“And I would dare to say, don’t confuse one’s preference with tradition. Because traditional church teaches us that all of God’s children — regardless of language, race, class — gather together. And that when the Holy Spirit falls, everybody hears the good news,” he said. “If this is innovative, it is traditionally innovative.”

Light in the darkness

On the first night of the revival, attendees gathered under the tent as the service began, reading song lyrics from copied pages so they could worship together.

“Promise keeper, light in the darkness. My God, that is who you are,” they sang before switching to Spanish. “Cumples promesas, luz en tinieblas. Mi Dios, así eres tú.

Have you worshipped or sung in other languages? If not, what might you learn from that experience?

“We have come to let the enemy know that no race, no language barriers will stop us. We are not trying to build walls, but we are building bridges,” said Kearney, standing at the front of the tent, as Mejia interpreted.

Moreno then delivered a message in Spanish, telling those gathered that Jesus is the saver of their souls. At one point, his voice and his granddaughter’s overlapped, the English and Spanish floating together, as the worshippers clapped their hands in response and the keyboardist played on.

After the sky went from pastel to dark, Moreno’s message ended, and people came to the altar to receive prayer. As the prayer teams and respondents gathered, one woman stood with them, crying as she raised her hands.

When the altar call ended, Kearney addressed the crowd, declining to do a benediction, he said, because he wanted the revival’s spirit to continue. He urged attendees to bring their friends and families to the next event.

Altar call
Kearney prays with worshippers during the altar call.

“Thank you all so much for coming out,” he said, with Mejia repeating his words in Spanish. “Bless you.”

The crowd lingered, talking and embracing one another, as light continued to shine from the revival tent on the warm September night.

Questions to consider

Questions to consider

  • When the two pastors met, they recognized that they had a unique opportunity to build something together. Are you open to opportunities that might come your way?
  • Ruiz-Millán said that if Christians engage only with people like themselves, they have “an incomplete notion of who God is and what the Christian life is about.” In what ways could your congregation expand its notion of Christian life, and act upon it?
  • Mejia said that when she interprets for others, she experiences God speaking through her. Are there ways in which you serve others that you could reframe as ministry?
  • Kearney calls this partnership “traditionally innovative.” In what ways could you innovate on tradition in your context?
  • Have you worshipped or sung in other languages? If not, what might you learn from that experience?