By: Dori Baker
May 17, 2016
Does the church play a role in changing the ongoing story of violence and injustice in the marginalized neighborhoods beneath glimmering skylines across the US?
We asked that question in the heart of North Lawndale, a neighborhood with one of the highest rates of violent crime in Chicago, to wonder together how God may be rallying new kinds of leaders and new ways of being church. Here, FTE hosted a Community Forum with young adults, students and religious leaders late last month focused on the church’s engagement in the existing challenges surrounding violence and injustice in our communities.
Our host for the day was the Lawndale Christian Health Center, situated in an eight-block zone of safety, service, and social entrepreneurship birthed thirty years ago by a church with a vision of how to serve an underserved neighborhood. An empty parking lot became a gym, which over time transformed into a life-giving hub of hope and a model of church-in-action.
In convening the conversation, FTE President Stephen Lewis recalled that Jesus stopped a funeral procession in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 7:11-17). Stephen asked, “What is the role of the church and its leaders today? How do we stop this funeral procession?”
A panel of four Chicagoans lifted up root causes—among them generations of political neglect, underfunded schools, mass incarceration, predatory lending and other systemic practices —that have resulted in the economic plunder of neighborhoods and the accompanying human despair. Alongside this “social autopsy”, these pastors, scholars, and activists shared innovative solutions and challenged leaders to take steps, both common and courageous.
Here are seven themes we heard during the Chicago Community Forum:
As summer months approach, violence usually increases. Melanie C. Jones said a priority for her faith community is “Opening the sanctuary for youth to come participate in all-day activities that help them be in spaces that are safe from crime.” Combining front-line ministry with activist energy helps to address root causes and develop long-term relationships. Phil Jackson echoed this, inviting churches to “be on the block” for the long run.
Some churches have the desire to be in solidarity with communities experiencing violence, but don’t know how or where to begin. Amy “Hope Dealer” Williams, a 21-year veteran of working with youth involved in gangs, on probation/parole or lost in the criminal justice system has witnessed such churches come into neighborhoods, offer block parties with hot-dogs and bouncy-booths, but not leave with an awareness of how to engage in deeper solidarity. Many congregations are unaware that they need to build their capacity in this work and learn to see youth not as projects to be fixed, but as partners in God’s economy. Amy shares that “it’s not a ‘they’ and ‘them,’ but a ‘we’ and an ‘us’.”
Where should we be looking for God’s activity in the present and into the future? A participant who serves as a theological educator shared that he wonders what might happen if we look for signs of God within the energy of movements working for justice, and then cooperate with that energy where we find it. The church might not be at the center of social change today like it was in the 1960s, but perhaps by not occupying the center, churches can fill a role of actively supporting, collaborating, hosting, and resourcing justice-based initiatives.
While Chicago is “ripe for activism,” as Melanie shared, leaders of movements such as Black Lives Matter and others might distrust the church because it has been silent on many important issues to the Millennial generation, people experiencing generational poverty, and people working for social change. Maybe it is time to adopt a posture of curiosity—listening, learning, and building relationship—and doing so in a way that treats people wholistically.
The violence related to gangs and drugs does not happen in a vacuum. Rather, it is “the reaping of what was done years ago,” as Amy shared. Shawn Casselberry added that “We have a history of violence that we don’t acknowledge. We have a culture of violence. Violence is an American issue.” He noted that the church could create a unified effort to be truth-tellers of our nation’s history. Naming structural oppression resulting from “poverty, policy, police, prisons and privilege” in our preaching, education, and public theology is hard work, but not doing so creates further oppression.
Amy told a story about making eye contact with a young man on the street. He was surprised and thanked her. “Young people do not look up because they’re not expecting anybody to acknowledge them. Adopting a practice of seeing people -—all people, no matter how far from one’s comfort zone—as created in God’s image may seem like a baby step, but it makes space for God’s surprising activity. Some of the next generation of church leaders may very well come from unexpected places including current incarcerated populations, where life experience is calling people to serve.
Shawn asked, “Who are going to be the lobbyists for the poor, the young?” This is an opportunity for the church to be the advocate for marginalized and invisible people and communities. Intentional partnerships among churches and Christian leadership across communities can help to address systemic issues and political injustices, while creating sustainable change. As Phil shared, violence and injustice “is everybody’s issue.”
The panelists and participants were clear that churches wanting to help stop the funeral procession of violence and injustice will find no quick fixes. The problems are multiple, but multiple solutions and entry points also exist. Hope does surface when people from across the theological spectrum express their concerns in spaces of authenticity and care. Learning what others are doing allows the body of Christ to see itself whole, for the left hand to know what the right hand is doing, and for reflection to turn into action.
Caption: Community Forum panelists Amy Williams, Phil Jackson, Melanie Jones and Shawn Cassleberry engage the audience on issues of injustice and faith.