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From Burning Cities to a Burning Bush (addition reflections)

Apr 28, 2015   //   by efremsmith   //   justice, race, reconciliation, youth ministry  //  No Comments

I would recommend that before or after reading this blog post that you read Exodus 1-4 and Nehemiah 1-2.

The initial ministry efforts of, World Impact was birthed during the riots in Watts within the Los Angeles Area 50 years ago. A few years later we would become officially incorporated as an urban missions organization. Knowing this is helpful to understanding why we can’t separate urban missions which includes indigenous leadership development, the facilitating of urban church planting movements, and demonstrating compassion and justice from what is going on in the city of Baltimore right now. If you research what led to the Watts riots in the mid 1960’s you will see the deep connections between what happened then and what is going on in Baltimore right now. We cannot act as if what we are seeing thru both violent and nonviolent protest against police violence is something new. Under-resourced urban communities burning in the United States is not something that just came on the scene in the 21st century. Burning cities, class and racial divisions, broken power structures, and domestic poverty unfortunately should not surprise us. The issue becomes for the Church, can we simultaneously see burning cities and the burning bush opportunities from God to advance a Kingdom of truth, transformation, reconciliation, justice, and eternal life?

World Impact exists because we saw not only Watts burning, but the burning bush of God calling us to evangelism, discipleship, and holistic ministry among the urban poor. The burning bush of God is not only focused on sin from an individual standpoint, but it also focuses on systemic sin reflected in dysfunctional and broken power structures. The Black Church exists today because in the midst of the systemic sin of slavery, there were slaves that were still able to see the burning bush of a God who saves and liberates. The Black Church was also a great pioneer of nonviolent Christ-centered resistance during the Civil Rights Era that brought both spiritual and social transformation. There is both an evangelical and Black Church heritage of seeing and acting upon God’s burning bush in order to see the transformation of lives and communities. We need this type of burning bush action like never before from the Church as we seek to advance the Kingdom of God.

I would also add that we must see those young people who are disenfranchised, angry, and lost as our children. We must missionally run to them with the love, compassion, truth, and grace of Christ. We must see past the anger to the potential of what they can become in Christ. This is the beginning of true urban ministry. Also, in the spirit of Nehemiah, we must face as the privileged (which includes me on some levels) our responsibility in why under-resourced communities have been how they are for so many years. This is not a process of self-shaming, but collective self-reflection so that we can work together to rebuild our cities based on biblical principles. This collective self-reflection also includes work to address not only broken communities but broken power structures and systems as well. World Impact has many initiatives deeply connected around these issues and I hope that you would join us and other urban ministries on the front lines to advance the Kingdom of God and empower the poor and marginalized.

Finally, we should acknowledge, pray for,  and support the many local churches and Para Church ministries in the Baltimore Area working to bring peace and as I’m writing this are cleaning up and talking with people on the streets. We must also pray for pastors who are speaking in both prophetic and loving voices to police, community, and political leaders to bring about the systemic changes that are needed. There is an opportunity for the whole body of Christ to make a transforming impact.

A New Evangelical Movement

Apr 6, 2015   //   by efremsmith   //   justice, race, reconciliation  //  No Comments

I am both a product of the Black Church and Evangelicalism. I am so honored to have been mentored, developed, and empowered by both Redeemer Missionary Baptist Church and Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church of Minneapolis, Minnesota. I am grateful to the late Reverend, Dr. Edward Berry Sr. who prepared me for licensure and ordination within the National Baptist Convention USA. Once Dr. Berry retired and eventually Rising Star Missionary Baptist Church closed, I returned to Redeemer Missionary Baptist Church, the church of my childhood. There I came under the mentoring of the man I call my Father in the Ministry today, Reverend Gerald Joiner, who now serves as the Senior Pastor of Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. Zion Missionary Baptist Church is affiliated with the Progressive National Baptist Convention, which became the denominational home of the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I am indeed a product of the Black Church.

I am also a product of Evangelicalism. I was very influenced in my teen years by an Evangelical United Methodist Church in the community where I grew up called, Park Avenue United Methodist Church. A number of Evangelical preachers came thru as guest speakers during those years. But it was a particular group of evangelical preachers that really impacted me and assisted in my getting clarity around my call to ministry. Tom Skinner, John Perkins, and Tony Evans are preachers that I wanted to be like. I realized over time that I was a traditional evangelical to the degree that I believed in the necessity of new birth in Christ, the authority and centrality of Scripture, fellowship in and deep connection to the local church, and the missional call to participate in the Great Commission. But thru the influence of African American Evangelicals, I had a strong passion for racial reconciliation, Kingdom justice, and urban missions, which empowered the Poor. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was being shaped by a new Evangelical Movement. A movement shaped by pioneering and prophetic African American voices entering into what had been a White Christian Movement. It’s probably more true to say that I’m a product of the Black Church and Black Evangelicalism. This makes more sense when there is an admitting to the existing of a White Evangelicalism. I am as Dr. Walter McCray, President of the National Black Association of Evangelicals calls, Pro Christ, Pro Cross, and Pro Black. Taking this position will actually assist in leading Evangelicalism into a future that looks more like the Kingdom of God.

The problem with the dominant version of Evangelicalism today is that it is still defined by the theologies, ideologies, and nationalistic bent of certain Whites. The picture painted of the typical Evangelical in America is White, Republican, Reformed, Suburban, Southern, and most of the time Male. Well, I’m Male, African-American, a Missional Pietist, committed to racial reconciliation, justice, and the empowerment of the poor and marginalized, a product of the Black Church, and I’m just as much Evangelical as anybody else. Any definition of Evangelicalism that gives preferential treatment to the views of White Evangelicals is no true biblical Evangelicalism at all. I praise God for the White Brothers and Sisters that have recognized this truth over the years and have made way for the development of a Mosaic and more Kingdom Evangelicalism. This is why I’m honored to be ordained for Word and Sacrament in the Evangelical Covenant denomination, to serve as a board member of the National Association of Evangelicals and the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, to serve as President of World Impact; an evangelical urban missions organization, and write books for Evangelical Publishing Companies.

At the same time, I have not turned my back on the Black Church and never will. I thank God for the mentoring of Dr. Robert Owens, Reverend Debbie Blue, Dr. J. Alfred Smith Sr., Pastor Gerald Joiner, and Dr. Brenda Salter- McNeil to name a few. There are times when I will respectfully disagree with what is still presented as the dominant picture of Evangelicalism, but I also know that I have not compromised the great tradition and sacred roots that really fuels Evangelicalism such the Apostles and Nicene Creeds.

I am grateful that there continues to be a deeply biblical and growing multi-ethnic movement of Evangelicalism. This new movement is actually helping Evangelicalism become truly Evangelical.

When the Poor Rise With Christ

Mar 31, 2015   //   by efremsmith   //   justice, reconciliation, the church  //  No Comments

“Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we witnessed against God that he raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.”

1 Corinthians 15:12-17 (NASB)

For too many of the poor, marginalized, outcast, and demonized, every day is like Good Friday. They live surrounded by death, judgement, and prejudice. When Christ hung on the cross and freely gave His life He was surrounded by death, judgement, and prejudice as well. As He hung on the cross, he looked with a forgiving spirit upon those who mocked Him and cheered His suffering. He hung on the cross as all of the sins of humanity hung on his shoulders. The good news is that this is not how this part of the story concluded. Christ endured Good Friday and came out of the grave on Resurrection Day. He rose indeed.

What about the poor, marginalized, outcast, and demonized? Is there a Resurrection Day for them? Now, I realize that through the new covenant established in Christ, that all who accept Him as Lord and Savior rise with Him into Kingdom citizenship and eternity. But, I focus more deeply on the least of these in order to lift up a significant part of the mission of Christ when He walked the earth. Many times when Jesus was declaring and demonstrating the Kingdom of God, He did so among the least of those around Him. There were times when he broke social and religious customs in order to bring mobility, sight, life, dignity, and liberation to Samaritans, Canaanites, women, children, and the poor. Even as He hung on the cross, he engaged a thief and empowered him to rise into new eternal possibilities.

I am grieved as I go into this weekend focused on death and resurrection because I have witnessed so many examples of the poor, marginalized, and rejected being so shamed and demonized in our world. There are even examples of Christians who, judge, patronize, shame, and mock the least of these in our society. Instead of seeing the lowly as just as much made in the image of God as the privileged, we as Christians sometimes join in with Satan’s plan and labeling by seeing only the thug, gangsta, hoe, criminal, enemy, and demon in a person. Christ was able to look at a woman caught in adultery, a scandalous Samaritan, a man plagued by a legion of demons, a girl left for dead, and a thief and see something else.

I also have great hope that when the Church sees the least of these thru the eyes of Christ a new movement will rise up. It is then that we will experience a whole new understanding of the dead rising with the risen Savior.

 

The Urgency of Reconciliation

Mar 9, 2015   //   by efremsmith   //   post-black thought, race, reconciliation, spiritual growth, the church  //  No Comments

This post will briefly include a number of random thoughts, but what will tie them all together is the ongoing need for the movement of reconciliation.

A predominately White (or possibly all-White, I don’t know) fraternity at Oklahoma University is caught on tape yelling a racist chant at the top of their lungs with much passion. Though I believe the Fraternity nationally and the University are responding appropriately, there remains the question of what is proactively working on college campuses to forge a more reconciling and harmonious community? At the same time it raises the question of what is going on in families and religious institutions? Are families and churches actually sending some young people to college without the abilities, competencies, and skills to positively navigate an ever-increasing multi-ethnic and multicultural world? Or could it be that families and churches aren’t having much of an influence in this area even when they try? In too many cases the initial reaction by the dominant culture is to believe that the racist attitudes coming from the fraternal chapter at OU either represents a small group or isn’t really racism at all, but simply ignorance. Using ignorance over racism is the equivalent of getting a lesser charge after committing a crime. For some, it’s a way to argue that a crime was never truly committed. What I know for sure is that there is an urgent need for reconciliation.

While, I was preaching at New City Church in Downtown LA a couple of Sundays ago, a homeless man was shot and killed by LA police just a few blocks away. I can’t speak into the details of what happened, but it’s ironic that while I was preaching at a multi-ethnic church that includes homeless people, business executives, artists, and other diverse children of God, once again a tragic incident took place between the police and the community. What I know for sure is that there is an urgent need for reconciliation.

This past weekend we recognized the 50th anniversary of the Selma March that is also known as Bloody Sunday. I saw a picture of President Obama and a number of Civil Rights legends walking together across the Edmund Pettis Bridge. What I found out later was that former President, George W. Bush was cropped out of the picture shown in some newspapers. Why? What a wonderful picture of reconciliation that would have been.

A polarizing and deeply divided government won’t solve this issue. Extremist tenured professors who drown out their moderate peers on college campuses won’t solve this issue. Parents who use the colorblind approach to dealing with race won’t solve this issue. Pastors who don’t believe race is an issue in this nation or refuse to preach on this relevant issue won’t solve this problem. Cable news talk show hosts who make millions of dollars to put out demonizing and divisive rhetoric night after night won’t solve this problem. It will take an army of loving, patient, non-violent, proactive, urgent, steadfast reconcilers that will solve this problem.

Reconciliation is not a soft response when it’s a biblical reconciliation. The reconciling mission of Christ contains love, truth, forgiveness, deliverance, liberation, and justice. The problem is that some try to address issues pertaining to race with some of those elements and not the powerful combination of all of them.

Reconciliation will build trust between the police and the community. Reconciliation will end violent hazing and dismantle racism within fraternal organizations. Reconciliation will dismantle the predominately segregated foothold within the Church of the United States of America. We are not yet a post-racial society and we may not fully realize that until the second coming of Christ, but we can create outposts of the Beloved Community on college campuses, in cities, and within the Body of Christ. The army of reconciliation is in need of more soldiers.

The Black Church and Church Planting

Feb 17, 2015   //   by efremsmith   //   justice, race, the church  //  No Comments

The Black Church began with Church Planting and its future will depend on the recovery of this movement of reproduction, empowerment, and mission. Dr. Hank Voss, World Impact’s National Director of Church Planting and I recently met with Elder Oscar Owens, an associate pastor at West Angeles C.O.G.I.C. (Church Of God In Christ) Church. The Church of God in Christ is one of the largest predominately African American denominations. During our visit we began to talk about a commitment to church planting that are the roots of the denomination and the Black Church more broadly. Until this moment, I had never truly reflected deeply on the Black Church and Church Planting. I must admit that I had seen Church Planting as a, mostly White Evangelical endeavor and that I was one of the few African Americans that had sensed a deep call to facilitating church planting movements. I thought a large part of my calling was to bring the spirit and the biblical theology of Church Planting to the Black Church. After my visit with Elder Owens, I realized my calling was more to be one of many voices assisting in helping the Black Church to recover something that is a deep part of its heritage and a, essential part of its future.

Some (like me for too long) have been led to believe that the White Church grows thru Church Planting and the Black Church thru Church Splitting. Not that Church splitting is not a reality in a significant segment of the Black Church and within the history of the White Church as well, but Church Planting is a major part of the Black Church narrative. There would be no Black Church if not for Church Planting. Not only must this heritage of Black Church Planting be recovered for the future Black Church, but also the context of how the first Black Churches were planted can serve as a gift to the whole body of Christ. This Black Church planting gift can inform a more missional approach to all Church Planting Movements.

The Black Church in America was birthed in the oppression, affliction, and suffering of slavery. The first Black Churches were planted illegally in the dark woods, away from the eyes and ears of slave owners who questioned if these church planters were even fully human. For Black people these church plants were much more than simply containing elements of worship, discipleship, and witness. These church plants were the organic spiritual communities in which the oppressed found the courage and strength to fight for personhood, deliverance, and liberation. There was no separation of evangelism and the social gospel in these church plants. Without formal institutions for credentialing and theological training, somehow Black Churches were planted. Without committed funding strategies, somehow Black Churches were planted. I believe these were both evangelistic and missional churches led by the indigenously oppressed of what was supposedly a Christian nation. The oppressed would have to seek a God beyond the God of the slave owners. The oppressed would have to repent to, seek salvation from, and be empowered by a Christ that looked different than the Christ of the slave owners and yet was more authentic to the Christ of the Scriptures they had to teach themselves to read and interpret in many cases. What a powerful church planting movement.

This Black Church planting heritage led to Black Churches that were leadership and community development centers during Jim Crow segregation. Black colleges, businesses, and social organizations would come into existence because of this Black Church planting heritage. The roots of this church planting movement provided fuel for what would eventually become the Civil Rights Movement.

The roots of Black Church planting could be the very medicine needed to be injected into today’s Black Church that it may inform the broader body of Christ towards a more biblical and missional understanding. You see the roots of Black Church planting aren’t very different from the church planting movements of Scripture. The first Christian Churches were planted under the oppression of the Roman Empire and religious power structures. Paul, when his name was Saul was known as a zealous religious Jew and Roman citizen who persecuted Christian church planters. Biblical Church Planting was done by a Jewish, multi-ethnic, multicultural, minority, and oppressed people. The roots of church planting biblically were about evangelism, discipleship, empowerment, and liberation. In many places on this planet this is exactly the kind of church planting movement we need today. In many under-resourced nations these types of indigenous movements are already taking place. My own nation must live into this more proactively. In the United States, church planting for the most part, seems to begin with the privileged and the resourced in mind. Black Church planting and biblical church planting seems to begin with the poor, oppressed, and marginalized.

At World Impact (www.worldimpact.org) we are about facilitating church planting movements among the unreached urban poor in the United States and beyond. We also see the empowerment and training of indigenous leaders as a key part of this endeavor. We don’t’ see this as some type of fringe movement, but as central to biblical church planting and as a way to recover the initial church planting DNA of the Black Church as well as some of the European immigrant history of church planting in this nation as well.

The Dream, the Struggle, and Direct Action

Jan 19, 2015   //   by efremsmith   //   justice, race, reconciliation, the church  //  No Comments

 

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

(Luke 4:18-19 ESV)

“The urban slums need not be destroyed by flames; earnest people of good will can decree their end nonviolently- as atrocious relics of a persisting unjust past.”

(From “Next Stop: The North” as featured in “A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., edited by James M. Washington)

As we celebrate the national holiday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., there is a great opportunity for the body of Christ to allow his words to lead us to a greater Missional and Kingdom advancing future. Dr. King spoke on many occasions about the Beloved Community. When describing this vision for America and the world he pointed to the Kingdom of God. In a 1957 message entitled, “The Challenge of a New Age, Dr. King spoke of the Beloved Community in the context of the agape love of God the Father as shown thru the Son, Jesus Christ and the reconciliation, redemption, and equality that is possible in this love. From this we can draw from Dr. King that there is no Beloved Community apart from the love of God found in Christ and thru the Kingdom He spoke of. The Church misses much if we reduce Dr. King’s dream just to one line in one famous speech. To gain a deeper understanding of his dream we must gain a deeper understanding of the Kingdom of God.

Dr. King spent the duration of his public ministry speaking to and participating in the struggle against injustice. I recently read one of Dr. King’s writings from 1965 entitled, “Next Stop: The North.” He wrote this piece for the Saturday Review magazine right after the riots in the Watts community of Los Angeles, California. This is an important piece for me because World Impact, the ministry I now serve began during this time right in the midst of the Watts Riots. World Impact began in the midst of racial division, violent reaction, and the struggles for justice. Dr. King used this writing to speak to three areas that are still very helpful as riots and protests in the midst of racial divisions have once again come to the forefront in the United States of America. His words are also meaningful as we grieve the recent terrorist attacks in France and Nigeria.

First, Dr. King spoke to the realities of systemic injustices facing African Americans and urban, under-resourced communities. He acknowledged police brutality and misconduct issues, urban crime, broken families, and racial disparities in the areas of housing, education, and employment. He also provided a critique of violence as a solution to systemic injustices. The Church today must be willing to acknowledge both individual and systemic sin issues. Our preaching and teaching must include a prophetic and loving edge. Denying systemic injustices, deny not only the prophetic commentary of Dr. King, but also deny some of the words, engaging, and works of Christ in the context of the sinful systems he faced visible and invisible.

Second, Dr. King spoke to the need for a struggle against injustice. He spoke of nonviolent direct action as an alternative to violent rioting and looting. He made the case that violence thru riots in the North would not bring the lasting change that nonviolent direct action was bringing in the South. But it wasn’t just being nonviolent that was bringing about social change and transformation, it was the vision and strategies at the foundation of the nonviolent direct action. The Church must remain in the struggle for transformation, justice, reconciliation, and Kingdom advancement. This is no time to be on the sidelines. This is no time for the Church to find its primary identity in programs and weekend worship experiences. Those initiatives are fine, but the core identity of the Church ought to be an external, transforming witness in a world of pain, injustice, and brokenness. We need a Church willing to engage in struggle.

Finally, Dr. King spoke of victory. He really believed that the vision and strategy at the foundation of nonviolent direct action was winning and would continue to win. Even when the soldiers of nonviolence were being beaten and attacked by fire hoses and dogs, Dr. King believed that victory was taking place. If he could speak now, I wonder if in some radical way he would see his death as a, victory? I do know though of a Savior in Christ whose death and resurrection actually did bring on victory. The work of advancing the Kingdom He proclaimed is victorious work. The Church must be about victorious work in under-resourced communities and among marginalized people.

The continual engagement with the writings and sermons of Dr. King provides rich material for fueling a Missional, Kingdom advancing, and reconciling Church if it’s willing to stay in the struggle for justice.

 

Healthy Police and Community Relations

Jan 12, 2015   //   by efremsmith   //   justice, politics, race, reconciliation, the church  //  No Comments

There is a widening divide in many cities between Police and Community Members. New York City has shown us the deep divide that can develop between even the Police Department and the Mayor. These social and political gaps point directly to a need that must be addressed by building healthy bridges between the Police and the Communities where they serve.

As Evangelicals, we take the theological position that humanity is broken, sinful, and in need of a Savior. This understanding of sin nature struggles to reconcile with the present social dynamic surrounding Ferguson, New York City, protests going on all over the country, and the political cable news narrative that is being painted of recent events. I affirm that it is possible to live in this tension. It is possible to be patriotic and believe that America is in need of Christ-centered transformation. In the same way, it is possible to not tolerate on any level the killing of police officers and also believe that the criminal justice system is broken. It is possible to have no tolerance for criminal activity, gang violence, Black on Black crime, or the glamorization of thug life and also have a deep love for urban, under-resourced, and predominantly Black and Brown communities and people. If you are not able to live within this social and theological hypo-static tension, it will be difficult to be a reconciler, bridge builder, and ambassador for the Kingdom of God.
The Church must become a force of reconciliation, bridge building, and transformation between police departments and under-resourced communities. This can only happen when the Church recognizes the potential to be held captive by the very forces and systems it seeks to dismantle and transform. When I served as a Youth Pastor and Senior Pastor in Minneapolis, I met with police officials, gang members, city council members, the mayor, youth, single parents, and the incarcerated on a regular basis. I didn’t see myself as a voice for extreme politics and cable news rhetoric, but as a servant and citizen of the Kingdom of God. When the beloved children of God operate in this way, we can work to build healthy relationships between police officers, mayors, and community members. I’ve been praying and working recently to be a bridge builder by being more intentional about meeting with police officers and local political officials in the community where I live. How will you join me in building bridges and seeking reconciliation in your own community?

Beyond Commentary to Commitment

Dec 15, 2014   //   by efremsmith   //   Uncategorized  //  No Comments

 

“Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:37-40, ESV)

In recent weeks in light of the protests reacting to the Grand Jury decisions in Ferguson and New York in relation to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, there has been a lot of political commentary. There has also been a lot of social media and blog commentary. There has been theological or Christian-based commentary as well. It’s interesting that what has been passed off as Christian commentary at times has seemed more like extreme political commentary, more influenced by the ideologies of the Right and the Left than the Bible. We have also seen Christian commentary held captive by Christendom, or more specifically a Eurocentric theology.

Be careful of the commentary that you allow to shape your views about the Poor, the Marginalized, the Outcast, and the Other. I have decided to buy into the commentary that Christ gave about the Poor, the Marginalized, and the Outcast. More than just talk about them, Christ showed a commitment to them. Christ built relationships and offered transformation to the Paralyzed, the Samaritan, the Adulterer, the Diseased, the Poor, and the Thief. I will come back to this, but let me make another point about commentary first.

One of the political commentaries I’ve heard over and over again and has been directed to me recently is this- “Why aren’t African-Americans as concerned about abortion or Black-on-Black crime as they are about some Police Officers racially profiling and killing African-Americans? Well, this statement alone shows a lack of understanding of the multiple ways in which African-Americans and others have been and are presently addressing those issues and more. If you’ve heard of Mad Dads, Hospitality House Youth Directions, the Youth Intervention Network, World Impact, Homeboy Industries, the African-American Church, Soul Café, City Team, The Stair Step Initiative, Young Life, The Urban Youth Workers Institute,  The National Black Evangelical Association, The Spencer Perkins Center, The National Center for Fathering, CCDA, and the Union Gospel Mission to name a few; you’d know that there are many Christian-based organizations who have been in predominately African-American and under-resourced communities for years addressing family stability, leadership development, community development, the tragedy of abortion, and youth gang violence. There are two reasons why there are major challenges in these communities even with all of this effort. One, we need more collaborative efforts between these organizations and others. Two, these organizations need more financial and volunteer support. I could also add the spiritual warfare reality that we are fighting not against flesh and blood ultimately, but against invisible and wicked forces (Ephesians 6). The problem with that statement though is that too many in the Body of Christ seem not to want to deal with a lot of talk about the connections between invisible forces of wickedness and visible systems of oppression. I have marched on multiple occasions with African-American and multi-ethnic Christian groups into gang infested territories. I been a part of rallies where gang members have accepted Christ. The problem is, cable news stations won’t cover that. At least not the way they are covering protests right now. I’ve been a part of urban congregations that have worked to provide alternatives to abortion for young girls. I know of African-American and urban ministries that are rescuing girls out of sex trafficking. I know of ministries that are working with young men to equip them to be strong husbands and fathers. Those giving commentary otherwise are either not aware of this commitment, not making the commitment themselves, or both.

This is not so much a rebuke to the commentators out there, but a reality check. There are a lot of ministries that are committed to reducing abortion, black-on-black crime, and racial profiling. Find them and support them. There are ministries committed to rescuing children out of sex trafficking, stabilizing the family, and addressing domestic poverty. Find them and support them. I realize that there are leaders and even some ministries that are in under-resourced communities and not doing much in the area of community engagement and development. Well, find the ones that are making a difference and support them. But don’t just support them with your financial commitment alone.  Support also with a commitment of service on some level. Extreme political commentary is not going to address both individual and systemic sin. Extreme theological commentaries held captive by Christendom are not going to address the need for Kingdom compassion, mercy, justice, and transformation. Now I can return to my major point-

The commentary of Christ came out of His commitment. Christ could give commentary on Sinners because of his commitment to them. Christ could provide commentary on the Poor, the Marginalized, the Outcast, the Incarcerated, and the Stranger because He was committed to them. He was committed to the point of His death on a Cross. Christians must ask themselves, “Is my commitment to those different than me greater than my commentary about them?” My commitment to the under-resourced, the Poor, and the Other must be much larger than my commentary. As this is the case more and more, I grow in my intimacy with Christ.

“What More Can We Do About It?” A Guest Blog By Romney Ruder, COO, World Impact

Dec 11, 2014   //   by efremsmith   //   justice, reconciliation, spiritual growth, the church  //  No Comments

INTRO TO THIS GUEST BLOG-

I have never had a guest blog post on my page, but when I read Romney Ruder’s blog post (www.worldimpact.org) on the recent Grand Jury decisions in Ferguson, Missouri and New York related to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, I really wanted those that follow my post to read this as well. Romney Ruder is COO and Senior Vice President of World Impact, so I have the opportunity to serve with him in ministry on a regular basis. Also, because he is a White Male, I thought it was good to present his thoughts as well. For many years now, I have sensed a deep call to racial reconciliation and righteousness as well as to compassion, mercy, and justice. At World Impact we as a staff have the blessed opportunity to live into this as a ministry family daily. Please pray and reflect upon Romney’s brief, yet very important words.

“What More Can We Do About It?”

By Romney Ruder

I have been surprised at how many people have asked me about my positions regarding what has transpired recently in Ferguson, Missouri and in New York. Maybe it is because of the amount of time that I have worked in the inner city of America, or it could be because of my role as a leader in the church. But with so many experts (politicians, athletes, media stars, and the like), garnering their opinion on the topic, I have wondered what good one more voice would add to the situation? Recently however, I was asked the question by someone who hesitated to get involved feeling there was nothing more he could do? He was just one voice among millions that could not solve anything. It was this question, “What more can we do about it?” that prompted me to write this piece.

Mind you, I am not going to give my opinion on either case or seek to side with one or more voices. In both situations, like so many similar issues that take place regularly in our neighborhoods, it has been tragic. Although I appreciate the perspectives of different individuals who want to argue about where the problems lie, or who is at fault, what I am not hearing is productive dialogue regarding changes that need to be made; especially from the church.

Our ministry was founded in the rubble of the Watts riots in the 1960’s. Twenty-five plus years later, we as a country witnessed similar violence erupt in Los Angeles. Now almost the same amount of time has passed where we see similar happenings. Yet the media reports that this comes as a surprise to many in our society. I am shocked that this type of unrest should surprise anybody. Unfortunately, our country responded to Los Angeles the same way it responded to Watts. We waited until the media frenzy and violence died down and we forgot about it. I pray that we do not make the same mistake in this instance.

Certainly this is a stain on a country that calls itself the land of the free, but is an even deeper blemish on a nation that touts itself as over 50% Christian. The Church (by using the capital C I mean the entire body of Christ) needs to take a more active role to help ensure these situations do not continue to happen!

Now I do not want to pretend that I have the answer that will solve anything. I recognize that I am a middle-class, educated, white male and that my lens might not be able to see clearly the actions that should be taken. However, I am intelligent enough to see that our responses in the past have not worked. For some reason, the old saying “stupidity is doing the same thing every day but expecting a different result” does not apply to the handling of societal complexities. There is no doubt about it that race is at the root of the problem. Leaders, on both sides though need to recognize that systemic injustice and poverty are also at the heart of it.

Too often, we as Christians have sat back and waited for a government response to these issues. Don’t get me wrong; I do not want to discount the thousands of great ministries that are invested in assisting the poor, the marginalized, and the disenfranchised. Yet these tend to be local and regional approaches. Isn’t it time that the “big C” Church get together collectively to work at ways of eradicating these problems? Even more so, why do we as the Bride of Christ sit back and expect the government to handle?

What I desire to see is Church leaders meeting to strategize about specific strategies to combat the differences in our Christian community. I am calling for roundtable discussions with Pastors from all Christian denominations, from all races, in every economic sector of society to come together with the purpose of developing a response to racial reconciliation; to determine what actions will be taken to lift our brothers and sisters in Christ out of poverty, and to answer the question of how we stamp out injustice for everyone. Again, I do not have the solution. But I know what doesn’t work. I also know that the responsibility for what is happening and what has happened falls to us as the Church.

What can one voice do? We can collectively call for the same response from the Church that I am suggesting. We can encourage our ministry leaders to take a more active role in being the Church in their own backyard. We can open dialogue cross-culturally to ensure all voices are being heard. We can admit that we do not have all of the answers but insist that we are committed to working toward reconciliation and solutions. As Christians, we all have a voice in this. As Christian leaders, the responsibility falls to us.

The Road Forward Is A Bridge

Dec 7, 2014   //   by efremsmith   //   race, reconciliation, the church, theology  //  3 Comments

The Road Forward Is a Bridge

By Efrem Smith

12/7/14

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:18-19)

When Jesus died on the cross for the sins of all of humanity, He built a bridge of sorts. He built a bridge between Sinners and God. He built a bridge between a broken world and the Kingdom of God. To this degree, Christ is a “bridge over troubled waters.” Christ is a bridge over the troubled waters of sinful humanity and the sinful systems we create and sustain in this upside down world. Christ didn’t come into the world ethnically as a privileged and powerful member of the Roman culture and empire. He came as one oppressed under the Roman Empire as a Jew. But, based on the genealogy of Matthew 1, we can also come to the conclusion that Christ walked the earth as a Jewish, African, Asiatic Hebrew. God in human form was an oppressed, ethnic minority. When he was born, an unjust system of power murdered all the baby boys who looked like him. God decided to send His only begotten Son in this way, on divine purpose. God in human form comes in the package of one ethnically profiled from birth. This is the one who dies on the cross and is raised from the tomb so that we might have access to eternal life and to claim victory over sin, death, and the devil. All Christians must re-imagine the Savior from this authentically biblical perspective as a starting point as we seek solutions, reconciliation, justice, and healing in our nation during one of the tensest racial moments since the Civil Rights Movement.

Just as Christ was a bridge between sinful humanity and God, the Church must be a bridge of reconciliation in this divided United States of America. The Church also has the challenge of building internal bridges. Race and class are not just dividing lines in the United States of America, but also within the Body of Christ. As I have lifted up issues of race, class, privilege, and sin, I have at times been accused of labeling people and dividing the body of Christ. I simply provide theological commentary on what has been true from a long time. The racial divisions and congregational segregation that impacts the body of Christ in the United States precedes my birth year of 1969 by centuries.  In the midst of deep division over the trial verdict in the death of Trayvon Martin and the grand jury decisions not to indict in the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown by police officers, we need spiritual and social bridges of reconciliation. Reconciliation though is not about denial, defensiveness, and distractions from real individual behavioral and systemic truths.  Reconciliation acknowledges both individual and systemic sin. We see this in John 4 when Christ goes to Samaria and sits at the well with a woman. The sins of the Samaritan woman were revealed during her conversation with Christ, but so was the religious and divisive system that existed impacting the relationship between Jews and Samaritans. This system would have included ways in which Samaritans would have been both marginalized and profiled by Jews. It is not a far reach to make some comparisons between this social dynamic from Scripture and the racial history between Blacks and Whites in the United States of America. Those evangelicals who raise issues of race, class, justice, privilege, and social disparities should not be accused of dividing, labeling, or of being neo-Marxists. They should be acknowledged for the Christian reconcilers, social prophets, and bridge builders that they are.

Reconciliation assumes repentance. Denial and defensiveness blocks both individual and corporate repentance. Both individual and corporate (or national) repentance is biblical. There are times when an individual must repent of their own sins that they have committed. There are also times when we repent on behalf of our family, ethnic people group, or cultural community for a corporate sin or sins committed over time. The individual does not have had to commit the sin themselves in order to be the voice of corporate repentance. Maybe they simply benefitted in some way from the systems that the corporate sins produced. To only repent of sins you committed yourself is a Western and deeply individualistic view of repentance that limits biblical repentance.  For the Church to be a bridge as we move forward seeking reconciliation, justice, healing, and a greater realization of the Kingdom of God we must have a deeper understanding of biblical repentance.

Reconciliation also assumes an incarnational approach to relationships. I must be willing to enter into the world or life of those who are ethnically, culturally, economically, and racially different than me. And those different than me must be willing to enter into my world. Now there is something that we must be mindful of if we desire to live into reconciliation the way Christ did. Christ as God, as the one higher, more powerful, and all righteous, enters into the world of the sinner, the lower, and the broken. You could say the One more privileged ought to lead the incarnational and reconciling approach to relationship building. From this biblical perspective is why I call those of privilege to be willing to enter into the world of this less privileged so that biblical reconciliation can take place. The rich must enter into the world of the poor to listen, learn, and reconcile. Men must enter into the world of women to do the same. This also includes Whites entering into the world of people of color the same way. One might ask, “Well, shouldn’t people of color enter into the world of Whites?” My answer is that we have no choice but to do this. People of color have to enter into the world of Whites in the United States of America. You can’t navigate the broader and dominant culture of the United States of America without doing this. But we take this incarnational approach to relationships and bridge building because it’s what Christ modeled and called us as His followers to do. Christ went to Samaria and entered the world of a Samaritan woman. Christ entered the world of the poor, the paralyzed, and the marginalized. Too many privileged people are carrying views and making commentary on people groups that they have great social distance from. People would rather judge than enter the worlds of people that differ from them politically, racially, and economically. For the Christian, entering the world of the other doesn’t mean you leave Christianity. Entering the world of the other may lead you to find out that the Christianity you own and defend isn’t biblically authentic.

So have do we move forward in the midst of racial and class divisions in our nation? How do we find racial reconciliation and righteousness? How do we bring the Kingdom of God to bear on an upside-down, sin-filled, and broken world? The road forward is a bridge. We cannot deny the reality of race and privilege. We cannot use colorblindness and silence to solve deeply rooted racial issues that have plagued our reality for centuries. We must commit to prayerful discussions, bible studies, worship experiences, and solution-development cross culturally and cross racially. We can’t just look for people who look different than us but believe exactly what we do theologically and politically. That’s cheap reconciliation.

We must acknowledge both sinful humanity and the broken systems built by sinful humanity within their tribes, clans, nations, gender, and racial groups. We must also allow entering into the world of others to break the myths that we carry. It concerns me deeply that there is a belief among some that African Americans who are concerned with racial profiling and a broken criminal justice system give no major attention to the crisis of the family in the African American community or Black on Black crime. If you spend time in these communities you will find many churches, Para churches, and other community organizations working on these very issues and making a major difference. There are African American fraternities, sororities, and other historic organizations volunteering time away from their own families to address these issues within their communities.

Have you ever considered how the Church could also be responsible for decaying predominately African American and under-resourced communities? And notice that I didn’t say White Church exclusively. It is true that many White Churches that began in the urban community left as African American families moved into Northern cities in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It’s also true that many Churches of various ethnic and racial make ups left urban communities as their memberships grew. How did this church flight impact urban communities? A lot of the church planting of the 1990’s and early 2000’s that included significant seed funding took place in the suburbs, not in the communities that needed these churches the most. Now that gentrification is coming to many under-resourced urban communities, many evangelical associations desire to plant churches in urban communities, but for whom? Bridge builders must lovingly and courageously be willing to enter into these types of discussions in order to find Kingdom advancing solutions within a divided reality.

This is an opportune moment for the Church. At a time once again, of riots, racial division, and political dysfunction we need the Church to be a force of Kingdom compassion, justice, and reconciliation. There is a road forward and Christ has already paved it. He paved it when He came to earth. He paved it when he declared and demonstrated the Kingdom of God, mainly among the poor, the outcast, the sick, and the marginalized. He paved it when He hung on the cross and formed a bridge over the troubled waters of sinful humanity and broken systems. Until Christ returns, the Church must be this bridge.

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