Beyond Commentary to Commitment - Efrem Smith
"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)
There has been a lot of political commentary in recent weeks. There has been a lot of social media and blog commentary. There has also been theological and Christian-based commentary. All surrounding the protests to the Grand Jury decisions in Ferguson and New York. It's interesting that what has been passed off as Christian commentary can seem more like extreme political commentary, influenced by the ideologies of the Right and the Left more 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.
One of the political commentaries I've heard and has been directed to me is, "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?" This statement alone shows a lack of understanding the multiple ways in which African-Americans and others have been and are presently addressing those issues. 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. I have marched on multiple occasions with African-American and multi-ethnic Christian groups into gang-infested territories. I have been a part of rallies where gang members have accepted Christ. But 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.
There are three reasons why there are major challenges in these communities, even with all of this effort. First, we need more collaborative efforts between these organizations and others. Second, these organizations need more financial and volunteer support. Third, the spiritual warfare that we are fighting is not against flesh and blood ultimately, but against invisible and wicked forces (Ephesians 6). The problem with that statement is that too many in the Body of Christ seem to not want to talk about the connections between invisible forces of wickedness and visible systems of oppression.
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. Also support them with a commitment to serve 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.
The ultimate point is 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.
Christmas Eve Behind Bars - Matt Penner
"Each one of these men is a son; they have fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters." That stuck out to me as Warden Cline of the Hutchinson Correctional Facility (HCF) gave me a tour of the prison and we passed by man after man.
For the last two years HCF has allowed World Impact many opportunities for ministry events, including TUMI classes. We are getting to know these men well; a wife of one of the inmates told me recently that World Impact staff is family to these guys.
This past fall, my wife Angie got her volunteer card so she could come with me to HCF and lead worship. I heard from a friend who spent time in prison a few years ago that the inmates would love hearing a female voice. They hear men all day every day for years on end, so the opportunity for them to hear a woman sing worship songs would bring them great joy. At our last ministry event we got to fulfill that joy. Angie led worship and at the end we asked if anyone wanted to come up and sing with us. They called out, "No, we never get to hear a woman sing. We love this!"
As I visited with the men that night, they asked about the possibility of Angie and me returning for a Christmas Eve service. I didn't really like the thought of being away from our kids on Christmas Eve. But I felt the leading of the Holy Spirit to further discuss this with Angie and our kids to see if we could do this ministry event. We presented it to our family, and while they were a little sad, our kids were excited for this opportunity. They considered how all of the men were separated from their families all the time, and how at the holidays it must be hard. And again the thought came to me: each one of these men is a son.
So we have decided to spend Christmas Eve inside the Hutchinson Correctional Facility. We will lead a basic service: the incarcerated will read different Scriptures and prayers for the advent season, I will give a message, and Angie will lead Christmas carols. We are sincerely looking forward to spending this time with the church behind bars.
I have heard all sorts of comments about inmates. They deserve to be locked up. They are criminals. We should just leave them alone. But my heart is burdened for these brothers. The more time I spend with them, the more I see that it is only by the grace and mercy of God that I am who I am. I didn't do anything to earn the situation I am in. I have sinned mightily before the Lord – but the sins I have committed simply have different consequences.
As we worship and celebrate the arrival of King Jesus the Son this Christmas, would you take some time to pray for this service? Would you consider praying for the 1,000 TUMI students taking classes in prisons across the country? Take some time to think about the incarcerated and how they are separated from their families on this holiday. And then let's worship Jesus for how He rescued us all from a life of sin and has brought us into the kingdom of God, where we are sons and daughters of the Babe in the straw.
Matt Penner is World Impact's National Prayer Director. He serves in Wichita, KS, along with his wife Angie and their two children.
What More Can We Do? - 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 urban parts 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), sharing their opinions 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?"
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 situations. 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 then we forgot about it. I pray that we do not make the same mistake again.
Certainly this is a stain on a country that calls itself the land of the free, but it 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 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 it?
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 more can we do?" We can collectively call for the same response from the Church. We can encourage our ministry leaders to take a more active role in being the Church in their own communities. 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 solutions of reconciliation. As Christians, we all have a voice in this. As Christian leaders, the responsibility falls to us.
Romney Ruder is the Senior Vice President and COO of World Impact.
Pictured above is a Ferguson Discussion Forum held last week at our LA Teen Center. World Impact Los Angeles City Director Peter Watts took Romney's call to action seriously and organized the discussion. The panel included a rep from the District Attorney's office, a police officer, a teacher, a pastor, and a school counselor.