The second annual Adventists for Social Justice Summit, entitled “Crossing the Divide” occurred on November 3-5, 2017 on the campus of Washington Adventist University. The ASJ has come a long way since its creation a year ago. In addition to hosting its second summit with attendance nearing 200, there are now also a dozen or so local chapters, and an active Facebook group where over 5,000 members share and discuss issues affecting the world.
The Summit began with vespers Friday evening, with keynote speaker Dr. Soong-Chan Rah, professor of church growth and evangelism at North Park University in Chicago.
Dr. Rah spoke on “The Need for Lament in Troubled Times.” In both his ASJ presentation and his recent book, Prophetic Lament, he discusses that “what we’re missing in our pursuit to change the world is just the right amount of disruption.”
“There are times when disruption and confusion are actually a good thing. Sometimes God brings these into our lives because otherwise, why would we want to change?”
Lament is the disruption we require, continued Rah. Lament appears frequently in the Bible; 40% of the Psalms are laments. But we, as Christians, want to jump to celebration without first focusing on suffering. In a typical Christian hymnal, 80-85% are celebratory hymns. In contemporary Christian music, only 5-10% are about lament.
Because we’re missing lament in our story, we have the inability to recognize injustice and to bring God’s justice to our society, said Rah.
He described how the Christian focus shifted from the suffering of the world to preserving our own safety by keeping the world out. In the early 17th century, the cities created by White Anglo-Saxon Protestant immigrants in America were considered a New Jerusalem, “a city set on a hill.” But with the migration of the Italians and Irish to these cities in the 18th century and African-Americans in the 19th century, the language used to describe cities began to change from “New Jerusalem” to “Babylon” – a term that is still in use today. Anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant polemics began to appear in newspapers, temperance pamphlets, and evangelical tracts, creating a compelling anti-urban sentiment that depicted the city as a vicious destroyer of the common good.
This persisted even though it was a profoundly Christian group that was flocking to the cities. Over 80% of former slaves converted to Christianity, and brought to the cities a spiritual revival that White Christians should have embraced, but did not. Instead, “white flight” occurred.
This was even apparent in the the physical church buildings. In 1945, $26 million was spent on new church buildings in the United States; by 1960, the amount was $1 billion. Dr. Rah explained that this occurred because people were abandoning their urban churches and building new buildings in the suburbs.
In the mid-20th century, “Ark-itecture” became prominent in church structure. The high vaulted ceiling symbolized an inverted ark – a beacon of safety to believers. But what does it really say when our churches symbolize the Ark, asked Rah. “We will be safe in here…Let the world be judged and destroyed; we don’t want to see injustice.”
“But how do you do evangelism in an ark? Not very well,” he added.
Walking into the world and facing the suffering in it needs to occur. “Lament needs to become a lifestyle…Jeremiah elevated the voices of the suffering, the victims of injustice; he lamented alongside those who have suffered. This is the hard work of justice,” concluded Rah.
Sabbath morning began early with community service. Attendees at ASJ served as volunteers at the 2017 Greater Washington Heart Walk at the National Mall in D.C. before coming back to WAU for the afternoon church service.
For the Divine Service, Dr. Jaime Kowlessar’s lyrical speaking style kept everyone captivated on his sermon, “I Still Can’t Breathe.”
He discussed Exodus 6:6-13, and the paralyzing discouragement of the Israelites because of the brutality of their enslavement to the Egyptians.
Some translations interpret the Israelites’ “anguish of spirit” as an “anguish of breath” or a “shortness of spirit,” explained Kowlessar. “They could not hear Moses because of their shortness or anguish of breath from their hard work. They could not hear the message of Moses because they could not breathe.”
“Just like the children of Israel, we are out of breath.” Kowlessar referenced Paul Butler’s description of the American justice system in his book Chokehold: “[it] is like a vice grip for poor people just trying to breathe…it is an unjust justice system…just because it is law, it does not make it just.”
“It was legal to kill Jesus, but it was not just…We’ve got laws in America that are laws, but they are not just,” added Kowlessar.
In discussing the call God gave Moses, Kowlessar reminded that God doesn’t call us based on our strengths, but rather based on our weaknesses. Even though Moses didn’t have a position of power, God gave him the power he needed. Moses stuttered, so God gave him a simple message to deliver: “I am that I am.” Moses still doubted himself, so God gave him Aaron as a support.
“There are moments in your walk with justice that you have to go back to hostile places,” said Kowlessar, but “God will not call you to something just to have you fail. He will equip you to succeed.”
Kowlessar reminded the congregation that when God called Moses, he called an ordinary man to do extraordinary things. God calls us based on where we already are and He uses what we do right now in order to free other people. “When God called Moses, he was tending the sheep of his father-in-law. He was a shepherd and God said, ‘now I’ll use you to lead the sheep of Israel and free my people.’ Andrew and Simon were fisherman. Jesus didn’t change them into youth directors. He said, ‘now you will be fishers of men.’”
“We have to stand for right regardless of what people will say. The Bible was written in the context of oppression and liberation. That’s the whole thing,” concluded Kowlessar.
Sabbath afternoon began with a panel discussion on “Crossing the Divide.” The panel was moderated by Jacqueline Forbes (PhD student, University of Wisconsin), and included panelists Claudia Allen (PhD student, University of Maryland), Datrean Pileggi (D.ABNM, MS), Pastor Vincent Dehm (Recreation Church in Baltimore), Pastor Manny Artega (Kaleo Church in California), and Andrew Johnson (MSEd).
The panelists were each given 15 minutes to present and then the floor was opened to audience questions. Some of the discussion points included race as an opportunistic fiction, intra-racial discrimination and bigotry, forgiveness, empathy, validating one another’s stories and lived experiences, oneness versus sameness, unity versus uniformity, and the effect of racism in the church, both historically and today.
The afternoon continued with three Breakout Workshops on the topics of Education, Healthcare, and Immigration.
The Education Workshop was entitled “No Child Left Behind: Educational Justice in a Devos Era” and was moderated by Dr. Maya Byfield, professor of biological science and director of the STEM research program at Seminole State College. The panelists included Jacqueline Forbes and Andrew Johnson.
The Healthcare Workshop was entitled, “What the Health: Healthcare Disparities in Minority Communities.” It was moderated by Dr. Earl Campbell (M.D., gastroenterology & hepatology fellow at Yale University), and included panelists Dr. Anita Fernander (associate professor, University of Kentucky), Michael Knight, M.D., and Natacha Pierre, M.D.
The Immigration Workshop was entitled, “The Lord’s Song in a Strange Land.” It was moderated by Anissa Perla (DC Adventists for Social Action founder), and the panelists included Carlo Sanchez (Maryland State Delegate-Legislative District 47B), Shane-Ray Brown, Esq., and Doreen Nanda, Esq.
The evening speaker was Ronnie Vanderhorst, co-founder of Prepare Our Youth, Inc., who talked to the standing room only crowd on the topic of “The Souls of Black Folks.” He discussed “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome,” as defined by Joy DeGruy in her book by the same name.
Vanderhorst focused on the importance of self-care for the spirit, soul, and body. “Most black men have depleted the reserves they need to function and take care of self and family,” he said. One has to take care of self and make sure their human spirit is filled with the Holy Spirit before they go out into the world to care for others. “Sometimes our community outreach is the biggest dodge game in the world. For some of you, it isn’t time for you to come out and do social justice. You’re going out messed up, trying to social justice somebody when you haven’t taken care of yourself first.”
He concluded by discussing the importance of reconciliation, confession, and forgiveness. “There can be no reconciliation without confession,” said Vanderhorst. The oppressor needs to do three things for confession to be authentic: repent (admit wrongs and not repeat them), restitution (restore what was denied or taken, and make adequate and just compensation), and rehabilitation (get intervention or make proof of real change in one's life). Then, real reconciliation is possible.
On forgiveness, Vanderhorst reminded the audience that the path to forgiveness is a different journey, and takes a different amount of time, for each person. “Take all the time you need,” he said, but remember “your soul is still incarcerated until forgiveness occurs.”
The closing plenary session on Sunday morning featured keynote speaker Reverend Gayle Fisher-Stewart, who served as a police officer in Washington, D.C. for 20 years before becoming an Anglican minister. She now serves as the Associate Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church and is the founder of the Center for the Study of Faith in Justice.
Her sermon was entitled, “Flipping the Tables.” Jesus was in the temple, flipping over tables because he was ticked off that God’s people were being exploited and abused by religious folks, began Rev. Fisher-Stewart. “God’s house was no longer God’s house. It might have looked like God’s house but it wasn’t acting like God’s house.”
She continued saying, “The body of Christ today has got to flip some tables.” Jesus got in the Pharisees’ faces. If He had just stuck to healing, they wouldn’t have cared. But He messed with their system, He messed with their money, He called out the problems in His day – and they killed Him for it.
She went on to discuss two topics standing in the way of racial reconciliation in America: the police and the church.
We’re only 152 years out of slavery, she reminded. “Legal segregation is not ancient history. I grew up in a legally segregated Washington D.C.”
“Policing is not a change agent. The police are not about change. The job of the police is to maintain the will of those who are in political power and maintain the status quo of the dominant class,” said Fisher-Stewart.
Quoting from the Declaration of Independence, she continued, “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive…it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
“When police see a black or brown body, you have to prove yourself innocent because it’s presumed that you’re guilty,” explained Fisher-Stewart. “The black body was never meant to be free,” she added, quoting from Kelly Douglas Brown’s book, Stand Your Ground.
“Policing as it is today negates the humanity of God’s people; it destroys God’s image.” Because of this, “the process of reconciliation needs to come from the church.” But, that process needs to start with White Christians, those who benefit from the systemic racism in today’s justice system that has its roots in the slavery established in the 16th century.
In discussing specific steps needed to bring about change, Fisher-Stewart said it needs to come from the pulpit. When the message is preached on Sabbath morning, people pay attention. “Meetings and forums and task forces are important, but the change and reform God calls for must come from the pulpit.”
She gave the example of Hawley Lynn’s 1947 sermon, “Who Lynched Willie Earle” in which he called out his entire congregation as complicit in Earle’s lynching. Though none of the congregants had participated in the actual deed, their complacency and lack of concern over Willie Earle’s tragic death roused Lynn to action.
Lynn was outraged by the attitudes he encountered after Earl’s lynching by church members who told him he should just stick to saving souls and stay out of such issues. He encountered responses of “let those matters work themselves out,” “you haven’t been here long enough to have the capital to spend on this kind of fight,” and, “the pulpit isn’t the place for political issues.”
Nevertheless, “he was willing to risk everything to be on the right side of justice. How many pastors are willing to risk everything to preach the truth about racism?” asked Fisher-Stewart.
“Let me tell you what politics is,” said Fisher-Stewart. “It’s the decision-making process that allocates limited or scarce resources to people. If everything we have on this earth is God’s, all of these resources, then in fact God’s people need to be involved in the decision-making process that allocates them. It’s hard to serve God when your stomach is talking to you…when you are homeless, in prison. God’s people are required to be political. To flip the table. God’s people need to remember Jesus in the temple.”
“Racism not only diminishes human life, but is an offense to God. Preaching has the power to destroy racism, it has the power to change hearts, it is theology made real,” concluded Fisher-Stewart.
Three Breakout Workshops followed Rev. Fisher-Stewart’s sermon, on the topics of Marketing, Community Engagement, and Chapter Development:
The Marketing Workshop was entitled “Leveraging Social Media for Activism” and was conducted by Robert Kennedy III.
The Community Engagement Workshop was presented by Pastor Marquis Johns and entitled, “The Church Is The Community-Activating Adventism.”
The Chapter Development Workshop featured Professor John Gavin and Pastor Randy Goldson and was entitled, “Where Do We Go From Here? Building Your Local ASJ Chapter.”
This was my first time attending the ASJ Summit and I was impressed by the speakers and the variety of topics they touched upon. Impressive, too, were the attendees, the vast majority of whom were young adults. Coming off the heels of Annual Council and North American Division Year-End meetings, it was inspiring to attend a conference organized and attended by people my age who are invested in the Seventh-day Adventist Church and eager to bring about positive change within it and the world. I walked away with new friends, a better understanding of racial divisions in both America and the Church, and the challenge to take tangible steps to bring about necessary change within my community.
Alisa Williams is managing editor of SpectrumMagazine.org.
Image Credit: adventists4socialjustice.org
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