A Theology of Social Justice Ministry
This presentation was given at Ministry Days in Phoenix, AZ, preceding the 2012 Justice General Assembly of the UUA. It was on a panel looking at the theologies of justice work of the newest generation of clergy. On the panel facilitated by the Rev. Colin Bossen, were Rev. Allison Farnum (FL), Rev. Rob Keithan (DC) and myself.
I was sitting by the poolside at the Hyatt yesterday afternoon, wanting to be outside but not wanting to be too far from the inside with all the heat. I saw a small brown bird land a few feet from me. He had his beak open for a while. Waiting. As if someone were going to put a little morsel in his mouth for him. It brought to mind two kinds of social justice praxis I often see in the ministry. One is where we the clergy see our congregations as that bird. Members are anxiously waiting for our leadership, our assistance, our nourishment. With it, they’ll go out and change the world from our ideas. It’s a bit egoistic, but let’s be honest. It’s a typical mode for many of our sermons. “I had this insight, this experience. Let me share it with you. Fly now, and do something with it.” It also, often, works. People do get inspired. Their lives sometimes change. And sometimes the world changes with it. If it didn’t work, we would hear much less of it. I mean no derision toward it. We see it in lone clergy on the forefront of a movement, inspiring those behind them. We see it in bloggers who rarely interact with other bloggers. We know it’s happening, for example, when you’re the only person from your congregation at an interfaith gathering.
There is a second social justice praxis this bird evokes for me. When we look at the bird whose beak is eagerly open, we see ourselves. It’s those clergy who follow the lead of the spirit of a congregation. I don’t mean to suggest that they always wait for someone else to tell them what is of value. That would be a tepid prophetic ministry at best. I mean that they feel out where the breath of the congregation is moving; where God is active in the life of the community; where the fit of their house of hope meets the needs of the world. From a place of humility, it may sound like I’m suggesting this is preferable to the more egoistic mode. In some ways it may be, and in some ways it’s more slow. It’s less daring. It might even be less visible.
I think in the short term, the minister as sparrow, is a less inspiring mode that may reach less people. But in the long run it’s far more enduring and likely more effective. I also think that it’s the mode that more and more of our clergy are growing up in. I wonder if it may lead to less burnout as well. It’s a generational shift in the ministry that’s not so much about age as about when; when were we trained in seminary. I have clergy friends who are only a few years older than me who were in seminary earlier than I who thrive with the first model. And I have friends who are 25 years my senior who were concurrently trained half-way across the country who share my same preference for the collaborative second model.
Brooklyn just completed a very successful search for her new senior minister. If you look at the surveys, folks largely wanted a minister who will inspire them to prophetic works. They want this on paper. In practice however, its been the messages that bubble up in tandem with the congregation that have actually been successful. Occupy Wall Street is one example of this.
With First UU of Brooklyn being the closest UU congregation to Zuccotti Park, OWS made a lot of contextual sense for us. But how to inspire the congregation was another matter. Our membership ranges from teachers and social workers to financiers at Goldman Sachs. So this topic is complicated for us. Our membership is progressive across the range, but the politics of finance is a matter that we don’t have one voice on. I was involved in a quiet way as a chaplain at Zuccotti Park early on in September when it started, but couldn’t seem to bring others along with me. The shift happened when I learned (through social media) that one of our congregants was “that one” that was doing weekly large clothing drives for the Park, and another was doing regular large food collections for the Park. When the next sermon included the stories of our own people doing their own ministries, the congregation was able to find ways to be involved in a sustained manner that had meaning and sustenance for them. I could preach a prophetic message with effect, that made some uncomfortable, because it was clear to the community that it reflected the center of the spirit of the community – and not just my opinion. Then our members were processing with Judson and the Wall Street Golden Calf. More joined the clothing drive. More joined the food drive. Our youth group spent a learning/serving day at Zuccotti. Then I got interviewed by the Wall Street Journal for our work. UU’s who were occupying full-time started coming to our congregation – until they were evicted at least.
With the eviction of the park, our connection to the movement has become much more tentative. It was part of our neighborhood for a while. And now it’s not. We’re adapting – making connections with other faith based groups working to end racial profiling. Others show up on days of action with Occupy Faith. I continue to blog about various angles of the Occupy movement for Huffington. And of course we continue all the food and clothing work, the housing work, the homelessness work, the education work we’ve always done. But without there being a “there” there any longer, it’s much harder.
My theology of social justice is that my voice as a minister is grounded in my call. My call is grounded in the action of the Spirit in the community in and around me. Whether your faith is grounded in God, as is mine, or in the highest ideal of community, as is mine as well – I believe our prophetic voice must speak to the subtle experience of the broadest swath of humanity it can. And it must do so not as an expression of our wisdom first, but as a reflection of the conscience we speak for. A social justice theology that lifts up our ego in the process, can not solve the problems of the world that were caused by other human egos. With this sense of theology, we can’t go it alone; we can’t solve the problems of the world ourselves; we can’t be the shiny hero ahead of the crowd.
More succinctly, my central theology of social justice, my central UU theology for that matter is this: There is a path worth living and walking; there is ever a potential for hope in the unfolding of the human spirit; we are loved and maintain the possibility to love; perfections and products are pale compensations for the forgetting of our connectedness in this awe-inspiring living world.
Of course, individuals will always interpret this in varied ways. I feel that my community as a whole agrees with this theology. But we have at least two schools of thought on how to apply it. Much like the sparrow metaphor of social justice ministry for our clergy, it applies to our lay leadership as well. For Brooklyn, we have a large generational gap in view and praxis. We have a huge young adult population for a congregation of our size. With 200 adult members, over 100 friends, and about 100 children and youth – we have a young adult community of about 130. About half are members and the rest are split between friends, newcomers, and repeating visitors. So when I speak of the young adult view, I speak of a large portion of our community.
We have Young Adults who are very involved and inspired by the OWS movement. We also have elders who were marching in Selma. For Brooklyn, those two mindsets best describe our modes of social justice. As a caveat, know that I personally believe both modes work. Both modes are powerful. Both modes could learn something from the other. And both modes include aspects of each other. However, as a whole OWS is the classic collaborative model. Zuccotti Park had almost daily General Assemblies. There was the “human microphone” since no electronic equipment was allowed (people repeating what was said for those behind them.) There was process for those with less privilege to get to the forefront of the mic. How can the broadest swath of humanity gain access to voice? How can we reinvigorate the public dialogue to deal with the issues we won’t deal with? How can we simply witness in a peaceful manner to name the sins of the day? Let’s do all of that without having a single public spokesperson. And the voice of the people still became clear over time. Unlike the Selma model, there are no names to record. There is no central person speaking to the cameras. There is no central there there.
I’m not sure that OWS would have worked a generation ago. There were different needs, different strategies, and different life and death situations on hand than we have today. The technology, the media, the legal system – and who was considered fully a citizen – all were different.
But 45 years later – when I hear a 60-something who marched in Selma speak with a 20-something who has spent countless hours as part of OWS I hear the same critiques the media first leveled against OWS. Who’s the voice? What are the demands? How can this last. My answer – the Spirit moved in one set of ways in the 60’s. It’s moving in another set of ways now. That doesn’t change or diminish the value of either.
Brooklyn’s adaptations to leadership, power and voice were central to allowing this conversation to even happen in our house. I know some of you are thinking – well Brooklyn’s in NYC. It’s so easy to have a lot of Young Adults. When I arrived 4 years ago we had a marginalized YA population of about 30. The catchphrase at the time was – “I wish we had more young adults. But they can’t afford to live here. That’s why they’re not here.” Even though 15% of the adult membership were under the age of 35 – the view was they weren’t there. The community has skyrocketed, largely in part, because of internal congregational system changes that have become more accountable to issues of generational power conflicts. We are taking an intentionally multigenerational approach that is helping to dissolve some of the power grabs (or clutching) we often see in our religious communities. And it all reflects back on the broader social justice work of our community.
Real quickly – our steps included: 1. Intentionally pair up interests and talents of YA’s to the committees that needed new blood. 2. Seek to have a minimum of 2 YA’s on every committee (that’s taken 4 years) 3. Nominating knows to develop YA leadership so that a new YA can be added onto the Board every year. 4. RE has intentionally reached out to campus ministry and young professionals to broaden our teacher diversity. Half our teachers are under the age of 40. 5. The language of “They’re not here. They’re not living near us. They’re just not committed enough.” have all been challenge on the spot every time it’s said in earshot of leadership. Much like AR/AO work, bias must be compassionately challenged every time. 6. We added a monthly Moment of Witness for youth and young adults in our worship service so that they can share (in 2-5 minutes) why this is there religious home. 7. Lastly, our worship has shifted to be more family friendly with our children remaining for the first half of the service, our youth present for it’s entirety, and monthly fully-multigen services. If the services are more family friendly, more young adult parents find the congregation welcoming. And YA’s without kids, especially life-long UU’s, find the services more alike the few they experienced as kids themselves. In short – doors to voice, visibility and power were opened to the generations that didn’t really have it before. And our YA ministry now thrives.
This relates directly to social justice ministry. If we can’t heal the divides in our own communities, we are weak in doing so outside our walls. We also lack the breadth of vision necessary to accomplish this. We couldn’t have the Selma/OWS conversations 5 years ago with the people we had. We couldn’t adapt to the changes in social media. We didn’t have the mentoring structures in place that allowed mentoring – in both age directions. We were less whole. And our ministry was less whole for it. If there are children in your neighborhoods under the age of 10; if there are colleges within 15 minutes of you; there are Young Adults living by you. If you’re missing Young Adults, take a look at the systems of power that we critique outside our congregations and examine which of them exist within your community. And begin the same prophetic ministry inside.
I’d like to end by showing a video my congregation crafted as an example of multigenerational social justice ministry through our religious education program. Whether you see them on screen or not – we had folks from every decade, from 5 years old to their 70’s involved in its creation. And it was filmed and edited by two 20-somethings, one of whom is on our Board of Trustees.
Leave a Reply