Living faith in the public square

01/25/2017 10:30 am ET

The following is a guest post by Rev. Kate Foster Connors, Director of The Center: Where Compassion Meets Justice, an initiative that works with congregations to help them engage in their neighborhoods to affect social change.

An ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church, Foster Connors has served churches in Memphis and Baltimore. She earned her B.A. from Wesleyan University and her M.Div. from Columbia Theological Seminary. Foster Connors has preached and keynoted several national youth conferences, as well as published in the Feasting on the Word lectionary commentary and in The Christian Century magazine. She and her husband, Andrew (also a Presbyterian minister), have two daughters.

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The April 2015 uprisings in Baltimore were not surprising to me. We cannot be surprised at expressions of outrage in our city’s most distressed neighborhoods when our city has consistently disinvested in them. What has been surprising is the relative absence of leadership from the faith community in the wake of one of the most important events in our city’s history. Muslim, Jewish and Christian holy scriptures all contain clear mandates to enact the kind of radical love that leads to justice. Communities of faith in all three traditions have for generations been leaders in the holy work of healing and transforming broken communities. This is the particular call to people of faith – God sends us into the world to stand for love and justice for all people.

Yet, despite the painful uprisings of April 2015 and the significant uptick in homicides in the year following, Baltimore still has not seen a sustained, broad movement for justice in our city. While there are notable exceptions, for the most part, faith leaders have not provided the leadership to build a movement in Baltimore. This is our wheelhouse. Where is the faith community?

I am a Presbyterian minister, and I run an initiative of the Baltimore Presbytery called The Center: Where Compassion Meets Justice. I work with congregations to inspire and equip them to get involved in their neighborhoods – to build coalitions with their neighbors, find the places where there is brokenness, and then act together to make their neighborhoods better places to live, work and worship.

The Church in the United States finds itself at a unique and challenging moment. 50 years ago, most churches were thriving. Most people in our country went to church, and churches were, in many communities, the center of community life. To be successful and engage their communities, all that was required was to have strong programs at your church – well-planned Sunday School programs, regular social gatherings, and Sunday morning worship. However, in the past 35-40 years, the mainline Protestant church in our country has been in decline. Fewer and fewer people belong to churches, resulting in smaller congregations and a lot of financial pressure. Some in the Church find the current context anxiety-producing, and it certainly is for those of us whose vocation calls us to lead these institutions. Ironically, though, I see the current decline of the Church as a moment of clarity – as an opportunity to remember who we are, to dig out our call to be leaders in healing brokenness in our communities.

I often tell the churches I work with that if we can’t get outside our buildings, if we can’t get to work building relationships of trust with our neighbors, if we can’t hit the streets, or city hall, to stand for justice in our communities, then we shouldn’t bother calling ourselves church. If we aren’t enacting our Christian faith in the public square, then our churches have become, as Dr. Martin Luther King wrote in Letter from Birmingham Jail, “…an irrelevant social club with no meaning….”

I am strengthened and inspired in this work every day by the life and witness of Jesus, who stands at the center of Christian faith. I could not always have said this. In fact, I struggled for many years with Jesus. Used by many so-called Christians as a bludgeon for propagating hate and exclusion, Jesus had become so problematic for me that for many years, I put him aside. Only when I was required by two seminary professors to stand with the rest of my class in public spaces in downtown Atlanta and read the book of Revelation out loud, was I (paradoxically) able to begin to reclaim Jesus. Every time we gathered to fulfill this class assignment – sometimes in a public park, sometimes on a sidewalk, once in a shopping mall –homeless people heard the words we read and came to join our group. To a person, the guests who joined our circle knew the book by heart. They would join our reading, often from memory, reciting Revelation’s strange visions and exhortations. They could see what, before then, I could not: that the strange visions and creatures of Revelation were written not to predict the end of times, or to cast judgement on the “unfaithful” (as is a common misreading of the text). They helped us see that Revelation is a political document, written to protest the idolatry of wealth and the economic oppression that results. While my professors were responsible for getting me out into the streets to read the narratives of my faith, the real teachers that semester were the homeless people who joined our group and taught us something essential to our training as future pastors: where you put yourself when you live out your faith matters.

This has become the centerpiece of my vocation as I work with church members to build relationships with their neighbors and get involved in their neighborhoods.

My Muslim, Jewish, and Christian colleagues in the Imagining Justice Cohort – who teach, work with refugees, write and perform music, heal people, and work for community nonprofits that are on the ground in neighborhoods all over the city - understand that where we live our lives, where we spend our time, the people we spend our days with, matters. They understand that it matters for our faith, and it matters for the world. For Christians, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus most fully discloses this truth. But it was clear from all three speakers in the Imagining Justice series that my tradition certainly intersects and even overlaps with Jews and Muslims when it comes to justice.

Central to all three scholars’ lectures in the Imagining Justice series was the importance of love – not the romantic love of popular culture, but love that involves risk, the kind of love that can only come from a deeper narrative, passed down for generations through the family of faith. This love, embodied in my Christian tradition in the life and death of Jesus, is a radical love of other that is offered as an act of courage to heal our broken world. This kind of love can only come from a divine source, because it requires more than any one person can supply. This love is risky, but trusts that God is at work, calling people of faith into relationship with others – even, and perhaps especially, with those whom we most fear. Rabbi Marc Gopin shared that “When you take those moments to make yourself vulnerable and cross those boundaries, some magical things happen.” He shared stories about crossing ancient divides, risking his own security to meet with Syrian opposition leaders, and Al Qaida leaders, and about the moments of connection in those conversations that held the potential to change world events.

Similarly, Dr. Najeeba Sayeed shared that “love is a verb – it is an act done most effectively with someone [we] have no reason to love.” She went on to teach a “theology of neighborliness,” developed by Imam Warren Steen Muhammad. This theology, she shared, is built around the conviction that “We must be neighbors to whomever is aroud the mosque…,” adding that “our exertion of social justice is based on the place where we are.”

Where we put ourselves when we live out our faith matters.

People of all faiths can be reluctant to get out in the streets. It is much easier to stay in our buildings - to talk about (rather than enact) our beliefs. But what kind of faith is lived out only within the insular walls of familiar buildings?

Bound by a common narrative of God’s radical love that has led each of us to work for justice in Baltimore, and by a shared commitment to put our bodies in the places that are most broken, this cohort of activists, who love Baltimore deeply, has already been given the mandate to love the other. What could Baltimore look like if together, we found a way to engage others in that risky but life-giving vocation?

The city of Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice, race and community. At this pivotal moment in our city’s history, indeed our nation’s history, the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies highlights the continued importance of bringing diverse religious perspectives to address civic and social challenges. In the initiative Imagining Justice in Baltimore the ICJS will contribute the perspectives of local Jews, Christians and Muslims to the public conversation about justice, and injustice, in Baltimore. Each contributor represents her or his own opinion. We welcome this diversity of perspective and are not seeking a single definition of justice between traditions, nor denying the multivocal nature of justice within traditions. The long-term goal of the Imagining Justice in Baltimore initiative is to create a model of interreligious learning and dialogue around differences that demonstrates how a robust commitment to religious pluralism can shape public life.
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