Are We Comfortable Being Uncomfortable?
Part 3 in a series on EFCA leaders’ recent visit to Montgomery, Alabama
In April, EFCA national leaders, district superintendents and All People leaders visited the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. While there, the leaders witnessed photos, videos and stories of the domestic slave trade, racial terrorism, the Jim Crow South and the world’s largest prison system—evidence that racial discrimination and injustice are more than issues of the past.
In the first two posts from this series, “Two Days in Montgomery” and “Surprise, Astonishment and Pain,” EFCA President Kevin Kompelien, along with several district superintendents and EFCA Pastor Mark DeMire, discuss the pain, grief and discomfort experienced in Montgomery, and wrestle with our mutual call to address the issues of injustice still plaguing our culture today.
For African Americans in our body, the pain of slavery and Jim Crow is real and present. For many, these were crimes against themselves, their parents and grandparents. Their communities still suffer from the direct effects: generational poverty, segregation into neighborhoods without resources, and a lack of equal access to opportunity and justice.
As these leaders witnessed in Montgomery, racial injustice and oppression didn’t end with the Civil War—this is the present reality for many of our brothers and sisters across the country. This is the world in which we live and the context in which we must view our mission to “glorify God by multiplying transformational churches among all people.”
To conclude this three-part series, Alex Mandes, executive director of the EFCA All People Initiative, addresses this grief, pain and injustice with a reminder of why these issues matter to the EFCA movement and a call to move forward in a spirit of understanding, compassion and reconciliation.
Two common questions surfaced among those present in Montgomery. This first question came from witnessing and experiencing the stories and evidence of the slave trade, lynchings and Jim Crow: What would I have done if I were there? If I were standing in the crowd in those photographs of public lynchings, how would I have responded?
The second brought the issue past personal reflection, into the realm of movement-wide application: When will we ever move beyond this? When will we move past these feelings of awkwardness, guilt and discomfort, given neither we nor our associates were involved in these terrible events?
Although it’d be impossible to address issues of others’ personal reflection, I can address the second set of questions. But let me start by asking a question of my own: Can we move beyond this?
I invited two brothers to join us in Montgomery—Michael Martin and Mark DeMire, two African American pastors in our movement and dear friends of mine. Before we walked through the museum and memorial, I asked them to facilitate a discussion. Out of that conversation came this point of emphasis: “Be OK with being uncomfortable and not having an answer.”
After witnessing such injustice, it’s natural for most people to want to assign blame and look for immediate justice, but Mark and Michael’s message served as a powerful inoculation against this reaction. We can’t simply move past these issues of injustice and oppression. We can’t move beyond what still impacts our marginalized brothers and sisters today—even if it means dealing with guilt, grief and discomfort.
Instead of “moving beyond,” we must “love [our] neighbor as [ourselves]” (Jas 2:8). We must “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:2). And, in the midst of that, we must “get comfortable being uncomfortable.”
To simply move beyond these issues—to push past these feelings of grief and discomfort—would be to miss the importance of compassion and justice, like we discussed together at the 2018 EFCA Theology Conference. It would be to neglect our brothers and sisters who have dealt with—and continue to deal with—injustice, oppression and marginalization nearly every day of their lives. It would be a failure to acknowledge Paul’s call to the Galatians: “bear one another’s burdens.”
Bearing my brother’s burden is the first step—the essential first step—in this process of embracing the uncomfortable for the sake of our ultimate mission. Before we can follow Jesus’ mandate in Acts 1:8 to “make disciples of all nations,” we must first lament and bear the injustices and inequalities experienced every day by our marginalized brothers and sisters as if they were our own.
In the previous post from this series, Pastor Mark put it this way:
“If the church, who has the Spirit of God and the Word of God, cannot rightly model justice and race relations in the church, what do we have to offer those who are watching us from outside the church? Absolutely nothing! We will nullify our verbal testimony with our lack of good deeds in this area. Our Lord Jesus said himself in John 17:21, “[I pray] that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (emphasis mine). How the EFCA handles justice and race relations within the church will either validate our witness to the outside world or void it and render our testimony ineffective.” — Pastor Mark DeMire in “Surprise, Astonishment and Pain”
Without loving and caring for people—our people—efforts at making disciples can sound insincere, like a “clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1). Instead of moving “past” or “beyond” these issues and feelings in pursuit of Jesus’ Great Commission and Great Commandment, we must first remember and grieve the realities of our world today—realities we experienced firsthand in Montgomery.
Let me give you three reasons why.
An incarnational reason
“If one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (1 Cor 12:26)
Let’s get personal. An African American friend of mine shared how a police officer followed his son on his way home and, in his son’s own front yard, questioned the reason for his being in that neighborhood. The officer’s tone changed only when my friend walked out of the front door and claimed the boy as his own.
I recently met a white Christian man who adopted two African American boys (now young men) and has now espoused the same fear for his own African American sons. We who have not lived through this constant fear may be tempted toward skepticism and dismissal, but Jesus set up His body to work differently. The injustice on display at the museums in Montgomery is not over. Believe me, or ask any African American parent if they have concerns about injustice to their children. You will be surprised. And, of course, our African American brothers and sisters aren’t the only marginalized groups to experience these fears and discrimination.
When we accept Christ’s call to join His body, we take on the responsibility and the privilege of sharing the pain of our brothers and sisters who hurt, whether we understand it or not. That means we must be careful to see and hear them, and to value their perspective and experience as our own. Without that incarnational connection, our connection is hollow.
A missional reason
As followers of Christ, we are to make disciples among all people (Matt 28:19). For me, our country’s history and present reality of racial division is not primarily an issue of justice or mere equality—it is the test for the EFCA’s mission statement. Can we, as a movement, really say, we want “to glorify God by multiplying transformational churches among all people” if we don’t love and disciple the brother and sister in our own Jerusalem or Samaria, in our own neighborhoods?
We must exercise missionary zeal and compassion here in order to win America—especially racially mistreated and immigrant groups. The strength of our foreign missions is directly tied to the strength of our home missions.
America is now a large mission field. Its immigrants include 86 million first and second generation immigrants. There are also 82 unreached people groups in America, and 95 percent of the net population growth in America is projected to be from immigrants and their families by 2060. We dare not leave it to others to reach them. That would be a dereliction of our missional duty, not to mention we will miss the blessing since historically, “they may be key to vitality for American Christianity.”
A theological reason
Point 8 of the EFCA Statement of Faith says:
“…God commands us to love Him supremely and others sacrificially, and to live out our faith with care for one another, compassion toward the poor and justice for the oppressed. With God’s Word, the Spirit’s power, and fervent prayer in Christ’s name, we are to combat the spiritual forces of evil. In obedience to Christ’s Commission, we are to make disciples among all people, always bearing witness to the gospel in word and deed…”
Our Statement of Faith tells us that knowing what is right falls short if we do not do what is right. It is not enough to speak love if we do not also act on that love. We must love sacrificially and seek justice for the oppressed. Our orthodoxy must be matched by our orthopraxy in order to have true sound doctrine. We will be nourished as a denomination by hurting for the oppressed. Please note in the Statement of Faith that this compassion is in obedience to the Commission.
While we cannot move past or beyond, we can still move forward in areas of compassion, justice and reconciliation for marginalized groups in our churches, neighborhoods and communities. The discomfort, guilt and awkwardness should not be hurdles to jump over, but rather mindsets to embrace as we continue our focus on multiplying disciplemakers, extending gospel ministries, and strengthening, revitalizing and planting churches.
When Jesus came to earth, many things were wrong—socially, politically and spiritually. And while He by no means ignored them—He dealt with what was in front of him—He didn’t lose sight of His mission: to die and to call the Church to make disciples. He grieved the injustice and oppression, yes, but He translated His angst into action for the sake of His ultimate purpose.
Since the Norwegian-Danish and Swedish Evangelical Free Churches merged in 1950 (and before), the EFCA has taken many steps forward in the areas of compassion and justice. More recently, in 2007, the EFCA national conference theme was “We Must Go Through Samaria”—a theme that reverberated throughout our movement at various district conferences. Since then—as you’ll see in the graphic below—we have created pathways making it possible for diverse people to flourish in our movement.
While we acknowledge where we’ve been and the progress we’ve made, we’ve set our eyes on God-like visions for the future. America is changing before us, and in order for the EFCA to reflect the demographic diversity of America, we must give due and genuine empathy to the pain and injustice of our brothers and sisters as if it were our own pain. We must fully sense the burden of the past, embrace the present and recalibrate our vision to reach all America.
Bearing each other’s burdens
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.” (Isa 58:6-8, emphasis mine)
Our nation is overdue for a revival, but despite much earnest prayer, reflection and efforts at holiness, it has not come. I believe our next real revival will not come from looking inward and saying, “I will be good”—it begins with feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and providing shelter for the wanderer. The next revival starts with looking outside of ourselves—to our marginalized and oppressed brothers and sisters—and bearing others’ burdens.
Bearing my brother’s burden doesn’t mean I personally must pay the debt of our ancestors sins. It begins by acknowledging it as injustice—more than an historical fact, but a personal revelation, like our district superintendents experienced in Montgomery.3 Then, after that revelation and acknowledgement, I take everything God has given me to seek empowerment for the weak and justice for those currently afflicted to further God’s will on earth. It’s compassion with a gospel purpose.
Listening to our millennials
“I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God lives in you, and you have overcome the evil one.” (1 John 2:14)
For too long, we who lead the Church have ignored the passion for justice that is second nature to our young people. Anger and passion alone have little eternal value, but together, we can help them channel that anger and passion into true transformation. The future Church is theirs, and 1 John values the contribution of all generations. God has given them a prophetic voice on these issues. Taking that voice seriously can both strengthen the Church and help seal a generational breach.
Our young people have grown up with Martin Luther King Jr.’s “most segregated hour of Christian America...eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” They have lived the homogeneous church, only to go to a school that was diverse. Our generation saw little problem with this, but this dissonance has caused the younger generation to question the authenticity of our faith, mission and church organization. They can also be the ones who lead us toward healing.
Rising up and taking the land
Brothers and sisters, settling on guilt gets us nowhere. There may be a brief catharsis, but what is real is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). Racism, prejudice and oppression come as naturally to us as lust, pride and greed.
Brothers and sisters of the EFCA, you are my tribe. I can’t speak for other tribes, but I can speak to us. This issue of reconciliation will never be over—N.E.V.E.R. In the past, the racial strife “died down,” but we are living in a new demographic reality—a good reality, the missional reality of our day. We cannot pretend or ignore it. This is the new America God is laying before us. In light of what is on display in Montgomery, let’s move forward, not past. Let us rise up and take the land, together.
My goal is not diversity, a just society or racial reconciliation. I am called, and am calling you, to make disciples like Jesus did. But, for the sake of our real gospel credibility, we must fight the good fight as if it was our very own fight, even if justice may not be possible on this side of heaven. For the sake of unity, we must bear each other’s burdens. For the health of our foreign mission, we must practice here what we preach over there. For the sake of our own discipleship, we must learn God’s heart for those hurting, broken and pushed aside.
Bear each other’s burdens and embrace the pain of Samaria, for someday it may well be our own pain. This is compassion with a gospel purpose. If nothing else, bearing this burden unites our hearts with those on which the Lord has His eyes. The next revival begins with me saying, “That black man or white woman over there, they are my brother and sister. Flesh of my flesh. Hurt them, and I hurt! One day I will go to heaven, but while I’m here, I’m willing to die for my brother and sister.”
For the first article in the series, read “Two Days in Montgomery,” by EFCA President Kevin Kompelien. For the second part, read “Surprise, Astonishment and Pain,” written by three EFCA district superintendents and Mark DeMire, an African American EFCA pastor.
1Some may wonder why immigrants and races are addressed in the same conversation when many see them as separate matters. Both professors Peter Cha and Michael Emerson merge the distinction between racial and immigrant groups because of their similar struggle of marginalization. Indeed, even in the Montgomery museum, the talk about black and brown became very pronounced. You can read more about that here.
2Our definition of “multiethnic is based on the “20 percent other” criteria, outlined here.
3This could include a journey to Montgomery, an immigrant detention center or just to the other side of town. EFCA Southeast district superintendent Glen Schreiber and others are forming a ministry that takes pastors and leaders to Montgomery to share the experience. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more details.