church

If We’re Being Honest (Part 2)

If We’re Being Honest (Part 2) 800 450 Corey Leak

I’ve been a Christian for 35 years and have worked in churches for the past 20 years. I’m a Christian, and as a Christian, I think there is one more topic we should be more honest about.

Jesus

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There is not “Christian” without Christ aka Jesus. Following Jesus is what every Christian signed up for. We spend time in church, prayer, worship and Bible reading trying to become more like Jesus. We want to be conformed into the image of Jesus which is admirable and virtuous. I was a teenager when the WWJD movement began. Remember the bracelets? I thought anyone who wore one HAD to be a Christian. The bracelets and the movement itself were a tool to remind us before doing or saying anything to ask ourselves “what would Jesus do?”. Great question. The answer is probably more complicated than we think, however, and here’s why.

The default image of Jesus has been white, cisgendered, heterosexual, married, patriotic and male. That’s the image we’ve been lead to believe is the standard for a follower of Christ. It’s no wonder the overwhelming majority of Evangelical Churches in America are lead by pastors and boards that reflect that image. Think about how Evangelicals traditionally vote. What makes Evangelicals take to social media to share their outrage?

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Can you imagine what we would think of a faith leader like Jesus in our context today that wasn’t married? We Christians tend to assume that a person, especially a man, who isn’t married by a certain age has something wrong with them or they’re hiding something about themselves. That forces an extra layer of social expectation for being like Jesus.

Most of what is taught about this historically Jewish rabbi is filtered through a lens that is white, American and male. Which means, that if you’re an American citizen of color, an immigrant or a woman, you have work to do to find yourself conforming to Christ’s image. If your transgender or gay, you’re out of luck.

Based on what we know from the birth narratives in the Bible, Jesus was born to Jewish parents who spent a few years as immigrants in Africa. According to historical accounts of his adult life from the Bible, he never dated, married or had a romantic relationship with another human being. He healed sick people, walked on water, miraculously multiplied small meals to feed thousands, gave his life as a ransom for all and then resurrected from the dead according to scriptures.  He never pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands. His language on marriage was pretty clearly in support of heterosexual marriage as normative, and he was mum on slavery.

If we’re being honest, having Jesus as a role model isn’t simple. It’s complicated. It’s not as cut and dry as we might like to believe. Based on just what I describe above (which left out chunks of his life) I couldn’t name a person I’ve ever met who is truly like Jesus. So, what does it mean to imitate or be conformed to his image? How can we answer the question WWJD? How can we live in our culture and act like he would if he were born in our time? How can we be like Jesus if we don’t do and say all the things he did?

Love.

Jesus told those closest to him that the way people would know that they were indeed like him was by love.  Any expression of Christian faith that isn’t loving isn’t Christian at all. A faith in Jesus that is exclusive, self-centered, homogeneous, sexist, xenophobic or homophobic is not faith in the Jesus of history or scripture, but faith in America’s default Jesus birthed from patriotism and supremacy. The story of Jesus from birth to resurrection is one of liberation, love, and inclusion. And, if we are going to be conformed to an image or imitate his legendary exploits and ideas, we should consider what THAT Jesus would do when we ask ourselves WWJD.

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Not Safe For Church

Not Safe For Church 4224 2604 Corey Leak

A friend messaged me this video yesterday and asked what I thought of it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K6KPJONhj7w

Initially, I wanted to have a conversation with the pastor….

I’m not sure I’ll ever get to have that conversation, but I do have issues with this video on several levels. I’ll share a few.

Theologically

This one time Jesus (Jewish Rabbi) took his disciples to a town called Caesarea Philippi, and while there he had a ground breaking conversation with them. I imagine most Christians are familiar with the story. It’s in Matthew chapter 16 if you’d like to read it for yourself. What’s obscure to modern readers about this story is that the town Jesus brought his teenage students to was not a nice town. The town was dedicated to the Ceasars and was the home of a pagan temple for worshipping a Greek god.

Rabbis forbade “good” Jews from going to Caesarea at all, so the fact that Jesus not only went there, but took his disciples is pretty unusual. More remarkable is the fact that this is where Jesus says one of the most famous phrases in history.

“Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell won’t prevail against it.”  Perhaps you’ve always thought these words were talking about religious institutions versus a raging fiery place where the devil lives. Most of my life that’s what I believed, but that’s actually not true. The word church means gathering of citizens, and the “gates of hell” is an actual physical place that you can visit today. Ancient people believed it was mystical because of the literal mist that would come up out of the opening of this mysterious looking cave. They believed it was a doorway to the underworld where the god Pan lived. They would engage in pretty obscene sexual acts to worship Pan that would be NSFW to this day.

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Yes, Jesus and the teenage boys with him were within hearing and watching distance of some really nasty stuff while having this conversation. Anyone who’s watched GOT and tried to follow the story line without enduring all the sex scenes can identify with how hard it is to try and pay attention to what’s being said over the debauchery happening in the background. Jesus is saying some really important and ground breaking things to his closest disciples while there is an orgy going on nearby. Of all the places to start talking about this new kind of gathering called church, why do it in Caesarea Philippi? Why not Jerusalem, the capitol of the Jewish faith? What statement does this make about what Jesus’ intentions were for church? It’s unlikely he has this talk where he has it by accident.

Could it be that Jesus is making a statement about who is welcome? This announcement about church and its impact could have been had within the friendly confines of a Jewish synagogue or inside the temple, but instead it’s happening out in the wild where “those” people are. That should inform our belief about church and the messiness that Jesus intended “his” gatherings to be part of. If Jesus could sit with his disciples in a place where people literally had sex with goats to worship a pagan god, how should we imagine he would treat a transgender man or woman in church?

Morally

Let’s suppose you are a person who truly believes that in order to keep faith based space “holy”, you have to keep all the really bad sinners out. What is gained from embarrassing a human being in front of a whole room? I have a moral issue with stripping another human being of their dignity simply because I believe they are acting in ways I disagree with. I wonder how many people in that room, including the pastor, could remain in that church if we were to put all the unsavory behaviors, practices, or thoughts on display for a whole room to judge? This hierarchy of morality is neither godly or appropriate for society. Shame on all of the people in that room who clapped and shouted amen at that reprehensible act of grand standing. It was wrong, and I hope this pastor is lead to see that it was wrong and apologizes to whoever he was targeting with his tirade.

Personally

Often times our negative feelings about others are triggered by something we see in ourselves. I pray that I don’t have any degrading caricature of true religion left within myself, but I know that I once did. I can remember one of my first sermons as a youth pastor. I was full of personality and wit, and for some reason I decided to direct my wit and humor at the LBGTQ community. I was grossly homophobic in my language, and thought I was right to talk the way I did. It’s one of my greatest regrets in life. It breaks my heart to know that someone in the audience was probably made to feel ashamed of who they were because I was trying to prove I was cool.  My final issue with this video is me. I’m sorry I have used words publicly to shame people. On behalf of the Christian church in America to anyone who has been hurt by rhetoric like you watched in the above video or that I used as a young, insensitive, dummy, I’m truly sorry. Every human being is on a journey, and you don’t deserve to be degraded for yours. It’s my hope and prayer that churches and pastors that dump shame on people learning to accept who they are close their doors unless they learn to practice inclusive faith that makes room for everyone to belong.

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4 Reasons Your Church Doesn’t Talk About Race

4 Reasons Your Church Doesn’t Talk About Race 1000 798 Corey Leak

 

We celebrate diversity. This is a sentence echoed from nearly every Evangelical pastor in America. Yet it is so difficult to find a diverse church on Sunday. Why does Sunday morning continue to be the most segregated time of the week in America? There are a number of different factors that contribute to lack of diversity. I would argue that one of the number one reasons is that few churches are willing to have healthy conversations about race in their sanctuaries and their boardrooms. Talking about race IRL can twist your stomach in knots and put a lump in your throat because it’s not a popular discussion. If you’ve ever wondered why your church hasn’t talked about it, I have some ideas.

1. Location:

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When I wrote my first blog post about how white evangelical churches struggled to make room at their leadership table for POC, there were some pastors who brought up location. They raised an issue I’ve heard several times in my life about white suburbia. “We just don’t have many people of color in our community.” I understand the tension that creates. Most of the people we are trying to reach are white, and we have a responsibility to present the gospel in a way that reaches the people in our community. Church planters are trained to plant in a demographic area that best fits who they are. The logic is sound, and it’s tough to argue with it. However, if the homogeneous community is why a church chooses to opt out of addressing the issue of race and racism, that should signal a red flag.

The idea that a churches’ community is predominantly white means they are exempt from talking about race suggests that racism is not their issue, but someone else’s. Failing to talk about racism also deprives the white people in that community of the opportunity to recognize their own bias and repenting for the racism that has laid dormant in their hearts because it has never been brought to light. Pastors in such communities fail their attendees and send an implicit message that racism is an evil the suburbs can abide.

 

2. Polarization:

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I’ve written about this principle in previous blogs. When you have a room full of republicans, democrats, libertarians, librarians, barbarians, and communists, you have to be careful not to alienate any of them. The best way to do that is by not saying or doing anything from the stage that can be divisive in nature or make people uncomfortable. I once heard a white pastor suggest that an emotive, black female worship leader should tone it down because the largely white audience couldn’t identify with her. The idea being that large churches stay large by avoiding polarization. Pastors and leaders have to exercise wisdom in how they use the platform.

The question I have is, is the church’s ultimate goal to stay large or to speak the truth? Are those two ideas mutually exclusive?  If so, which one is the churches ultimate responsibility? When something is true but has the potential to make half the room uncomfortable should churches avoid talking about them? Race is one of those issues. With the inception of identity politics, race has become an issue that primarily concerns people with a progressive or left-leaning political posture. It seems that by reflex those who are on the other side of the aisle politically and perhaps literally would balk at the very idea of talking about race in church. Their political stance is that it’s a non-issue, and bringing it up in a church at all is taking a side. Churches have a moral obligation to talk about barriers to righteousness. Racism is one of those barriers. When a moral issue is hijacked by politics it’s the job of the church to get it back and help their people rightly approach the issue justly.

3. Not our mission:

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Great churches stay on mission. There are a ton of good things churches could be doing, but no church can do everything. Many churches, like any other organization, close their doors because they fail to stay on mission. Dealing with racism is viewed by many white evangelical leaders as a worthy cause, but not the fundamental mission of the church. It’s one of many good causes in the world. There are issues like human trafficking, world hunger or clean water projects that are also on the list of good deeds the church can do for the world. Racism often gets buried beneath that pile of worthy causes the church should focus on. Casting the issue of race with those world problems seems appropriate. Unfortunately, I’ve found that many times this line of reasoning is just a smoke screen to allow the church to avoid the awkwardness of challenging the white people in the room to look inwardly at racism.

Most churches don’t hesitate to address human trafficking, clean water and world hunger among many other issues. I would be willing to wager that there are more people in the congregation who have personally felt the effects of racism within the past two weeks than there are people who have ever been trafficked, lacked clean water or been starving. Please understand that I’m not advocating for efforts going toward ridding the world of the evils of those three should be diverted to address racism. I’m simply pointing out the flaw in the argument that racism belongs in the category with other missions projects. It’s an issue that affects human beings sitting in the seats, singing the songs, and hearing the messages.

It feels good to write a check to get clean water to a thirsty family in Africa. What doesn’t feel good is to confront the belief that my family is superior to theirs. Sending money to help people who live in Africa doesn’t absolve me of racism toward the African decedents who live in my community.

4. We only focus on the Bible:

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There are many churches that are adamant that they don’t do topical messages. They aren’t trying to make a point the Bible doesn’t make. They preach and teach only what the Bible says. Anything else is outside of the scope of what the church should be about. Exegetical churches pride themselves on teaching from what the Bible says and making applications from that rather than having a pre-conceived topic and finding scriptures that speak to that topic. It’s certainly an admirable approach to leading a church. It’s great for helping people know what the Bible says, and helping congregates be Biblically literate. Many pastors and church leaders believe the topic of race is outside of the scope of Biblical teaching.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Teaching on racism is not disconnected from scripture. There are a number of different instances where Jesus himself subtly touches on the issue of race. The woman at the well and the story of the Good Samaritan come to mind. The book of Acts is primarily about how Jewish men made room for Gentile men and women to come to faith. Churches that struggle to find Biblical references to refute racism are likely reading from the WNV (white nationalist version).

 

If you find yourself at a church where the subject of race isn’t addressed or you have questions about how it’s been addressed. Talk to someone in leadership. If any of the above comes up. Ask some hard questions. Not to cause division or to be malicious, but from a place of honest inquiry.

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One Race

One Race 704 396 Corey Leak

There is a damaging  idea out there that many of us in the faith community have been taught to believe. It is disguised as a virtuous, just, and inclusive idea, but beneath the surface it eats away at the fabric of culture. It’s a pathogen masquerading as a cure for what ails humanity. We’ve been served heavy doses of this ideology in recent years as politicians and predominantly, faith based communities have tried to heal the wounds of a divided Nation. The idea that we’ve bought into is that we are all ONE RACE.

https://www.facebook.com/chuckbernal/videos/10156776390602915/

Let me very clear here. Priscilla Shirer is a brilliant communicator and by all accounts an extraordinary woman. Her messages have had profound impact around the world. I’ve been laboring over whether or not I would share this video as an example of the rhetoric that I believe is unhealthy because it’s not my intent to be divisive. I’ve now had a couple people ask for my thoughts on this particular video, so I felt it would be appropriate to share what I believe about what Shirer said in this clip.

I was also recently on a panel at an event where Dr John Perkins was speaking. He shared some disparaging remarks about the Black Lives Matter movement that drew some uneasy and awkward responses from people of color in the crowd.

Image result for dr john perkins

I was then asked about my views regarding the movement. Needless to say, I disagreed with him. Dr Perkins is a remarkable man and true advocate for unity. That doesn’t mean we are not allowed to disagree with him or any other leader within the faith community who hold ideologies we believe to be damaging to culture such as the One Race theology that Shirer and Perkins have preached.

It’s true that regardless of our individual ethnic origin, we are all part of the human race. It’s also true that the idea of race has been used as a tool to subjugate black people to whites, and in an effort to walk back the damage done by racism, some faith based leaders of color have been the primary carriers of the message that race/ethnicity doesn’t matter. I know that race and ethnicity aren’t the same thing, but to speak in common language and meet the conversation where it is, I will use the terms interchangeably. Allow me to share a few of the reasons I’m disturbed by the One Race idea.

God never asked us to choose. 

If you’ve ever heard a talk or read Christian material on racial reconciliation, you’ve likely read or heard famous quote from the Apostle Paul about there being neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female… in the Christian faith. It’s been quoted to advance the idea that the Bible, and therefore God, doesn’t place any value on ethnicity. Or, at the very least, that when a person takes on the Christian faith, they are laying down their ethnicity. Interestingly enough, I’ve not seen the same principle applied to gender.

The writers of the Bible were Jewish men who were keenly aware of their own ethnicity and what that meant in society. None of them were color blind. If you were to sit down and read the totality of the writings of Paul, you’d find him consistently wrestling with what it meant for Gentiles (non-Jews) to be welcomed into what had traditionally been a Jewish only religion. Paul himself never claimed that Gentiles were no longer Gentiles or that Jews were no longer Jews. He fought for Gentiles to be welcomed into the Jewish religion in the face of violent opposition, but never ignored the fact that there were different ethnicities in the world. He recognized that the debate of his day came down to ethnicity. Jewish people believed Gentiles to be impure. They believed contact with Gentiles would delay God redeeming the world. It would have been ignorant and evasive of Paul to behave as if there wasn’t an issue to be resolved that centered around race.

Statements such as the ones Shirer made in the above video create a false dichotomy that says I have to choose my ethnicity or my religion. It implies that true piety is the absence of color awareness. Somehow if I’m striving to be exercise my faith well, I’m doing so blind to the color of my skin or the color of others.  It’s plain and simply unnecessary to cast one’s race against their religion. We are never asked to choose one, so why manufacture that issue as a moral quandary?

Society recognizes race.

As I stated above, the authors of the Bible included race in their conversations because it was an issue in the society they lived in. Then, as now, people were treated differently depending on their race. Jewish people dealt with discrimination in the greater Roman world, and Gentiles suffered the same in Jerusalem. Today POC are discriminated against, looked down upon, and even violently harmed because of their race. Those are facts. We don’t get to ignore realities that make us uncomfortable if we are committed to making the world better. Race is an issue that is discussed, and no amount of white washing of the issue will change that. People care deeply about their heritage, and they should. It’s a part of what makes us beautiful.

Unity is broken without diversity.

If God wanted all people to be one shade, one heritage or one culture, why aren’t we born that way? We are created both in the image of God AND in the context of heritage and culture. Religion doesn’t cancel out ethnicity in the same way that it doesn’t cancel out gender. Even Priscilla Shirer’s own remarks reveal that being a woman is part of her identity that she is willing to retain. Our heritage, customs, culture and skin tone are all part of the mosaic God has created to show divine creativity. We shouldn’t dispose of that creativity because tensions exist over it.

Ironically enough, I can’t personally remember seeing any White Evangelicals denouncing their whiteness in an effort to reconcile. Why is it that the burden of denouncing race is carried almost exclusively by people of color? Sometimes the idea that’s presented is that if people of color would accept the dominance of whiteness within American religion and culture, things would be fine. We would have peace. We would have unity. That idea boiled down to its essential truth is that whiteness is the One Race that we should all accept as the culture of faith. I hope you can see the problem with that.

 

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3 Truths For the Faith Community about Charlottesville

3 Truths For the Faith Community about Charlottesville 3200 1680 Corey Leak

A year ago I was sitting in a Saturday night service, when I heard the news that there had been a white supremacist rally from my daughter. She saw it trending on twitter, but didn’t know what was happening. She said: “all these people are talking about this racist rally”. I started investigating, and shortly after, my screen displayed images of angry faces and torches marching against the rights of people who look like me. It was demoralizing. If you’ve never gone on social media or turned on your television and seen images of people united in their hatred of your tribe, it’s probably hard to imagine how people thousands of miles away from your physical location can affect you emotionally. Imagine how we all felt watching the towers fall on 9/11. I felt similar emotions upon seeing what I saw that day, and I couldn’t tell you what the sermon was about that day. The voice on the stage faded into the background, and all the words sounded like the teacher from Charlie Brown. 

I’m sure the sermon was great. I was just in a space where I needed something else at that moment. I needed to feel like the community of people I was sitting with, and the person talking from the stage, identified with my pain. I wanted to know that even if the faith community I was worshipping with didn’t share my pigmentation, they opposed the people rallying to delegitimize my humanity. I’m not suggesting the church I was sitting in should have stopped everything and pivoted to Charlottesville as it was happening. I’m sharing what I felt as I witnessed the rally. To that church’s credit, we did pivot to address what happened in the Sunday services that followed that Saturday night. Honestly, I believe we could have done more to acknowledge it, but at least we didn’t ignore it entirely. With this being the anniversary of the Charlottesville rally, here are a few things that might be worth considering as we prepare for and enter faith gatherings this weekend.

 

1 You’ve probably changed plans in the wake of tragedy before.

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I remember exactly where I was when the events of 9/11 played out in front of all our eyes. I imagine you do as well. I also remember how the predominantly white evangelical church I was attending at the time responded the next day. Our church was in the middle of a weeklong “revival”, and there was a renowned tele-evangelist scheduled to speak. I remember feeling anxious and afraid when I walked into church that night. I imagined that everyone was feeling something similar and that despite the fact that our church had likely invested a substantial amount of money to have the guest speaker present, there would be something said about the tragedy that had just occurred. As I expected, we spent time praying for our Nation. What I didn’t expect was that we would spend the duration of the gathering on the topic. We prayed, sang, prayed some more, heard a message about what happened, and then prayed some more for the healing of our Nation. No one questioned whether it was appropriate to throw the plans out the window in the wake of a National tragedy because that tragedy affected every human being in the room. It was an attack on all of us, so we as a church lamented it.

Charlottesville was an attack on all of us. That’s the view white, black, brown, red, or yellow faith leaders should  have. Faith is about the belief in justice for all people, and when that ideal is challenged it’s something all of us are morally obligated to resist. Injustice or hatred against one tribe is injustice or hatred against all tribes. Not everyone who attends a faith gathering this weekend will care deeply about the anniversary of Charlottesville, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be a moment to remember. It’s an opportunity to say: “we care, and we see you” to the people who are still deeply affected by what happened there a year ago.

 

2. Small, awkward gestures can make huge statements.

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I called a friend last night who lost his father earlier this week. He apparently had gotten a new phone because when he answered he asked “who is this?”. Needless to say, we hadn’t talked in a long while. After telling him it was me, I asked how he was holding up. As expected, he was extremely sad. I told him I didn’t have adequate words to express my empathy, other than to say “it sucks that your dad is gone”. I know what it feels like to lose a father, and I just wanted him to know that I was a witness to his pain. I saw it. I can’t carry the total burden for him, but I can acknowledge that his pain and burden are real. We had some awkward silences. I stumbled over some words of condolence, and then we hung up the phone.

Sometimes when something like Charlottesville happens, faith communities fail to speak up because of the awkwardness of trying to figure out how to say the right thing at the right time in the pre-planned program. I understand that tension. I’ve been responsible for programming at several faith gatherings over the years. I remember going back and forth about where the “interruption”  would best fit into the program. I would often forget one important thing about people who are hurting. People in pain don’t care if a gesture of support is awkward. They only care if it’s absent. You will never find a perfect fit in a program for National tragedy. They don’t fit in life, let alone programs. However, for someone who is greatly affected by the situation, the smallest most awkward acknowledgement of their pain means the world. It helps them to feel seen and have their experience empathized with.

 

3. Marginalized people hear loudly what you don’t say.

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I have a good friend whose birthday I’ve not acknowledged for two straight years. From my perspective, it’s not because I don’t love him or he’s not my friend. Like you, FB saves me when it comes to non-family birthdays. My mom saves me on family, and for two years now, no one reminded me of my  friend’s birthday. Still, it’s my responsibility to be a good friend. If you’ve ever had someone you care about not call, text or post “happy birthday”, you know how it feels to be disappointed by words or sentiments you never received.

When a POC or a woman has a National spotlight on them due to scandal or tragedy, they walk into faith gatherings hoping (maybe even expecting) to hear an acknowledgement of their experience. I know faith leaders have genuine concern for the people who attend their gatherings, but when we fail to acknowledge  trauma, people feeling it are left to wonder if their pain matters. Sometimes we fail to give voice to pain intentionally for reasons we’ve discussed above, but other times it’s just an oversight. Either way, it can communicate that whatever the marginalized people in your community may feel is THEIR problem, not one that affects the whole community.

 

Faith leaders, and all of us as citizens have a responsibility to reach out to the people in pain around us. I have a friend who makes sure his friends know when the anniversary of his father’s passing is. He does that so that we can remember to be a good friend and check on him during a difficult season. This is your reminder to check in on the people around you who will never forget Charlottesville.

 

Do you believe faith communities should acknowledge Charlottesville this weekend?

Do you have friends you could check in on this weekend who may be remembering it?

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3 Things I’ve Learned This Week From John Gray’s White House Visit

3 Things I’ve Learned This Week From John Gray’s White House Visit 1100 619 Corey Leak

I try to avoid heaping criticism on other human beings. Especially those in the public eye. It takes a degree of courage to put out content for public consumption, whether that be speaking, writing, or performing. You put yourself in harm’s way of harsh criticism from people who neither have your gumption nor ability to do the thing you’re doing. From that perspective I have empathy for the black and brown faith leaders that attended the White House earlier this week to speak with the President. Ninety-nine percent of the people reading this will never get the invite these men and women received, and especially will not receive the back-lash that they (especially John Gray) have received. That being said, as a black faith leader, I do have some thoughts that I felt I’d be remiss in not sharing on this platform. These are three things I’ve learned from the meeting, the backlash, and the responses after.

1. Community leaders have a high moral responsibility to speak for the voiceless.

I have on two separate occasions, from two different black pastors heard the notion that the clergy who attended the White House meeting failed to honor their moral obligation to speak truth to power even at the risk of arrest or expulsion from the meeting. Jamal Bryant, a friend of John Gray asked “why didn’t any of you get arrested” [to speak up for your community]? The lament of other black pastors, some of which declined the invitation, was that the pastors in the room failed to speak – other than to laud undo praises on President Trump as the most “pro-black” President of our lifetime.

Here is a transcript of the meeting. It was a round robin of “thank you’s” with very little mention of prison reform at all, let alone substantive policy changes. In that regard I can understand the disappointment people have shared. There had been a previous meeting to discuss actual policy, but in this meeting, there was no such discussion. It seems that the pastors in this room were lured into a fruitless circus of publicity. I have no reason to believe that their intentions weren’t pure in attending, but intentions won’t restore the trust of the people who are disappointed that their leaders, who had the opportunity to speak for them, did not. Regardless of what side of the aisle you draw your beliefs from, it cannot be denied that an overwhelming majority of black and brown people have felt disenfranchised by this administration. The black and brown leaders in that room said to represent those people failed to give true witness to their voices. I’m not suggesting the burden of speaking truth to power is easy. My point is that it’s not, which is why it’s the first lesson I’ve learned from following this story.

2. The line you’re looking for is “my bad”.

John Gray made a statement to his church on Wednesday night saying that he went to speak for the voiceless. The transcripts of the meeting say differently. John told his church on Wednesday that he was not going to be making any other statements or doing any interviews about what happened. The next day he was on CNN talking to Don Lemon about it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GEf51hJZRs4

In the interview with Lemon when John was asked if he could go back and do it all over again, he paused and said “I would under different circumstances”. So, did you go because God said go, or because you believed the circumstances would allow you to do some good? Sometimes when trying to defend something that appears indefensible, it’s probably best not to defend it at all. When we are conflicted about a decision we’ve made our defense is often confusing and contradictory. Conflicted is exaclty how I would describe John’s posture in this interview and throughout the fall out from the White House meeting. The answer of a man who is convinced that he did the right thing is “Yes! If God told me to go back I would”. That’s not the answer John gave, which leads me to believe he’s feeling some remorse over attending in the wake of all of the backlash. If that is indeed the case, then share that. We are all human and subject to believing one thing before all the facts are in. In this polarized period of American history, we need leaders who are willing to say: “I was wrong”. There is no need to double down on bad decisions, policies, or ideas, and we should all be willing to grant forgiveness for our fellow humans who are subject to errors of judgment when they ask for it.

3. If your partner has red flags – listen.  

I’ve been married for almost 20 years. It’s embarrassing how many of those years I was guilty of disregarding my wife’s counsel to me in the name of patriarchy. John Gray said in a statement following the meeting that his wife advised that his attendance would likely not go well for him. However, John said that he had heard from God and had to obey. This 3rd lesson is more of a reinforcement of something I’ve been attempting to get better at. I’m learning that when I pray about a decision and arrive at what I believe is the best course of action, but my wife doesn’t have the same peace about moving forward, I have a tie. I’m in no way saying that my wife and God are equal. I am however saying that I’m a human being who is subject to misreading what I believe God is saying to me, and my wife is an equal partner in the decisions we make in our home. Her red flags should always be considered, as I believe Pastor Gray did with his wife’s reluctance. Watching how this has all played out for John has reminded me of the tremendous value of having people in my circle that I trust to tell me the truth when I find myself believing God is saying one thing, and my wife is saying another. Their perspective can mean the difference between success or failure for my endeavors. Human beings have done terrible things in the name of God, and not one of us is divine enough to interpret His will alone.

I think it needs to be said that John Gray is one of the most influential pastors in the country, and that he bears the burden of that influence. By all accounts he’s a great man to his family, friends, and his church. I believe that the other leaders in that room are also great people. I have no issue with POC attending the White House to discuss policy and give witness to the experience of black and brown people in America. However, in this instance, arguing that we should sit down with people we disagree with is a straw man and mischaracterizes the objection of black and brown people who are let down by this gathering.

It’s easy to write or talk about what we would do in their shoes, but only those who have sat in that room know the weight of having that kind of opportunity and pressure. I confess. I do not. My intention is to share my thoughts about something that many of us have been talking about this week. John and the other faith leaders who attended that meeting will no doubt go on and do great things in their community. I hope that no irreparable damage has been done to their relationships with their communities, and I hope that the people in their communities who are disappointed in how they were misrepresented will be given the opportunity to sit with their community leaders and share their feelings.

Please share your comments below.

 

 

Church in the Wild

Church in the Wild 1024 678 Corey Leak

Last week I was invited to a community event called the Sons of Former Slaves and Sons of Former Slave Owners. One of my 3 flaws is that I sometimes struggle to pay attention to all the details presented to me in print form. I actually thought I was going to a “Sons of Slaves” event, so you can imagine my surprise to walk into the room and see white faces. That was when my mind recalled the image of the promo, and I thought…”Oh, AND Sons of Slave Owners… I should’ve invited some of my white friends”. I left my house for the event thinking I’d be in a room with black intellectuals discussing race issues, and I was intrigued to see how the conversation would go. Once I got there and saw the room filling up with black, brown, and white faces I was very intrigued to see what the conversation would be. I’ve spent the last two years of my life having conversations about race both on social media and IRL, so I had some idea of the things that I’d hear in this room. Typically these conversations have some of the same talking points like: white privilege, systemic oppression, police brutality, and racial bias. I left the house thinking I’d be engaging in stimulating conversation with other black men who understand what it is to be the “other” in America. I walked in the door and expected to engage in familiar dialog of a different sort, but still within my comfort zone. What followed was a dialog unlike any other conversation I’ve ever had about race or anything else for that matter.

There were 17 men in the room and we all sat in chairs arranged in a circle. In the center were several images of current events regarding race that were laying on top of a baby doll. The moderator, Eric Butler, briefly explained the rules of engagement and asked us all to share what values we would want to instill in this baby. We passed around the “talking stick” and each shared the value we thought we would be important for a child growing up in this world should have. After each man spoke, Eric asked us if we all agreed with the value. If everyone said yes, we would move on to the next man. Everything was going smoothly enough. There weren’t any huge disagreements over the values. Then after one of the guys advocated for empathy to be a value for our baby, Eric, wanting to stir the pot and make things interesting, shouted: “NAH F*CK THAT, I DON’T BELIEVE Y’ALL!”

He went on to challenge our collective commitment to empathy in the wake of the Nia Wilson murder here in the Bay Area. Eric shared his feelings about whether or not the non-blacks in the room had the capacity to empathize with black pain. He said: “Y’all aren’t feeling what we are feeling”. It was a valid viewpoint. The proposition that he rolled out for the room to wrestle with was whether people outside of his village could deeply feel the pain, outrage, confusion, or anguish of those in his village. From that tension I asked the non-black men in the room if they ever felt as though they are not allowed to express true empathy because of sentiments like the one Eric expressed. Many of them nodded, and then Aazar, an Afghan gentlemen sitting to my left shared that he thought we might be conflating empathy and sympathy. After Aazar’s comment, we took a journey even deeper into the complexity of understanding what it means to be empathetic across cultural boundaries.

The man who introduced the idea of empathy to the conversation was a black man named Joe. When I met Joe before we sat in the circle together I was a little intimidated. Another of my 3 flaws is that I expect people to be overly friendly when I meet them, and if they’re not, I consider the interaction cold. As an extravert, I tend to greet people with a smile, and I will usually feel a burden to get to know something about them. Joe had no such compulsion. He greeted me with a hello, nice to meet you and moved on. He spoke with a firm voice and had a “don’t start nothing, won’t be nothing” kind of demeanor. Even in the circle where we were all encouraged to share our truth and be willing to challenge one another I felt a little uneasy challenging Joe. After Aazar made his comment, Joe said “I feel insulted almost right now. I feel insulted off what you just said. I’m a very educated man with life and school wise.” Joe went on to explain an understanding and experience with empathy that was absolutely breathtaking.

Joe shared with us that he had spent 35 of his 40 plus years of his life in prison (27 of which were for murder). He told us that after he heard about Nia Wilson being murdered by a white man in what many have proclaimed a hate crime, his first feeling was empathy for the man who killed her. He shared from personal experience that violent behavior is inherited through life experience and trauma, and that people aren’t born violent. He said he didn’t absolve the killer of his sins or his crime because it’s not his place to do so, but that he wanted to understand what happened in his life what would lead him to take the life of a young girl he didn’t know. Talk about empathy. Are you kidding me?!?!? I don’t have the words to accurately explain what I felt in that moment. I may have been a little dismayed while at the same time filled with wonder at what I had just heard. It hadn’t occurred to me that empathy isn’t a biased virtue. I think I may have held the belief that empathy was earned, but empathy, like grace, is a virtue that can be extended to whomever we chose. The idea that something as beautiful as empathy could or would be expressed for a murderer was in conflict with my tidy ideas of who gets to receive God’s gifts of grace or empathy. Consequently, I understood Joe a lot more after his vulnerability with us. In that moment he was no longer a cold stranger I met at a gathering, but he started to feel like my brother or at least someone I would never forget.

There are several other remarkable moments from this gathering that I’ll likely share in future blogs. There were stories of unprecedented forgiveness, unparalleled inter-racial conversations, and camaraderie that made me leave and pronounce this gathering the best church service I’d ever been to. In fact I told Eric that as I was leaving. He said: “My grandmother always told me I’d be a preacher.” I told him, she was right, and he’s fulfilling her prophesy. No one in that room professed what faith they hailed from if any, and there were more than a few profanity laced conversations and speeches. Still, somehow I sensed a Divine presence among us. I didn’t sense it because of my favorite song or a great sermon, but because citizens from the community gathered to break bread and share their lives, beliefs, disagreements, and truths with one another. It certainly felt incredibly uncomfortable at times and maybe even a little wild, but perhaps wild is what the world needs right now.

Is there someone or a group of people you struggle to have empathy for?

How can we create more circles like the one I described above in other communities?

 

 

Imperial Myth 3 (Three Political Topics Your Church Hasn’t Avoided)

Imperial Myth 3 (Three Political Topics Your Church Hasn’t Avoided) 1200 627 Corey Leak

Something I find really ironic is people being put off by churches or church leaders talking “politics” from the pulpit. I’ve heard people say things like: Jesus didn’t get involved in politics. Says the pastor who has 12 sermons on the “power of the cross” saved on their computer. We Christians sing songs about the cross, wear crosses on our necklaces, hang crosses from our rear view mirror, display them on our mantels and fire places… as the symbol of our salvation. However, before it was a symbol of redemption, it was a form of capital punishment reserved for political enemies of Rome. Jesus wasn’t stoned to death or murdered in the streets by a soldier or an angry religious leader. He was killed publicly to discourage any other enemy of the state from speaking of any “kingdom” that was powerful enough to usurp Rome. So, yes, I’d say Jesus was involved in politics.

The Jewish people walking the planet during the times of Jesus expected their Messiah to overthrow Roman government through military efforts like the “saviors” before him. Their interpretation of their ancient holy writings lead them to expect physical salvation as much as spiritual if not more. Political struggle has always been a part of the story of mankind, and the writers of the Jewish scriptures didn’t write in a political vacuum. They wrote in the middle of political struggles for supremacy. When John, a political exile, wrote his often misunderstood epic “Book of Revelation”, he was using art to elevate Jesus as the true Divine Emperor who would ultimately make right the injustice enacted by the unjust Roman Emperors. John followed in the footsteps of prophets like Isaiah when he wrote to the Jewish exiles:

“Your leaders are rebels, the companions of thieves. All of them love bribes and demand payoffs, but they refuse to defend the cause of orphans or fight for the rights of widows” Isa 1:23

Imagine hearing words like this at church on Sunday referring to POTUS or Congress. Chances are  you won’t hear anything like that this weekend at church, but if you’ve attended an Evangelical church over the last ten years or so you’ve probably heard “politics” from the pulpit. Here are the five topics I’ve heard, and chances are you have too.

Abortion

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I’ve sat in entire services dedicated to this one topic. It was done with sensitivity to any millennial democrats who may have been in the crowd, but the service and the sermon were both unapologetically anti-abortion. This is a topic that most Evangelicals have historically not been afraid to talk about. The killing of innocent babies inside the womb is an abomination and amongst the most heinous of all of Americas sins perpetrated by leftist sinners. Roe vs Wade was the beginning of America’s fall from God’s grace, and He will judge this nation for it’s horrible sin. That’s some of the rhetoric you’re likely to hear from an Evangelical church about abortion. I think we can all agree that life is sacred, and the taking of life, any life is deeply tragic. I’ve begun to wonder recently if these same Evangelicals are equally concerned about black and brown lives outside of the womb.

 Same Sex Marriage

God made “Adam and Eve” not “Adam and Steve” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that phrase. I’m not sure who coined it, but I hope they patented it. I’d be surprised if you haven’t heard the term “Biblical Marriage” at least once in the last year or so if you’ve gone consistently. That phrase denotes the marriage of a man to a woman. In recent years with the advent of “affirming churches” and homosexual pastors, there has been less and less full sermons or weekends about this topic, but sermon series about marriage and parenting rarely include language or principles that include same sex partners. The term “husband and wife” used throughout and on the images used for marketing and branding the series both reinforce the idea that same sex partners aren’t recognized as married in the churches or God’s eyes. Also, the majority of Evangelical churches have boundaries for where a person from the LBGTQ community can volunteer. I find the fact that few churches speak out as strongly as in years past about this issue interesting. Especially in light of the fact that ,outside of the afore mentioned affirming churches, most Christians still believe that living life together as same sex partners is a sin. Maybe it’s wisdom. Maybe it’s a growing sensitivity to the gay community. Maybe it’s a fear of polarization. Who knows. Though churches haven’t been as vocal in recent years, they haven’t avoided the issue.

Ten Commandments and Prayer in Schools

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Chances are after a school shooting your church has prayed for the victims families and expressed sadness over the violence that claimed innocent life. Usually churches will stop short of talking about “gun control” as a possible solution for ridding our schools of violence, and will instead site the government’s decision to remove prayer and the Ten Commandments from schools.  As if once that happened God stopped caring about what happens to students and faculty in public schools. Again, you’ve probably not heard full sermons on this political topic, but it’s not something your church will avoid mentioning from time to time. Federal law prohibits vocal “disruptive” prayer in schools which is something that Christian churches have lamented since it became law in 1962. In 1990 a small group of students gathered on their campus before school at the flag pole for a time a prayer and scripture reading. Since then, millions of people gather every year on the fourth Wednesday of September for See You at the Pole. The youth pastor at your church and possibly the whole staff likely attended last year, and will again this fall.

I think if we’re all honest, none of us truly have a problem with our church talking politics. Our issue is with churches talking politics we don’t agree with. We applaud the pastor courageous enough to not be “politically correct” when that boldness is in line with our own sentiments. When was the last time you applauded your churches courageous stance you didn’t agree with? We don’t applaud the boldness. We applaud the alignment to our personal values. In my 35 years attending and working at churches, I’ve found that Evangelicals have been most vocal about social change when a democrat is President. It seemed as if America was on the precipus of total moral decay every minute a democrat sat in the Oval Office. I thought God was a republican until ten years ago, and apparently some people still do. I’ll never forget seeing this imaged posted on social media by a Christian artist the moment Trump was elected president.

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Apparently, Jesus wasn’t welcome in the White House under the previous administration. I guess he was avoiding being too political.

What has your experience been with politics in church?

Share your thoughts in the comments below!!!

Left to Right

Left to Right 980 980 Corey Leak

Last week I asked people on my FB page if they believed that the conversation about race was picking up steam in American religious circles. In the dialog that followed I promised a friend I would share a theory I have about the race conversation in America. Often when I’m sharing I ask myself the following question… “Is this BY me or ABOUT me?” Today what I write is a little of both.

I have to admit upfront that I have a severe case of “FOMO”. If I’m not careful I can spend hours on social media gazing at where other people are and what they are doing. When I see people doing things I enjoy doing and believe I do better, I can get in my feelings. I was this way as an artist, and I’ve continued to wrestle with the same issue as an outspoken social activist. It’s hard to watch people who have been silent on issues of race suddenly become an expert on the subject. That is how what I’m about to share is partially “about me”. How’s that for vulnerability?

In a previous blog about MLK I wrote about how revolutionary leaders are rarely celebrated in their lifetime. I believe it’s because their voices are saying something that most people don’t want to hear, but their persistence and the truth of what they are saying make the message they carry irresistible. People can’t argue with the validity of the issues that pioneers raise, but the truth can make humans extremely uncomfortable. That feeling of discomfort typically has 3 outcomes.

  1. Seeking shelter by ignoring the issue altogether, and thereby muting the voices that are saying uncomfortable things.
  2. Combating the legitimacy of the message or the messenger.
  3. Finding a kinder, gentler, more palatable version of the message from someone they are more comfortable listening to.

The latter is what I believe is happening today with the recent, slight increase of conversations about racism within Evangelical organizations. Voices like Shaun King, Michael and Ben McBride, Eric Reid, Colin Kaepernick, Shane Claiborne, Bree Newsome, and Andre Henry make the noise about racial injusticerelentlessly. People like them are deemed “far left extremist”, but the issues they raise cannot be ignored.

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The race conversation continues day after day because people like them are driving the conversation. They endure insults from low key racists trying to belittle them with name calling and arguments against their stances and comments, while other leaders who agree with there principles remain silent.

Eventually, once the noise gets so loud it can’t be ignored, some of those less outspoken “right leaning conservative” leaders are asked to give their take about “diversity”. They are positioned in such a way as to be celebrated because they were given permission to speak on the subject. They were asked to speak about injustice and therefore the message was delivered the “right way”. People applaud, share their words, and say things like “you gotta hear what… said at… conference.”

I understand that hard words are easier to hear in the context of relationship, so I’m not lamenting the process. It’s been around for many moons. Every Martin needs a Malcolm as they say, and John the Baptist was a wild man in the desert saying the same things Jesus was saying in houses with tax collectors and religious leaders. I suppose that’s just how social change works. Some voices scare us, and others saying the same words make us feel safe enough to hear them out.

It’s fine that we praise the voices we respect and resonate with. We all have a preference of style and tone, but I’d ask that we re-think how little credit we give the voices that were brave enough to start and stay in the conversation daily. They’re the ones in the fight on a daily basis, and putting their livelihood and reputations on the line to move us forward toward a more just society.

For those of you wondering, I do consider myself a voice crying out in the wilderness about social issues. Yes, I have been in my feelings watching people I’ve never heard talking about racism before become overnight experts on the subject. However, once I’ve taken my emotional elevator to the top floor of my consciousness, I’m thrilled that the conversation is happening.  I pray it continues on every platform and in every venue possible until we have made every change we can make in our lifetime.

What voices on social change have you listened to the most?

Do you believe the conversation about racial injustice would be where it is today without people like the ones mentioned in this blog?

A Problem to Solve | Part 5 | (Who’s Responsible?)

A Problem to Solve | Part 5 | (Who’s Responsible?) 600 400 Corey Leak

This blog series has been written for leaders in faith-based organizations, and more specifically written for leaders in the Evangelical Christian world. I hope the series’ stories and ideas shared by myself and others have been unsettling – because it’s not until we become discontent with our circumstances that we move to change them. People with privilege and power have the ability to help those without either. So, to conclude this series, I’d like to share a story.

A newly married husband and wife save for a year and buy a 65 inch Samsung QLED television and mount it on their wall above the fire place. The couple never imagined sports and entertainment could be seen in such vivid color. They spend every evening cuddled up together watching movies, sports, and tv shows. It is how they spend quality time with one another, and it draws them closer every day. They never miss an episode of their favorite shows or a single minute of their favorite team playing. Watching tv together is not their only bonding, but it is the primary way this couple connects with each other.

One day the husband asks if he can invite a friend over to have dinner and watch a game. This friend has just moved his company to town and they are old college buddies – it would be great to catch up. The wife agrees, and they invite the friend over. The friend has just moved into his home, and has yet to get a tv. He remarks several times throughout the evening about how amazing the television is and how he’s going to get one for his house. After the game is over the friend leaves, the couple cleans up, and goes to bed. While they are sleeping, the friend breaks into the house, takes the tv off the wall, and takes it home.

The newlyweds wake up the next morning to find dangling chords and holes in the wall where their precious television once was. The couple is rattled and angry, but also confused because nothing else was stolen from their house. The wife, who had never met this friend of her husband’s until the night before, shares that she had a weird feeling about the guy. He seemed a little shady to her. She’s sure it was him that stole the tv, and the husband should confront him.

At his wife’s request he calls his friend and tells him what happened. Before he could finish telling his story, his friend cuts him off and says “I’m so sorry that happened to you. I know that it probably took you and your wife a long time to save up to buy a television like that. Come work for me. I’ll pay you a fair wage, and you can save for another year to buy another television just like the one you had.” The husband discusses it with his wife and agrees to leave his job and work for his friend.

After six months the couple starts to have issues in their marriage. The television is gone, so they have lost the quality time that was once at the center of their lives. The wife is still suspicious of the friend and still believes he’s the one who stole their tv. She quietly resents her husband for not standing up for their family. Now, instead of watching tv together every night, they argue. A few months later the husband’s work begins to suffer.

His friend/boss calls him into his office and asks why his work is suffering. He’s upset because the friend he hired isn’t pulling his weight. The husband shares that he’s having marriage problems that began shortly after their television was stolen, and he doesn’t know if their marriage will survive. The friend responds: “Man, that’s awful. I’m so sorry for you guys. I wish there was something I could do”. After work he goes home turns on “his” tv, and begins to feel sadness for the couple. He wonders what he can do. He comes to the conclusion that something has to be done, so he calls the couples house. The wife answers the phone. The friend says: “Your husband told me you two have been having a rough time. Is there anything I can do?” 

The wife tells him that she knows what he did, and that if he really wants to help, he should bring their television back and mount it back above their fireplace. The friend confesses. He apologizes profusely. He recognizes that his actions were the catalyst for the distress in their home. After apologizing over and over again to the wife on the phone he asks, “Do you think you and your husband will have some time this week to come by and take your tv off my wall and remount it in your own home? I’m really busy, and I’m not sure I’ll get to it for quite a while.” 

Who do you believe bears the responsibility for solving the problem these people now find themselves in?