My heart is broken over the violence and bloodshed in Charlottesville, not only for those injured and the lives lost, but for the systemic racism that was exposed and the divided nature of the Body of Christ.
I am convicted as a spiritual leader in my community to do more. I question why it takes something like this for the church to suddenly recover a prophetic voice and speak truth to power?
At the same time, I am proud of the community where I live and serve, Wildwood, Florida. What changed in Wildwood after Charlottesville? The short answer to this question is “not much.” The reason being that the folks in the Wildwood community were working proactively to deal with racism and systemic oppression before the band-aid was pulled off the horrible wound of untreated white supremacy in our nation.
The Revolution will not be Televised
Last year, in a time of civil unrest, multiple allegations of police brutality, and tense race relations, around 400 people gathered at Wildwood City Hall to pray. People showed up by the bus load ready to march. Law enforcement and elected officials spoke beside clergy with one voice, songs were sung, prayers were offered.
One of the clergy leaders, Pastor Eric Wilkins, encouraged everyone gathered to find a person they didn’t know with a different skin color, embrace them, give them your phone number and call them tomorrow. Right at city hall, the kingdom of God broke into the world in a fresh way, as people embraced, connected, and relationships were formed. Someone showed up with cupcakes and a love feast erupted!
We walked in prayer from city hall down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, hundreds of people marching together, singing, laughing, holding hands.
We stopped our procession on the corner of Jackson Street. There, at a community center, in the epicenter of violence and drug activity in Wildwood, we once again paused to pray, sing, and connect, as the holy spirit flowed through and among us. More and more people began to join us from the neighborhood.
To see law enforcement and community alike lay aside our differences and pray for and with each other was significant. I have never witnessed such a tangible moment of healing and reconciliation among a crowd: Neighbors praying over the officers they once saw as the enemy. Officers embracing people they had probably arrested a time or two. This was the new creation breaking into Wildwood.
Then God did something special for us. From the makeshift stage of a trailer bed, a huge double rainbow appeared over our gathering. An eruption of cheers, joyful applause, hugging and weeping ensued. The day concluded with that rainbow, the brightest double rainbow most of us had ever seen, a sign of God’s covenantal promise of a new beginning.
There was no violence. There was no protest. Nothing controversial, except the controversial love that we shared.
You probably didn’t hear about this on FOX or NBC because most of the time, love doesn’t make the headlines. Good things are not as press worthy as political division, violence, and upheaval. The Jesus revolution is perpetuated through small acts of selfless love, non-violent subversion, and harmony. Rarely is that revolution televised, but it is alive and well.
Fresh Expressions Teams Release Movements
What many people don’t know, is that the Prayer Walk for Racial Peace was envisioned and implemented by our Fresh Expressions Team. After a recent homicide on Jackson Street in Wildwood and racial tension across the nation, that team, which includes members from four local churches, was praying and asking God what we could do to bring our community together.
We agreed that Jesus didn’t wait back at the synagogue—he went to where the people were experiencing crisis and met their need. We agreed prayer must be combined with decisive action. We reached out to more clergy friends and created the Wildwood Clergy Coalition, an interracial group of church leaders focused specifically on creating systemic kingdom change in our community.
The prayer walk created a network of relationships and racial unity in our community. So, when Charlottesville occurred, we were prepared to act prayerfully and decisively. We held a week long city-wide revival, and we are intentionally gathering at each other’s churches to fellowship, eat, worship, and strategize together. Wildwood is a different kind of community today, and for all the Charlottesville situations in our country, there are Wildwood’s as well.
Here are some “fresh” lessons we have learned by seeking to embody a unified, missional, network approach in our community.
1. Prayerful Mobilization
All great kingdom movements begin on our knees. Then we need to get up and put sneakers on our prayers. We need to learn to do prayer in motion. To “pray unceasingly,” is to pray while acting. It’s cute that spiritual leaders were suddenly emboldened to “speak truth to power” and call out white supremacy and racism as sin, now let’s get to the prayerful work of the ministry of reconciliation.
2. Intentional Relationship
God does not heal our racism with wisdom, blogs, social media rants, or even prayer, but through prayerful, vulnerable, relationships with racial others. We are committed to being with each other, becoming other-oriented. We want to hear each other’s hearts. Know each other’s stories. We want to not just gather to march, worship, and pray, but to talk and listen to each other.
3. Interracial Leadership Teams
We believe most communities need to revamp their ministerial associations and focus them intentionally on being interracial. We found most ministry networks have been around for decades and have firmly set agendas. We also discovered most of them are racially segregated. When the focus becomes intentionality around bringing all races to the table, something fresh and powerful is formed. This is our heart with the Wildwood Clergy Coalition.
4. Consistent Gatherings
Racism in communities is not healed overnight. We must be consistent and committed to being with each other. Those gatherings need to be fresh, communal, egalitarian, creative, and regular.
5. Costly Preaching and Embodied With-ness
It shouldn’t take something like Charlottesville to suddenly give ministers the courage to call out the systemic racism preserved in all major USA systems (judicial, financial, educational, religious, etc.). We should be continually confronting those realities in proactive ways.
Note: this will cost you.
What happens when we begin to call out the evils of imperial Christianity? What happens when we confront the fact that the church has largely become a handmaiden of Empire, where some churches would rather have a flag and an eagle on the walls of their sanctuaries than a cross? What happens when we face the fact the church has been complicit in preserving racism?
If you chose to confront the long-standing evils that have been preserved within the US institutional church, people will leave. Don’t worry, they will find another church, there are lots of those kinds of churches around that will gladly receive them. If we are going to shake off the imperial shackles and recover from decline, some churches will need to take a risk to plant the seeds of what the church will become in the future.
Please understand, I don’t want anyone to leave our church. People who think differently are not disposable. Some of those precious folks have been carrying the church on their backs for many decades. I am only highlighting what I have found to be true in experience. Clergy on this new missional frontier will have to couple the apostolic and prophetic impulse with authentic pastoral care. Folks don’t care what you know until they know you care. People are more receptive to bold “speaking the truth in love” if they know that you deeply love them.
What people desire most is embodied “with-ness.” They will trade some of our best sermons for a couple minutes of our time. Prophetic preaching must be yoked with embodied with-ness. Acknowledging that in revitalization situations, attendance usually declines before it begins to rejuvenate, it is essential that preaching not only echo through the four walls of sparsely populated sanctuaries, but must be embodied in the neighborhoods and networks around us.
6. Get Political… Sort of…
The church in the West needs to seriously recover a theology of Jesus’ Lordship over the Societal Sphere (Lord, in the sense of master, ruler, and highest level of leadership over every dimension of creation). Jesus’ Lordship is not limited to us individually, or the church communally, but encompasses all societies and the cosmos as well.
The church at its very core has a “political” claim. All human claims to power are subject to Jesus. This assertion may seem at first glance like a conundrum in a world plagued with terrorist attacks, inequality, poverty, and corruption at every level of most governments. One might ask, “How can Jesus be Lord of this?” Some question if the church is making any impact at all.
Jesus and his followers have undeniably reshaped the societal sphere in incalculable ways. Yet, Jesus’ reign has both future and present dimensions (Matt 13:33). From local mayors, to presidents and dictators, every human claim to power is hollow and ultimately accountable to Jesus (Jn 19:11; Phil 2:10-11).
At one congregation I once served, I often challenged the self-indulgent, extravagant, and politically polarized nature of the retirement lifestyle within that community. I consistently reminded the people that the hope of our nation and world is not predicated upon the election of a person allied with a particular political party.
Republican, Democrat, liberal, conservative, have no bearing on the kind of politics we speak of. Our political identity is “Christian.” Our political allegiance to the Lordship of Jesus supersedes all others, warns against costly extravagance, calls us to work for social justice, and demands our very lives. Needless to say, it wasn’t received well by many.
7. Collaboration with Law Enforcement and Elected Officials
Any time we have gathered publicly to pray, to march, or to worship, we always invite law enforcement and elected officials to participate. It creates a different dynamic when leadership speaks together with one voice, with a vision for a better future for communities.
We march together hand in hand. We pray for and with each other. We exchange mutual respect and appreciation.
8. Think Revolution Not Institution
The church needs to awaken from our apostolic amnesia and recover our revolutionary nature. Any time movements have been institutionalized they begin to decline. It is much more comfortable to hide out in our institutions, than join the Holy Spirit on the frontlines of revolution.
If we can no longer envision a world without racism and bloodshed, we have ceased being human. The key is to dream big and start small. One small step at a time. One gathering at a time. One relationship at a time. The revolution continues.
I envision a sweeping revival taking place in our nation. It’s my hope we can learn from Charlottesville so something like it will never happen again.
A Revolutionary Mission
Human beings, created “very good” in the image of God, are currently broken and infected with inbeing sin. Among other ways, we express that brokenness through our “isms” racism, patriotism, sexism, nationalism, and exclusivism. In the midst of our sin-broken lives, God is on a mission of restoration.
One aspect of God’s redemptive mission is to create one authentic, diverse, peaceable community of all humanity. That mission starts in Genesis with “where are you?” (Gen 3:9) and is fulfilled with “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne” (Rev 7:9).
This Triune God accomplishes this rescue mission, by putting on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, and sending the Holy Spirit.
Søren Kierkegaard said “Christ is the Truth inasmuch as He is the way. He who does not follow the way also abandons the truth. We possess Christ’s truth only by imitating him, not by speculating about him.”
Jesus, as “the way,” came to heal the brokenness of humanity, not just for a single people group. He reaches out to the marginalized (Matt 15:21-28), those considered racially/religiously impure (Jn 4), and the religious other excluded from community (Lk 7). The Spirit comes at Pentecost to empower this mission, enabling the disciples to speak in all the native tongues of the known world (Acts 2:8).
The church, as God’s redemptive instrument in the world, must continue to find fresh ways to continue the work of restoration and reconciliation. We must re-envision ourselves as little revolutionary colonies of new creation in a sin-marred valley.
If we don’t find fresh, proactive ways to embody God’s love in this nation, I fear the cycles of violence, systemic oppression, and anarchic revolt are only beginning.
Rev. Michael Beck is South Atlantic Coordinator Fresh Expressions US and North Central District Cultivator of Fresh Expressions for the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. Michael serves as senior pastor of Wildwood UMC where he directs addiction recovery programs, a jail ministry, a food pantry, and a network of fresh expressions that meet in places like tattoo parlors and burrito joints. He currently lives in Wildwood with his wife, Jill, and their blended family of 8 children.