"Religion deals with both earth and heaven, both time and eternity. It seeks not only to integrate men with God but to integrate men with men and each man with himself. On the one hand it seeks to change the souls of men, and thereby unite them with God; on the other hand it seeks to change the environmental conditions of men so that the soul will have a chance after it is changed." --Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
There have been many reflections and comments about race in the Emergent Church movement, and as someone who has a heart for racial reconciliation I am interested in this conversation. My passion for racial unity comes out of the recognition that the sin of racism has become a stumbling block to many people of color accepting Christ.
I became a Christian in the Black Baptist church, but since I was not raised as a Christian I had to pull from many different resources to aid my discipleship. I did not have the privilege of living a segregated Christian life. On Sunday I worshiped in the Black church tradition and on Monday morning I listened to Rev. Charles Stanley, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. His words inspired me to live a life of integrity while facing circumstances that violated the integrity of my humanity. In addition to the African-American church mothers who poured into my life, my White Evangelical high school teacher Sue Ascolese encouraged me in the faith. As I look back over my 13 years in Christ, I realize that my discipleship is richer because it included the entire body of Christ, not just the part that looks like me, thinks like me, and agrees with me.
I want to offer an eyewitness account of the church that is emerging globally and in our own backyards. From April 9-11 I attended the Poverty Initiative's Strategic Dialogue on Religion and Media at Union Theological Seminary. This conference brought together more than 70 grassroots leaders who are on the front lines doing justice as people most affected by the issues of racism, classism, homophobia, and sexism. During a workshop on maintaining your personal spirituality while doing justice work, Willie Baptist, Scholar in Residence at the Poverty Initiative, discussed Rev. King's concept of a Freedom Church of the Poor. By the end of this conference I realized that I was apart of an emerging church movement but it was not the one that is being written about or discussed in Christian press. I was apart of the Freedom Church of the Poor.
Over the pass few years I have experienced this church and yet it is not new. If we examine church history we will see that the first century church had much in common with the poor global church which Dr. Soong Chan Rah discusses in his book: The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity. The Freedom Church of the Poor is not for one race or class but in my opinion is a church where people come together to live out Christ declaration to: "preach good news to the poor."
I hear about this church when NY Faith & Justice updates me about the reconciliation work occurring between police officers and community members in the South Bronx. I have experienced this church during times of "Special Communions" where I prayed, shared meals, and laughed with a group of friends who were Black, White, straight, Queer, Baptist, Episcopalian, and a host of other categories that shouldn't worship together according to the empire. I have worshiped in a Hip Hop Church where more than 30 Harlem youth respond to the call to follow Christ.
When I hear about persecuted Christians in China sharing one Bible between multiple villages I know that, like the revolution, this emergence won't be televised. I want to make it clear that whatever your social location, you can be a part of this emergence. Dr. King was middle class and yet decided to advocate for the poor of all races.
What I am witnessing is bigger than an economic justice movement or racial sensitivity but was prophesied by Isaiah long ago when it was written: "they will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations." As the composition of the church rapidly changes, anyone wishing to be a part of it is going to have to engage the issues of the marginalized.
I have resolved that instead of becoming frustrated when I do not see my reality represented in mainstream American Christianity, my eyes are going to watch God as the Spirit births a church that will challenge the empire.
For more information on the Freedom Church of the Poor read Building the New Freedom Church of the Poor by Willie Baptist & Noelle Damico.
Onleilove Alston is a native Brooklynite and student at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University School of Social Work. She is a member of the Special Communion Blogging Collective. Her personal blog is Esther's Call and she worships at Metro Hope Church.