The Pentecostal Pastor Who Wants to Combat Violence With Holy Imagination | Sojourners

The Pentecostal Pastor Who Wants to Combat Violence With Holy Imagination

Photo of Michael McBride. Photo credit: Squint. Graphic by Tiarra Lucas/Sojourners.

This interview is part of The Reconstruct, a weekly newsletter from Sojourners. In a world where so much needs to change, Mitchell Atencio and Josiah R. Daniels interview people who have faith in a new future and are working toward repair. Subscribe here.

When I was living on the West Side of Chicago, friends and family would often say that they couldn’t comprehend why I would want to live in such a “dangerous” area. The exchange would usually go something like the following: “I can’t imagine why you’d want to live in Chicago, considering all the gun violence.” “Are you worried about me being shot by the police?” “Well, no. The criminals are the ones who are shooting people.” “The police shoot people too. And there’s a reason the ‘criminals’ are resorting to violence.”

I would then go on to explain the antecedents to Chicago’s gun violence: racial segregation and systemic disinvestment. Beginning in the 1950s and into the ’70s, white Chicagoans fled the South and West Sides because they couldn’t imagine being neighbors with Black people. Because of this, these areas became predominantly Black, and the city has refused to invest resources into these neighborhoods to reverse their poor conditions. The South and West Sides are still suffering from disinvestment today, and this disinvestment is a major contributor to gun violence.

Whether it’s Chicago or other cities in the United States, refusing to provide residents with resources due to their race and class makes those residents feel that their lives don’t matter and that resorting to violence is the only way for them to acquire resources. Even after explaining all that, the friend or family member would say, “I still can’t imagine why you’d want to live in a place with so much gun violence.”

Pastor and activist Michael McBride is working toward a world where gun violence is truly addressed. McBride is the lead pastor at The Way Christian Center, a church in Berkeley, Calif., where he is heavily involved with the community in addressing gun violence and its root causes.

McBride knows that while there are systemic reasons for gun violence, there are also ways to end it. Ending gun violence requires that the root causes — systemic racism, poverty, disinvestment — be addressed.

McBride told me that addressing these root causes requires a “holy imagination” that’s “not bound by the fear of our neighbor” but instead focuses on “constructive work” that imagines a world “informed by the vision that God has given to us.” I sat down with Pastor Mike to talk more about this holy imagination and the impact it could have on the world.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Josiah R. Daniels, Sojourners: Who are you and what do you do?

Michael McBride: I am a fourth-generation holiness Pentecostal preacher out of San Francisco. I’m from the Bay Area. I pastor The Way Christian Center in Berkeley, a 50-plus-year-old church that is committed to maintaining Pentecostal spirituality.

I also lead Live Free, which is one of the largest, if not the largest, faith-based organizing network that is committed to working on ending gun violence, mass incarceration, and police violence in the country. I also lead the BlackChurchPAC, which is a strategic initiative of our Black churches across the country committed to addressing the issue of building independent political power, using the relational networks of Black churches to address issues of justice in our country.

What does it mean to catch someone considering gun violence at “the point of despair”?

What we know is that in Black communities across the country, some Latino communities too, as well as a number of low-wealth communities, people are enduring gun-related injuries that are both self-harm and [occur during] interpersonal conflicts.

We know that for a lot of our community members, despair, depression, isolation, unaddressed anger, and pain cause a lot of our folks to navigate a world where they don’t have lots of mental health support and services. And so what I have found is just being proximal to community members at the point of their greatest desperation is important.

So, that means staying in relationship with folks, not showing up in ways that are overly judgmental or full of assumptions … But being committed to being an agent of peace, of healing, of reducing harm, and not relying on legitimate or illegitimate violence to redress that harm or relying on criminalization and punitiveness to prevent that harm.

What sort of work does The Way do with the police?

We don’t do much with the police. Our relationship with the police is generally pretty limited. There may be moments where we have to deal with issues of domestic violence, sure; issues of injury or abuse to children, but even those incidences — when they involve members of our congregation who are often, unfortunately, low-wealth individuals or have had their own challenging relationships or interactions with the police — they’re not always very excited to even bring the police in those moments.

We believe that the institution of policing has become particularly influenced by anti-Black racism as a system. So we have a relationship with the police that is largely around accountability and a last resort. Which is very unfortunate since our tax dollars are still going to the police in large amounts, but also it’s the institution that’s supposed to protect and serve and it unfortunately does not do that with enough consistency for the members of my community, my church, and our neighborhoods.

What is your sense of your congregation’s position in terms of accountability versus abolition? Is that a conversation that you find yourself having with congregants?

I think accountability is the basement. It’s the minimal response. Every community has a public safety — community safety — kind of framework and infrastructure but it is not racialized like it is in American policing. It certainly is not as unaccountable.

And I also believe it certainly does not exhaust the tax base of communities in a commensurate way across history. What we want to abolish is the system of policing in its current form that depends on, or is often overly racialized, punitive, and does not give us the kind of public safety — community safety — that we all want.

Certainly no one I talk to, committed to abolitionist principles, doesn’t believe there needs to be some kind of community safety infrastructure. And in our minds, we want to say, if we’re spending 40 cents of every dollar on policing, why not spend 15 percent of every dollar to actually address the root causes of poverty that make the presence of crime, desperation, and harm even possible?

(According to Mother Jones, most cities dedicate 25 to 40 percent of the city budget on policing. According to Vera Institute of Justice, San Francisco spends 9 percent of its budget on police.)

That requires an imagination. I hope it’s a holy imagination. We’re not bound by the fear of our neighbor, we’re not bound by the criminalization framework of those around us related to Black folks, brown folks, non-white folks, right? And we need to, as a society and particularly in the Christian community, start to see new visions and dream new dreams.

We need to see a new Jerusalem — a new heaven, a new earth — and I think some of that does indeed begin with embracing an abolitionist sensibility. Not in a very crass, misrepresented way as the “defund the police” narrative took root. But [in a way where we are seeing] visions and dreaming a new dream that is about the well-being of our neighbors, starting with the deep investment in our neighbor, loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, seeking the peace of the city where we live. For if we seek the peace of that city, then we will find peace.

Talk to me a little bit about what you mean by holy imagination.

I’m fourth-generation holiness Pentecostal. “Holy” just flows off my tongue. I am out of the Wesleyan branch of Pentecostal spirituality.

So to me, holiness is this idea that the whole person is held and dealt with, in right relationship with the creator; we are in alignment with our most highest purpose. And that we are living every day, hopefully bearing witness to the kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven.

To have a holy imagination is to have an imagination that is fueled by the sacred, divine possibilities of the creator, certainly informed by the life teachings and ministry of Jesus. It is to ensure that I love my neighbor as myself; it is to ensure that I am a person of peace and not violence; it is to ensure that I create space for those who live on the margins; it is to ensure that I live into the kind of relationships that are healthy, that are bringing glory and honor to God, that when people look at the lives we live they can say, “That’s something that feels holy, that feels sacred, that feels transcendent.”

But I do believe having a holy imagination is really not just about speech. It’s also about constructive work. How are we building something that is informed by the vision that God has given to us?

What do you hope to construct in place of gun violence?

I hope to construct communities that don’t have to be overly determined by trauma, by anger, by fear, by pain, by loss, by death, by destroyed families and relationships, by retaliatory violence, and perhaps even preemptive violence. [I hope to construct a] community where everybody can thrive and not be susceptible to seeing a dead body on their way to school, as my daughters did just last week.

The idea that my 14-year-old and my 11-year-old daughter walking to school saw a dead body is not the world that our children should live in. And yet [that is the case not] just here, but all across the country and across the world: Dead bodies seem to be prevalent among those who claim to follow the ways of the Most High.

If Christians and Jews and Muslims and people of faith can tap into our traditions and commit to not take life, then perhaps we will actually find a way forward where violence is not so ubiquitous.

What do you think it will take for Christians to realize that the money that we pay for taxes should go toward the common good?

John A. Powell, [now director] of the Othering & Belonging Institute, [traces] how “the browning of America” over the last 50 or 60 years has resulted in the shrinking of the tax base of America. When the United States was largely considered a white nation, with the public resources being largely disseminated among white Americans, there was a level of generosity and care that people held — a common social compact. [But] as public accommodations began to expand to nonwhite people, Black folks, Asians, Latinos, immigrants, etc., the mainstream of America began to be less generous, compassionate, and willing to expand.

We as Christians in this country need to interrogate our relationship with racialized capitalism. Which sounds radical, but at its core it’s about how we make our money and how willing are we to take care of our neighbor who may not look like us?

It’s sad to say that Christians in America need to reckon with those two questions, because we love to preach this ethic of moral responsibility, but many Americans make their wealth off of the exploited labor of the poor. Many Americans invest their money in enterprises that literally take advantage of the labor of the poor across the globe. And then we pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. When in reality, we are the ones who are robbing and pillaging creation, so we can have some accouterments of comfort.

I do hope a new sensibility, an anti-war sensibility, begins to emerge among the Western American Christian, because we are now resurrecting a very sad association with making war across the world.

It is a mistake. Every bomb we drop contributes to the houselessness of one of our own neighbors. Every missile we launch ensures that we don’t have the resources for food programs. Every fighter jet that we create likely means that we don’t have the ability to have well-funded schools in our communities. We must interrogate the war economy of our country, again, undergirded by our tax dollars.

Editor’s note: This article was updated on Dec. 5 to correct the spelling of Berkeley, Calif.

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