Commentary

Calvary United Methodist Church in Durham, N.C., faces a predicament neither unique or new: a downtown church, once the center of its neighborhood’s life, now struggling. Attendance, like giving, has been on a slow decline for some years now. If the church were to close, the lot could simply be sold to the highest bidder, its building torn down. Erected in its place will likely be more places for people to spend money: shops and restaurants, luxury apartments, maybe.

Though small in size — Calvary averages close to 30 in worship — the active members remain enthusiastic, feeling a sense of vibrancy in their communal life and work. So every now and then the seeming inevitability of its decline is interrupted. One such occasion was a Wednesday evening last November, when 100 people from across Durham packed into a full sanctuary. No one came for a worship service; they came to talk about socialism.

When Calvary’s leadership team got the request that a local chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, along with other decidedly leftist organizations, needed a place to host a forum on inequality in our city, there was mix of confusion and surprise. Even for a church like Calvary, with a history of making bold, progressive stances on LGBTQ rights, anything that resembled “politics” can feel taboo. But after some discussion, the church agreed to host the event. The broad consensus was that this issue matters to our neighbors and it ought to matter to us, which seemed as good a reason as any to host the forum at the church.

I (Chris) started serving as Calvary’s pastor in July of last year. I spent the year prior working as a labor organizer alongside workers building power to make needed changes in their workplace. Like many of my Christian friends my age, I generally find church communities frustratingly inadequate at providing ways to make sense of economic injustices — or the resources to hope for a world beyond them. Churches don’t just sit on the sidelines of struggles between workers and their bosses; they don’t even go anywhere near the stadium. But on that night, I caught a glimpse of those two struggles, the struggle of faith and that of organizing for a better world, coinciding.

The energy in the room during the panel discussion was contagious. What began with a panel of organizers and activists presenting on the realities of inequality in our city turned into a community conversation led by people directly affected by pressing issues like the lack of affordable housing and low wages. The forum created the occasion for people to speak prophetically, just as it created the occasion for members of the church to hear them, to repent, and to leave changed. All of this happened because the church opened its doors to people from the outside without fear of the fact that they came with serious questions about capitalism.

They’re not alone.

A generation, questioning the system

I (John) work as the Associate Pastor of Youth, Missions, and Adults at a church located in the heart of downtown Winston-Salem, N.C. The congregation at First Baptist on Fifth prides itself on being a moderate, Baptist congregation that has long served as a stable community of faith. Our appeal throughout our 140-year history has been our openness to dialogue on both sides of the theological and political spectrum. This openness to change led to the creation of a childcare center that welcomed children of all races in 1967, making it the first integrated educational institution in Forsyth County. However, before calling our current senior minister three years ago, the church had undergone a similar decline to others: The average age rose while weekly attendance steadily waned. The response from the older members has been a slow but steady release of long-held assumptions about church in order to make space for younger congregants. In recent years, a small and dedicated group of young adults have joined the life of our church, bringing with them different concerns and convictions than many of the older members in our congregation.

From 5:15 - 7:15 p.m., our Fellowship Hall is primarily populated with older members. Most of them, whether conservative or liberal, believe that though “politics” and “the economy” are important topics of conversation for our church, they ought to be addressed in ways that avoid division, and so we rarely discuss them in significant ways within our congregational life for fear of divisive rhetoric. The programming primarily focuses on spiritual development or biblical studies. After one Wednesday night meal, I hurried around the corner to a bar to lead a discussion on the recently released book, Kids These Days, with a few of the church’s younger adult members who can’t make it to the Fellowship Hall because of their work schedules. The book chronicles the ways millennials have worked in institutions shaped according to capitalist rules of speed, pressure, and increased output. The result is a generation that’s more educated and productive, but also more medicated, depressed, anxious, and financially unstable than previous generations.

During the conversation about the increased pressure and rising anxiety experienced by children in their schools, one member declared, “I just hate this. This way of treating one another is so unChristian and horrible, and we’re all just doing it to keep this capitalist system going.” What I witnessed that night was not necessarily a group ready to join up with a socialist revolution, but people recognizing the intersections present between their lives as working people, the economic system that we live under, and our calling to live in a distinctively Christian way marked by a love that cherishes those around us. The recognition of these intersections produced an explicit political urgency absent from our typical programming and conversations at church. The questions we posed were less about how we avoid divisive language and more about what to do with the political and economic divisions inherent to our lives as workers in our economy in 2018.

It seems that changes to the economy in the last 30 years have opened new avenues of conversation and questions for people of faith that many members of a previous generation haven’t experienced. And so a tension emerges within our congregation: Many of our older members want younger people in the pews while simultaneously hoping to avoid addressing the specific politics that make up our material lives for fear divisive political stances that cannot be agreed upon by the broadest possible consensus. It remains to be seen how long this tension can hold.

How did we get here?

It’s important to be explicit about the changes that have occurred in our economy over the last three decades to which people are responding.

What’s changed is the cost of living, wages, and the stability of income. As documented in the book The Two Income Trap, fixed costs like housing, health care, and education took up 50 percent of an average family’s budget in 1973. Those same fixed costs now eat up 75 percent. Wages have remained stagnant for 30 years while productivity has drastically increased, the difference being soaked up by the wealthiest 1 percent. Not only do things cost more while we get paid less, but our income is less stable.

Estimates suggest that by 2020, restaurant jobs will surpass manufacturing jobs in America. From 2005 to 2015, 94 percent of the jobs added to the U.S. economy were part-time, contract, or temporary — jobs that offer far less stable hours, pay, and benefits. For a vast majority of Americans, the most important things cost more, they have less money to pay for them, and the money they do earn comes in infrequently.

Given these changes in the economy, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that a recent poll found that 44 percent of millennials would prefer to live in a socialist country compared to 42 percent that prefer a capitalist one. The explanation? Fifty-three percent of millennials feel the U.S. economy works against them. While millennials are disaffiliating from organized religion at record numbers, young membership in organizations like Democratic Socialists of America and unions have been on the rise. Perhaps there is something for churches and Christians to pay attention to here. Like those young adults gathered around the table, we believe that younger people in the country fighting for a different economic system are also interested in hearing what their faith has to say about such efforts. People want to know that their faith and their church have something to say to the most basic needs of their lives, needs that go unfulfilled by the system we presently live with.

Over the past decade, churches both conservative and liberal, white and black, have taken to heart Martin Luther King Jr.’s observation that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America and have sought to become more diverse in their membership and partnership in building a more equal community. This has often coincided with attempts to work for some form of economic racial justice to close the income gap between black and white families. Efforts to do so have focused on expanding job opportunities through skills training for the unemployed, geographically focused Christian community development, improving educational outcomes through tutoring or mentoring programs for children in schools in poor neighborhoods, and political advocacy to protect people of color from those that prey on the economically vulnerable. These are all efforts to build a more equal society within our existing structures.

However, a recently released study reveals some bad news about these efforts: They haven’t worked, or perhaps more precisely, they’ve been undermined. The authors write, “In 1968, shortly after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the median family income of African Americans was 57 percent that of whites. In 2016, after almost 50 years of anti-discrimination legislation, attempts to equalize access to education, and cultural change, it was 56 percent.” The cause for this lack of progress? The increase in overall inequality. While the positional black-white family income gap closed by about one-third in a 40-year period, these gains were almost completely wiped out due to the growth in overall income inequality driven by the gains made by the wealthiest 1 percent, a group that is disproportionately white.

This is just one example — we could list plenty of others. Despite consistent efforts to house the homeless, the national homelessness rate has remained remarkably persistent, the result of housing being dictated by income not need. While welfare reform moved people off the welfare rolls, it did little to mitigate poverty, leaving people, churches, and other non-profits to pick up the slack. If churches take poverty, inequality, homelessness, and racial justice seriously, we need to deal with the fact that these are products of our current economic system. We may not have the power within our grasp to change the system, but we owe it to ourselves, our congregants, and the world to speak truthfully about what it is we are up against.

We both believe there are good reasons for churches and Christians to begin making space for people of faith to question our current economic systems. Doing so would show a willingness to engage in the struggles of young people that may have given up on faith. It would give a broader context to works of justice churches presently engage in. But we also believe Christians are called toward a hopeful future, a future of equality.

Beyond partisanship

The election of Donald Trump has revealed the willingness of right-wing Christians to accept personal vulgarity, racial bigotry, and immorality in their leaders. They reason that no leader is perfect and while Trump has his flaws and failures, he will still work politically to further the goals of those Christians. And yet, Trump’s election has also revealed the failure of so many Christians to reject the vulgarity and immorality of a system that produces such drastic inequality. One day Trump will be gone, and we see people hungry not just for his departure nor merely a swing back to Democratic Party control, but for a society different than the one that got us Trump in the first place. The question posed before Christians is whether we can articulate and fight for a calling to a better system, a better way of arranging our lives together that would foster equality and loving community as God desires.

What we both believe the world needs in this time and place is a church willing to release God from the bondage of their incrementalism and respectability and instead learn together to profess in and follow a God who is working to make a material difference in the lives of all people, not just the wealthy. Such churches must be willing to look outside their walls to see where God is calling them to build a different society. Good places to begin are labor unions, worker co-ops, and political organizers that work for more than reforms to the existing system but strive toward revolutionary change.

In this regard, the work of the church is not so much to lead, but to join. Churches could provide the space for people from the outside to find rest, healing, and renewal for the long fight ahead. They could also articulate a radical calling of the gospel that doesn’t just name injustices lying on the surface, but expands the vision of congregants to see the ways in which the God of Scripture desires a social order that promotes equality over exploitation.

One hundred people showed up at Calvary on a Wednesday night, almost all of whom had never been there before. Of course, they weren’t coming because it was a church. For many gathered it was likely just another venue. But churches should match the need for cost-free space for such gatherings with a willingness to show up with a deeper vision of what could be. A church could be a space of democratic inclusion and encounter. We could be a space where the voices of the oppressed are heard, where their stories call for repentance, and where we commit together to work for the other world begun in Jesus. What is the church community if not a people willing to prophetically live into a world where everyone has as they need? What is church if not a community of freedom?

During the forum at Calvary, one of the panelists let out a four-letter word that might make an elderly Sunday School teacher blush. It slipped out during an enraged response she gave to the lack of affordable housing in Durham in contrast to the high-rise apartments going up daily. Just as she said it she recoiled, “Oops. I probably shouldn’t say that in church.”

A few minutes later a member of the congregation that happened to attend the event stood up and said, “And to the young woman who just said that word, as a member of this church, I want to tell you that you are welcome to speak freely. I want to tell you to be free.”

Chris Agoranos is pastor of Calvary United Methodist Church in Durham, N.C., and a founding member of the Life Lines Collective, a podcast of creative writing by folks on death row.

John Thornton Jr. is an associate pastor at First Baptist on Fifth in Winston-Salem, N.C. He received a B.A. in Religious Studies from Baylor University and a Masters of Divinity from Duke Divinity School.

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November 2018
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