José Humphreys III, author of Seeing Jesus in East Harlem: What Happens When Churches Show Up and Stay Put, is a native New-Yorker, ordained minister, and co-founder of Metro Hope Church in New York City.
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How to Be a Healthier Faith Activist
NEW YORKERS CAN show up late to the party when it comes to slowing down with the summer. Even with the haze and humidity conspiring for an unholy pairing, thickening the air, and lathering our skyscrapers—our hustle remains undeterred. We might pause momentarily in the caress of the cool air leaking out of department store foyers. Still, many of us only begrudgingly slow down.
Fight as we might, our bodies are always communicating. Sending messages. Receiving them. Storytelling and processing the world. Heaven and life continue to stream data vying for our attention by different means. Thomas Merton wrote, “For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each moment brings with it germs of spiritual vitality that come to rest imperceptibly in the minds and wills of [people].” For Merton, this data could land unbeknownst to us. Many BIPOC folks, however, have experienced this sense of knowing through the body. It is something many contemplative activists are also reclaiming as part of an abolitionist heritage.
The Howard Thurman Question That Changed My Faith
SEVENTY-FOUR YEARS AGO, scholar, mystic, and pastor Howard Thurman gave a lecture series at Samuel Huston College (now Huston-Tillotson University) in Austin, Texas. The series would become the basis for his seminal book Jesus and the Disinherited. One of Thurman’s students, Martin Luther King Jr., reportedly traveled with a copy of Thurman’s book. Through his writings and teachings, Thurman was a mentor and chaplain for many activists during the civil rights movement.
Jesus and the Disinherited continues to inspire many contemplatives and activists and has profoundly shaped my own approach to ministry. The main inspiration comes through a question Thurman posed to American Christianity: “What, then, is the word of the religion of Jesus to those who stand with their backs against the wall?” Thurman’s question confronted the fact that American Christianity was, as historian Vincent Harding put it, a “strange mutation” away from the teachings and ethics of Jesus. Jesus, who was raised in the poor village of Nazareth out of the mainstream of Roman culture. Jesus, who was Galilean, which meant that even among the Jews, Jesus and his people were considered outcasts. Jesus, who spent many of his days moving from town to town touching lepers, transgressing boundaries, befriending Samaritans, and turning over the tables on corrupt economic practices in the temple. In light of Jesus’ ministry, Thurman was challenging an American Christianity that was rampantly materialistic and segregationist, looming above the daily experiences of the disinherited. Thurman’s writings demonstrated how a path-altering question can help inoculate our faith from harmful (American) mutations and point us back to the integrity of Jesus’ Way.
Yet Here We Are Together
STROLLING THROUGH MY neighborhood in East Harlem recently, I noticed whole blocks that felt almost desolate. Along 3rd Avenue I saw stretches of sidewalk once bustling with small businesses, street vendors, the smell of incense, and the sound of West African music, now abandoned amid the echoes of what was.
As a citizen of these barrio streets, the feeling I get is a form of ecological despair. And while some of these places of disinheritance were there before, it seems to have gotten worse during the COVID-19 pandemic. The glitz of gentrification fails to mask increased homelessness, open substance use, and the fatigue many parents and caretakers have experienced, even after the mandated quarantine ended.
At the height of the pandemic, I remember someone telling me, “We’re all in the same water but not the same boat.” Yes, it’s true, the privileged and those who are poor have been hit by the pandemic in multiple ways, but the impact is always felt differently among the most vulnerable. Yet here we are together—a part of the same ecosystem. I’ve done funerals for the poor and the privileged alike; grief has a way of making us feel more tender and more human.
Cooking Up Meaning
CHEF IS A small-budget film with an all-star cast and artful storytelling. Jon Favreau, who also directed Iron Man, stars in his own film as a head chef named Carl Casper at an acclaimed restaurant in Los Angeles. Casper is left in a vocational tailspin after a scathing review and a public meltdown. He loses his inspiration and finds himself in an existential crisis.
In Chef Casper’s quest to recover his culinary mojo, he takes a trip to Miami and buys a used food truck. The film plays on the power of relationships in a messy, winding, but authentic path. Chef Casper’s community—his ex-wife, his son, and his best friend—are invited into the one thing Casper loves to do, demonstrating how community, at its best, can propel us on the way we should go.
Each truck stop on the journey back to California fills Chef Casper with new vision and adds distinctive ingredients. He makes his way to once again bring beauty and flourishing back to his street corner of the world.
My small group at church watched Chef together and bonded over it. We explored themes of vocation—how we can contribute to flourishing through the distinctive things “we’re good at.” And how activism isn’t just about waving the proverbial picket sign; it also can be about loving what we do with great friends.