In 2011 I asked myself this question: Has the American evangelical church actually awakened to the biblical call to justice as a part of our discipleship as Christians? Or, did we just get caught up in a temporary cool to care movement?
Cool to care? While rock stars cheered us on.
Cool to care? While journalists highlighted our impressive stories of engagement.
I found my answer to those questions at The JUSTICE Conference in Bend, Oregon, on February 11-12, 2011.
Let me explain.
As a social worker turned pastor’s wife, I’d always gravitated to ministries touching the marginalized—both in the church and in the community. Increasingly I was drawn to global issues because I knew I had a unique opportunity to travel and a unique platform to steward.
In the early 2000s an unexpected meeting in Dublin—with a certain colorful, passionate and brilliant rock star—awakened me to the AIDS pandemic in Africa.
I felt overwhelmed by the horrific scale of the pandemic and nearly paralyzed by my complete lack of knowledge and sense of inadequacy.
At the same time, I felt undeniably called to do something. So I started meeting with medical experts, reading books I could barely understand, and asking questions that led to more questions.
Most importantly I began traveling to South Africa, Zambia, Kenya, Uganda. I followed a relational trail that ultimately led me to true heroes on the ground—healthcare volunteers on bicycles riding hours to hold the hands of the dying, pastors whose ministries were totally consumed with performing funerals every day of the week, “grannies” caring for the orphaned children of their children.
I learned about ARVs and PEPFAR. I saw white South African pastors broken and transformed when they opened their minds, their hearts and their churches to their black neighbors. I saw black South African pastors face the challenges in their communities with courage, creativity and competence.
I saw American congregations humbled and remade when they opened their minds and hearts to global victims of AIDS.
Well, occasionally I saw that. Actually, it was a pretty hard sell in the American evangelical church in the early 2000s.
I was grateful for those churches, including my own, that responded wholeheartedly and generously to the crisis. My husband instituted December 1—World AIDS Day—in our annual church calendar to help focus our congregational learning, financial giving and ongoing partnership with on-the-ground heroes in Africa.
By 2008 many American Christians had responded with brokenness and generosity to the “hard sell” of the AIDS pandemic—a response that helped contribute to a profound turnaround for millions of people worldwide. With an amazing staff at my church sustaining and expanding our partnerships in Africa, I was free to explore a new ministry direction.
Once again an unexpected conversation—this time with Arab Christians from the Middle East—pulled my heart and my passport in a new direction.
In the coming years I made repeated trips to Israel and Palestine, introducing a growing gathering of American Christians to Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers who refused to accept the status quo of ongoing conflict and violence.
I couldn’t wait to see American Christians respond to the challenges of peacemaking as they’d responded to the global AIDS pandemic.
But I was naïve. I hadn’t taken into account the theological and political complexities touching peacemaking in general, and Israel-Palestine in particular. While my own church leadership was fully supportive of what I was doing, engagement in the Middle East was proving to be a much harder sell in the broader evangelical church than I’d anticipated.
By 2011, I was discouraged. And I began to ask the question that opened this blog:
Had the American evangelical church just gotten caught up in a cool to care movement that had run its course?
And, I wondered, was that true about me too?
Did the pull toward justice run deep enough in me to sustain engagement in a battle that was way more controversial than cool? Or had I, too, just gotten caught up in a temporary burst of caring energy?
I found the answer when I stumbled across an ad about the launch of a new conference—The JUSTICE Conference. Front and center in the promo materials was this brief video invitation by Walter Brueggemann. This eminent Old Testament theologian invited Christians to reclaim our biblical mandate to exhibit our love of God by advocating for and acting on behalf of our vulnerable neighbor.
According to Brueggemann, it wasn’t just cool to care, it was deeply, profoundly, thoroughly biblical.
On February 11-12, 2011 in Bend, Oregon I attended the first JUSTICE Conference. What I loved about the conference—and needed from the conference—was that it situated the pursuit of justice squarely within the call to Christian discipleship.
Yes, speakers like Miroslav Volf and Ken Wytsma and Rachel Lloyd and Richard Twiss—and dozens of other academics and practitioners—addressed specific issues of injustice, but more importantly they reminded us again and again that addressing these issues was inseparable from what it meant to love God and follow Jesus.
At each JUSTICE Conference from 2011 through 2016 I had the privilege of speaking about issues that mattered to me: immigration reform, peacemaking in Israel-Palestine, gender-based violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, refugees in the Middle East, contemplation and action, our calling to preserve and protect every manifestation of beauty in God’s Kingdom.
In one truly humbling session in Philadelphia in 2013 I had the privilege of interviewing John Perkins, Lisa Sharon Harper and Stephen Baumann. What an honor to learn from such extraordinary leaders! Each year, without fail, I am inspired and fueled for the work of justice.
Each year I’m also challenged and convicted. That’s been especially true in recent years when I’ve had to admit that it can be easier to engage in global suffering than to address injustices closer to home.
While I’m no less committed to my global neighbors, I’ve been challenged to spend more time with undocumented immigrants in my own community, to pay more attention to the growing violence in Chicago, to listen more carefully to the voices of people of color in the US, and to learn humbly from those who have served faithfully in ways I’m just beginning to understand.
I think a lot of American Christians are feeling that same way–and I’m grateful we can join together at The JUSTICE Conference to learn together.
The theme of The JUSTICE Conference 2017 is “Love Thy Neighbor”—whether that neighbor is on the other side of the world or on the other side of the street—and we have an extraordinary line-up of speakers. Please join us! Conveniently for me, this year’s conference will be hosted at my church, Willow Creek Community Church. I’d love to greet you there!