Fifth Grade Lessons in Being Different

WHEN WAS THE first time you realized that you were truly different? Different enough that it made a difference? This happened for me when I was still rather young.

I wasn’t different enough for it to matter in Monrovia, Liberia, though my tribe included one of the few super-elitist families that controlled all aspects of the country for over two centuries. I wasn’t different enough for it to make a difference in Freetown, though I was a refugee on the run from civil war. I wasn’t different enough for it to make

a difference in Abidjan, where I was an immigrant lost in another new culture, but now with the wrinkle of a new language mixed in. I wasn’t different enough for it to make a difference until I stepped o the plane at JFK International Airport in the United States.

People still often ask me about the biggest difference coming from Africa to the U.S. My answer is almost always the same: white people. Remember when the red M&M and Santa both faint when they realized, “Wow, they do exist,” when they saw

each other? That was my early experience every time I would see a white person. I had only known white people on the television screen. But now I could see that they really did exist in real life.

When I came to the U.S., I knew I was different, and it made a difference in how people saw me and talked to me. It made a difference in who people expected me to be. And it made a difference in how I was supposed to interact with my new world.

Never was this more true than when I enrolled in school. I arrived in September, so school was already in session. In our little North Jersey town, it took time to get me enrolled into the fifth grade. And honestly, I didn’t mind the time of at all – it was like two to three weeks of sick days without being sick. That’s a win!

When the day came to enroll, I was excited. I was also a little nervous because I hadn’t picked up a book or had any homework to do. I feared that everyone else was already learning new things. Still, none of my worries matched the reality I walked into. Sitting in a meeting with all the grown-ups, I couldn’t escape this funny feeling and something wasn’t right. Before long, I learned that the school thought the best fit for me would be a class for kids with developmental disabilities. The decision was made without any testing – other than the eye (or skin color) test that this refugee and immigrant from Africa obviously failed.

I remember family members trying to plead my case, to no avail. And I remember my fifth grade teacher trying to plead my case; this too, was to no avail. (It took her all of five minutes to know I was wrongly placed.) I was young but not clueless. I knew this was not the class I belonged in. I proved this every day by doing all my work for the day within the first 5-10 minutes. Then I would spend the rest of my days tutoring classmates and running errands for Mrs. P. who rewarded me with stories about baseball history and her beloved New York Mets (who I naturally came to love as well). This went on for my entire fifth grade year. I knew something was terribly wrong but it wasn’t wrong enough for my family, my teacher, and certainly not me to be heard.

Nevertheless, God is faithful, good, and true. In this class and with these my first real friends, I learned patience. I learned the importance of love and genuine friendship in all of our lives. I learned how to be a leader. I learned how selfish and privileged I was – and how being a servant and serving well matters. I also learned that all of us who can must work hard for all people who society leaves behind.

Towards the end of fifth grade, there was a general student standardized test. Even though I didn’t do all the classwork that most fifth graders were doing all year long, I did very well on the test. In fact, I scored so high that I was transferred from the developmentally disabled class into the gifted class for sixth grade. Years later, I am still waiting for any kind of apology and mea culpa from the school!

While I wait, I am thankful to God. The fruit of patience that I started to cultivate in Mrs. P.’s class has made me a better husband, father, son, brother, pastor, and friend. The fruit of love and genuine relationships led me to value those I hold dear; it has also chal- lenged my witness and spurred in me a willingness to try to find common ground with those I encounter every day. Much of my current ministry is loving and knowing the many our society, our church, and even we ourselves consistently leave behind. I learned this from Jesus, but I think He started teaching it in Mrs. P.’s class.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Shalom! journal.





I believe with the entirety of my being that we as American Christians need a full embrace of Anabaptism if we are to discover and maintain our prophetic witness today. These saints of old were 16th Century reformers who were persecuted by Roman Catholics and other Protestants because they valued believer’s baptism over infant baptism. They were jailed, beaten, and killed because their separation of church and state was founded on choosing Christ’s kingdom over the earthly empires that housed them. Chance the Rapper makes a wonderful Anabaptist confession when he proclaims: “Don’t believe in Kings. Believe in the Kingdom.”

The Anabaptists have always valued Scripture and lived to implement God’s teachings in every part of life. They are the red letter Christians whose foundational theology says Jesus is God and the full revelation of God – so if He said it and lived it, we aim to do the same. So much so, that the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is often called the Anabaptist canon within the canon.

The Anabaptist goal has always been to live and love like our Christ. Their work, with the Spirit’s help, is to model Christ’s kingdom in our world. To do so, they recognize that God created the world in His image; Christ came because God so loved the world, the Spirit is alive and well the world over, genuine Christian community can be made, and living as peacemakers is a calling.


Any persecution Christians face for their political views is remotely akin to what the Anabaptists faced centuries ago, or what God’s people have faced throughout history, and even today the world over. The first lesson in our embrace of Anabaptism is that persecution is the price of being prophetic. Yes our persecution today is in every way lighter, but it comes in a context where our current political positions are seemingly (more than ever before) in tension with our faith and with our kin in and out of the Body of Christ.

Our persecution comes in the form of ridicule, frustration, anger, online trolls, having our faith questioned, questioning the faith of others, bruising or destroying relationship(s), etc. Our persecution is also a product of prophesy not just being forecasting, but also truth telling. And herein lies the rub: political parties, media outlets, and Christians collectively or individually do not own truth.

The longer we continue to posit truth as wholly subjective, the further we actually remain from the truth. Believing my truth is the truth, only ultimately leads to further polarization. The persecution birthed from subjective truth can be avoided by centering our faith and beliefs, words and actions, spirit and fight on Jesus who is the Truth. When it comes to maintaining a prophetic witness three ways to stay grounded in Jesus who is the Truth is to choose Christ’s kingdom over the empire (United States), Scripture over Constitution, and community and kinship as members of one another.


If we desire to follow Jesus, we must make and keep making Christ Lord over the entirety of our being. That is Christ is Lord of: our gifts, skills, and abilities; mind, body, and soul; hopes and dreams; intellect, desires, and appetites. And yes, Christ must be Lord over our politics, which means we pledge our primary allegiance to Christ.

Kingdom over empire reminds that Christ is our present and also our ultimate hope. In Christ, we hope not in nations or political parties, but in the King of all Kings. Our hope is not in elections, but in the fact that we are the elect – the Beloved of God who His Spirit calls to choose salvation in Christ the Lord. Our hope is not simply in what we see with our eyes, or what we simply feel in our hearts. No. Our hope is found rested in that humble prayer of our brother Jehoshaphat: Lord we do not what to do, but our eyes are upon you.

Kingdom people die for the faith, not for their country. They are the children of God because they live to be peacemakers in the mold of Christ our Lord. Kingdom people go and make disciples, and not disciples in our own image – but disciples only, in the image of Jesus our Christ.

We must make and keep making Jesus as Lord over the entirety of our being. We must choose the kingdom over the empire we live in – always. To do so means to ask: is this vote or decision for the kingdom or for the empire, for my kin or for me, for President or for Christ?


It is the job of the empire to protect itself and its interests as best as it sees fit. This is the milieu in which charters and constitutions are drafted. Charters and constitutions are not our ultimate authority as Christians. And while Scripture may not be the fourth member of the Holy Trinity (although some Christians live this alternative fact as their reality), we give it a higher authority than any charter or constitution drafted by men.

Therefore, when government policies are passed down, we must maintain allegiance to Christ over our allegiance to the empire’s constitution. We have not been good at this as American Christians (i.e. Manifest Destiny and our Treatment of the Natives and their land; slavery and centuries of institutionalized racism, violence and oppression of African Americans; our forever active presence in warfare, etc.). Nevertheless, Christ has left His Spirit and His Church – the Spirit is fervently at work – we the Church must pledge daily to do the same.


It is time we start living the truth of John 3:16. The Spirit convicts. Jesus came, lived and loved, died, was raised from the dead, and ascended to glory. Our Father is the architect of our salvation. But the work of God in saving the world is for the world. When God moves, it is more often about we than me. We need to stop forgetting that.

Many, who say, well that’s just politics, must open their eyes to see that is a very privileged stance. My own faith tradition completely abstained from voting up until the latter end of the 20thcentury. This means that the abolition of slavery, voter’s rights for African-Americans and Women, the Civil Rights Act – were all just politics to us. Yet to the many whose lives were affected by these policies – just politics was often a matter of life or death – oppression of marginalized and achievable prosperity for those in power.

In our politics, if Jesus is Lord, and we value God’s law even above the laws of the land, than we have to always act in a way that lives out this proverb: Christ’s blood spilled on Calvary’s tree matters more than even the blood flowing in my veins. We are not God’s only children, for all have been created in God’s image. We are not only the Body of Christ, but also members of one another.

Therefore, we must be more about we, than simply about me. The Old Testament hesed love we learn as agape in the New Testament always does what’s best for our kin. Paul reminded the Philippians, find joy by putting Jesus first, then others, and then yourself. Jesus said love God with the entirety of your being, and love the other as you love yourself.

This post first appeared on Amy R. Buckley’s blog:

Breaking the Cycle of Gun Violence

Away from home, I woke up to a series of texts from my wife a few weeks ago, highlighting what looked to be an overnight scene of gun violence. Increasing gun violence is our present national reality (30,000 deaths from firearms each year; 30 people murdered by guns each day[1]). It is a seemingly everyday nightmare. Here in Harrisburg our nightmare was recently magnified by the tragic death of young Earl “Shaleek” Pinckney[2], which has left us with opposing tales.[3]

In 2014, our murder rate more than doubled Philadelphia’s.[4] According to the UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) two-thirds of U.S. homicides occur due to firearms. Here in Harrisburg, 67% might be our “best” year…ever.

On a personal level, I have lost family members to gun violence – a coup d’état, assassinations, and inevitably a decade plus generation(s) stealing Civil War(s) in Liberia. I have lost friends to gun violence in Philadelphia. I have wept with families of acquaintances we’ve buried together due to suicides.

In ministry here in Harrisburg, in the past five years, our congregation has lost eight sons—all murdered in cold blood.[5] Gun violence is a national nightmare, experienced locally, and felt personally for so many of us. It should be a Civil Rights issue of our day.

Now for some, when we talk about gun violence (they choose to only focus on urban homicides and not suburban/rural suicides).  However, even more damaging is the false critique that we need to address our own inner-city violence instead of police violence. “What about black on black crime?” is their refrain.  This is damaging because it ignores that people in our community are actually leading many anti-crime organizations and initiatives[6]. It also ignores that crime isn’t about skin color but proximity (i.e. some quick FBI stats on “white on white” crime[7]). So supporting say #BlackLivesMatter and addressing police brutality and violence is not mutually exclusive to trying to stop all senseless gun violence.

One way we are working to break the cycle is by partnering with other faith groups here in the Harrisburg region to take a more active membership in the Harrisburg chapter of Heeding God’s Call ( Our Sr. Pastor Woody Dalton sits on the National Board, and I attend and sometimes help lead as many of the prayer vigils for sisters and brothers who are victims to gun violence here in the city. This has also led us to “lobby” local and Washington D.C. politicians to help overturn loose gun laws that are directly leading to more death in our families and on our streets.

We fight gun violence because we have chosen to heed the advice to God’s people in the Pentateuch (choose life Deut. 30:19) while centering and submitting to Jesus, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. If Christ is indeed the One who has come to give abundant life, we believe that working to curb and end gun violence and giving more of our kin the chance to breathe and walk, and live and love – is a journey we have to take and a challenge we have to meet.

Choose life. Walk in the light of Christ the Son, the Author and Finisher of our Faith. And by the Spirit’s help and work, we can all please God our Father, by working for life over death in this our country, our states, and our homes.

This post first appeared on Dr. Drew G.I. hart’s blog Taking Jesus Seriously: