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.

 

 

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 (http://heedinggodscall.org/content/about-us). 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: https://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2016-09/breaking-cycle-gun-violence

Martin, Hank, and the Brethren in Christ

“I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation, one of the shameful tragedies, that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hour in Christian America. I definitely think the Christian church shall be integrated. And any church that stands against integration, and that has a segregated body, is standing against the Spirit and the teachings of Jesus Christ. And it fails to be a true witness.”

These were the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during an interview on Meet The Press on April 17, 1960. In many American churches at this time, segregation was the intended and worked-for reality. Instead of standing on the forefront of integration, the Church too often blended into the everyday scenes of a segregated America.

I share this quote and observation because I’m burdened as I look around today and see how our brother Martin’s words still ring true. According to a study published last year in Christianity Today, more than eight in ten congregations are made up of one ethnic group. Yes, the historic social, economic, and political short-comings in America are partially to blame. Yet we, the Church in America, must also examine honestly the ways we’re culpable as well. In many ways, the Church has justified its racial homogeneity, whether consciously or not, on personal preference, comfort, and numbers-based strategies*.

So we the Church, and specifically BIC, must ask ourselves: should our congregations continue to look and feel homogenous?

At Harrisburg BIC, we believe that answer is unequivocally “no.” We see racial and ethnic homogeneity as opponents of the New Testament Church established by Christ and maintained by the Spirit. We are a multicultural congregation not because we’re urban. No. It is because God has always called His people to be inclusive, to reach across worldly barriers built to divide us.

Last month, I had the opportunity to join my BIC family at General Conference. And I was overjoyed to spend time with such an incredible group of people. Yet as a black pastor in the BIC, I was equally heartbroken to see a room where so few people looked like me. I don’t believe this is an intentional reality in the BIC U.S. But I want to challenge us to think about how we might become an increasingly diverse body. And that for Christ’s kingdom—by the power of the Holy Spirit, and for the glory of God our Father—I pray we will be a body who makes space for, learns from, invests in, laughs with, cries with, and journeys alongside brothers and sisters who look different than us.

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Connect magazine.

The Wonder of God Revealed: Our Call to be Witnesses Requires not only our Actions but our Very Lives

“After his suffering, [Jesus] presented Himself to [His apostles] and gave many convincing proofs that He was alive. He appeared to them over a period of 40 days and spoke about the kingdom of God.

Then they gathered around Him and asked Him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by His own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

After he said this, He was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid Him from their sight.

—Acts 1:3, 6–9

In Acts 1:8, before the Lord Jesus returns to the house of God to prepare heaven for you and me, He leaves His disciples with a simple message: You will receive power through the Holy Spirit and you will be my witnesses.

This message echoes back to the Garden of Eden, in Genesis. In the beginning, God created men and women in His likeness, so that we could be His witnesses to all of creation. Even when humans were in perfect communion with the Lord, He formed us to reveal Himself; this is who we are.

In Acts 1, Jesus calls His first followers as well as present-day disciples to return to our essential identity as image-bearers—to show our world and the people of our everyday scenes what the love of God looks like, feels like, and is like.

Jesus calls us back to the garden to remind us that our family is not yet complete. The work is not yet done, and the kingdom of God has not yet fully come on earth as it is in heaven. Therefore, we—both individually and as the family of God—long to make our family complete; we must do the work of loving our world like God loved the world. And we must live in a way that makes our Father’s kingdom come and His will be done by us, as His witnesses, right here, right now.

The trouble with witnessing

We Christians often make witness a verb, something we do, rather than a noun, who we are.

If we approach witnessing as something we do, then it becomes only part of our faith, a part-time duty, or maybe just the work of a gifted few. It becomes easy to view it as an action we take, a message we deliver, a strategy we implement. We may be tempted to relegate our “witnessing” to those moments when we make the intentional effort to tell others about Christ. And yet, our lives keep witnessing long after our words and actions have stopped.

An incomplete view of our witness also widens the gap between those in the Kingdom and the many people who yet may come to know and love our God.

In their book unChristian, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons study this disconnect among young adults outside the Church. The authors note that as these young people shared their perceptions of Christians, recurring descriptions of believers as “hypocritical,” “insensitive,” and “judgmental” emerged.

This message is hard to hear. But it highlights that our outreach has been rendered increasingly ineffective because our witness—the entirety of our words, our deeds, our lives—often does not point to the Christ we say we love.

Christ’s corrective vision

We contemporary Christians are not alone in the way we often misunderstand or misrepresent Christ’s message. Even after Jesus lived with, died for, and resurrected before them, the early disciples often missed His message. For instance, just look at the final question they had for Jesus before He ascended: “Lord are you at this time going to restore the Kingdom to Israel?”

In His response, we see Jesus correcting His disciples—then and now—whose dreams are too limited, who only want to see a single nation restored. Jesus reveals the incredible reality that God’s kingdom is the kingdom of every nation, tribe, and tongue. And God’s citizens are all of his children who believe in His name and long to make His kingdom come.

In response to the Good News of God’s borderless love, we must realize that our God saves and then He sends. God so loved the world that He sent Jesus. Then, God so loved the world, that He sent the Holy Spirit. And before returning to heaven, the Lord Jesus calls all of His disciples and followers and says, Now I’m sending you. Every believer is called to be a witness as God sustains His redemption plan for the world.

God—revealed

Christ calls us to be His witnesses so that in our everyday lives who we are and how we love testifies, invites, proclaims, and welcomes all of our Father’s lost children back home again.

When people encounter us, they should not have to wonder about who God is, where God is, or whether or not God loves them. Through our witness, our world should see the wonder of God and the beauty and peace of knowing our God loves them. Through our witness, our world should know the miracle of God’s salvation and the power of a transformed life. Through our witness, our world should get a glimpse of the kingdom of Heaven that lasts eternally.

And our testimony to that Kingdom begins right where we stand. In Acts 1, Jesus calls His disciples to be witnesses, first in Jerusalem, then in all of Judea and Samaria, and finally to the ends of the earth. As heirs to that call, we must be witnesses locally, nationally, and globally.

The practice of love

The first step in relying on God to be a witness right here, and right now, is to pray. We all know people who are outside our Father’s kingdom—our parents and siblings, our friends and co-workers, our acquaintances and even people we might only see once in our lives. Choose one person, and pray. Pray for them and for your interactions with them. Then listen to what the Spirit may be saying.

Secondly, identify your mission field. We used to view missions as traveling to distant lands to interact with people who do not believe. Now, all we have to do is look across the cubicle or down the street, open our eyes at the grocery store or the restaurant. We must be witnesses in the places we frequent and to the people we regularly interact with.

Finally, we must live circumspectly, keeping our eyes, hearts, homes, and lives open to the Spirit and to others. Because, if you pray and if you are a witness in your mission field, the Lord will send a harvest. Live with sensitivity so you will recognize it.

Our God desires redemption, reconciliation, and then generative response. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection make redemption possible. As the Spirit leads us back to God, the Father’s love and forgiveness of our sins make reconciliation possible. But sisters and brothers, we have the privilege of being partners in the life-giving response—working alongside our God and one another as the family of God—to help expand our Father’s kingdom. It is through who we are as witnesses that the Lord’s image is revealed, and it is through the sharing of our lives that those around us can experience our Father’s great love.

This article originally appeared in the winter 2013 issue of In Part magazine.