I feel I have long been attuned to God’s subversive imagination. I remember being in Church as a child and teenager and thinking to myself: Is this it? Is all this fuss about nothing more than a list of do’s and don’ts? Is it only about not going to hell, and nothing about making the here and now more heavenly?
In my years away from the Church, my subversive side grew and one of my greatest fears in being called back home and into a community of faith was that I would have to let go of the subversive gifts God had given me. Thankfully, God led me to a Church that tolerated subversive imagination and a Pastor that encouraged it!
When I answered the call to ministry, I worried again that my subversive ideas of the Kingdom of God would limit my effectiveness. I worried that I would have to hide my beliefs. I was appointed to two small country churches that I knew would never quite get me – and they didn’t. I saw myself as a missionary to the comfortable, to those convinced of their view of faith, politics, race, and American exceptionalism. It was rough. I was in a hurry and pushed to change things before I had even begun to understand hearts and minds, before I was able to invite the Holy Spirit in to do the work of transformation of those hardened hearts and closed minds.
In January of 2015 I spent some time in St. Louis and Ferguson in the wake of the murder of Michael Brown. It was a J-Term immersion class and we were truly immersed. We met and heard the stories of women and men in the midst of a theological struggle sparked by the murder of a young black man and fueled by decades of institutional racism and oppression. I learned so much – about God, about myself, and about the reality of oppression and the struggle to survive.
One voice, that of a five-foot one-inch white female AME Pastor, stood out for me. Reverend Renita Marie Green was married to an African American AME Pastor and had three teenage children. She was able to narrate the complexities of the times in a way I could understand. I explained to Pastor Renita the context in which I served – two small, highly conservative, quietly racist, economically privileged white churches in a suburb of maybe the most racially divided city in the world – my hometown – Memphis, Tennessee.
My question to Pastor Renita was, “How can I translate everything God has shown me here to people who refuse to listen?”
In that time in Ferguson, the Gospels had come alive and were being lived out on the streets, in the bars, on the campus of Eden Theological Seminary, and in the churches. Walking in that space was like walking through a pop-up-book of the Gospels.
The Pharisees were there, religious elite who said, “slow down, pray, wait and see what God will do.” The Romans were there, wearing black uniforms, marching in mass with shields and batons, buttressed by steel chariots of war. The “crowd” as Mark describes them were there – afraid yet fed up with the status quo, angry, hurt, and eager for real change.
Jesus was there too—once, in the form of a grandmother who felt called to feed the people. Mamma G wasn’t much for protesting, but she would prepare meals, offer water, mend wounds, dry tears, and pray with the freedom fighters. Once again, Jesus was there in the form of a black man from Zent, Arkansas who wore a clergy collar and cloak, had waist length dreadlocks, and spoke with the authenticity of teacher, the truth-telling passion of a prophet, and the rhythm of a blues musician.
How was I to translate all God allowed me to see to my people, privileged white Christians, who refused to listen or to see anything other than their opinions and bigotry, who had no curiosity for truth?
“Don’t worry, baby,” Pastor Renita said, “You’re anointed and consumed by the Holy Spirit. You go home and preach the Gospel and the Holy Spirit will make sure they hear what God has to say – that’s what speaking in tongues is, trusting the Spirit to shape the words and touch folk’s hearts.”
I’ve gotten in trouble more than once with my parishioners because of my justice work. I was once captured by a television news camera crew in a crowd shot smiling and singing at a Black Lives Matter rally. One of my parishioners came to me and said, “You can’t do that. You’re ruining the good work you’ve done here by taking part in crap like that. Why would you go to a Black Lives Matter protest?”
“Well,” was my response, “it wasn’t a protest, but a rally and I was there to listen. If we don’t listen to people who are hurting how can we respond to them?”
“I don’t need to listen to those people,” was his response. “I know what they are saying and it’s wrong. They’re just making excuses for sinful behavior. Promise me you won’t do that again – please.”
A few months later, the media again photographed me at a rally. It wasn’t a BLM rally but I was standing next to a young mother holding a “Black Lives Matter” sign. The same man came to me, even more angry this time. “What the hell were you doing this time, listening again? Haven’t you heard enough?”
“No,” I said. “I listened the last time you saw me on the news, and several times since. What I heard when I listened to the hearts of oppressed persons compelled me to go back and do something – whatever they asked of me – to help.”
While my friend was walking away, shaking his head, the words of a protest song rang in my ears: I heard my brother crying ‘I can’t breathe’
I came to the struggle and now ‘I can’t leave’
In worship about three weeks ago, during the Prayers of the People, my friend spoke up and asked that we pray for our Hispanic neighbors and the Dreamers. This was huge. This was God.
I do believe my friend is learning to listen. It doesn’t erase the sin of racism he holds so tightly to, but it does show how much the Spirit can do when we are persistently subversive. When we decide that – if things are going to change – we must remain in community with those we don’t or can’t understand or agree with. And hope that they learn to listen.