Review: Welcoming Justice

welcoming justice

Welcoming Justice (expanded edition), Charles Marsh and John M. Perkins. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018 (original edition 2009).

Summary: A renewed call for the church to pursue Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of a “beloved community” even in a day of increased white nationalism and polarization.

When this book was first published in 2009, the first African-American president had been elected. Nine years later, the vision of “beloved community” that appeared to be on the horizon, now feels like a distant memory. Charles Marsh, in his new preface acknowledges the current circumstances in the events in his home town of Charlottesville where Heather Heyer, simply standing in solidarity against the demonstrations of white nationalists, died when struck by a vehicle driven into the crowd by a white nationalist from Ohio.

Yet Marsh, and his co-author, John M. Perkins, a leader in Christian community development work, have not given up on the vision of Dr. King. Both believe that despite appearances, there is a movement of God afoot toward “beloved community. In alternating chapters, the two authors share why they are still hopeful, and what they believe needs to happen.

Marsh leads off with the contention that the Civil Rights movement lost its vision and cohesion as a movement when it lost its connection to a church-based and gospel based vision of “beloved community.” At the same time, he sees movements, like that which Perkins has led at Voice of Calvary, continuing this gospel-based vision in its focus on relocation, redistribution, and reconciliation. Perkins, however, contends that the church, to realize such a vision, needs to give up its captivities to culture which has so divided it. He makes the fascinating observation that the neglect of outreach to a white underclass has made them open to the counterfeit community of the Klan. The challenge is to forsake the dividing lines of our captivities to reach out across those lines in the power of Christ.

Marsh then writes of the need for true conversion in our lives, a conversion that is always personal, even as it has social implications. He movingly recounts his first encounter with Perkins as a student staying with his segregationist grandmother. Perkins answer came not in an argument of what was wrong with segregation, but to send a gift of blueberries from his garden as his gift to her. Marsh in reflection writes:

“The existence of a compelling Christian witness in our time does not depend on our access to the White House, the size of our churches or the cultural relevance of our pastors. It depends, instead, on our ability to sing better songs in our lives. True conversion is always personal, but it is never sole about the individual who experiences God’s love and knows the good news of salvation. True conversion is about learning to sing songs in which our life harmonizes with others’–even the lives of those least like us–and swells into a joyful and irresistible chorus” (p. 78).

Perkins responds with stories of the young men and women he has the joy of working with, and the hope this gives him for awakening. He doesn’t speak of programs but of loving people, those of his own community, and those who come to learn, and then go and pursue a vision of community development across the country. Marsh in turn writes about the inner life of silent embrace of the gospel of the kingdom that sustains the practice of peace over the long haul. Perkins writes the final chapter calling for a re-building of our cities, interrupting the brokenness of our cities as churches re-assert their own love of the places and people to which they are called, forming the character of their young.

The question I had as I read this in the light of the present time is how Marsh and Perkins can be so hopeful. I think the difference between them and writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates (whose Between the World and Me I reviewed yesterday) comes down to the former’s belief in the gospel of the kingdom. Perkins knows the violence against blacks as well, or perhaps even better than Coates, growing up in Mississippi. He was beaten and thrown in jail unjustly by police. Perkins has experienced the power of the love of God in his own life, and devoted a life to loving his place and pursuing reconciliation. What he and Marsh describe seems to be illustrative of the parable of the mustard seed, where small, seemingly insignificant efforts, like Perkin’s work in Mendenhall, not only bring local healing and reconciliation, but spawn movements of people committed to King’s vision of the beloved community. Perhaps the real question is not how Marsh and Perkins can be so hopeful, but will we forsake our cultural captivities and join them in their hope and embrace God’s movement toward “beloved community?”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Making Neighborhoods Whole

Making Neighborhoods Whole

Making Neighborhoods Whole: A Handbook for Christian Community Development, Wayne Gordon & John M. Perkins, forward by Shane Claiborne. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013.

Summary: Two of the founders of the Christian Community Development Association recount the history of this movement, weaving a narrative of their own and others stories into a summary of the eight key principles that have defined this movement.

Wayne Gordon, at Lawndale Community Church in Chicago, and John Perkins, at Voice of Calvary in Jackson, Mississippi, and later Harambee Ministries in Pasadena, were two of the key founders of the movement that became known as Christian Community Development and were founding members, along with other key early leaders like Glen Kehrein and Bob Lupton, of the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA).

This book, self-described as a “handbook” actually does two things. One is that it tells the story of Christian Community Development from its early beginnings. It is honest, celebrating both the growth of a work of God and human failings from poor planning to burnout to the deaths of key figures like Lem Tucker, who in conversation with Wayne Gordon in his kitchen, conceived the idea of CCDA. Gordon and Perkins share the narrative but also include in chapters enunciating the eight principles of Christian Community Development, the narratives of many other leaders in this movement around the country.

As mentioned in the last sentence, the book also lays out the eight key components of Christian community development and what these leaders have learned about their practice. These include:

  1. Relocation. Perhaps even more important than those who relocate are those who remain, and those who return.
  2. Reconciliation. This chapter emphasizes how this is indeed the only cure for our racial and ethic divides, depends upon Christ, and involves the hard work of listening to things we’d rather not hear.
  3. Redistribution. The recommendation is not a handout but the opportunity and resources to work–education, micro-finance, and a justice system that doesn’t create a permanent underclass of those who make bad judgments and break laws.
  4. Leadership development. This invariably means a long-term commitment in the lives of young people from childhood through college and back into the community.
  5. Listening to the community. Sometimes ministry leaders have ideas of what a community needs that are not what the community thinks it needs. Gordon narrates a situation where he wanted to build athletic facilities when community members were telling him they needed a washer and dryer and a safe place to wash clothes. He asked them to pray–God provided the washer and dryer and transport to move it to Lawndale!
  6. Being Church Based. It is easy to operate independently of churches or for churches to relinquish responsibility for communities but the church is central in God’s redeeming purposes and the best situation is churches doing this ministry with a strong sense of “parish” ministry.
  7. A Wholistic Approach. The authors believe it can never be an either/or approach of gospel or community work but both must work hand in hand.
  8. Empowerment. I appreciated two questions in this chapter concerning avoiding dependency: “What will it take for you not to need anything from us in one year’s time?” and “What has to happen over the next year for you to get to a place where you can help others instead of needing help?”

As you can see, this short book was full of practical help, perhaps more of a “primer” than a “handbook” yet immensely instructive. I also appreciated the stories. That of Sami DiPasquale, an Anglo talking about reconciliation particularly struck me. Here is an excerpt:

“For people of privilege, reconciliation begins with sinking to our knees before God. We can choose to build relationships with those outside traditional power structures, with people who are ‘other.’ We can listen to their stories, paying careful attention especially when we hear a pattern emerging. We can put ourselves under the authority of someone from a different cultural heritage. We can choose to live in a setting where we are the minority. We can study history and theology from the perspectives of those who were not invited into the process of creating the standard textbooks–history can sound so different based on who is telling the story. We can grieve the tragedies that our forebears were a part of and try to figure out how they factor in to how we live today. We must ask God and others for forgiveness, and we must forgive ourselves. Finally, we must move forward, always listening, always striving to embrace voices from the outside with a resolve to confront the sin of injustice at every opportunity” (pp. 73-74).

It seems that this is a book that could be helpful to any church seeking to take its community seriously and to see it as their parish. Poverty is not just about money and development isn’t just about economics. And poverty is often hidden. I live in what may be considered a suburban community, yet at one of our nearby elementary schools, nearly half the children are eligible for subsidized lunches. Our church’s food pantry served 200 families this past weekend. While some of us may indeed be called to re-locate, it strikes me that some of us do need to remain, and open our eyes. This is a book that helps us to begin to understand how we as a church might live and act in light of what we see.