If it were anyone else but Joe Phelps, news of a retired Baptist preacher extolling the virtues of meditation as a means of social justice may sound like a sign of the End Times.
But that is in fact what Phelps — the retired pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville and longtime social activist– is doing.
“Meditation enables us to step back and seek connection with one’s self and with one’s ultimate reality, which is God,” he said. “It’s a deeply spiritual path.”
And that path became a vocation for Phelps in January when he was announced as the justice coordinator of the Passionist Earth & Spirit Center in Louisville.
The newly created part-time position, Phelps said, will go hand-in-hand with his ongoing role as co-chairman of Empower West Louisville, a justice-seeking coalition of African-American and white churches and religious groups, including the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
The focus on meditation, he added, will be an additional connection between those communities in Louisville.
Phelps spoke with Baptist News Global recently about his new position, meditation and his view of the health and future of the church. These are his comments, edited for clarity.
When was your last day at Highland, and how hard was it for you to leave?
Jan. 21 of 2018 was my last Sunday after almost 20 years. It’s been difficult. I didn’t realize that I was going to not only leave my job but also be leaving my church family, which a retiring pastor has to do.
Do you consider yourself fully retired?
I did at first. I am retired from the pastorate. I still consider myself an active minister – a minister-at-large, so to speak.
Do you miss leading a church?
I loved every minute of pastoring but I just ran out of gas for that work – being head of staff and leading and all the administrative stuff. I was 42 years in the local church ministry and loved it and love the church still, but I am done with it in that regard.
Was your decision to retire in anyway a statement about the health of the Church – capital ‘C’?
It’s not a rejection. But I realize that Highland and the church in general are going to have to radically change, and I felt like I wasn’t up for another major change. I had led the church through baptism policies, LGBT and social justice issues. And one of the hardest of all was going to three Sunday morning church services from two. But I just didn’t feel like my voice as a white male in his 60s was going to be the voice they needed to hear to lead them through the changes that have to come.
What is the Passionist Earth & Spirit Center?
It is an organization founded 14 years go by the Passionist (Catholic) order here in Louisville, Kentucky. But now it is its own stand-alone organization, a 501(c)(3) which owns 23 acres of land. It is the largest meditation instruction center in the central United States. They teach hundreds and hundreds of people each year about meditation. But meditation is one of three missions that it began with and now it wants to put more energy in to the other two areas: Earth care and what they call social compassion. I call it social justice.
Have you been involved with the center before taking this position?
I’ve known the founder for 14 years and I have very much appreciated the work that they have done. After retiring, I wanted to be able to focus more on justice and justice related to the black community in Louisville, the city’s West End. This role is giving me an opportunity to do that.
How are meditation and social justice related in this case?
What we are now doing is starting a pilot project to bring meditation classes into the city jail for the inmates. The next step is helping the center live into its calling in different forms of social justice.
How is the path you’ve taken an expression of your own calling?
For me, the center of the Gospel of Jesus is about the healing of the nations and of people being made whole. This fits very much into my sense of calling because I think the meditation work is accessible in some ways that the spoken Christian message sometimes isn’t. This is about awakening to the oneness of the world and being compelled out of our wholeness to join in this work of love and to join in justice work. Earth & Spirit is 1,000 retired upper class, educated white people. But they recognize that this gift of meditation and mindfulness needs to be made available to others.
So, you can be Christian and meditate?
Yes. You can be anything and meditate and the meditation can focus you in any number of different ways. The mindfulness makes my praying and my living and my awareness of all that God has put in this world more vivid – more in Technicolor.
How does this new position dovetail with your continuing work with Empower West?
To me they are left and right hand. Empower West is my central connection to the life and spirit to West Louisville. I am trying to help connect those two worlds, white Louisville and black Louisville.
Do you see yourself ever going back to the church, maybe as an interim or supply preaching?
Unequivocally I am not interested in interim pastoring. I don’t know what my future is with the church. I am still a person of the church. My whole DNA and life is shaped by the church. I am not walking away from it. But I don’t have a church home and I am not itching to preach except I have a message to take out, inviting people into this work love.
Will you continue to be seen at CBF General Assemblies?
I will definitely be at this next one because the of Angela Project that will be held in conjunction with it. I will continue to be there if I feel like my voice contributes to the work.