On Epiphany, tend the light of Christ with truth and love

On Epiphany, which the worldwide church celebrates today, we should ask ourselves how we, the church, will rise and shine in these dark days of discouragement so that we will be a light to the world. The answer has to do with how we keep the flame.

In reality, we can only control our own obedience. Baptists always start with the small “c” — church — before moving to the big “C”— Church. So, let’s focus on how we as Baptists might find ways to contribute to the renewal of the Church by aiding the renewal of the Baptist church in our time.

George Mason

This year during our church’s virtual Christmas Eve service, we had trouble with the Christ candle. The wick had burned to a nub, and the fire kept going out. On the other hand, some churches will gather all their Christmas trees on Epiphany for a huge bonfire to symbolize the church’s being a light to the world.

A healthy church lives between these extremes. We need the Spirit’s Pentecostal power among us that keeps the fire going, but we don’t need bonfires of vanity that call attention to ourselves. The constancy of spiritual fire will do just fine to bring warmth and light to the world. We must keep a steady flame.

The church exists as a reminder that God’s light shines through a people dedicated to being light. The state is not the light, and individuals are not themselves the light. If we remain connected to Christ and to each other in these times of discouragement, the world will see a way forward through us.

However, the church gets its power to bear the light from Christ, not from Caesar.

Baptists came into being as a form of church that refused to grant spiritual power to the government or to seek power from of it. We pioneered the idea of the separation of church and state. We believed government should establish and protect religious liberty — not just for us, but for every other religion and for those with no religion.

“Too many Baptists nowadays long to be power brokers in Washington.”

How things have changed. If you ask the average person whether Baptists stand for religious liberty today, they will look at you as if you are crazy. Too many Baptists nowadays long to be power brokers in Washington. They like to go to the White House and secure the special favor of the president. These Baptists want religious liberty for themselves and want to deny it to others. They have fallen into the idolatry of Christian nationalism, and the light of Christ has dimmed in proportion to their increased secular power.

Every time a nation tries to become Christian by use of worldly power, the light of Christ is dimmer. When King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in the 15th Century set upon to make their country a Christian nation, they wanted to make Spain a light to the world to the glory of God. But to do so, their Reconquista forced all Jews and Muslims to convert or be tortured and killed. They set Columbus on his journey to find gold and bring it back to them, rather than have the nations bring their gold of their own accord. Their Conquistadors enslaved native peoples and raped the riches of their lands.

As a result, today you can go visit Spain’s empty cathedrals and find a country where the light of Christ is barely a flicker.

One of our most visionary Baptists, Martin Luther King Jr., got it right when he said: “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.”

There’s a reckoning coming for Baptists who have lost our way in this regard. We have to return to our calling to live as the light and not try to blind others by it. We do that by serving the common good, tending to the poor and marginalized in society, loving our neighbor.

“Our politics should be the politics of Jesus.”

Our politics should be the politics of Jesus — rescuing the perishing, caring for the dying, liberating the oppressed, standing for justice, offering profligate mercy and kindness to all.

Which leads to this: light is a metaphor for truth, and we must be committed to the truth wherever we find it.

For one thing, that means not falling for or promoting conspiracy theories based on lies or claiming that inconvenient truths are just hoaxes. Facts are stubborn: they should never be bent to fit what we want them to mean. Being light should lead to enlightenment, never to making the clear unclear for our own benefit.

If the church won’t bow to truth, we shouldn’t expect people to bow to the one who says he is the way, the truth and the life.

That also means trusting science, not denying it. Science is another way God is making the truth known. Too many Baptists think they have an absolute purchase on the truth because the Bible tells them all they need to know about everything. They are suspicious of science and see it as a secular means of denying the church its freedom.

We see some Baptist churches declaring the coronavirus a hoax and holding services without masks, only to see their own people come down with the deadly virus. The reports of subsequent deaths just break my heart. Take away just these Baptist skeptics from the last nine months — never mind all the other evangelicals, and we might have seen a different result from all the illness and death that has plagued us as a nation. All truth is God’s truth wherever it is found and by whatever means.

Recently, we have seen another sad example of denying truth when the six presidents of the Southern Baptist seminaries declared Critical Race Theory to be contrary to biblical truth. It must be rejected by Christians, they say, because it was developed by non-Christians using tools of social analysis.

“God is still shining more truth and light to us, if we would only look and listen.”

Critical Race Theory points out how racism is embedded in the systems of law, education, economics and politics and must be addressed as such instead of just directing people to change their hearts. Black pastors and churches are leaving the SBC in light of this rejection and calling for the church’s repentance for its complicity with white supremacy. It’s about time.

This is a far cry from the declaration of the English minister John Robinson, who preached to the departing Puritans in a sermon in 1619 before they boarded the Mayflower: “For I am very confident the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth out of His holy Word.”

More truth and light! God is still shining more truth and light to us, if we would only look and listen.

We can’t answer for all Christians or all Baptists, but we can answer for ourselves. We can keep a steady flame by staying connected to God and one another. We can choose the politics of Jesus over worldly power. And we can embrace the truth wherever we find it and whatever it costs us.

George Mason serves as senior pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas and is host of the “Good God” podcast.

Dallas pastor pitches ‘Good God’ podcast toward the common good

George Mason describes his “Good God” podcast as a way to connect the dots between religion and just about everything else.

“It’s educating, inspiring and creating civil discourse. It’s helping people bridge faith and public life,” said Mason, senior pastor at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas.

Since its launch in 2018, the podcast has taken deep dives into preaching, art, the #MeToo movement, white fundamentalism, Christian nationalism, women in ministry, hunger and interfaith dialogue among others in more than 130 episodes.

Prior to COVID, George Mason interviews Allen Brooks in the “Good God” studio at Wilshire Baptist Church.

The “God God” audio sessions — which also are videotaped and posted to YouTube and Facebook — feature one-on-one conversations between Mason and guests who have included such notables as Tony Campolo, Jen Hatmaker, Robert P. Jones, Amy Butler, Diana Butler Bass, Rabbi David Stern and Muslim civil rights leader Omar Suleiman.

“I try to make them conversations, not just interviews,” Mason said. “I comment, as well, not just ask questions. I am hoping to reach people far and wide — people who are not going to come to church.”

Mason spoke with Baptist News Global about his podcast and how it fits into his ministry and calling.

What inspired you to create a podcast?

Someone talked me into it. A man in our church who has a background in radio and was developing his own podcast. He was talking with a startup that wanted to promote podcasts. And he had all the equipment to do it and he thought I would be a natural to have conversations about faith and matters of public life. So, I got to thinking about it and agreed that he would produce it and I would create the “Good God” podcast.

“I wanted something that would combine faith and religion with the common good.”

How did you come up with the title?

I wanted something that would combine faith and religion with the common good. I wanted something that would be a little bit catchy. And I wanted something that would not be specifically Christian because I wanted the podcast to have a multi-faith emphasis. I wanted to be able to talk to people of all faiths and of no faith, and for it to be a podcast that explored with people the connection with their own personal spiritual life and the work they do in the world for good. “Good God” combines God with the common good.

How does the podcast enhance or overlap with your ministry at Wilshire?

In the early days of the podcast, since it was not a church ministry but a production of a nonprofit I started called Faith Commons, I made sure that everything I was doing was separate from the church. But over time I think the church became comfortable with a closer link, including moving the studio to the church.

Functionally, was there a precedent equivalent to the podcast for preachers? Maybe writing books?

Possibly it may have been pastors who had radio programs long, long ago. I suppose there are still some today. Sometimes, preachers would have their own radio programs that weren’t productions of the church. It was their own ministry, if you will.

How is the podcast different in 2020 than it was when launched in 2018?

Generally, it is about the same length — 30 minutes — because most people commute 15 minutes to an hour. I want them to be able to listen while they are commuting or exercising. Going beyond that is asking a lot.

The biggest difference has come about due to COVID. In 2018 and until the pandemic, I was in a studio sitting next to a guest and it filmed and recorded that way. But without the ability to be in person, we have gone to Zoom.

“The nice thing about the Zoom dimension is it has allowed us to move beyond the local.”

The video is posted on YouTube and Facebook with links to Twitter. Everything is available at goodgodproject.com. The nice thing about the Zoom dimension is it has allowed us to move beyond the local. I don’t have to wait for someone to come to town to have those conversations.

Will you go back to in-person when it’s safe to do so?

I imagine both. I imagine the format will change depending on where that guest is. Without a doubt we’ll continue to use the Zoom format for some podcasts.

Has the focus of the podcast evolved since 2018?

Initially. I simply wanted a diversity of guests from different faiths. But over time I have realized there are some themes that are recurring. For instance, this summer I did a series on race because of the George Floyd circumstances, and Breonna Taylor. I realized I had quite a number of episodes I had recorded and run on race, so we grouped those into a summer series and I added a fresh episode or two. I also added a bonus episode on Robert Jones’ book, White Too Long.

I am now in the recording process with a series on poverty, with others planned on religious liberty and interfaith relationships. I’m starting to move more into this thematic approach to the podcast.

Is it fun?

Oh, heck yeah. I love good, deep conversations and I love to connect my discipline of religion and theology to the work other people are doing to topics of interests around the world. We may cover health care, religious liberty, sports, entertainment — wow, that is a kick.

Do you get a good sense of how your guests experience the podcast?

A lot of the people I talk with see this as something important to the work they’re doing. They will do the podcast and put it on their websites or promote it through social media because it’s them talking about their work. Incidentally, I’ve never paid for a guest. They all do it for free.

You speak of moving from an exasperated “good God” to “good God” as an affirmation. What do you mean by that?

The phrase is used in different ways. We can say it as if to throw our hands up. That’s when we are exasperated and say, “Oh, good God!” It can come from frustration and from whether God is good or if God is involved in our world in positive ways.

In the podcast, the hope is to move from that perplexed, exasperated phrase to an exploration of the question of what is God up to in our world and how we can affirm the goodness of God. We hope we are able to determine that God is, as the title suggests a “Good God.”


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In this election season, I am partisan to the gospel first and last | George Mason

New podcast illuminates crisis in the Catholic Church

In this election season, I am partisan to the gospel first and last

It’s always about power, don’t you know? If that hasn’t become obvious to you in the past week, then you suffer from hardening of the categories caused by hyper-partisanship.

I was on three calls just Wednesday asking me about how pastors should navigate the political winds of the times we live in. A documentary team from the news organization Vice was asking how I and other pastors are speaking and leading and whether our approach has changed. A major denomination asked me to share with their pastors some words of encouragement and guidance on how to preach and engage in the community in ways that keep the integrity of the gospel and at the same time keep the congregation together. A pastor search committee in Tennessee was worried about their lead candidate being too political. I told them this is 2020 and we don’t have the luxury of being chaplains to the culture or a religious service club.

George Mason

Everything is polarizing now, it seems. Every public word is scrutinized — even from the pulpit — to see if it comes from the left or the right. And there’s no refuge in saying you’re middle of the road. That painted line has been erased.

I like to say I am partisan to the gospel first and last, that I care more about a moral vision of politics than a partisan one. The real challenge, though, is to keep returning to the words of Jesus to test true belief.

Recall, for example, that Jesus tells a parable of a man with two sons he tells to go work in his vineyard. One answers his father right off, saying he will not go. Later he changes his mind and goes. The other says he will go, but he does not. Jesus asks which did the will of his father, and the religious leaders answer the first, of course.

Jesus then applies this directly to them. Tax collectors and prostitutes will go into the kingdom of heaven before them, he says. These social outcasts believed John and reformed their lives and began to walk a straight path. But even after seeing the results of John’s preaching of repentance, the religious leaders would not change their minds and believe.

What was their problem? They were clinging to belief that was being used for their own benefit and not for others. They had the appearance of piety without the practice of it. They had words without deeds.

Jesus tells this parable when challenged by religious leaders who saw him as a threat to their power but used their belief as cover for their hypocrisy.

He asks them about whether they think the work of John the Baptist was from divine or human origin. They say they don’t know, because they know the people regard John as a prophet and they are afraid of the crowd. Why are they afraid of the crowd? Because they know if a majority turns against them, no matter what divine right they claim, they will lose their power.

Mahatma Gandhi cited what he called seven deadly social sins: Wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, business without ethics, science without humanity, religion without sacrifice, politics without principle.

“It’s one thing to walk the aisle and profess your faith in Jesus as the Son of God; it’s another thing to walk out of the church and live as if Jesus is your Lord.”

That about summarizes it, doesn’t it? It’s one thing to walk the aisle and profess your faith in Jesus as the Son of God; it’s another thing to walk out of the church and live as if Jesus is your Lord.

It’s one thing to say you follow someone who told you that true faith is reckoned by following through and doing what is right by the powerless; it’s another thing to show moral courage when it costs you something and actually do that in the crucial moment.

Last week we got the word that the Louisville, Ky., police officers who murdered Breonna Taylor in her own apartment, in the middle of the night, were justified in their killing of her. And like so many times before, white Christians reflexively defended the actions of the police against Black Americans no matter the circumstances. They claim law and order and Back the Blue, and they do it under the cloak of Christian piety, citing Bible verses out of context and failing to see that justice and mercy are the weightier matters of the law that we must practice if we want to book our belief as a valid and valued asset on our spiritual balance sheet.

Jesus sides with the publicly disreputable tax collectors and prostitutes over the publicly reputable religious leaders. He celebrates the repentance and reform that happens in the lives of those who were socially scorned, and he calls into question the legitimacy of the faith of those who will use the veneer of piety to cover their pursuit of power.

In Dallas, where I live, our City Council last week passed a biennial budget that increases funding to police in a time when calls from the streets for investment in communities that have been neglected for decades has been clear and strong. Sixty percent of our city budget goes to public safety. We have the highest number of officers per capita of any city in Texas. Yet there is no positive correlation between the number of police and the rate of crime.

“We have the highest number of officers per capita of any city in Texas. Yet there is no positive correlation between the number of police and the rate of crime.”

Instead, we know that when people have hope for a better life, when they can get jobs and earn a living wage and send their kids to decent public schools and have parks and sidewalks in their neighborhoods, crime goes down and prosperity goes up. But once again as a city our leaders caved in to those whose financial support they crave to stay in power. And once again, their faith is undermined by their deeds.

We heard last week that we may not have clear results in the presidential election or a peaceful transfer of power. Those in power who fear they might lose are doing everything they can to throw doubt on the legitimacy of the election in advance so that they can deny and defy the results. We have moved beyond the point of partisanship now to where we have to defend democracy itself.

And the question some are asking is whether the church will speak and act on the side of the powerful or the people.

Jesus says the test of our faith is whether we follow through in preaching good news to the socially scorned and welcoming them into the kingdom or instead try to deny them access in order to protect our positions of privilege.

The late Rachel Held Evans was right when she said that “what makes the gospel offensive isn’t who it keeps out but who it lets in.” The same is true of our democracy. We don’t have one rule for our piety and another for our politics.

We have had too many examples just in the last week of politicians claiming to be Christians who talked out of both sides of their mouths when it became expedient for them. This is like the two sons in Jesus’ parable. Professing you will do something and not doing it is judged more harshly than professing not to but changing your mind and doing the right thing in the end. Politics without principle is destroying the social contract.

We must ask ourselves by what standard Jesus will hold our faith to account. What if he really does judge our belief by our behavior? By how we use our power and influence with respect toward those who have been left out and pushed away and pressed down and shut up. Would that accounting standard vindicate or convict you?

In the end, it’s not what we say we believe that matters; it’s what we do.

George Mason serves as senior pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas. He is the founder and executive director of Faith Commons, an interfaith dialogue and education group, and host of the podcast “Good God.”

On church buildings reopening: Let love be your guide

George Mason

George Mason

Garrett Vickrey

Mark Twain put it pithily: “It were not best that we should all think alike; it is difference of opinion that makes horse races.” The novel coronavirus is not, however, a horse race. Opinions may differ, but we should not be indifferent to the consequences that flow from them.

Ethicist David Gushee’s opinion piece this week set off a firestorm on social media. He argued that it may be time for churches to reopen, despite the potential dangers of the spread of COVID-19. The reaction was at turns personal and principled. Little of it was nuanced. Some criticized Baptist New Global for publishing a piece that seemed contrary to the ideology of its constituency. But a truly Baptist news service provides a public forum to make a case that may dissent from popular opinion, and then also allows responses like this one.

Churches across the country are having serious conversations about when and how to reopen their facilities. They are wrestling with decisions that can’t always be neatly categorized as good or evil. They feel pressure from within and without.

“Churches are wrestling with decisions that can’t always be neatly categorized as good or evil.”

The pandemic has been politicized by state and federal officials and has trickled down to the pews in partisan ways. Church leaders feel those tensions in everything we do these days. When and how to reopen is no exception, despite this exceptional circumstance.

A few churches near Garrett’s home in San Antonio have reopened, only to close again when a staff member tested positive for COVID-19. One prominent church in George’s hometown of Dallas welcomed the vice president and other high-ranking government officials two Sundays ago. The service featured a 100-voice, unmasked choir and a crowded sanctuary with no apparent attempt at social distancing. We’ll see within two weeks how that works out.

The debate among progressive Baptists tends to pit science against the economy. We have seen the harm done by faith that ridicules reason and disregards science. We don’t want to be like that. We value human life above financial gain, putting people ahead of profits. But it isn’t always as simple as that.

Church giving thrives in good economic times and when members are personally engaged in congregational life. Many churches find themselves on the brink now, unable to pay their bills when online church is all they have to offer. Some churches, like ours, are unburdened by debt and are affluent enough to hold out longer than others. How long, though? And in the meantime, laying off staff or cutting wages to save the church during these times leaves families — often essential workers we say we care so much about — vulnerable in areas of health care, housing and hunger.

“We believe the response to the pandemic is an opportunity for us to honor local church autonomy and not to shame churches into opening or staying closed.”

We believe the response to the pandemic is an opportunity for us to honor local church autonomy and not to shame churches into opening or staying closed. We belong to a diverse body of churches. There are small congregations who meet in large buildings with excellent ventilation. There are churches in areas with little or no coronavirus presence. There are family size churches of 20 people from three families. These churches are basically a closed social bubble that can gather together safely and support each other through this pandemic.

There are also large churches in small buildings in cities where 20% of tests for COVID-19 are positive. There are congregations whose members’ average age is 82. There are churches who do not have the budget, supplies or volunteers to safely reopen their facilities. There are churches whose staff includes immunocompromised persons more vulnerable to COVID-19 complications.

Gushee points to the Catholic worship he has experienced that informs his optimism about reopening. George has recently attended a memorial Mass at a Catholic church and witnessed just such preparation. But the liturgical expectations of Catholics and Baptists are vastly different.

At the risk of oversimplifying, all churches are constituted by word and sacrament. Some, like Catholic churches, are oriented more toward sacrament than word. Protestants churches are oriented more toward word than sacrament. Baptists are closer to our Protestant cousins than our more distant Catholic relations. Catholic Mass will continue to satisfy those for whom intimacy with God is profoundly found in the eucharist. Individual worshippers can be ushered to and from the Table in relative safety. But Baptist worship is a festival of community.

Baptists believe the body of Christ is a gathered community. Our experience with God is rooted in our experience with one another. Whenever we survey our congregations, the answer comes back that what people miss most is “fellowship and community.” Masked worship services, without congregational singing or passing the peace or the ability to fill the narthex with laughter afterward, will not meet this need.

Each congregation must discern the way forward with the best tools available. Prudence is wise, as it weighs all factors against the church’s deepest values. It is likely that when any church regathers, there still will be some measure of risk to accept, even after a vaccine is widely available.

But prudence doesn’t give in to a general anxiety about the future or a fear of missing out when schools and businesses — or even other churches — open before we do. Re-opening because we are afraid of what might happen if we don’t is not a spiritually reasoned or theologically faithful decision.

“We believe the church should be a thermostat for the culture, not a thermometer.”

We believe the church should be a thermostat for the culture, not a thermometer. Christian churches should shape the conversation, bringing their values to bear on the communities around them in pursuit of the common good. We don’t need Great Clips to tell us when to reopen. We can’t cede moral leadership to Chick-fil-A in a time of pandemic (or any other time, for that matter).

We all long to be together again and celebrate the incarnational nature of our life together, which is an antidote to loneliness and a balm for our souls. Our faith is personal but never private; it is social and communal at the core. But that is also why we have to be so mindful of the command to love our neighbor as ourselves. We believe our bias now should be toward restraint out of love for one another.

Scripture admonishes us “not to neglect meeting together” (Hebrews 10:24-25). Yet, the apostle counsels married couples not to deprive one another of intimacy, except for an agreeable time that can be devoted to prayer until coming together again, lest they be tempted by a lack of self-control (1 Corinthians 7:5). This is a time of mutual prayer for the church until we can come together again. Our spiritual life is being tested. We must resist the temptation to return too soon.

We believe Christ calls us to sacrificial service on behalf of a world God loves. Not gathering for worship is a sacrifice. Maybe that’s the sacrifice some churches are called to make at this time for the sake of the greater good.

Nevertheless, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all response. Some churches may safely regather in full before others do. Some are thinking creatively about safe alternative opportunities for spiritual growth, such as opening their sanctuaries for people to come pray during the week or setting up outdoor chapels for small groups to meet outside or conducting drive-in worship services in their parking lots.

Let love be your guide, we are told in a thousand ways from Scripture, tradition and experience. That includes even disagreements among friends and colleagues over where love leads us in this challenging time.

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Virtual General Assembly evokes memories of CBF’s foundation, formative role

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship will offer its plenary sessions and workshops during its virtual 2020 General Assembly Thursday and Friday, June 25-26.

General Assembly 1992. (Photo/CBF)

But the pandemic-induced move to online spaces – marking the first time since 1992 the assembly will not convene in-person – cannot replace the family reunion function that so many love about the annual event.

“It is pretty much a huge bummer,” said Lauren McDuffie, 31, associate pastor at First Baptist Church in Morehead, Kentucky.

Harold Phillips, former moderator of CBF Heartland and recently retired, has been to every assembly and agreed it hurts to miss making those connections.

“Part of it is networking – that’s huge for me,” Phillips said. “And there is the reunion component – meeting up with people you went to seminary with or went on mission trips with.”

‘First big proof all this was real’

The impact is described poignantly by those who, like Phillips, were present both at the 1991 “Convocation of The Baptist Fellowship,” when CBF was formally organized, and the first General Assembly in 1992. The gathering was for many a much-needed rest after years of theological battles in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Walter “Buddy” Shurden

“I still remember the emotions,” said Walter “Buddy” Shurden, 83, author, minister at large, retired chair of the department of Christianity at Mercer University and a leader in the emerging movement that became CBF.

It was a time of apprehension and hope, he said. As the migration from the SBC occurred, no one really knew where the movement was going or if it would succeed. But its courage was on full display during that first gathering.

Bill Leonard

Bill Leonard

“I remember the camaraderie – the sense of being identified with people I respected.”

For Baptist historian Bill Leonard, that first assembly, held in Fort Worth, Texas, “was a revival.”

It was restorative to those exhausted by the SBC battles, said Leonard, Dunn Professor of baptist studies emeritus at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity.

“We were all terribly emotional about it. General Assembly was the first big proof that all of this was real.”

Harold Phillips

Phillips recalled that era as mysterious and exciting. General Assembly brought it all together.

There was also a pioneering feeling in the air, partly because many attended on their own dime.

“Nobody had expense accounts,” said Phillips. “You had four guys sharing a room. No one had any money.”

And none of that was considered a negative.

“It was freeing.”

‘Great to hear different perspectives’

Since then, General Assembly has become has come to shape a Baptist identity as much as celebrate it, said Emily Holladay, the pastor of Village Baptist Church in Bowie, Maryland.

Emily Holladay

Holladay previously worked as a Passport camp counselor and later as an intern for CBF. The relationships begun in those roles have grown through random encounters in hallways and lobbies during assembly.

“You’re in this hotel or conference center and every other person you see is someone you know,” she said. “I would hate to say how many workshops I have missed because of those conversations.”

General Assembly has become a core component of CBF’s outreach to young adults, she added.

John DeWitt

“In the past five or six years I have heard a lot of people talk about how many strollers they see and the evolving makeup of the population in terms of age.”

John DeWitt, 22, has two assemblies under his belt, the first in 2018.

“Last year was extremely useful,” DeWitt, children and youth pastor at Mount Hermon Baptist Church in Durham, said of the focus on racial justice at the 2019 gathering in Birmingham, Alabama. “It was really great to hear different perspectives that I had not heard growing up in white churches.”

DeWitt said his assembly experiences have helped shape his Baptist identity as he prepares to attend Campbell University Divinity School this fall.

“You want to act out on what you learn after you leave” the gatherings.

‘Rubber chicken luncheons’

For McDuffie, the annual get-togethers have been instrumental in helping her explore her calling.

Lauren McDuffie

“It was in some of the slightly smaller settings that I began to think through what kinds of work I wanted to do,” she said.

McDuffie added she is disappointed the pandemic led to the cancellation of assembly because it, in turn, wiped out the final in-person meeting of her two-year CBF Fellows cohort.

“We are lamenting not having time to wrap that up in person.”

George Mason

George Mason

In an e-mail to Baptist News Global, George Mason offered a tongue-in-cheek take on what missing an in-person assembly will mean to him.

“I am going to miss the scintillating business meetings, the long inclusive-language prayers and the pastiche worship that tries to accommodate everyone,” mused Mason, senior pastor at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas.

Also missed will be “the rubber chicken luncheons” and conversations in hallways “because they are interrupted by six people walking past saying hello,” he said.

“And maybe most of all, I will miss the late-night unofficial conclaves of friends that grow in number as the night wears on and makes us feel like little revolutionaries planning the next incursion of the reign of God.”

No surprise among ministers that public doesn’t trust clergy

Ministers took one to the chin this month when Gallup released a poll placing them in the middle of the pack of professions trusted by the public.

The polling organization asked Americans who they consider to be the most honest and ethical. Nurses and other medical professionals led the pack. Telemarketers, car salespeople and members of Congress scraped the bottom of the barrel.

And right there, just above the half-way point, were clergy –a tad behind funeral directors and a smidgen ahead of journalists.

Gallup said it has measured Americans’ views of clergy honesty and ethics 34 times since 1977, and this year’s 37 percent “very high/high rating is the lowest to date.” The historical high of 67 percent occurred in 1985.

None of the ministers who spoke to Baptist News Global were shocked by the rankings, though they may have been a little bummed.

“Unfortunately, I’m not surprised,” said Alan Rudnick, a Baptist minister, author and speaker who serves as executive minister at DeWitt Community Church in Syracuse, New York.

The years-long, general decline in interest and trust in religious institutions is part of the reason clergy get so few likes, Rudnick said.

Alan Rudnick

“So, when you’re a leader of a religious institution, you get lumped in with that.”

High-profile sex scandals, beginning with those that ravaged the Catholic Church in the early 2000s, have placed ministers under suspicion, regardless of denomination or actual involvement in abusive behaviors.

“For clergy, we’ve never earned the trust back,” said Rudnick.

The intertwining of faith and politics between the White House and conservative Christians doesn’t help either. Ditto for images of super-wealthy, megachurch pastors driving luxury automobiles and flying in personal jets.

“It only confirms people’s mistrust of clergy.”

Plus, Rudnick said, the Gallup findings make sense from a cultural point of view: Americans, and especially Baby Boomers, need to trust health care professionals as their health-care needs rise.

“But people don’t need to trust religious leaders as much because our culture is not framed around religious or theological questions,” he said.

One of ‘those’ Baptists

That reality is illuminated by ways clergy roles have diminished in society, said Merianna Neely, an ordained Baptist minister and pastor of Garden of Grace United Church of Christ in Columbia, South Carolina.

In comments e-mailed to BNG, Neely noted that “many of the duties that clergy historically have performed have been outsourced. You don’t need an ordained clergy to get married. You can have a friend licensed on the internet or go to the courthouse.”

Merianna Neely

Hospice and health-care chaplains in many cases have taken the lead in end-of-life situations for many families, and non-profit organizations are meeting the social needs once addressed primarily by churches and pastors, she noted.

“These are not good or bad changes, but they are changes and these changes impact how people view the role of the clergy. Many people are asking themselves the question, ‘why do we need clergy? Why do we need churches?’”

For some Baptists, there is an additional hurdle created by the politicization of the Southern Baptist Convention, she added. “When I identified as a Baptist, I had to clarify that I wasn’t one of ‘those Baptists’” known to be “very vocal about their view of women and their view of homosexuality.”

“Because their rhetoric is so dogmatic, individuals don’t feel safe to be themselves, to ask questions, or to seek sanctuary from clergy in that tradition. For me, it was always an uphill battle to fight against the stereotypes that all ministers or all Baptists stand on a certain side of an issue.”

Reversing these views of clergy is possible, but not easy.

“The only way this perception can change is by walking with individuals and being open to their stories, their experiences, and their struggles,” Neely said.

‘A liberating force’

The situation for clergy is by no means hopeless.

“There is higher respect than ever for ministers who earn people’s respect, and there is a greater consequence for ministers who don’t,” said George Mason, senior pastor at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas.

But there is a lot of work to do.

George Mason

“Ministers who are trustworthy and who are reliable and who people can trust for their spiritual journeys are seen as all the more remarkable now because there is more of a suspicion of the profession generally,” Mason said. “So, it’s an opportunity in some ways even as it’s a frustrating cultural development.”

The frustrating part is that so many nowadays judge faith as a hindrance to freedom and community, instead of viewing it as the source of spiritual and personal freedom they actually crave.

Politics and materialism have supplanted religion as the source of values and belief, which are no longer tied to religious communities, Mason said.

“What they are really saying is that the particular religious tradition or congregations they grew up in are no longer trustworthy to them, and they are trying to organize their lives on some different basis.”

At the same time, Mason emphasized, it’s an opportunity for clergy to regain relevance and trust by demonstrating a fulfilling model of faith.

“We need to show them that true religion is a liberating force for people to build community, to draw people together, and that it liberates them from hate, it liberates them from oppression, it liberates them from the things that would erode their soul.”

Black pastors challenge their white colleagues’ silence

On the night of Sept. 6, in an upscale Dallas apartment building, a young accountant named Botham Shem Jean, who was black, poured himself a bowl of cereal and settled in to watch a football game. At around 10 p.m. Amber Guyger, a white police officer, burst into his apartment and shot Jean to death. She then called 911.

These facts have not been disputed. Almost everything else has been.

Amid international attention, Dallas has become embroiled in its own “O.J. moment,” a time when blacks and whites see justice in such starkly opposing ways that conversation seems pointless. City leaders have long worried that with the right provocation Dallas could become another Ferguson, the Missouri town where violence broke out after Michael Brown, an unarmed, 18-year-old African-American man, was killed by police. Community leaders fear the Amber Guyger case will be that provocation.

“If the grand jury doesn’t come back with (a charge of) murder, we may have riots,” says Jeff Warren, senior pastor of mostly white Park Cities Baptist.

The African-American community is “boiling in outrage,” adds George Mason, senior pastor of mostly white Wilshire Baptist Church.

“Dallas’ black Christians have taught a growing number of the city’s white Christians what they experience, what it is to be daily riven by ancient suffering and at the same time mended minute by minute by a God who can create precisely what despair demands: peace and justice.”

But within these dire warnings, delivered by these particular white men, is a pinprick of light. Dallas’ black Christians have taught a growing number of the city’s white Christians what they experience, what it is to be daily riven by ancient suffering and at the same time mended minute by minute by a God who can create precisely what despair demands: peace and justice.

Tributaries of anger

The deep anger in Dallas’ African-American community is fed by the past and the present. The city is last in “overall inclusion” of minorities, according to a recent Urban Institute Study of 274 cities with populations of more than 100,000.

There is both insult…

A monument to Civil War heroes still stands near city hall. It bears a giant “C.S.A.” monogram and is guarded by life-sized statues of the President of the Confederate States, Jefferson Davis and his generals, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Albert Sidney Johnston. The Dallas school district voted only last year to re-name four schools named after Civil War soldiers: Lee, Jackson, Johnston and John H. Reagan, an American Congressman and postmaster general of the Confederacy. Some of the city’s most prominent streets – Gaston, Ervay and Lemmon – are among those named for Confederates.

…and injury.

Photo of Dallas skyline by Andreas Dress on Unsplash

Dallas is two cities, says Warren. To the north it’s white and affluent. The church he leads, Park Cities Baptist, draws most its members from that sector. To the south, Dallas is black and economically challenged. Diners who sit at Dallas’ landmark revolving restaurant atop the Hyatt Regency tower can see those two cities defined starkly. “It’s like North and South Korea,” said one African-American woman. “As the place you’re sitting revolves to the north, you see all those lights spread out across the land. Then it revolves to the other side (with) no lights. Nothing. Just dark.”

Nevertheless, African-American influence is growing. Dallas has a large number of African-American judges. Its district attorney and police chief are African-American women.

Just a week before Botham Jean was shot to death, a white police officer who fired a rifle into a car of teenagers, killing a 15-year-old African-American boy, was convicted of murder by a Dallas county jury and sentenced to 15 years. He’d claimed that he was protecting a fellow officer who was in danger of being run down. But the second officer testified he had been in no danger. It had been 40 years since a Dallas cop had been convicted of killing a citizen. For most black activists, it was such a major win that one leader said she hardly knew what to do next.

Then Amber Guyger stepped into an apartment that wasn’t hers.

Confusion, controversy and division

News media accounts of the killing are generally in agreement about the basic elements of the story. On the night of Sept. 6, after working a 15-hour shift, Guyger said she mistakenly parked on the fourth floor of her Southside Dallas apartment building instead of the third floor where her apartment was located. The 30-year-old officer gathered an armload of items from her car and went to what she believed was her apartment. Jean had a red welcome mat outside his door, but Guyger has reported that the items in her arms blocked her from being able to see the mat, which would have signaled that she was at the wrong door. The door was not latched.

“As Dallas pastor Frederick Haynes puts it, white communities are policed and protected, while other communities, especially minority communities, are policed and preyed upon.”

Entering a dark room, Guyger reported that she saw the silhouette of a man. Believing him to be a burglar, she said, she dropped the items she was carrying and shouted commands to Jean, which he did not obey. She shot him twice. She then realized she was not in her own apartment and called 911, sobbing.

To some, perhaps especially white people in Dallas and elsewhere, the incident seemed an unfortunate accident, a tragedy all round. That may be because white people generally see law enforcement as peace officers, who risk their lives to protect citizens and ought to be given the benefit of the doubt.

But the Guyger story looked radically different to a large number of African-Americans. To them, this latest killing-by-cop showed that black men weren’t safe from police violence even in their own homes. To them, Guyger’s actions weren’t exceptional, they were merely the latest in a long list of unwarranted killings by police – licensed, armed vigilantes who regularly foment racism and violence against people of color.

As Dallas pastor Frederick Haynes puts it, white communities are policed and protected, while other communities, especially minority communities, are policed and preyed upon.

There seemed plenty to doubt about Guyger’s account. Many Dallas citizens – white and black – were shaking their heads, saying, “Something seems fishy.” Stories circulated about people in apartments nearby hearing a woman banging on the door, demanding to be let in. How could Guyger have failed to see the bright red mat that marked Jean’s door as not hers, some asked. Other residents claimed that the apartment door couldn’t have been left open accidentally because the doors close and latch automatically. Jean’s mother said her son didn’t like the dark and never would have been sitting in a dark room.

Haynes, pastor of Friendship-West Baptist, a mostly African-American megachurch, minced no words during a protest 10 days after the fatal shooting. He referred to Guyger as “that lying officer.” Guyger had been charged with manslaughter. Haynes wanted her charged with murder. The city’s police chief had put Guyger on leave. The protestors wanted the officer fired immediately.

Perhaps most egregiously, on the very day of Jean’s funeral where the 26-year-old was lauded as an extraordinary employee, a dedicated church member and a person with a smile for everybody, police released a list of the dead man’s apartment’s contents. Media accounts noted that among them was a cache of marijuana.

Haynes demanded an apology from the media for mentioning the marijuana, which he would only refer to as the “item.” Including that detail without anyone knowing whether the bag even belonged to Jean was seen by many as character assassination of a dead man, the kind of treatment African-Americans have so often been subject to. “Even though we’re the victim, it seems like we gotta prove that we deserve to be the victim,” said Bryan Carter, pastor of Concord Church.

Pastor Frederick Haynes

Haynes and other leaders called on the police department to investigate the policies and procedures that led to such killings. Had they searched Guyger’s apartment? She was the perpetrator. Instead, they searched the victim’s dwelling?

Four days after Jean was killed, two dozen black pastors held a press conference outside police headquarters. For many, Guyger was already receiving the kind of special treatment that keeps police officers from being accountable for their actions in the way other citizens might be. She had been given 72 hours before being arrested, which is standard for Dallas police officers accused of crimes. Three days had given her time to be coached, to rehearse her story and to consider evidence that might counter her story, said critics. In a similar situation, a black person would have been arrested on the spot, African-Americans contended.

Not one white Christian pastor was among the ministers at the press conference, which was hardly surprising. Dallas’ white Christian leaders seemed to be running true to historical form during racial conflict: staying silent, doing nothing, playing it safe.

This case was murkier than some other cases of police mistreatment of African-Americans in past years. This was not a white police officer slamming a slightly built teen girl onto the ground and straddling her, as had happened in a nearby suburb. This was not a cop harassing a man trying to get into his own truck and then shooting him as he ran away begging not to be shot, as had happened in Fort Worth.

Those were easy calls compared to this one. It was this one, however, that would demand that some of the city’s most influential white pastors take a public stand with their African-American brothers and sisters. Some may have wished this particular cup would pass from them. But a sizeable group of white and black pastors had become friends. And friends stick together, especially when there’s trouble. Don’t they?

Interracial friendships among pastors

The growth in interracial friendships among Dallas pastors seems to have begun in 2011, not long after Warren became senior pastor at Park Cities Baptist. He began to think about Park Cities not just as a church, but as The Church, a citywide gathering of Christians that reached across racial lines. A friend suggested that Concord Church and Park Cities, which is affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, were much alike.

Jeff Warren

Warren, who had long been interested in racial justice issues, called Carter, Concord’s pastor, and they met for lunch. They liked each other and decided to be intentional about carving time out of their busy schedules for other lunch conversations. In 2014, when Ferguson erupted into weeks of violence, Warren and Carter asked, “What would happen if Ferguson happened in Dallas? What would we do?” They realized that black and white Christians would be helpless to mediate because they hardly knew each other.

Convinced that “gospel moves at the speed of relationship,” Warren began devoting 10 percent of his time to fostering interracial friendships. Other pastors did too. The idea was that the pastors would work with their own churches but also with the larger community, says Vincent Parker, lead pastor at Golden Gate Missionary Baptist Church. “We can be conduits for healing beyond just a particular church.”

As the years went on, four loosely organized coalitions of black and white pastors formed. They and their congregations began sharing meals and working together on projects. Women from Concord joined in a book club with women from Park Cities.

Men from various churches began sharing Saturday morning breakfasts at which they would ask each other, “What’s your race story? How did your parents talk about race?” The black Christians didn’t have much to learn about race from the whites. As St. Paul United Methodist pastor Richie Butler, who graduated from Southern Methodist University and did his graduate work at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, puts it, “I know how to flow in a white man’s world. I can do him better than he can.”

We all have racism in us, says Butler. “You have to treat racism like you do a chronic illness. You take medication so it does not overtake you. That’s a pragmatic approach.” The African-American Christians were patient and truthful explaining what their lives were like, says George Mason, Wilshire’s senior pastor. And white attitudes began to shift.

At Park Cities, Warren began talking to his congregation about why blacks and whites reacted differently to news stories. He linked the difference to systemic racism tracing it “all the way back to the first slaves to Jim Crow laws to the Civil Rights era.” When the movie “Selma” came out, Warren took his staff to see it.

“Our people were blown away,” he says.

Friendships tested by violence

On July 7, 2016, the pastors’ friendships had their first real test of unity. That summer, as police departments began to employ dashboard cameras and bystanders shot videos, scenes of police violence against African-Americans seemed everywhere.

Two days earlier, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, an African-American man, Alton Sterling, had been shot to death while pinned to the ground by police. One day later, in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, a black motorist, Philando Castile, was shot and killed by a police officer during a routine traffic stop. On July 7, approximately 800 people participated in a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Dallas to protest police violence. The 100 officers patrolling the event weren’t wearing tactical gear or carrying heavy weapons. Their interaction with the crowd was purposely low-key and friendly.

Suddenly, shots rang out. As a sniper began firing, the panicked crowd scattered, unsure where the shots were coming from. As citizens fled, police moved toward the gunfire. One of the most publicized scenes of the massacre came as a white policeman shielded an African-American woman and her son from the gunfire by putting his body over theirs.

Five law enforcement officers were killed; seven other officers and two civilians were wounded in the attack. The gunman, who was black, was a military veteran who had served in Afghanistan. As the horror unfolded on live television, the city was transfixed and afraid. Officers locked down the downtown area, confining residents to their apartments as police searched for explosives.

The next day, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, who is white, called Warren to ask that pastors hold a service for peace and healing. Warren called white pastors. Carter called African-American pastors.

“’We refuse to hate each other. We refuse to point fingers at one another…We refuse to not love our brothers and sisters.’”

Meanwhile, a few hundred people gathered at Thanksgiving Square downtown as Carter faced the cameras. “We refuse to hate each other,” he said. “We refuse to point fingers at one another…We refuse to not love our brothers and sisters.” Standing beside him was Warren.

The following night 2,000 people, among them 100 pastors, gathered at Concord Church for another prayer meeting. Warren was there to confess how he had benefitted from white privilege and to call on other whites to use their privilege as a lever for racial justice. Another white pastor, Todd Wagner of megachurch Watermark Community Church, confessed that he hadn’t understood why Black Lives Matter mattered until a young African-American explained it to him.

The next Sunday, pastor Joseph Clifford of First Presbyterian would tell his congregation that the meeting was one of the most powerful experiences in his life. “I was convicted of my own sin,” he said. “There is so much that keeps us from loving one another.”

The city remained tense that week and into the next as funerals began to be held. Signs proclaiming “Back the Blue” sprung up all over town. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called the protestors who ran from the bullets “hypocrites.” White supremacists were blowing up the Internet with hateful rhetoric and threats of violence. At the same time, some blacks criticized the African-American police chief for sending a robot armed with explosives to kill the sniper instead of negotiating his surrender more aggressively.

But many Dallas citizens, African-American and white, joined the law enforcement community and city leaders in mourning, contributing flowers and messages to an enormous display honoring the fallen at police headquarters. At Potter’s House, a 30,000-member, mostly African-American church led by T.D. Jakes, huge photos of the murdered officers graced the dais during a service in which they were lauded.

Moving the needle

For their part, the pastors who attended the prayer service at Concord came away empowered, convinced that their prayer gathering was a big factor in keeping the peace.

More pastors in white churches began to share what their new, interracial friendships had taught them. They told their congregants about “the talk” that black parents have with their sons about how they must be extremely cautious and slow to move when interacting with police. They noted that most white parents have no need for such a talk with their sons.

They worked harder at weaving together Christian faith and racial justice. “My whiteness must be dominated by my ‘Jesusness,’” emphasizes Warren. “My ‘Jesusness’ must define me more than my race.” Golden Gate’s Parker puts it another way: “A oneness in Christ must first be recognized.”

ColorOfChange delivered 170,000 petition signatures to Dallas District Attorney Faith Johnson’s office demanding that Amber Guyger be charged with murder for killing Botham Shem Jean.

By the fall of 2018, 28 pastors had swapped pulpits on given Sundays. When Friendship- West sponsored a bus trip to Montgomery, Alabama, to visit the new Civil Rights Memorial Center and the memorial to the victims of racial terror lynchings, they invited members of their sister church, Wilshire Baptist, to go with them.

Butler organized “Together We Ball,” groups of white and black pastors, police and community leaders who play basketball together. “The church can be a divisive force,” he says. “But sports is a bridge builder. Having people on a court playing ball breaks down barriers. Guys high fiving and hugging. And that leads to sharing meals.”

Some of those meals take place in another program Butler started called “Together We Dine.” The dining tables offer a setting for “courageous conversations around race.” Explains Butler, “People from different walks of life engage in tough conversations, but it’s in a safe space. We’re usually listening more than trying to change opinions. The idea is take your shoes off and put mine on.”

Butler has also started “Unity Groups,” interracial groups of laity that might meet four or five times a year. Getting church members fired up about interracial friendships, he says, encourages their pastors to step into leadership roles in the community, much like politicians getting excited about what voters want.

Last spring Wagner, pastor of predominantly white Watermark, told his congregation that race was an unbiblical idea and didn’t actually exist. He reminded them that in the 1920s Dallas had the largest chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in America. He talked about redlining, the systematic denial of various services to residents of particular neighborhoods or communities based on race or ethnicity. He quoted Martin Luther King Jr., saying injustice could only be rooted out by “strong, persistent and determined action.”  And he said, “I want you to love somebody of a different people group.”

Watermark is a conservative church that opposes abortion vehemently and last year ousted a gay man who would not renounce homosexuality as a sin. Although such conservative theology may correspond with that of many African-American churches, evangelical churches such as Watermark are not known for being on the front lines of racial justice.

Says Golden Gate’s Parker: “The more conservative churches on the white side have privatized the gospel. They believe the gospel is about me and my relationship with God. It doesn’t reach to social issues. It doesn’t reach to economic issues. It doesn’t reach to racial issues. If, as an individual, I’m not a racist or don’t consider myself a racist, then it’s OK.”

At Watermark, Wagner was challenging that theological restriction head on. So were Matt Chandler at The Village Church and Gary Brandenburg at Fellowship Dallas. At Fellowship Dallas, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, members were instructed to confess the sin of racism and to “fight to kill racism as if our lives depended on it. Fight to kill it like we do all sin.”

At Wilshire, a leading congregation among moderate churches affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Mason was speaking regularly of racial justice. He urged members to take a stand often enough that some parishioners complained he ought to stop the politicking and stick to the Bible. Although he joked about the complaints during sermons and sympathized with some who were uncomfortable, he didn’t stop.

Warren also has been challenged by church members. “Some people in my church say, ‘Jeff, can’t you ease up?’ They’ll say, ‘Hey, just stick to the gospel,’ as if there’s an implication-free gospel.” Some of the difficulty is “white fragility,” he says, explaining that some are thinking, “’I’ve been the dominant race. I have been in a place of privilege. I don’t want to lose that. I can’t lose that.’”

His answer: “The gospel causes us to look at this differently. It does cause us to want to see justice, to want to see equality. If all the love I need is in Jesus, I have enough love.”

Park Cities has lost some members because of Warren’s stance on racial consciousness and justice. “Not many but some,” he says. How much impact have his words really had? “I haven’t seen anybody on Facebook say, ‘Hey, I’ve completely changed my mind.’”

But new, interracial friendships have proven their value by teaching people the way forward. “What we’ve learned is that empathy is the pathway to peace,” he says.

Speaking with a united voice

The pastors had spent years getting ready, consciously or not, for the day when a crisis would arrive, and with it the need to speak with one voice. Now, that day had come.

After the black pastors’ news conference, Wagner sent a text message to Carter: “Praying for you. Is there anything you wish I knew that you aren’t sure I know? Is there anything I’m thinking that you aren’t sure I am thinking? Is there anything you wish I was doing that you aren’t sure I am doing? How can I serve you? How can we serve our city together? I am trusting you will call me any time. I’m ready to listen, respond and serve.”

Other pastors were also talking with their friends. A meeting was scheduled.

George Mason addresses the fatal shooting of Botham Jean from the pulpit of Wilshire Baptist Church .

About a dozen pastors ended up in a room together. “That was when things started to get real,” says Wilshire’s Mason. He later recounted to his congregation that Jakes from Potter’s House told the white pastors: “I believe you care because you are in this room; but we need to know more than where your heart is. We need to hear you say clearly in the pulpit and in the streets that white supremacy and racism is wrong. And no more generalizations. It has to be specific. I know it will cost you something to do so, but isn’t that what Jesus calls us to do, to take up our cross and follow him?”

The pastors decided they would formulate a statement and send it to The Dallas Morning News.

Then came Sunday morning. In a show of clergy unity unlike anything ever seen in the city of Dallas, black and white ministers in some of the city’s largest, most prestigious and wealthiest churches rose at their pulpits to speak with a united voice. They demanded justice for Botham Jean and dared to say that Jesus would do the same.

At Concord, Carter told members to grieve for their city as Nehemiah grieved for Jerusalem. “The enemy can attack a city,” he said. “Maybe it’s time for God’s church to get on their knees for their city.” He ended the service with 10 minutes of prayer as the congregation swayed and cried out for the city, the Botham Jean family and for Amber Guyger.

“We need to hear you say clearly in the pulpit and in the streets that white supremacy and racism is wrong. And no more generalizations. It has to be specific.”

At First United Methodist Church, pastor Andrew Stoker’s topic was white privilege.  White privilege is unearned and undeserved, and “white privilege gets all the privileges,” he said. Referring to Jean’s death, he added, “White privilege is the power to remain silent in the face of racial inequality and in the face of racial injustice.” Jesus, he made clear, would not approve.

At Watermark, Wagner used the church’s website to post his thoughts. “Speaking out against any form of injustice is not brave – it is our duty as followers of Christ,” he wrote. “It is not radical to boldly acknowledge that we have a long history of injustice toward people of color in our country. It is ignorant to deny it or say otherwise.”

That Sunday at Wilshire, Mason declared that “the preferential treatment of the officer by the criminal justice system reminds us that justice is still not blind to color – whether white, black or blue; the smear campaign of the dead man’s character immediately after his funeral is a long and nasty practice used against people of color to gain sympathy for the defendant. Lord, have mercy.”

George Mason

The last words of his sermon were blunt: “If we want to call ourselves by the name of Jesus, we have to stop defending things he would condemn and start loving people like he did. It may cost us friends. It may even cost us our life. But after three days, give or take, there will always be a rising with Christ. Amen.”

When Wilshire posted an excerpt of Mason’s sermon on YouTube, more than 2 million people clicked on the link. Among the thousands who commented, many were African-Americans grateful to hear a white pastor speak up for them and for racial justice.

On Monday the pastors’ letter was published. It was signed by 19 clergypersons, white and black, representing more than 100,000 Christians. The letter stated that Officer Guyger’s uniform should not give her special privileges. “We demand full transparency, consistency, and integrity in the days ahead as the judicial process progresses.”

The pastors had spoken in unity. Old customs, actions and attitudes were challenged. A police officer should be treated like anyone else.

Reality of unequal justice

Several weeks after Jean was killed, a “Call to Action town hall” was held at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church. After an hour or so, the meeting of about 200 people disintegrated into chaos when fist-shaking activists drowned out questions with chants of, “What Do We Want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!” When he gave the closing prayer, Butler, St. Paul’s young pastor, stood at the edge of the platform extending outstretched arms as if blessing the crowd. His voice could barely be heard over the ruckus.

A group of Anglo pastors sat together by the door, starkly conspicuous in the mostly black crowd. They had come to offer unspoken support. Earlier in the service, however, Mason had been asked if he would speak. No other white person had been among the speakers. Without prepared remarks, Mason took the floor.

“Unequal justice is real,” he declared. “Racism is real and a demon that must be exorcised from our hearts. … We want what you want, which is equal justice for all.”


Dallas CBF pastor stands with black clergy protesting police shooting of African-American man

A Cooperative Baptist Fellowship pastor in Dallas criticized white churches for not speaking up alongside blacks demanding justice in the killing of an African-American man in his own apartment by a white police officer.

On Sunday George Mason, senior pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, used his pulpit to address protests engulfing the city since Dallas police officer Amber Guyger, 30, fatally shot 26-year-old Botham Jean, a native of Caribbean island nation of St. Lucia, on Sept. 6.

Guyger, a four-year veteran of the Dallas Police Department, claims the shooting was accidental. She said she mistakenly got on the wrong floor of her building, thought it was her apartment and mistook Jean for a burglar.

George Mason addresses controversy about a recent police shooting that has sparked outrage among the African-American community in Dallas and across the country.

After the shooting, police searched Jean’s apartment for drugs and reportedly found a small amount of marijuana and smoking paraphernalia. His mother criticized authorities for trying to defame her son, a graduate of a Christian college in Arkansas who served as worship leader and youth pastor at Dallas West Church of Christ until his untimely death.

Mason said he attended Jean’s funeral and later in the week joined a diverse group of clergy ranging from colleagues like Jeff Warren at Park Cities Baptist Church to Pentecostal megachurch pastor T.D. Jakes in a meeting with District Attorney Faith Johnson.

After the DA left the room, Mason said, “things got honest.”

“One black pastor thanked the white pastors for being there but expressed frustration with what he called the way white churches have privatized the gospel so much so that it keeps our congregations from understanding that the call for justice is not optional for Christians,” Mason told his congregation. “And he wondered why we don’t speak out more. We leave it to them. They’re on their own.”

Mason said Jakes, author, filmmaker and pastor of The Potter’s House, “talked about how hard it is convincing the black youths in his church to stay with the Christian way of following a non-violent Jesus when they’re hearing lots of things from other people who say ‘that’s not getting us anywhere’ and a culture that is dominated by white preaching that is continually defending policies that are rooted in white supremacy and racism.”

“He said, ‘I believe you care, because you are in this room, but we need to know more than where your heart is,’” Mason reported. “We need to hear you say clearly in your pulpits and in the streets that white supremacy and racism is wrong and no more generalizations.”

On Sunday protestors tried to disrupt the Dallas Cowboys home opener with a demonstration demanding that the officer be fired and charged with murder instead of manslaughter. Nine protestors arrested for blocking an intersection near AT&T stadium were in jail longer than Guyger, who was released shortly after her arrest on a $300,000 bond, prompting complaints of preferential treatment because she is a police officer.

Mason said “even if race didn’t factor” into the shooting itself, “preferential treatment of the officer by the criminal justice system reminds us that justice in this city, in this country, is still not colorblind, whether you are white or black or brown or blue.”

“And then the smear campaign of the dead man’s character started immediately after his funeral, which is a long and nasty practice used against people of color to gain sympathy for the defendant,” Mason said. “Lord have mercy.”

Mason said during Thursday’s funeral service, he was touched by stories of Jean’s faith as well as the faith of his family and church community. He also recalled thinking, “I don’t want to have to attend one more of these funerals ever again in my entire life.”

“If we want to call ourselves by the name of Jesus, we have to stop defending things that Jesus would condemn, and we have to start loving people like he did.”

Mason exhorted church members to respond to calls to justice by heeding the command of Jesus “to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him.”

“If we want to call ourselves by the name of Jesus, we have to stop defending things that Jesus would condemn, and we have to start loving people like he did,” the pastor said. “It may cost us friends, it may even cost us our life, but after three days, give or take, there’s always a rising with Christ.”

On Monday Mason, Warren and Jakes joined 16 other faith leaders in a letter published by the Dallas Morning News demanding “full transparency, consistency and integrity in the days ahead as the judicial process progresses.”

“Whether one’s skin is white, black or brown and whether the uniform is blue or that of a civilian, there should be no difference in treatment in a just society or in its courts of law,” the clergy said. “True justice is impartial to race, wealth, status or social position.”

The open letter said Guyger’s “blue uniform should grant her no advantage in the current investigation nor upcoming prosecution” and called “for the acknowledgement of any undeserved privileges already unjustly granted to Officer Guyger by virtue of her uniform. “

Other signers included Albert Reyes, president and CEO of Buckner International, and Matt Chandler, lead pastor of The Village Church, a multi-site megachurch aligned with the Southern Baptist Convention.


Gospel politics in the midst of social turmoil

The current turmoil in American political life is making it harder for churches to experience community.

This is particularly hard on political and economic conservatives who are not naturally theological or social conservatives — which describes a large swath of theologically progressive Baptists in the American South. I understand this group well, because for years I identified as just such a person.

Today, these political and economic conservatives would like political and economic issues to be separated from their church lives. I hear it all the time from those in the pew who feel that my preaching has gotten too political. White preachers like me, however, are increasingly feeling what black preachers have always known — namely, that it is untenable to proclaim a gospel of the heart that is disconnected from public life.

The stability churches like mine felt for a long time, we now understand, came at the expense of others who did not experience life the way we did. Increasingly, the church in America is wrestling with this awareness and dealing with it one of three ways:

  1. Ignore it and go on like we have in the past, which allows the forces at work outside the walls of the church to act without restraint and leaves things to a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” outcome.
  2. Double down on support of our views of society, whatever they are — conservative or progressive — and become more deliberately partisan.
  3. Recognize that the church’s mission includes a strong commitment to advocate for the weak and vulnerable in the world as a sign of God’s love in Jesus Christ.

This last approach, which is my aim, intends to be politically non-partisan, issue-oriented and people-focused. It must emanate from a spiritual center that pulsates with the heart of Jesus, or it would turn the church into just another special interest group and have nothing unique to contribute to the world. Yet it must be willing to get into public policy that will sometimes feel partisan whether it is or not. Jesus summarized the gospel by the shorthand of loving God and neighbor, the latter being no less spiritual than the former.

President George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” was a political approach to policy rooted in faith that attempted to change lives for the better. Whether it was the best approach is beside the point. The point is that there was a conservatism that cared about these things from a stance consistent with conservative principles. It attempted to tie love of God with love of neighbor. Where are those voices today?

When a pastor today talks about defending poor people from predatory lenders, say, it sounds to some like rhetoric of the Democratic Party criticizing free market capitalism. Something has changed. Many political and economic conservatives once cared about knitting together the social fabric and creating of ladders of opportunity on which the lower and middle classes might rise if they were willing to climb. In our current climate, if I speak about these things out of a gospel heart for all of life and not just a person’s spiritual hope for when he or she dies, it sounds not only political but ideological and partisan.

Given the three choices of how a church should respond to these cultural changes, I still think the third way is and always has been the best. But churches like ours are waking up to the fact that we don’t exist in a vacuum. Everything we do or fail to do provokes reactions inside and outside the church, and what is going on in the wider world has effects inside as well as outside the church.

When our congregation took a vote on whether or not to extend full membership inclusion to the LGBTQ community in November 2016, out of calendar necessity we scheduled the vote on the Sundays before and after the presidential election. In hindsight, it is clear that for some of our long-time members who are political and economic conservatives, the national election and our church’s vote merged into a shared moment of decision. The national political conversation made it all the more difficult for the church to have a theological conversation.

These same forces are making it harder for churches to relate to each other. More are making the decision that they will worship and cooperate only with churches, conventions, associations and fellowships that line up closely with what they believe, lest the influence of those other churches rub off on them in ways that pollute or dilute their own beliefs.

But there’s another way to think about this — both intra-church and inter-church — that I prefer: What if our beliefs and practices have a mutually beneficial effect? We may learn some things from each other that we have failed to see in our normal worship and practice, and those things might strengthen our commitment to Christ rather than weaken it.

This is the risk of relationship. Engagement is always fraught with risk, but withdrawing into distinct tribes brings risks of its own.

I never wake up in the morning trying to figure how our church can do this or that to be perceived as more liberal or more conservative. We don’t operate our church as a data-driven marketing position that would appeal to one group or another. I attempt to preach and lead from the center of my understanding of the gospel.

In our case, that has led to a decision about LGBTQ inclusion that has colored us “liberal” in the eyes of many outside the church and more inside the church than I wished. At the same time, we have grown in our understanding of Jesus’ mandate to advocate on behalf of the poor and at-risk, the unheard and unseen, the marginalized and misunderstood, the victimized and vulnerable. Similarly, when we speak out against racism and police brutality, in support of quality public education for everyone or on behalf of immigrants and refugees, we are doing so because we believe that Jesus is Lord of all of life.

For some, these voices of advocacy are part of a whole cloth of a political agenda, because that’s the way politicians and media forces define things today. National politics shapes or prevents meaningful dialogue within and between churches — dialogue that could help us better follow the way of Jesus if we are willing to be shaped by the Spirit of God more than by the spirit of the world.

Jesus came preaching the good news of the kingdom of God that is at hand. That good news threatened political leaders who failed to attend to the common good and it brought blowback from religious leaders who minded the status quo. Preaching the whole gospel will do that in any age, which is why it requires courage to speak the truth that alone sets us free and wisdom to speak it in love at all times.