Thursday, August 29, 2013

We Can & Must Do Better

By Jim Hill

This week our nation marks the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and the transformative "I Have a Dream" speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Hundreds of thousands of Americans gathered in Washington 50 years ago for a rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and across the National Mall. On Wednesday, August 28, on the anniversary of Dr. King's call for freedom and justice for all Americans, I had the privilege of participating in an event at our state Capitol to remember Dr. King's legacy.

In his speech delivered during the rally 50 years ago, Dr. King, acknowledged that 100 years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, black men and women were not free and the promise of our nation was not a reality for people of color in our nation.

My faith demands that I acknowledge that 50 years later we still do not live in a nation where freedom and justice are provided for all. We live in a country where justice is not blind, and the poor and minorities do not receive the same justice as the wealthy. I believe we can and we must do better.

We live in a state where there is great disparity and inequity, and where the economic systems, both private and public, are bent in ways that benefit the affluent and keep many of our citizens trapped in poverty and hopelessness. I believe we can and we must do better.

We live in communities violence and crime become the result of our failure to provide education, opportunity, and a sense of hope for the all our citizens. We act as though some of our citizens do not matter. I believe we can and we must do better.

At the core of Dr. King's speech was a sense of urgency. He spoke for those who were tired of waiting for freedom and justice. They were tired of being told to wait for a better time, when entire generations of their families lived under repression and oppression. The March on Washington signaled a moment when a people said "now is the time." It was a critically important moment in the process which led to the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Has our country made progress in providing freedom and justice for all our citizens? Surely, we have. But perhaps the greatest danger we face as we celebrate the anniversary of this historic March and Dr. King's speech, is to believe we arrived. In many respects we have only begun our journey toward justice. Today as it was 50 years ago, people of faith must take a stand in their congregations and communities for justice for all people.

Fifty years ago a movement for freedom and justice was launched. Our task is to pick up the torch in our generation and continue the march toward justice for all people. This is the only meaningful way to honor Dr. King's legacy. People of faith need to stand up and lead the efforts to help our nation heal its brokenness as we learn to understand and trust one another. I believe we can and we must do better.

You can contact Jim Hill, Churchnet Executive Director, at (888) 420-2426 ext. 705 or at jimhill@thechurchnet.org.

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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Relationships are Essential

by Verlyn Bergen

After 50 years of marriage and 48 years of ministry as well as some significant health issues, I have had opportunity to reflect on God's incredible grace and goodness. I have also begun to contemplate some of the really difficult questions about God and the church. Phillip Yancey has just completed another wonderful book where he considers "Where is God when it hurts?" I heard another prognosticator announce again this week that denominations are dead. These statements as well as the daily news have caused me to reconsider some of my assumptions about God and the church. Having spent 28 years of my ministry serving on a denominational level causes me to ask the question, was it worth it? If denominations really are dead, is the church next to go? Oh, I know it is not "religiously correct" to ask questions like these but I don't feel I have anything to lose by being completely honest with myself, others, and, most importantly, with God.

I believe that our assumptions about God and the church are linked to our personal experiences with family and friends and our experiences, as well as the teaching we received, in the life of the church. Therefore, I began to seek answers to some of these questions from others who are as deeply committed to God and the church as I am. "Why do you keep coming back week after week?", "You have worked with preschoolers for many years, why do you keep doing that?", "What do you miss most about denominational life as we once knew it?" and other similar questions are good conversation starters. The responses are varied and come in many different words but there does seem to be a common theme. The responses inevitably come around to relationships, relationship with God and others.

To be clear, the questions are not centered on what brought them to the church but rather what keeps them coming back over many years. I do believe some persons are initially attracted to the church by various factors - style of worship, location, facilities, leadership, children's ministries, youth ministries, etc. However, my experience tells me that they must develop a deepening relationship with God and others if they are to return week after week and year after year.

So what does this mean? It means that I am very optimistic about the future of any church that has as its main focus the deepening of relationships - God and others. All the other factors will change with the changing culture. People need a vibrant relationship to God and others. As long as the church is God's instrument to help people develop a relationship with him and others it will be a powerful force in the world. If it fails on the relationship front it will ultimately go down the same path as denominations.

The Resources & Relationships Team of Churchnet will be exploring ways we can assist churches and leaders in developing relationships with God and others.

You can contact Verlyn Bergn, Churchnet Resources & Relationships Team Leader, at (888) 420-2426 ext. 702 or at vbergen@thechurchnet.org.

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Thursday, August 1, 2013

Investing in People

by Jim Hill

I am serving as President of Missouri Faith Voices, an ecumenical and interfaith network of congregations seeking to address needs and justice issues in their congregations and communities across our state. Missouri Faith Voices is a part of the PICO national network of faith-based community organizations assisting congregations as they put their faith in action in their communities. PICO stands for "People Improving Communities through Organizing." Churchnet is committed to helping congregations engage their communities as they seek to share the hope they have found in Christ.

This past week I had the privilege of participating in the PICO National Leadership Training event at a retreat center in Los Altos, California. It was a wonderful time of learning and growing as leaders from across the nation shared about their faith, their communities, and the needs God is helping us to see with fresh eyes. The Community Needs Ministry Team at First Baptist Church in Jefferson City where I am a member is currently involved in a "listening campaign" as we seek to hear from individuals in our congregation and community about needs and concerns.

What do you hear when you "listen"? The fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman last year in Sanford, Florida, brought racial issues back to the forefront of our national discussions. As tragic as the shooting was, we need to have the conversation. Our nation has a painful heritage of racial injustice which has its roots in hundreds of years of slavery and incredible brutality.

While the Civil War brought an end to the institution of slavery, it did little to deal with the generations of pain, fear, anger, and distrust between the races in our nation. For nearly 150 years since the slaves were freed, millions of African Americans have continued to experience repression and at times oppression economically, educationally, politically, and through our criminal justice system.

While I was attending the National Leadership Training last week, I had the opportunity to see the powerful and tragic film Fruitvale Station. It is the true story of Oscar, a 22-year-old Bay Area resident, who crosses paths with friends, enemies, family, and strangers on the last day of 2008. Oscar was killed by a BART police officer in another tragic clash of races in our nation. It is a story repeated way too often on the streets of our nation.

While some progress has been made, we still have a long way to go. Why should a white person feel ill at ease when they meet a black person on the street? Why should a black person distrust someone they do not know just because they are white? How do we overcome the fear, hatred, and anger that lead to these tragic events? Obviously, there are no simple or easy answers, but if there is any group who ought to be seeking answers it is people of faith. Somehow we need to find the courage to have real conversations about racial issues with our congregations.

People of faith need to stand up and lead the efforts to help our nation heal its brokenness as we learn to understand and trust one another. I remember singing the song as a child: Jesus loves the little children—all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white—they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.

Churchnet has copies of a documentary about Baptists and racial issues produced by the Baptist Center for Ethics (called Beneath the Skin: Baptists and Racism). It is a helpful resource to help congregations begin their discussions about these difficult issues. I hope you will encourage your church to have a conversation. Are you listening for justice?

You can contact Jim Hill, Churchnet Executive Director, at (888) 420-2426 ext. 705 or at jimhill@thechurchnet.org.

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