It’s been a week since I spent a lot of time with our African-American family from across the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The National Convocation came to Kansas City for its biennial session, drawing nearly a thousand representatives from South Carolina to California, from Ferguson to Baltimore, from Washington, D.C. to Nairobi.
The National Convocation is a gathering “for the discussion of pertinent issues related to black church life in the context of total church life, for fellowship, program promotion, leadership training, and such other general purposes as shall support and strengthen the congregations involved in the total mission of the church.”
I’ll confess that I wasn’t really familiar with the Convocation when I signed up to attend, and that I mainly did because I felt the call of hospitality with the Biennial Session being held in my city. I am grateful that I went and for the warm inclusion of this part of our Disciples family. The Convocation’s voices are leading our denomination in paths of gospel witness and social justice that must be heard, understood, and followed.
So, here are a few key reflections for me on this time. Even as I write them, I realize they’re inadequate glances at deep wells for conversation. My thoughts are just starting places:
Convocation gives voice to names and faces you may never hear at General Assembly
Shortly after the conclusion of the Convocation, the list of preachers for the 2017 Indianapolis General Assembly was released, and it includes an African-American woman, a Latino-american man, and a White woman, plus the as-yet-to-be-named(-or-categorized) General Minister and President candidate.
The Disciples have spent the vast majority of their last one-hundred years in Assemblies listening to White male voices. While perhaps there are White male voices with words worth all of us hearing today, the voices of the Convocation have many more things left to say that most of us still need to hear (and rehear, and rehear, and rehear.)
The stories and names of the Convocation bring so much to our shared history. Voices like Jesse Jackson, Jr., Dietra Wise Baker, and J. Lawrence Turner are shaping our life together. Listen for and hear the ministry being done by Chris Dorsey, Derrick Perkins, Ayanna Johnson Watkins, and Angela Whitenhill, Christian Smith, Rhonda Aldridge, Milton Bowers.
Not only that, but take a moment to recognize the historical sculpting done by our African-American Disciples, as we have benefited so greatly from the contributions of Preston Taylor, Jacob Kenoly, and Thomas Buchanan Frost, just to name a few. Look them up.
White Church needs to learn A LOT from the Black Church about Music in Worship
As I came into worship on the second night, I noticed a father, mother, and two young daughters sit down in the seats behind me. As worship began to get into the swing of things, we were all on our feet, moving with the rhythm and feeling the Spirit alive in the songs. As a new song began, the man behind me let out the loudest groan, caught in ecstasy, from deep within him. He clutched his daughter close and said, in a voice loud enough for his daughter and everyone around him to hear, “Oh, I LOVE THIS SONG.”
Perhaps I have missed this in the worship services at my church, but I rarely hear the first refrains of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” followed by guttural exclamations and shouts of “Oh, I LOVE THIS SONG.” Maybe our folks do this while they listen to K-LOVE in the car?
If most White churches require music meant primarily to evoke comfortable nostalgia instead of spiritual engagement, is it time to reload the iPod and pitch some of the hymns? How will the children of our churches learn to love worship if their parents don’t hold them close and say, “Oh, I LOVE THIS SONG?” I know I sing one hymn to our daughter each night to get her to sleep, mainly because I want her to know the words to it in her bones.
The Black Church knows music in its bones.
Black Lives Matter. Period.
Michael Brown. If there was one name mentioned more than any other, his was it.
On Friday afternoon, a panel viewed and discussed the movie Injustice Anywhere- The Movement. Take the 51 minutes to watch the movie by clicking here. Do it if you’re a Disciple. Do it if you’re a human being. The collection of stories of those who were involved in Ferguson will give you a great deal for which you can pray, and a great deal that causes you to consider the call you have to fight racial injustice.
The Christian Church must confront the overwhelming evidence of unjust African-American deaths at the hands of law enforcement, mass incarceration of African-Americans, and systemic poverty that disproportionately afflicts people of color.
There are at least two obvious “on-the-nose” reasons for our support. First, our 2020 Vision Mission Imperative calls us to be anti-Racist and pro-Reconciling, “that recognizes the systemic and symptomatic pathologies present in the United States since slavery.”
Second, at our recent 2015 General Assembly, Sense-of-the-Assembly Resolution GA-1518, “Black Lives Matter: A Movement for All,” was adopted. Its language is clear: “the General Assembly…will support Black Lives Matter: A Movement for All by joining the cause; sharing awareness; supporting and encouraging our congregations to be safe spaces and sanctuary for peaceful protestors, participate in and host sacred conversations and dialogue on race relations and inclusion, and be spiritual allies in prayer…”.
Sense-of-the-Assembly resolutions are only as serious as our congregations allow them to be and I can tell you this: our African-American congregations take this one deadly serious.
The Convocation Feels Way More Hopeful Than General Assembly
“Hindsight. Insight. Foresight.” These three words were the theme for our time together, and each day centered around a word, all drawn from a core scriptural focus:
2 And the Lord answered me, and said, Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it.
3 For the vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie: though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry.
Habakkuk 2: 2-3, KJV
The Convocation evoked an important contrast to many of our Disciple Assemblies: it asked us to look backwards and inwards as well as forwards, to celebrate history, embrace current opportunities and challenges, and imagine a mission and vision of what could be.
So often it seems Assemblies are generalized responses to the overwhelming statistical depression afflicting the so-called Mainline. Themes like, “Teach Us to Pray,” “Soar,” and even the 2017 theme of “One,” give the sense of disembodied hopes and dreams we pray for instead of imperatives and missions we share. They are amorphous rallying cries that speak more to our fear of dying than to our common identity, and thus they don’t give us as much hope as I think they’re likely meant to.
The Convocation teaches us that Hope must be embodied to be emboldened. The Black church knows a shared narrative of God’s grace being shared with us, and it knows it potently. Jesse Jackson, Jr. lifted up these words from Frederick Douglass, “I prayed for freedom for twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”
Perhaps we Disciples can learn to awaken in ourselves this impulse to move in shared mission together. Perhaps this is where our hope lies, in taking the inspiration of the Convocation and making it our own, working for justice and praying for God’s hindsight, insight, and foresight to build a better, more sustainable church.