A Sustaining Practice of Social Justice

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- Jeff Gentry

My spirituality was shaped far more by L’Arche Toronto than by seminary.

I spent the summer before seminary living and serving beside the “core members” – L’Arche language for people with disabilities – and other assistants from Canada, Germany, and the U.S. As we cooked, cleaned, prayed together, I began to discover what my house leader called “the spirituality of cleaning toilets.” As I filled the few hours of “away time” I had each day with spiritual reading and prayer, I slowly realized that I had never been more centered in my faith before, and perhaps, since.

The summer at L’Arche went so well that they invited me to stay with the community for another two years. I seriously considered staying since I believed Matthew, one of our core members, when he told me with tears in his eyes before my departure that “I have so much more to teach you.” However, in the end I traded L’arche for a half-tuition scholarship at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. 

I’ve regretted the trade ever since. 

Seminaries are much better equipped to help you crystallize and arrange conceptions than they are to nurture and shape your Christian practice. During my first semester of seminary, I quickly learned that my passion for the practice of social justice was often misinterpreted as a sign of liberation or liberal theology.  

Fortunately, the tide has clearly changed in many seminaries and Christian communities since the early ‘aughts. 

Over the last six or seven years evangelicals have been rediscovering and revitalizing their social justice roots. Gordon-Conwell is now home to the Justice Student Association. Organizations like Not For Sale and International Justice Mission have coalesced evangelical energy to seek the abolition of modern day slavery – clearly one of the great social challenges of our day. In Africa innovative evangelical poverty alleviation efforts by organizations World Vision and Blood Water Mission have even inspired leaders like the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof to become unexpected apologists of evangelical social action.

I couldn’t be more thankful for the social justice movement that is sweeping through evangelicalism. However, in order to ensure the sustainability of this movement, we – as Christian communities and families – need to develop simple social justice practices that will consistently orient our life around compassion and incite the well-being of the inheritors of God’s Kingdom.

Different communities and families will develop different practices. Here are a few that our family has found helpful:

Re-Ordering Our Economics

Last year I had the opportunity to participate in LeadBoston, a cross sector social justice interest and action group. After hours upon hours of discussions concerning race, class, and wealth distribution, I somewhat hesitantly noted to the group that “unless we are willing to reorder our personal economics around the pursuit of justice, these conversations are worthless.” Simply stated, we need to put our money where the justice is. Here are some ways that our family as re-ordered our economics:

  1. We give sacrificially. Tithing is a valuable practice that was established in the Old Testament as a way to sustain Temple, the center of Israel’s life. However, in the New Testament, we are presented ethic that inspires widows to give away their entire pensions and inspires communities that are willing to give anything up to and including – if it was possible! – their very own eyes to empower others. I can’t tell you what percentage of your income you should give, but I agree with Chuck Sackett, my old bible college professor, who often said that if you aren’t feeling it put a cramp on your lifestyle, it isn’t enough.
  2. We only give half of our sacrificial gift to the church. After years of giving at least 10% to the church and donating over and above to special education initiatives in Africa, Bible translation, and our local anti-poverty agency, we decided to re-orient our giving. Since we treasure our local church we give 5% of our giving on Sunday mornings and we enjoy using the additional 5+% to pursue the change we want to see in the world. The distribution of gifts is a very personal thing that I don’t presume to tell you how to order. 
  3. We share a portion of all good things with others. When our tax refund comes in or we get a year end bonus, we set aside a portion to serve other people or causes that are not a part of our regular giving. 

Staying Engaged in Our Community

When I interned at a rapidly growing church plant in college, we quickly realized that the people who were growing quickest in the development of their faith were not people who were attending small group, but people who were serving on the set-up and tear down team. I know that many of us are incredibly busy, so get that service time on the schedule. Instead of seeing your children as a barrier to volunteering, find opportunities to serve together with them. In Boston there is an organization called The Volunteer Family, who helps with volunteer ideas. Your area likely has something similar. 

  1. Look for ways to help lead social justice initiatives. Many great nonprofit organizations are looking for engaged board members. In fact, the board for Kupenda, the organization I serve, is currently searching for a MBA or CPA to serve as the treasurer of our organization (interested parties can contact me!). Board leadership is a great way to scale up the impact of your service.
  2. Pray. I know, I know, the two greatest lies we tell are “I have read these terms and agree to these conditions” and “I’ll pray for you.” But we can pray and we must. 

Looking, Listening, and Waiting for the Kingdom.

  1. In the Sermon on the Plain Jesus says, “the Kingdom of God belongs to the poor.” Thus, if we want glimpses of the Kingdom, we cannot stray too far from those in great need. In one illuminating passage of Philip Yancey’s writing, he asked Henri Nouwen why he continued to pastor and live at L’Arche Toronto, where few of the core members could conceptually understand the spiritual practices Nouwen taught. In that moment, Nouwen told Yancey that he had completely misinterpreted his relationship with the core members. “It is I,” Nouwen noted, not the core members “who gets the main benefit from our friendship.” If we want to benefit from real relationships with the inheritors of God’s kingdom we must be willing to get involved in their messy lives and let them get involved in ours. 
  2. In his book Grace Works, Jim Wallis says that if we want to pursue social justice we should “listen to those closest to the problem.” Those individuals have much more than their personal stories to tell. They can help you understand the contours and overwhelming complexity of the systems of inequality that oppress so many. Perhaps, by combining Nouwen and Wallis’ wisdom we can say, “Listen to those closest to the problem, for they are your teachers.”

Philip Yancey once said that “I love evangelicals because once you get them past their condemnation, you can get them to do anything.” I share Yancey’s love for my evangelical tribe and I desperately long for the revival of social justice that is sweeping through our seminaries, churches, and lives, to be sustained.

Our family’s prayer for your 2012 is that you can find sustainable ways – or continue in the paths you’ve already worn – to practice justice. We’d also love for you to become our teacher by sharing the practices you’ve found helpful in the comments section below. 

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Jeff Gentry is Christian, father, pastor, and provocateur who lives in Beverly, Massachusetts. During the week Jeff serves as the Community Relations Director for Triangle, an organization that provides infinite possibilities for people with disabilities. Jeff also serves on the U.S. Board of Directors for Kupenda, a Christian organization that provides educational access, advocacy, and access to medical care for youth with disabilities in western Kenya. In recent years Jeff has served as a homechurch pastor and an associate pastor at The Gathering in Salem. He currently worships with his family at Christ Church of Hamilton Wenham and serves as a facilitator for the Greater Boston Emergent Cohort. A fourth generation St. Louis Cardinals fan, Jeff lives in fear that his children will root for the Boston Red Sox. Jeff and a couple of conspirators infrequently blog at The Inconsistent Adopted. You can follow him on twitter @jeffgentry13.