Preparing congregations to do justice

Rev. Dr. Russell W. Dalton

September 10, 2018

Too often, sermons and Sunday school lessons on issues of social justice raise concerns in people’s minds but do little to prepare or empower them to carry out acts of justice. Commonly, church members leave with a vague sense of guilt about the issue, but no clear idea of how to put their concerns into action.

To use the topic of food insecurity as an example, many sermons and lessons present members with a variety of shocking and troubling statistics, while exploring Bible passages that demonstrate that God cares about hunger and that we should, too. They offer a poignant story of someone who suffered hunger and send people off with a vague sense of guilt that they should be doing more about hunger in the world but with little to no idea of what they can do about it.

To take a more helpful approach, sermons and lessons on topics such as food insecurity can invite people to participate in one of a number of concrete actions sponsored by the church or other community groups. Learners can be encouraged, for example, to serve at a soup kitchen, join in a demonstration or march, start a community garden at the church or join a church group that makes calls to Congress members regarding food justice-related policies. Even better, churches can empower people to address these issues by training them to take part in these activities, setting them up for successful and fulfilling work as activists.

As we plan these training events, we would do well to learn from the example of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and its work with the Freedom Riders in 1961. CORE did not simply preach a general message of racial equality. The group had a specific plan of action to challenge the non-enforcement of federal laws against segregation. They sat in mixed racial groups on buses in the South, used “whites-only” restrooms and sat together at segregated lunch counters in several Southern states.

Before embarking on their famous first ride through the south, the Freedom Riders met in Washington, D.C., for three full days of nonviolence training.[i] At the outset, James Farmer, the national director of CORE, provided participants with “an overview of what we were going to do, how we were going to do it, and the most optimistic and pessimistic outcomes possible.”[ii] Then, the riders received legal, sociological and ethical briefings.

All of this preparation was a prelude to what CORE leaders considered the most important part of their training—namely, “intense role-playing sessions” to prepare them for sit-ins.[iii] During these sessions, the riders prepared for the hatred they would face, spending hours sitting at simulated lunch counters, while trainers blew cigarette smoke in their faces, tugged on their hair and yelled racial epithets at them. Only after they successfully completed this training were the riders allowed to get on the buses.

As we prepare our church members to march, speak up, volunteer and protest, we can glean several lessons from the Freedom Riders’ example. 

  1. Plan concrete ministries or specific actions that address the issue, and call people to those activities. The Freedom Riders had a specific plan of nonviolent civil disobedience. In the same way, our lessons and sermons can call people to specific acts of advocacy and social action.
  1. Do not settle on activities that are easy or simply make people feel good. The Freedom Riders put their lives on the line. Most of our acts of advocacy and action will not require as much risk or hardship, but our primary consideration should not be to require minimal effort or commitment. Church groups are often tempted to engage in projects that are easy and make them feel good, rather than taking on tasks that require time and effort but can lead to real change and make real differences in peoples’ lives.[iv]
  1. Consider making attendance at education and training a requirement for participation. Our own efforts may not be best served by three full days of training. Instead, we might require attendance at a special Sunday school class for four or five weeks prior to taking action, or a long Saturday morning workshop the week before taking action. Other activities may simply require arriving an hour before the activity for orientation and instructions and then staying an hour after arriving back at the church for a time of debriefing and theological reflection. Providing this training is preferable to making an open invitation for anyone to show up and participate with no preparation at all.
  1. Make your goals and expectations for the activity clear to participants. Following Farmer’s example, we should not assume that everyone who gathers to participate fully understands the issues at hand or what your group is trying to accomplish. Helping participants understand the issues, your ultimate goals and your expectations will help participants engage in the activity more effectively.
  1. Provide social, political, theological and ethical perspectives on why and how you are acting. This sort of education should not only address why the issue is important, but also our reasons for carrying out actions in a just and peaceful manner that respects the dignity of all humankind.
  1. Provide practical training that empowers people to take action effectively. Like the CORE leadership, we can design role plays to help our members practice talking with guests at a homeless shelter or speaking at a city council meeting while a council member attempts to interrupt their train of thought. We could address what to do in the rare event that a peaceful rally becomes violent. These role plays never perfectly recreate the actual events but are nonetheless a helpful way to practice our responses. For some activities, we can offer direct instruction in the skills needed to carry out social action.[v] We often do so when preparing youth groups for mission trips, teaching through repetition and practicing how to measure a board or hammer a nail, but this model can also be used to teach a variety of skills for social action.

Finally, ministries often overlook a tremendous opportunity for education surrounding social action when we fail to plan opportunities for group praxis reflection following an activity.[vi] We can ask participants to reflect on their experiences. What went well? What did not go so well? How can we improve our efforts in the future? What did we learn about the issue and about ourselves through our activity? Leaders can also introduce a relevant passage of Scripture or other theological resources to facilitate theological reflection. By engaging in practical and theological reflection before, during and after taking action, we can better plan for future activities and learn from our experiences.

Our society owes a great debt to the work of the Freedom Riders, and our quest for racial justice continues. Their work has provided us with a valuable model for preparing to do justice—a model in which we do not simply tell people that they should be concerned but instead empowers them to take action effectively.

The Rev. Dr. Russell W. Dalton is an ordained American Baptist minister and Professor of Religious Education at Brite Divinity School, Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, Texas.

Dalton will present the workshop “Preparing Congregations for Ministries of Advocacy and Social Action” at ABHMS’ “Space for Grace: Thy Will Be Done,” November 14-16, 2018, in Philadelphia. REGISTER TODAY for this national conference that seeks to explore critical issues of mission engagement, discipleship and church transformation facing Christians today.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] Raymond Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 106-108.

[ii] Ibid., 107.

[iii] Ibid., 107.

[iv] Cf. Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (New York: Harper One, 2011), 57.

[v] Bruce Joyce, Marsha Weil, and Emily Calhoun, Models of Teaching 8th edition (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc., 2009), chapter seventeen, Direct Instruction, 367-376.

[vi] James M. Gustafson, Theology and Christian Ethics (Philadelphia: Pilgrim Press, 1974), 68, Thomas Groome, Christian Religious Education (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980), and Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (NY: Seabury, 1970).

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