I held the phone close to my ear and listened to Beth Cossin, the Director of the Wesleyan Justice Network. “Justice is about God’s heart for reconciliation.” Her words lit the room around me. I felt new connections being forged between my faith and my convictions. “I’m not just interested in programs,” she continued. “I would love to see The Wesleyan Church return to the roots of our story and reflect God’s heart for justice and the hope of the Gospel wherever we have spheres of influence.” Until Beth, I had never heard anyone talk about justice in this way. I listened, gulping down her works like water. “That we would be known for being agents of reconciliation who will bridge the divide wherever an ‘us vs. them’ paradigm exists.”
As a professor of writing, I spend most of my time in higher education circles where justice is often philosophized about. There are lectures and meetings on campus about how to increase the diversity on campus, how to serve minority students, and students from underprivileged communities.
But never are these conversations framed in the context of faith. That’s why as I listened to Beth Cossin cast her vision for the Wesleyan Justice Network, for the ways God is working to bring the world back to himself and back to each other, my heart beat faster.
Yes, yes, I whispered under my breath. This was a conversation I wanted to be part of, this was a work I wanted to be engaged in.
That’s why just a few months later, I kissed my family goodbye, boarded a plane and flew thousands of miles to Memphis, TN, to join Beth and a host of other Wesleyans at the National Conference for the Christian Community Development Association.
I had never heard of CCDA before that point. Didn’t know its heart or vision. Didn’t know who Dr. John Perkins, the founder, was.
But I was about to learn.
On that first day, Jeremy Summers, the Director of Spiritual Formation, arranged a Wesleyan connection dinner, an evening for all of us who are a part of the Wesleyan church to meet and eat together before beginning a weekend full of learning and growing.
I followed Beth up the stairs of the conference center to a large Banquet room. In the far left corner stretched a projector and screen. Around the room Jeremy’s team buzzed, putting handouts and brochures on each table. I recognized some faces from my days at Indiana Wesleyan University. But then there were other faces, other names, I didn’t recognized.
Jeremy began the evening by sharing the next steps of the CMAD with us. “We’re going back to the city,” Jeremy explained as pictures of urban centers flipped on the white screen behind him. “The One City Movement is a collective of Wesleyan Churches who will work to bring justice, mercy and love into the city.”
Jeremy painted the statistics for us: by 2015 all the major city-centers would be growing exponentially: Washington DC, New York, and Baltimore. “We believe that within the density of the city, unlike any other place, the intensity of concentrated injustice and isolation result in widespread systematic human suffering.” Heads nodded around the room in agreement. So many were themselves working in cities, working to navigate the unique streams of opportunity juxtaposed against injustice characterized by urban landscapes. “How do we strategically reach these cities?” Jeremy asked, and the question seemed to hang over the room.
About an hour into our meeting, the double doors to the banquet room opened and three men squeezed in. They tried to be inconspicuous but we were watching, all of us turning to see who it was.
Here before us was Dr. Perkins and a few of his colleagues. He had taken precious moments out of his busy schedule to speak to our gathering of Wesleyans. He eased his way to the front of the room, his age showing in the curve of his spine, the tremble of his steps, yet his voice was vital with mission.
He told us his story and the story of how he came to found CCDA.
“When I sat in that prison and was tortured, I saw the depths of evil in white racism,” he paused and I felt the heat of his statement rippling out. “But I also saw the depths of my own evil, my own desire to destroy the people causing me pain. I was no better than them.”
I sat stunned by his words. I could hardly wrap my mind around that type of suffering along with his own level of self-awareness and humility.
Dr. Perkins continued, “I made a bargain with God right then, and I think I caught him listening. I said, ‘God if you let me get out of prison, I want to preach a Gospel that is stronger than my own black interests. I want to preach a gospel that can reconcile black, white, Jew and Gentile.'”
And so he did. Dr. Perkins was released from prison and in 1960, he and his wife, Vera Mae, moved their family to Mendenhall, an economically oppressed community in Mississippi. For the next 35 years, they committed their lives to serving the poor in their city. In 1989, he began the Christian Community Development Association, an organization of people and churches dedicated to “expressing the love of Jesus in America’s poor communities.”
That night, in Memphis, I heard Dr. Perkins echo the same words I had heard Beth speak so many months before. “Christ is working to reconcile people to God and people to each other.”
I felt myself lift in my seat slightly, my ears and heart attuned to his every word. Justice. Reconciliation. Two thoughts, two words, two truths wrought with so much meaning, and yet, I found myself struggling to really place them in the tangible world around me.
I wanted to go deeper, wanted to know in a concrete way what it looks like for God to be reconciling this earth.
At the beginning of the evening, Jeremy had invited the heads of each department to come and introduce themselves and speak a bit about their work. Beth was in the line up and when it came her turn to speak about the Wesleyan Justice Network, she took a moment to introduce me to the room.
“We have Christin Taylor with us this weekend. She is a storyteller for us and will be listening to your stories throughout the weekend. She’s here to write our stories for us.”
And I think as is always true, it is through story that we see truth made real. As the night wound on, Beth pulled me aside and introduced me to key people working at the front lines to bring justice and reconciliation to their broken neighborhoods. There were the Mansells, who have started Seven Baskets, a community organization partnering with the public schools in the forgotten neighborhoods of Columbus, Ohio. There were Anthony Smith and Dustin Wilson, founders of Mission House, a community-based church plant aimed at addressing the injustices crawling along the underbelly of Salisbury, North Carolina. Then there were the Lipscombs, a husband and wife team, leading City Life Church in the heart of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and tackling immigration reform along with the gospel.
Though I may have come to the weekend unsure of just what I would be doing, I knew by the end of the night why I was there. I was there to listen and to learn, to follow the gut-punch reality that so many of these pastors and ministers live in every day. I was about to see that justice and reconciliation are not two abstract words, but flesh and blood people working out love and forgiveness, sacrifice and redemption along the cracked pavements of grace.
CLICK HERE to learn more about upcoming CCDA opportunities or to find information on the 2016 CCDA Conference coming up on August 31 through September 3.