Paradox in a Justice Seeking Congregation (Winton Boyd) 10.14.18

Those of us in activist congregations are being called to pay attention to a profound paradox in our midst – that sometimes the best way to enact justice in the world is not by doing, but by stopping.

Audio version of Paradox in a Justice Seeking Congregation


The Wild Geese

Horseback on Sunday morning,

harvest over, we taste persimmon

and wild grape, sharp sweet

of summer’s end. In time’s maze

over fall fields, we name names

that went west from here, names

that rest on graves. We open

a persimmon seed to find the tree

that stands in promise,

pale, in the seed’s marrow.

Geese appear high over us,

pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,

as in love or sleep, holds

them to their way, clear,

in the ancient faith: what we need

is here. And we pray, not

for new earth or heaven, but to be

quiet in heart, and in eye

clear. What we need is here.

(From Selected Poems of Wendell Berry)


Michael Eric Dyson –Tears We Cannot Stop:  A Sermon to White America

So what are you supposed to do? My friends, what I need you to do—just for starters—is not act. Not yet. Not first. First I need you to see. I need you to see the pains and possibilities of black life, its virtues and vices, its strengths and weaknesses, its yeses and nos.           


I love this poem, and I love reading it every fall.  I love its sentiment –

if we stay connected to our ancestors (In time’s maze over fall fields, we name names that went west from here, names that rest on graves),

if we admire the seed in our midst(,We open a persimmon seed to find the tree that stands in promise)

…what we need is here.

Said another way, in another context, ‘we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.’

I love what it means for a church congregation.  It could be about stewardship, it could be about vision, or it could be about our resilience.  What we need is here.  As we pastors say, ‘that will preach.’

In the midst of challenge, in the midst of uncertain times, yes, even in the midst of transition, we claim an ancient promise.  All will be well.


At the same time, I think a justice seeking faith and congregation lives with paradox as we seek to live out God’s call.  The paradox is that we bless the world through our activism AND we are being called to another kind of blessing – that of inaction, listening, waiting, and following.

We’re a congregation with a big heart, big dreams and big hopes.  We’ve sought to do more for the world than a collection of people this size could reasonably expect to do. This quality goes back a long way.

When fair housing laws were passed in the 1960’s, a small group of families in this congregation bought some property to create rental units that were ‘fair’ and ‘open.’

Long before it was widely done in churches, we were led by Tim Kehl, Karla Schmidt, Jim Hale and others to reconsider our relationship to the earth – to faithfully move toward more responsible earth care, more honest theological reflection, to explore our lifestyles.

We’ve taken bold stands, we’ve piloted case manager positions at the Road Home, we’ve built homes here and abroad, we stretched our own financial giving to remodel this building, to rebuild our United Church of Christ camps, and to provide rent subsidies to a group of families for three years.

And one of the larger projects in the last decade here was the endeavor we called the Southwest Partnership.  Joining with Commonwealth Development, Madison/Dane County Public Health, and Joining Forces for Families – we committed $130,000 to start an initiative to create employment opportunities for hard to employ folks here in the Southwest area of Madison.

The Southwest Partnership sought to help us invest our theology of love into the lives and realities of our local neighborhood not because it was the only place to give our energy – but because loving our neighbor sometimes actually means loving those nearest to us.

It was rooted two things.  First, it was a tithe of funds raised in our 2011 building remodel.  Secondly, it was a commitment to trust partner agencies we’d already come to know and respect.  When couple of those partners asked us to do something outside the box, uncharted and but desperately needed, we said ‘yes.’   We acknowledged that God was leading us, guiding us through others – even those not in the church.  We understood we had much to learn about being Christian from those outside our faith tradition.

In fits and starts, but anchored in those trusted relationships and committed to developing more – we created initiatives and projects that were ambitious and filled with compassion.  And most importantly, we created new relationships with residents, employers, agencies and other churches.  Some of those relationships were complicated by class and race differences; and some of them blossomed because of those differences.  Many of us learned a whole bunch about poverty that we didn’t know.  We saw first-hand the successes and the many obstacles involved in being faithful neighbors and effective partners.

In the 6 years since SWP was launched, that employment project continues to operate.  We no longer fund it, but funding has started coming from other areas – and the approach and the effort has moved beyond this neighborhood.

So, one side of this justice seeking paradox is this:   Nothing would have happened had we not said, ‘yes, we will step out in faith.’  Because WE took a risk, believed in our imagination and trusted dear partners in their brainstorm for an untested approach and project, something beautiful happened.  Because we – a church who believed in loving our neighbors – said yes first, the partnership got off the ground, others were able to see what was happening and got on board.  But they would not have taken the first step, they would not have taken the first risk.  It was faith-based activism at its best.

On its heels, we have created another initiative called Heart Room where we are subsidizing rents and providing light case management to help stabilize the housing situation for several families.  Once again, we have led the way with a multi-agency partnership.  We put up the brainpower, the networking ability and the money to start this innovative approach.  We do so with great hope that others will join in, and that the outline of the program can be replicated far and wide.

We can be proud.  Repeatedly, we say yes.  We invest our money and our lives and our hearts because both neighbors need it and we need to give it.  We have, and will continue to give our time and energy in seeking to address critical and urgent issues around us.

But the other side of the paradox is this.  One of the biggest learnings in this work is that we don’t know what we don’t know. Many of us have come to in important first step is not doing – certainly not just doing as we have done – but stopping.




Sitting with.


Or to put it more bluntly – by NOT doing, NOT solving, NOT responding to our activist instinct.

We’ve learned that good intentions, generosity and hope are not only not enough, they sometimes make things worse.  We’ve confirmed that our white privilege and our bias create unhelpful filters. Our ‘action’ puts us into motion when those we seek to most want to serve are asking us to just listen.


Stand alongside.


This usually requires something different from us than our activism and our enormous problem-solving skills. Michael Eric Dyson writes extensively on race relations in this country. He’s been a preacher and currently teaches sociology at Georgetown University.  He usually writes directly to white Americans, and his challenges in this area also apply in any arena in which we are trying to have meaningful dialogue and interaction with those of less privilege.

So what are you supposed to do? My friends, what I need you to do—just for starters—is not act. Not yet. Not first. First I need you to see. I need you to see the pains and possibilities of black life, its virtues and vices, its strengths and weaknesses, its yeses and nos.

This is hard for us….

In getting prepared for our Civil Rights Bus tour at the end of this  month – 23 of us from ORUCC and Christ the Solid Rock church on the east side are going – I talked with African American author and activist Lisa Sharon Harper.  Her encouragement for our group was to approach this learning experience by asking, ‘whose narrative isn’t being told.’ As we learn more about race and class in our country, whose story has been marginalized? How do we come near to those storytellers to hear and welcome their narrative?

If finding those unheard narratives seems daunting, we could thinking about our own families and work settings.

Whose story is most visible, and whose is rarely lifted up?

Whose energy dominates a room, and when it does, how does that impact how others are able to show up?

Sometimes, we’ve been the voices dominating the room, getting our say in.  Sometimes it has been our voice, our experience or our narrative that has been marginalized or silenced.  We know how this works in settings close to home.  We are being asked to broaden our awareness of this dynamic.


Another first step is refrain from the need for an answer, and certainly to refrain from thinking we have an answer.  When I went with a group here to the US Mexico border in 2015, there was much that didn’t make sense.  We were asked to listen to peoples’ stories.

When I’ve worked alongside low income leaders in our nearby neighborhoods there is so much that doesn’t make sense.  That I can’t figure out. I am asked not to offer an opinion about why the relationship between families of color and schools are so fractured – but to listen to what the story sounds like from their perspective.

The story lines of those struggling often feel – to me and in my brain – like they are missing critical details.  I am challenged to refrain from judgement, to refrain from offering a pompous solution.  As Dyson writes, ‘maybe you don’t know what poverty and oppression look like because you don’t want to know.  Maybe it’s worse.  You don’t have to know.  Your life hasn’t depended, like ours has, on knowing what the ‘other’ likes or dislikes.” (p.135)


Rather, I am challenged to stop, listen. I am challenged, as we all are, to acknowledge my connection to the other as a fellow human being.  I am challenged to face my own fears and confusions about why injustice is so rampant.  I am challenged to move from my solution-oriented head so that I can listen with my compassionate heart.  I am challenged to listen in order to learn, to hear something new, hard, or confusing.

The paradox of justice, and caring for the world.  Do and don’t do. Take charge and hold back.

Turn tables over in the temples as you criticize the money changers while at the same time withholding any response when you are about to be crucified.

For those of us whose life hasn’t depended on knowing ‘the other,’ the real challenge may be how we find a way to ‘proximate’ ourselves to the other, as Bryan Stephenson, author of Just Mercy, says.

Many of us are surrounded by opportunities to listen to those who aren’t majority race, middle class, or majority religion.  We have relationships at work, we have possibilities at school, in our volunteer roles, or we have neighbors.  What would it take from us to position ourselves to be present, to interact in ordinary ways, to practice listening, to ponder the human truths of our differences and our similarities?

If we don’t have those opportunities, how do we do the hard work of putting ourselves in places and situations others might be?  Where we can listen?  Rather than hoping for, wishing or asking someone who is ‘the other’ to come into our spaces, or our world – how do we explore the ways we can go to theirs?  If justice is really a value for us, what might it require of us to simply be a presence in the lives of those who suffer the most from our injustice.

What we need is here.  Only if our engagement includes, as Berry suggests, being ‘quiet in heart.’

This will be our challenge as a progressive, mostly middle-class congregation going forward.  Our challenge will be to hold the tensions of these paradoxes and the possibilities of learning anew what we have to learn, what we don’t know and what we might one day have to offer.

Our sacred texts have long held that God’s wisdom comes primarily from the poor, the outcast, the suffering and the stranger.  To be a vibrant and faithful congregation may depend on honoring and trusting that wisdom more tomorrow than we have done to date.   May it be so.




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