Standing in God’s Greatest Commandment

By Joe LaGuardia

This was presented at a Stand on the Side of Love gathering at the Vero Beach Courthouse on 16 August 2017 with neighbors, friends, and concerned citizens.

Here I stand.  I am the third-generation son of Italian refugees who escaped poverty, injustice, and fascism in Europe in order to seek a better life for themselves and their family.  They did not speak any English and their customs differed from many Americans at the time, yet Lady Liberty greeted them all as equals and with dignity as she had in years past and for a people vast.

When my family arrived in America, things were not perfect.  They ventured into ghettoized neighborhoods with other Italians, relegated to deplorable, cloistered tenement houses in New York.  And yet, in that place, they made it.  The American dream had become reality.

It is this type of liberty that defines who we are as American citizens and it is this type of hospitality and love that defined my family and shaped who I am as a minister of the Gospel.

But not all of our citizens had been afforded this kind of liberty.  Though foreign and different, my family had champions and advocates who fought for our rights as Italians—like Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia who represented ethnic communities in Manhattan and shamed a nation bent on spending more money on the military than on feeding poor children in one of the largest urban centers in the US.

And we also had the color of our skin going for us too.  Though I was raised in a family in which everyone, friend and stranger alike, had a place at the table, the stain of racism had reached into my neighborhood.  I grew up in a neighborhood segregated by streets and blocks, and the truth that liberty had not reached into communities of color was something I realized as I matured.  Who advocated for the “other” who were ghettoized and held captive by the projects and a crumbling education system?

For all the talk of statues and history in the news, of “us vs. them” and “who’s right and who’s wrong,” our public discourse largely misses the point: Much of our nation—the very one that welcomed my family with open arms while oppressing large populations of others—was founded not on a faulty democracy, but on a defunct medieval theology that pitted some people against others, declaring that some are superior humans deserving of all the rights afforded by our Constitution while others are only worthy for subjugation, a theology that insisted on a divine mandate that “This is God’s will for us.”

This theology continues to dominate and rear its evil head in the fabric of our communities even today, and it continues to justify inequality in our relationships just as it had for over four centuries by way of imperial-inspired sermons, seminaries, and church cultures that perpetuated colonialism, Manifest Destiny, slavery and Jim Crow, a biased criminal justice system and systemic discrimination in housing, public education, and fair-wage opportunities.

Standing on the side of love means first standing in a position of repentance, for we cannot be united by love—God’s love—without first recognizing our own lack of love, our own depravity as flawed creatures, our silence to push against this defunct theology and its ingrained toxins.  So I am a proud Italian-American, and I am a proud Baptist, and I am proud to serve Christ my Savior—but not so proud that I do not ask forgiveness for the racism and oppression and injustice that reside in my own heart.  I repent of the many ways my mind makes thousands of subconscious judgments against those who are different than I, or who speak differently or think differently or vote differently than I.

When I say “Here we stand,” I do so in humble submission to our Creator and in service to our community.  And I promise to love and respect you more today than I might have yesterday, and hope to love and respect you more tomorrow than I do today.

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We are called to be witnesses. Period.

Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash

By Joe LaGuardia

In Acts 1:8, Jesus unequivocally identified the role his disciples play in the world: “You will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth.”  But ask any Christian to bear witness (first-hand!) of an experience of God, and you will likely get a blank stare.  Some will recall a conversion experience. Others may solicit a generic answer.  Many have experiences, profound experiences, but do not know how to explain it.

There seems to be a scarcity of witnessing going on these days.  I’m not talking about street-corner evangelism, but of giving testimonies that attract people to Christ.

I’m not sure what the problem is: Do we not experience God anymore, or is it that we do not know how to put our experiences into words in a way that captivates the mind, touches the heart, inspires a sense of purpose, and communicates God’s power in our life (see Acts 1:8 again)?

Pastors decry a lack of biblical literacy in our churches.  What about spiritual literacy?   Spiritual literacy that can define–specifically–the movement of the Holy Spirit on and in our lives.

Historically, people learned how to witness by hearing personal testimonies of others, by exchanging lengthy letters that communicated the spiritual ebb and flow of life, by reading literature that excited the senses and provided new ways of speaking about–and seeing–God.

In a world of Tweets and Facebook posts, we no longer know how to wield the English language for this purpose.  Our faith has become quite rote and boring, really–and who wants to follow a boring faith?  Instead of witnessing in ever creative ways, we complain, bicker, and bemoan.

Last month, I watched two interviews of sorts that inspired my thinking on this:  The first was with the late Mr. Rogers.  In a video that went viral, Fred Rogers argued for the need for public broadcasting funding before a Senate committee hearing.  In his testimony, he discussed the importance of early childhood education.

Mr. Rogers’ words were not explicitly Christian, but they were powerful and bore witness to his amazing ability to wield the language he certainly gained from his training as a Presbyterian minister.  He spoke simply, but movingly.

The second interview was between the Reverend William Barber II and Trevor Noah on The Daily Show.  Barber argued that Christian ethics is not only needed in pushing back against secular politics, but necessary in being a foundation for the type of moral fortitude that combats exploitation and bigotry in all its guises.  “The language we use,” he said of our contemporary religious and political conversations, “is too puny.”

Mr. Noah asked why Barber’s participation in politics was appropriate, and the pastor gave a remarkable testimony of how the church shaped community through the ages.  You may disagree with Barber’s theology, but you would be hard-pressed to argue against the force of his prophetic delivery.  (Notice, by the way, that Barber states, “Remember when I shared with you about the Bible when we were backstage..?”  He testifies on camera and off.)

Watching these two interviews reveal what is needed to revive the art of bearing witness, witnessing that taps into the power and authority of the Jesus about whom we speak.

For one, we need to speak well.  Our testimonies of Christ– our experience of the Risen Savior and the values for which he stood (and stands)– must break through the shallow platitudes of Tweets, posts, and social media banter.

We need to learn how to speak well by wielding and fashioning adequate narratives, by arguing persuasively and speaking substantively about the Gospel.  This cannot be done from our tribes, from the right or the left–it must be done as wisdom couched in the person and character and intentions of Jesus Christ who stands above our political and ideological labels.

A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.
Like cold water to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country (Prov. 25:11-12, 25).

Speaking well ought to bewilder, captivate, compel, and convict.  After all, we follow a Lord who mustered language in the form of parables to show people what God’s Kingdom looked like.  Jesus never lectured or taught dusty doctrines of yesteryear.  He never offered trite opinions.  Rather, he restored and reconciled and rebuked with compassion, peace, and unyielding intimacy that stemmed from unity with God (“I and my father are one…”).

Second, we must speak accurately.  In a society that fails to agree on facts, Christ’s Church must value accuracy in our presentation of the Gospel, of the justice tied up in God’s reign, and in our understanding of salvation history.

An example might suffice:  Some like to argue that our nation is founded on a Christian heritage, and that is true.  Yet, how people talk about that history–as if our nation is but a large church–is often inaccurate.  Yes, our nation’s founding documents are imbued with certain Christian principles, but we must be accurate when we also bear witness that God detests travesties of our past, such as slavery, racism or genocide of indigenous and minority populations.

Our ideological and tribal rhetoric suffers from inaccurate portrayals of God’s work in the world, bad theology, and partisan positions that have become the very fake news we loathe.

Last, we must speak what is true.  This is different than accuracy.  You cannot begin to speak with truth if you are not accurate with the facts.  If you play loose with the details, then your entire testimony will fail you–you will be a false witness, and your testimony will likely be bad news instead of the Good News Jesus intended the Gospel to be.

There are many people–Christians, pastors, church leaders–who are not bearing witness to a true vision of who God is, what the church is about, and how the Kingdom of God erupts, disrupts, and usurps in our midst.  This has taken a toll on the church.  If you don’t believe me, just look at all the empty pews across America on any given Sunday morning.

Speaking what is true about God means testifying about Jesus’ vision for justice, restoration and reconciliation in the world, most poignantly outlined in Jesus’s explicit mission in Luke 4:18-19, a vision that promises liberation to those who are oppressed and exploited.

This reminds me of Mr. Rogers’ insistence, for example, that children need communities that provide hope and trust, or Rev. Barber’s citation of Luke 4 in his protest against voter suppression laws and political malpractice.

Jesus told us to be Great Commission people, people who attract (not repel or appall) others to Christ by bearing witness to our first-hand relationship and restoration in Christ.  His call in the earliest chapters of Acts still applies today; but it will require some prayer and work to reclaim our long history of being the kind of wordsmiths worthy of the Gospel we are to promote.

We must speak well.  We must speak accurately.  And we must speak what is true.

New friends and frontiers in Cuba

Lissett, me, Kristina, and Maykel

By Joe LaGuardia

This past week, my family and I had the privilege of hosting in our home the Reverend Maykel Baez Bruffau, pastor of Iglesia Bautista El Jordan and president of the Fraternity of Baptist Church of Cuba, and Ms. Lissett, a musician and worship leader in a sister Cuban church.

This was part of an ongoing partnership between the Fraternity and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  Like the CBF, the Fraternity is comprised of churches that emphasize congregational ministry, women in ministry, and creative liturgy focused on the arts and missional engagement.

Maykel and Lissett attended the CBF General Assembly last week in Atlanta, and are making rounds in several churches to give testimony and to sing.  They will not be at First Baptist of Vero Beach this weekend, but they were nice enough to visit us in Vero Beach for a few days to get some rest and time off during their two-week stay.

Aside from my enthusiasm about this partnership (we at First Baptist are praying about joining a small team of pastors in November to reciprocate the relationship), I have been amazed at spending time with people from Cuba–a new frontier for missions and ministry since the easing of relations between the Obama Administration and the Castro regime a few years ago.

I had time to hear Maykel’s story.  Many families deal, for instance, with substandard housing.  Since resources are scarce, families work together to provide community enrichment, education, and support.  In Maykel’s case, he has a parsonage that was restored with the help of the church.

I asked him about things we take for granted, like appliances.  He gave an example and said that each family gets a Chinese refrigerator, which is infamous for leaks and too small.  Each family gets a voucher that barely covers the cost for the appliance, and it takes some families years to pay off the balance.

Other things, like infrastructure, also suffer under the communist dictatorship, although things have improved greatly under Raul Castro.  Small businesses and entrepreneurs are able to provide for a rise in middle-class demands, and the increase in American tourism has bolstered the economy.

The current Administration under Donald Trump threatens this delicate balance, and although communism is no pie in the sky, waning tensions between the two countries have provided the small island an economic step in the right direction–why close off an entire economy to quality refrigerators or microwaves?  We are too big and powerful a county to come under Castro’s sway, so why fear a better partnership?  (You’d think Donald Trump of all people would know a good deal when he sees one.)

Maykel also told me of his Christian upbringing.  He is pastor of the very church in which he grew up, and his pastor who raised him and encouraged him to go into the ministry retired only a few years ago.  Maykel considers her his spiritual mother, and he speaks with her on the phone almost daily.

In Georgia, I spent many days in conversation with communities and churches of color with whom my old church worked.  We spent many hours in dialogue and many more projects together to bridge racial divides.  My time with Maykel and Lissett provided me a new set of friends who spoke a language entirely different from my own, and we’ve been having fun trying to communicate with English and Spanish.

I found that I have become quite self-conscious of both my language and my belongings over the course of this week.  In my language, I use many figures of speech, and that does not translate well for people who only know rudimentary (and very literal!) English.  I’ve also taken note of how many things we take for granted.

We Americans do not know what it is like to go to a grocery store and not have an array of choices of things to buy.  We do not know what it is like to be forced to have all the same items and be confronted with a government and elite class that hoards so many resources even doctors need to barter to make ends meet (Cuba has a universal healthcare system, but patients are still expected to bring a “gift” to the doctor when the need arises).

Since most Cubans make about $20.00 a month, there is no discretionary spending on…well, anything.  Even getting a Coke or a belt is something of a luxury for Maykel and Lissett.

My new friends have taught me more than I can process this early on in the relationship.  Our time with Maykel and Lissett have opened our eyes to a bigger world, something I’d forgotten since my last mission trip to Ghana back in 1999.

I look forward to what God has in store for us who partner with the CBF and the Fraternity of Baptists in Cuba.  More lessons, I’m sure–and hopefully a clearer call for justice, for Cuba’s and our own nation’s sake.