Community Reconciliation and the art of truthtelling

fountainBy Joe LaGuardia and Karen Woods

When I was in seminary, a professor once opined that it takes three years for a church to trust a new pastor.  I politely told him that his information was out of date.  It takes about six years nowadays.

This was in the early years of the new millennium and, since then, I have experienced a growing deficit of trust in many sectors of society.  We no longer trust church, government, neighbors, and, in some cases, first responders.

We tell people that trust must be earned, but then we continue to label people according to stereotypes.  Distrust multiplies exponentially as a result.

In the last six months, we have seen how distrust can have a detrimental–even fatal–effect in community.  Protests, violence, and the killing of innocent citizens and police officers bear horrific testimony to the lack of trust, trust that people once took for granted.

In honor of Black History Month, this and next week’s column explores creative ways to enact reconciliation and collaboration in our own neck of the woods.  To do so, I have asked our Associate Pastor at Trinity Baptist Church, Karen Woods, to help write these columns.

Our question is a simple one: How might we be the “ambassadors of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:20) in a time when distrust breeds disharmony and violence in community?

We believe that Rockdale County is effective at building harmonious communities, so we are already at an advantage.

We’ve seen collaboration among churches, nonprofits, and governmental agencies come together. Family Promise of Newrock, for instance, is a non-profit ministry that effectively bridges various divides by combating homelessness in our neighborhood.

We also had many conversations with clergy and lay leaders who value peacemaking over and against fear-mongering and exclusion, like the one on race relations hosted by Discover Point Church last month.

Even in the midst of this hard work of bridging racial, religious, and economic divides, however, there is more work to be done.

Ambassadors of reconciliation are in the business of “truth-telling” and “truth-listening”: The events surrounding Ferguson, Staten Island, and Minister Woods’ birthplace, Cleveland, demonstrate that more effort is needed in our communities to foster mutual conversation that encourages understanding and level-headed dialogue.

Trust cannot become a community’s most cherished value when people insist on keeping one another at arms length and talking over each other.  For far too long, neighbors have stereotyped one another and formed opinions based on those caricatures.   Truth-telling based on reality, not vitriol, breaks down barriers.

Listening sows seeds of understanding and respect.

Dialogue deals with how we describe changes in our community; which, when done so negatively, perpetuates division between neighbors who are more alike than they think.

For instance, we have heard it said, quite negatively, that Rockdale County is becoming like Dekalb County.  These comments have racist undercurrents that unfairly connects a growing minority-majority population in our community with random crime and controversy we read about in the newspaper.

The assumption is that the more African Americans move into the county, the higher the crime rate.  This assumption is unfounded; in fact, crime is lower now than in years past.

A false perception is based on stereotypes that damage people of color and cast a shadow of fear and distrust on hard-working families who are buying new homes, opening creative businesses, and participating in a wonderful school system.

It increases fear among the entire populace and sows seeds of discord even in the midst of valuable relationships.  We simply fear what we do not know, and the fewer relationships with have with our neighbors, the more violently we will react based on stereotypes rather than facts.

An effort to enact biblical reconciliation, however, overcomes this temptation and provides truthful ways of deepening–not widening–relationships in a local community.

Trust, therefore, begins when we tell the truth about evil actions that include: (1) stereotyping people who are different, (2) spreading vitriolic beliefs that have racial undertones, and (3) perpetuating fear by promoting falsehoods that do not honor all people who are made in God’s image.

Karen Woods is associate pastor of missions and outreach at Trinity Baptist Church, Conyers.

 

Understanding world religions encourages dialogue, peace

interfaith tree

By Joe LaGuardia

Last week I wrote about violence against Christians and Muslims in Nigeria.  It wasn’t the only time I wrote about conflict on the global stage, nor will it be my last.

I feel that, as an author on the religion page, it is one of my jobs to educate you, dear reader, in what is going on beyond our community to remind all of us of the work of God and the cause of peace that remains before us, even if it is not at our doorstep.

I am not ignorant to the fact that conflict has always been an issue for us humans; and I fear that it will be around far longer than I will walk this earth.  Yet, I also believe that we assess conflict in our world differently than we have in years past, sometimes to our detriment.

Yesteryear, people learned about conflicts by reading newspapers and watching a couple of broadcasts.  When the Vietnam war was underway, people got news from a media that largely agreed on the facts that made for headline news.

These days, our news comes to us in snippets through a variety of sources ranging from traditional media to the internet.  This does make us a more-informed people, but it can also be confusing.

Our large planet grows ever smaller with 24-hour news cycles and real-time reporting.

In order to make sense of this fragmented source data, however, cable news networks now provide “commentary” on the news.  But it is commentary that is biased, often to the extreme poles of our unique ideologies.

This makes for exciting news, but not for news that promotes peace and reconciliation in local and international communities.  Often, this kind of news-reporting does the opposite: It creates “sides” in debates and adds fuel to (in)tense conflicts that can sometimes get blown out of proportion.

One “victim” of this type of sensational media is our understanding of the world’s largest religions.  I bet if you were to poll a bunch of people, you would get various opinions about, say, Christianity — opinions formed not by the truths that exist in the belief system itself but based on caricatures of Christians from the news.

In fact, some of these surveys already exist.  Surveys of people ages 18-34, for instance, consistently show that a majority of people in this age group have a negative perception of Christianity.  This negativity stems not from the reality of what Christians believe, but on what those who are surveyed perceive to be true about Christians based on what they’ve heard in the news or the movies.

Same can be said of Islam.  Although a majority of people have a favorable view towards American Muslims, only 44% of evangelicals have a positive view of Muslims, according to a report in the Christian Post.  A majority of people who are religious also fear living near a Muslim mosque.

One of the ways to combat the misunderstanding of any religion is to be educated on what religions are really about.  Although every religion has a radical minority longing to convert others by means of violence, intimidation, or coercion, a majority of the world’s religions are positive, peaceful contributors to society.

Yet, if our only information of the world’s religions come by way of a sensational media or neighbors who believe in stereotypes rather than the reality of what religions are all about, then our misinformation can foster greater conflict rather than dialogue and healthy community formation.

A well-rounded education is essential, and understanding provides a path to greater conversations grounded in reality.

And with a world torn asunder by conflict, religious or otherwise, it becomes ever more important to learn about the religions of people who are our neighbors, allied nations, and–perhaps someday–our very friends.  May the Prince of Peace guide our path.

Dr. Joe LaGuardia serves as Interfaith Congregational Liaison for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia.  

He is also pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, which is hosting a 10-week seminar “Tour of World Religions” free and open to the public beginning Wednesday, January 7th, at 6:45 PM.  

The Great Christian Migration

runningI’ve been a pastor long enough to realize that growth in most churches is the result not of people becoming believers but of what I call the “Great Christian Migration.”  It’s the trend in which Christians move from church to church.  Whatever church is new and fancy is the one that garners the most Christians.

Denominational trends have reflected this migration for years, and nearly a quarter of Christians now attend a church not affiliated with any denomination.  The fastest growing churches are those with either contemporary worship or a founding pastor (or both).

Yet, the number of Christian converts remains stagnate and the number of baptisms has decreased.   Church attendance in this century is at an all time low.

When I talk to people who are merely moving from church to church, I realize that we have forgotten some fundamental truths along the way.

For one, no matter where a person goes to church, that person still has to take responsibility for having a personal relationship with God.

We have come under the false notion that having a particular experience, learning from a specific pastor, reading the newest Christian best-seller, or worshiping a certain way will somehow do the work of getting us to be more intimate with God.

Those Sunday morning, pop-culture routines can only fuel a Spirit-filled life with Christ so far.  No book, church, worship experience, pastor, or social gathering can replace the invaluable spiritual practices of daily prayer, Bible reading, and communion with God.

Sunday attendance is not the first place to meet God; it is the place to celebrate where Christians have met God throughout the week.

If you are not experiencing God during the week, there will be little that you can gain from attending church once or twice a week.

Second, churches are places that provide opportunities for people to serve, not be served.

Whenever the Bible talks about the Body of Christ, it refers to the sharing of lives, gifts, and resources.  The very word used for church worship, “liturgy,” comes from the root word for “work” in the Greek.

Church is about working on behalf of God’s Kingdom together; it was never intended to be a place to come and “get fed.”  If you are looking to get something from church rather than give something or work on God’s behalf to spread the Gospel, you’re better off going to Starbucks.

Last, church loyalty is profoundly meaningful because it gives Christians time to build authentic, vulnerable communities.  Truth is, church hopping does not provide the longevity and trust needed to build life-long accountability partners and spiritual friendships in which God shows up in new, creative ways.

With the advent of social media, technology, and extracurricular activities, families have very little time to socialize, build authentic community, and deepen friendships.  Studies show that people, when they do have the time to socialize, now group up in like-minded cliques that only reinforce their ideas rather than challenge them.

Attendance in intentional discipleship, like Sunday School and Bible studies, is also down; but those were the very places that challenged beliefs, developed well-rounded, educated Christ-followers, and inspired missions and calls to full-time ministry.

Spiritual friendships and deep, abiding relationships have always been the primary way to grow in Christ as people mentor one another, keep each other accountable, and talk about the “deep things” of God.  But church hopping does not promote these relationships.

The church in America is at a tipping point.  People will need to take responsibility to foster the things that have always been–and will always be–the primary ways that help maturation in faith in Christ: stability, friendships, intentional community, and daily interactions with God.

Without such things, Christians who move from church to church will always be discontent and frustrated with what they find.