The Call of the Beloved Community

January 20, 2019
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
Rev. Alice Fleming Townley

Living in a dormitory, you meet people you might never cross paths with otherwise.  Such was the case for Matthew Stevenson and Derek Black at New College in Sarasota, Florida.  In the evenings, Derek would play his guitar and Matthew would hear him from his room above and join to listen and sing along.  So, they had developed a friendship, when an upperclassman was doing research and uncovered Derek Black’s identity.  Derek’s father started what is known as the first internet hate site, and his godfather was David Duke, former grand wizard of the Klu Klux Klan.  Derek designed the kids page for the website when he was 11, and by the time he got to college had a daily radio show for it.  The ideology in which Derek was raised, holds multiculturalism responsible for oppressing white people in their own country, and sees a conspiracy of Jewish power making this possible.

Matthew Stevenson was one of the few Orthodox Jews on campus.  As Derek’s activities became known, Matthew ached to see how badly Derek was treated.  And Matthew decided he could do something few others could, invite Derek to his room for Friday night Shabbat dinners.  Matthew gave some ground rules to the other dinner guests, no harassing Derek.  Instead they stayed on ‘safe’ topics, like religion.

They gathered for Shabbat dinners week after week.  Derek came prepared with his ‘statistics’ about why the races should be separate, but no one asked.  Gradually, Derek found himself in close relationships with students of color and students who were Jewish.  And over long walks, some of these trusted friends listened carefully and challenged him thoroughly.   After two years of dinner and discussions, Derek could no longer reconcile his narrow beliefs with his wider experience and his ideology unraveled.  Derek realized that he had done so much damage, that he needed to go public denouncing white nationalism, and telling his story of conversion.

Matthew and Derek and their friends have each used their unique experiences and gifts.  Matthew could host guests for dinner, and create a safe place, a sanctuary.  Matthew understood that as a Jew, no one would accuse him of being a sympathizer with Derek’s views.  Matthew had seen the difference that the community of Alcoholics Anonymous had made on his own mother’s destructive behavior, and how she subsequently helped others and worked to make the world a better place. Consequently, Matthew believed people could change, and that friendship and quiet conversations mattered.  Derek so trained in social media and public speaking, could use those gifts to confess and challenge racism.[i]

Martin Luther King Jr used his gift of preaching.  His father, grand-father and great grandfather had been preachers.  He’d grown up nurtured in the Word, preaching was in his bones. Even at public rallies he drew on the rhythm, the metaphors, the passion, the gospel. He challenged violent systems that divided race and class.  He proclaimed the good news of God’s dream for the inclusive beloved community.  He talked of a fire that no water could put out.  He talked not just of the ‘by and by’ but of shoes and clothes for children ‘here and now.’  He preached not just of a new Jerusalem, but of a new New York, a new Memphis—a new Lansing.

Paul wrote to the divided and fractioned church in Corinth—now there are a variety of gifts, services, activities—to each is given the Holy Spirit for the common good. . . All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! –wise counsel, clear understanding, simple trust, healing the sick, miraculous acts, proclamation, distinguishing between spirits, tongues, interpretation of tongues.[ii]

Hearing this is an invitation to understand and appreciate our own unique gifts.  What have the wounding and nurturing experiences in our lives given us?  What is in our blood?  We have an invitation to be filled with the Source of Life as we grow weary, and to draw from deep Wisdom in a world fraught with suffering, hostility and division.  We have gifts God has given us for the transformation of the world.

Last week Stephanie Nawyn[iii] shared during the adult Sunday School class.  Stephanie is drawing connections between the rise in white supremacy with the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment and seeing this significantly higher in white evangelical[iv] and somewhat higher in white Protestant Christians[v] than in the rest of America.  At a time when US immigration and border crossing is at historically low levels, a culture of fear of the ‘other’ and specifically dark-skinned immigrants is being stoked.   Silence in the church is also a statement.

Stephanie shared with us quotes by white Christians that said they don’t see race, and that the Bible teaches that relationships with God and getting into heaven matter more than social equity and relations on earth.  Ignoring color is a ‘privilege’ of those in the majority.  White churches and preachers have work to do within ourselves, and the world we live in.  The work includes building bridges, yes, expanding our tables, yes, having hard conversations, yes, addressing systemic injustices, yes, repairing damage, yes, and living into ‘the beloved community.’    We are disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Recently, I asked Rev. John Duley,[vi] what advice he has for us on this MLK Jr weekend as we yearn to use our gifts to continue the work of healing racism.  He smiled and shook his head.  “You, know, when I first got started . . . I had no idea what I was doing.  So, our first campus ministry activity was to read the book of Acts together.”  Think what they would have read in those pages– about Pentecost, about the Holy Spirit descending with like fire on each one.  And those who gathered from various places and countries, began to hear and understand each other’s different languages.  They read about the early church praying, singing, and sharing what they had with those in need.  They would have heard stories of ordinary people being open to where God might lead, and the skeptics who shook their heads.  They read about church conflict, suffering, and resiliency.

John said that he and the students read about Tulio Venay, a French pastor who signed false papers in order to save lives during WWII, and with the help of students from various warring countries, built the Agape Retreat Center.  John invited Tulio Venay to visit, and Tulio spoke of ‘embodying the work of Christ.’  He also invited Howard Thurman, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

John continued, “We each have to use our own gifts, and I am a facilitator, a catalyst, and one that empowers.”  John and students looked around and found others on campus and in the community also interested in faith and ethics and social justice. In 1965 John prepared 100 MSU students and faculty volunteers to go to Rust College, an all-Black school in Mississippi, to enrich academics and make accreditation possible. .John and allies like Truman Morrison formed the Human Relations Commission, challenging the racially segregated housing codes in East Lansing.  They formed committees to examine public housing, women’s rights, welfare, education, Peace education, crisis intervention and good government.  They had set backs, jeers, and challenges. Eventually the Greater Lansing Housing Coalition was able to purchase Edgewood Village to provide racially integrated and affordable housing with programs that continue to be empowering for the residents. Two people visited John this week to tell him that being part of Edgewood Village had made all the difference in their lives.

John has been good at inviting others to join him. Tom Schaberg has chaired the Edgewood Board now for years.  Our church has helped with the Edgewood Scholars and Double your Food Bucks programs and is a position to do more.  Keith Camaan and the Mission Committee seek to bridge our members of our church with Edgewood Village.

John, what advice do you have for us now as we seek to live into God’s dream?   A smile and silence, and instead of step by step instructions, the humble assertation that he had had no idea.  Looking back, there was reading the Bible in community, reading about what others are doing and talking to them, finding allies and working together.  One led to another.  John has had an openness to the unexpected intrusion of the Holy Spirit, and a trust that he, and we, have gifts to use for the transformation of the world.  John added, the most important thing always is to hear the benediction. “We are the people of God.  We are to be a life-giving stream flowing out from the sanctuary into the world—a stream of peace, love, and justice.”

Every day has opportunities to show kindness, do justice, and walk humbly with our God.[vii]  So, let us join Matthew and Derek, Martin and Tulio, Stephanie and John, and so great a cloud of witnesses—around us in the pews and in heaven and on earth.  Let us claim and nurture what we can do for the healing of the world.


[i] OnBeing with Krista Tippett, and guests Derek Black and Matthew Stevenson, “How Friendship and Quiet Conversations Transformed a White Nationalist,” May 2018, https://onbeing.org/programs/how-friendship-and-quiet-conversations-transformed-a-white-nationalist-may2018/

[ii] I Corinthians 12:1-11, selected verses, The Message.

[iii] Stephanie Nawyn is a member of our church.  At Michigan State University she works as the Co-Director for Academic Programs at the Center for Gender in Global Context and Professor of Sociology.  Her expertise is gender and migration.

[iv]Stephanie cited a January Washington Post-ABC poll, 75% of white evangelical Christians rated ‘the federal crackdown on undocumented immigrants’ as positive, compared to 46% of US adults overall and just 25% of non-white Christians.

[v] Stephanie said other studies showed white Protestants less so, but still not as accepting then US adults overall.

[vi] Rev. John Duley is a member of the retired clergy of the PCUSA and long active in our church.  John served in campus ministry and social justice work in Kalamazoo and East Lansing.  He was a pioneer in Service-Learning.

[vii] Micah 6:8