5 encouraging justice-related things I witnessed this year in the Church

This past year of writing and speaking has been my most dynamic yet – lots of highlights and lowlights, from being featured in JET magazine (and getting to brag about it at the beauty shop!) to being physically threatened by an audience member after a talk. Over the last 10 months, I've given 70+ talks in a wide variety of Christian settings (more on that later). Needless to say, by May I was pretty emotionally exhausted. But then I heard the most significant idea I’ve heard all year when a conference speaker said, “The most important thing you can do as a leader is stay encouraged.” While I tend to have a fairly hopeful outlook, I’d never considered that I should make it my job to stay encouraged, that I need to pursue encouragement like my life depends on it (because it actually does). Mind. Blown. I’ve probably thought of that goal at least once a day since I first heard it, and I’m now in the process of re-organizing my life/schedule/social time with it in mind.

This wooden signs hangs on my office wall, so I don't forget!

This wooden signs hangs on my office wall, so I don't forget!

Consistent with this new goal -- and since I’m halfway through a planned, three-month speaking hiatus -- I’m stopping to reflect on the interactions, people and organizations that particularly[‡] encouraged me this past year while I was traveling the country and speaking. I decided to share 5 with you readers since so many of you are rooted in your communities doing remarkable justice work and perhaps don’t have the opportunity to see how God is collaborating with people in other places in amazing and inspiring ways.

So, 5 encouraging justice-related things I witnessed this year in the Church:

1. The Most Epic (and Diverse) Conference Ever. I spoke at the Urban Youth Workers Institute’s {360}˚ LA conference this year for the first time and, boy was I in for an awesome surprise! Not only was the speaker line-up as diverse as Christian conference speaker line-ups should be (c’mon, it’s 2014 – plus, Jesus loves equity), but the attendees were from every racial group, every walk of life (urban, suburban, rural), and every age group. Beyond diversity, there was a relatively affordable registration fee ($79 early bird rate), an ahhh-mazing worship experience, a wide range of nitty-gritty workshops that equip people to do ministry in diverse and challenging settings, superb hip-hop and spoken word performances, and the most important thing – a palpable hunger and expectation for God to transform our hearts and communities. It was the most hopeful atmosphere I’d been in all year and I was sad that I had to leave early to catch a flight. Nevertheless, I left immensely encouraged and with a greater sense that our God is alive and making all things new. Amen!

I’m going next year whether they invite me to speak or not. Y’all should go too.[§]

2. The Super Student Leaders at Seattle Pacific University. Typically when I spend a day or two on a Christian college campus, I’m asked to give a few talks that students are either required to attend (e.g., a Chapel sermon) or are given incentives to attend (hello, extra credit!). This doesn’t offend me; I get it, I was a student not too long ago. But the students at SPU blew me away when I was on campus last November. Apparently, some of the student government leaders had been reading my fall blog series Black to School: African-American Voices at Christian Colleges. When they heard that I was coming to campus, they asked the powers that be if I could lead a two-hour reconciliation & leadership seminar just for student leaders. Then they promoted it among their friends.

Much to my surprise a large number of student leaders crashed the seminar and spent the afternoon chatting with me about privilege and power at SPU, and how to lead well across cultural differences. Afterward, the all-male student government executive team pulled me aside and asked for tips on how to help dismantle the structural impediments that prevent female students from launching and winning student government elections. With leaders like these, I have hope for Christian colleges.

3. The SHEroes of Oklahoma City. Towards the end of the crazier-than-usual-Minnesota-polar-vortex-winter, I traveled to Oklahoma City to spend a day with the courageous women of The Spero Project. I gotta be honest, I was exhausted when I finally landed in OKC after a 5 hour flight delay. I never need caffeine but I was gulping it down that morning! But I didn’t need the caffeine for long. Once I became more acquainted with this small, female-led non-profit's heroic work, I was super energized. The good women at the Spero Project are just regular women who are giving up everything to stand in cross-cultural solidarity with the refugee community in Oklahoma City. Their stories amaze me, their justice work inspires me, and their eagerness to grow encourages me.

Here’s one example: A few years ago, Emilee Little started building relationships with refugees. Before long, she realized that many non-English-speaking refugee youth (especially the older ones) have a difficult time learning English fast enough to stay abreast at school. So she quit her job and collaborated with the Spero Project to start New Land Academy, a 6-12th grade school for refugee youth with the goal of helping students learn English and then integrate back into the public school system. Emilee is the school’s sole teacher, principal, class mom, and chief development officer (she fundraises the entire budget; you can donate here).  Here's Emilee talking about New Land Academy:

When I’m discouraged by the scarcity of Christians who care about doing life-changing justice work, I remember Emilee and the women at Spero, and I smile and keep on keeping on.

4. The Reconcilers in Every Corner. A lot of Christians stick to their tribe (and the similar tribes with whom they are allied), so I often hear people saying that they wish that other Christian groups cared about reconciliation as much as their group does. Well, take heart! Other groups do care about reconciliation as much as yours does. I know this because I hung out with them recently.

This year, I spoke at churches or organizations from 15+ denominations.[**] This encourages me because it suggests that the people of God in lots of different tribes are passionate about growing closer to God’s reconciling heart and doing the work it takes to make justice a reality in our world. We’re not in this alone. There are large and small pods of reconcilers in many denominations, churches and Christian organizations, and we’re all working toward similar goals. We may not see them or know them, but they are out there. This gives me hope. Now, if only I can get some of these tribes to build meaningful relationships with each other ;)

5. Okay, I left this one open for you all. Share the love. What encouraging things have you seen this year? Please tell us below! Let's stay encouraged.

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[‡] This isn’t to say that other events/relationships weren’t encouraging though! Lots of them were. And I’m so thankful.

[§]Dear White People: Please do not bum rush this conference and turn it into a predominantly white conference. We already have too many of those. Let’s make a deal. If you go, you need to bring at least two people of color with you. (And I encourage you to consider paying their way because privilege.) Love, Christena

[**] Vineyard USA, Assemblies of God, Evangelical Covenant, Lutheran (ELCA), Christian Missionary Alliance, United Pentecostal Council of the Assemblies of God (black Pentecostal), Wesleyan, Baptist General, Southern Baptist, United Church of Christ, emergent, Foursquare, Free Methodist, Roman Catholic, and numerous non-denominational churches/orgs. I hope I didn't forget any!