The Bible Told Us So - Why Forefront Became an LGBTQIA Affirming Church

When one thinks of church LGBTQIA inclusion they immediately go to the clobber passages. There are seven passages in the Bible that are commonly read as prohibiting same sex intercourse. These are the passages that are used to justify exclusion of the LGBTQIA community from the kingdom of God. When studied in context they can also be used as justification for same sex relationships and full inclusion in the kingdom of God. 

When it comes to biblical hermeneutics and inclusivity our church skipped over scripture’s famous clobber passages. There is much more in our scriptures that speak to inclusion without describing the physical act of sex. I think there’s incredible writing around meanings of ancient texts with regards to queer theology. (Colby Martin’s Unclobber or Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian come to mind).[i]But instead, our church leadership studied the scripture and worked diligently to highlight stories of God’s love for humanity.

One of these stories was that of Abraham being told to sacrifice his son Isaac.

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”(Genesis 22:1-2)

Why is this significant? Abraham was incredibly old when he had Isaac. God said he would build a mighty nation from Abraham and then God is telling him to sacrifice his son? This seems despicable. This seems like God is angry and vengeful and full of malice. I don’t want to worship a God that asks someone to sacrifice his or her child. As a parent I especially feel this way. I don’t know if I can hang with this messed up God. 

We have to remember that we’re reading stories of people that live in different stages of consciousness, with very different ways of seeing and understanding the world. We too relate to the world through our own place in time and our worldviews are shaped accordingly. We might remember what life looked like in generations past but we struggle to comprehend what life was really like in ages past. It’s hard for us to read our scriptures, especially the stories of Genesis and be reminded of the fact that we’re reading about a group of people living distinctly within an age where killing is an everyday part of life. So when we’re reading early scriptures we have to read it with the eyes of those living at the time. We have to read it with the eyes of those who are doing their best to hear God in a new way and live life in the way that God might intend. 

There is a fair amount of evidence that during the Bronze Age, when Abraham’s story takes place, Ancient Near East cultures sacrificed children. We have archaeological descriptions of Ammonites sacrificing children. We have descriptions of sacrifices to the God Molech. We find out that child sacrifice is relatively common in the ancient near east and is done to ensure that crops will be good and wars will be won. Remember, this may seem barbaric to us now but we have to put ourselves in the place of people who lived in the tribal age. So it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for an Israelite to think that God would ask for a child sacrifice.

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.  But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” (Genesis 22:9-12)

I place myself for a moment in the consciousness of the Bronze Age and I’m immediately uncomfortable with the command my God gives me not to kill my son. Like I said, child sacrifice is common. Gods command it. Each nation believes that child sacrifice helps win wars and bring about good crops. And now the Hebrew God is saying that there is no need to sacrifice children. This is an absolutely radical idea! 

In fact, people had such a hard time with this idea that God could be “radically loving” as to not want children sacrificed that God has to command it again in the book of Leviticus:

“You shall not give any of your offspring to sacrifice them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 18:21)

The story of Abraham and Isaac began the expanding of my theological imagination. Is it possible that our scriptures are showing us that there is a loving God and that God is working within our worldview and consciousness to bring pure love and peace, to bring shalom? Is it possible that we are so loved by God that a loving God stoops down to our level to show us these little glimpses of what God’s love really looks like? And for a tribal nation, God’s love means that God’s children don’t need to be sacrificed to bring God joy. There is already joy. There’s a gracious God working within our consciousness to show us that God is far more gracious and loving than we can imagine. God will make us uncomfortable in our own time and place in order to push us toward the possibility that something far great, more inclusive, and more loving is possible. 

How about another story?

Surprising as it may sound, a story in our scriptures about the rape of women created in me the theological framework for becoming an inclusive church. 

“When you go to war against your enemies and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails and put aside the clothes she was wearing when captured. After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.”(Deuteronomy 21:10-14)

Let’s start out by saying that this should bother us. This is pretty terrible. Regardless of anything else it’s sad that humanity treated women this way at any point. But again, I look at the consciousness of the ancient near east. 

In some Bibles this is called the “spoils of war” passage. This passage was called the spoils of war passage for a reason. Again, we’re in a place of tribal consciousness, which means that other tribes were seen as a threat. They were a threat to one’s land, to one’s ethnicity, and to one’s entire being. When someone went into battle in the Iron Age culture they made sure that everything was wiped out. That would ensure that there was no way for a tribe to infiltrate or mix with another tribe at all. It was completely common in the rules for war to completely destroy towns. An army would completely destroy each person in that town. 

Soldiers would completely destroy livestock. Children might be taken as sex slaves. It was not uncommon for a soldier to rape a woman of another tribe before she was killed. 

Keeping in mind that I’m reading stories from another age and time, I worked to read the scripture with different eyes. If you see a beautiful woman when you are sacking another tribe, take her home and make her your wife. 

Remember. This is hard to digest but we have to put ourselves in their consciousness. What does God’s command do here? Women were property to be raped and killed and now I have to make her my wife? That’s a sign of humanity.

Have her shave her head and trim her nails. These are Hebrew signs of mourning, which is a very real part of humanity.  So instead of treating a woman like an object and raping and killing you are now commanded to allow her to mourn, which shows her humanity.

After 30 days you can make her your wife but if you don’t like her then you must not dishonor her or sell her as a slave.  A woman was property. But if you don’t like her you must give her a certificate of divorce.

This is a big deal. Normally a woman who lived and had no husband was sold into slavery and made a prostitute. The command in this situation is that she be given a certificate of divorce, which grants her status and ensures that she most likely will not face prostitution. 

Can we see for one second how radical this passage is? Is it possible that there were soldiers who didn’t want to follow this law? “You mean I have to feed, clothe, and house this person? She’s property!” “You’re telling me that I can’t kill this person? God, what if she reproduces with someone else and their tribe come back stronger than ever?” Can you imagine what other nations might think? “Wow, they allowed some of us to live. They’re getting soft.”

Is it possible that this was controversial and people didn’t want to follow this commandment? Is it possible that followers of God were split over this, thinking that their God would never allow non-chosen people to live?

Once again I ask myself the same questions. Is it possible that God exists, that the Bible exists along a continuum of human growth and consciousness? Is it possible that God is working towards a perfect and loving peace and that God is doing it one small step at a time? Is it possible that our scriptures are showing us that there is a loving God and that God is working within our worldview and consciousness to bring pure love and peace, to bring shalom?

The beauty of this God is brought to light once again through the lens of Jesus. We get to see a loving God working to God’s people towards greater inclusion. It’s evident in Jesus’ first sermon in which he quotes from the scroll of Isaiah: 

“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God.”(Isaiah 61:1-2)

And what does Jesus do? In his first sermon back in Nazareth he brings back the scripture of Isaiah. He walks into the temple and he unrolls the scroll and he says these words:

“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

But Jesus leaves out one crucial, life changing line. Jesus does not say, “And the day of vengeance of our God.”

People are amazed at Jesus’s teaching and Jesus realizes that he’s not made them uncomfortable enough. He tells reminds them of the time that God protected their enemies in Sidon. Jesus then reminds them of another time that Israel was afflicted with leprosy but only a king from Syria was healed. In a few simple lines Jesus tells the people in his hometown that the justice of God doesn’t happen through revenge fantasies. The love of God is not shown through strength or by might. The affirmation of God’s love is given to Israelites AND their enemies. 

Then finally, he rolls up the scroll and says, that scripture has been fulfilled in this hearing. It tells us that once Jesus explains this to the people they want to kill him! They want revenge! They want God’s vengeance! Once again God moves God’s people into an unfamiliar territory where they’re confronted with the notion that God is more loving and more inclusive than they ever imagined. 

There are countless other stories in scripture that, while they might seem odd to our modern consciousness, demonstrate God’s inclusive love for all the different people of the world:

Peter dreams of a sheet falling from heaven with all sorts of un-kosher foods on it, signifying to Peter that he can now eat the same food as the gentiles. The vision itself provokes crisis in Peter. “Surely not Lord! I’ve followed the laws and my ancestors before followed the laws.” The spirit of the Lord tells Peter not to call unclean what God has made good. God pushes Peter into an uncomfortable place where he must acknowledge that God’s acceptance of all people extends beyond Peter’s perspective of God (Acts 10). 

Citing the passages mentioned here and more, we continually asked our church community to imagine it possible for us to be a part of God’s story. In his book, Disarming Scripture, Derrick Flood writes, “The correct interpretation of scripture always comes down to how we love. The Bible’s intent is not to be defended. The Bible was never intended to be this burden we carry. The Bible is a servant to Jesus. It’s a helper of the Holy Spirit.”[i]

Is scripture a living and breathing work or is it dead? If scripture is dead then our church’s reasoning for inclusivity is dead with it. If our scripture is still alive and if God is still writing God’s story then is it possible that God has called us to play a part in reflecting the uncomfortable and radical inclusion we see throughout the scriptures? 

Is it possible when Jesus tells his disciples in John 14:12 that, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these,” That scripture is talking about reflecting God’s intention for inclusivity in us? Are we able to do those greater things? 

Jesus and Peter both break with the tradition of scripture because they’re compelled by the spirit to welcome in the other as a full member in the kingdom of God. How might the spirit be leading our church to do the same?

We asked our church to imagine Christianity two thousand years from now. What would those Christians say about us? Would they find it appalling that we discriminated against the LGBTQIA community much the same way that we find the “spoils of war” passage appalling now? 

Would they see the popular American evangelical stance to be welcoming but not affirming an affront to the decency of all humanity and barbaric at best? 

How would that future church see us now if we continue to resist the calling of scripture’s arc? How do we look to the future church if we marginalize those who are right here in our church?

Today’s United States Supreme Court is evenly divided between “originalists” and “non-originalists.” The “originalists” believe the Constitution should be interpreted strictly according to the understanding of its adopters at the time it was written. The “non-originalists” believe it is a living, breathing document that will change as our understanding changes. A lot has changed in 250 years. To consider normative the understandings of one group of white males at one specific period in time is to do a disservice to the founding fathers and to the men and women who lead our nation today. We have grown in our knowledge and understanding. Interpretations are necessary in light of that growth.

The same is true of scripture. And the truth is that the church has acknowledged this for centuries. Galileo was placed under house arrest by the church because he believed the earth revolved around the sun. The church abandoned that view centuries ago for a simple reason – it was wrong. The church has adjusted its position on slavery, divorce and remarriage, transracial marriage, and other cultural issues. If history is any indicator, and it is, it will also adjust its position on LGBTQ acceptance. The only question is how long it will take.

We Imagine that Forefront can lead the way for others to find the inclusive and loving God we see in our bible. We believe that it won't be long until there are a lot of humans ready to embrace a Christianity focused more on right action than right belief, on God as the ultimate suffering participant instead of God as the ultimate threatener, and a church organizing for the common good instead of a church focused on its own self-preservation. Can you imagine us being that church? 

We ask that you partner with us in seeing our Just and generous vision lived out in each and every aspect of humanity including our LGBTQIA siblings. You can partner with us by participating in our Imagine Campaign. In doing so you can help us as we bring the hope of an eternally loving and infinitely affirming God to all, without exception.

 

 

[i]Derek Flood, Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives, and Why We All Need to Learn to Read the Bible like Jesus Did, (San Francisco: Metanoia Books, 2014).

Colby Martin, Unclobber: Rethinking Our Misuse of the Bible on Homosexuality,(Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016); Matthew Vines, God and the Gay Christian: the Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships, (New York: Convergent Books, 2015).

 

OUR LEADERS IMAGINE

Our leadership community gathered a few weeks ago to talk about our 'Imagine' campaign & dream about what our church could accomplish if we pushed past our operating budget.

Here's the ideas we collected & wrote down!  Join the imagining on Twitter, IG & Facebook by using #ImagineFFBK

SMALL DREAMS $0-1k

  • Budgets for ministry teams and small groups like Queer Communion --J. Ny (?)
  • Budget to support small group hosts provide snacks beer wine etc-- Evan
  • Budget for small groups-- BJ
  • Website Directory-- Grace Dowd
  • Professional Directory and/or skill share-- Angelica
  • Digital Big A** calendar-- Ashley
  • Communication board-- LH
  • Monthly or semi-monthly church meals-- Angeica
  • Monthly/ quarterly brunch-- Mira
  • Rent a space for brunch monthly-- marybeth and ashley
  • Potlucks at the church--Susanne
  • Support for more Brooklyn servies that help low-income/at-risk kids-- Emem
  • Support Resources for families with children of special needs- Alexandra Wright
  • possibe partnership with NYC and other orgs i.e. contributing to programs-- WM (?)
  • Gluten Free Communion- Angelica
  • Earplugs (sensory overload) no name
  • Bring back Midrash- Jim Rohner
  • Increase staff salaries-- Grace Dowd
  • Skills training for FF leaders-- LH
  • Gluten Free Bagels- Grace Dowd
  • Espresso Machine-- Mira
  • Pronoun Pins for everyone- D Eng.
  • Google and FB apps- Ryan P.
  • Programs/calendars presented out and distributed during service-- Angelica
  • Midde School Ministry-- Robbie Eleazer
  • Teen ministry-- grace dowd, mira
  • More FREE kids events-- no name
  • support for families going through foster/adoption process--Alexandra Galvert
  • Cold brew and hipster baked goods-- Ryan P
  • Baptism at the beach-- Mira
  • Budget for deacons coffees with people-- BJ
  • Artist residency/grants-- Trey
  • Team building budget-- Breann
  • non "church" type event within local area-- produce music comedy-- Kevin Wright
  • not let the coffee go stale-- BJ
  • No running out of bagels on Sunday-- D Eng
  • Dinner for leaders at leadership community meetings-- Emem
  • Maybe pay for the writers guild breather--BJ
  • Self-regulating/ De-stimulating ara-- Angelica

MEDIUM DREAMS $1-5k

  • Raise for staff/hiring for more hours-- Katie Willis
  • Raises for staff (this should be on all three boards)--Carolyn
  • Mira salary-- Ryan P
  • Hire more part-time staff for operations-- Eric C.
  • Bonuses-- Ryan P
  • Staff Bonuses- Susanne
  • Ben salary-- Ryan P
  • Increase staff salaries more-- Grace Dowd
  • Caroline salary-- Ryan P
  • fundamentally rethink small groups make them more like mini-churches-- give them budgets-- Sarah N
  • stipend for SG events/fellowship/local outreach-- WON
  • Allowance to small group leaders-- Susanne
  • Small Group food budget-- Grace Dowd
  • Invest in theological education for staff-- Sarah N.
  • Paying for undoing racism, etc trainings for leadership community-- Sarah N
  • Training classes for ministry gifts-- preaching, prayer etc-- Jim
  • More training for deacons and leadership team-- BJ
  • Guest Workshop leaders (Yolanda wants to!)-- BJ
  • Guests mentors/speakers/writers for guilds-- BJ
  • Guest speakers- Ryan P
  • Guest Music-- Ryan P
  • "Care Emergency" funds-- medical expensiss, eyeglasses-- Susanne
  • Host meals for communities/groups in need--Ashley
  • more local "missional" giving eg homeless DV victims-- WON
  • help individuals and families overcome one-time unexpected hardships- Kevin Wright
  • more FCQ-- Mira
  • more FCQ-- Jim
  • Better tech for sound-- ff live better broadcast-- Angelica
  • Better live stream of service-- LH
  • Midrash 18 episodes-- Robbie K
  • Midrash! --Evan
  • FF Pay for brunch-- BJ
  • Newcomer website development-- Breann
  • New kidstuf material? --D Eng
  • more partnerships like AAFSC but for other causes as well Sarah N
  • video content for social and web-- Ryan P
  • more video presence online-- testimonials, sizzle reel, meet the team, etc-- Jim
  • Merch-- Ryan P
  • Cold Brew-- BJ
  • Kids summer camp-- Mira
  • Bring Guilds back and actually do something with them- BJ
  • More google and FB Ads-- Ryan P
  • More servies and/or events corresponding to church calendar (like good friday etc)-- Carolyn
  • Rehearsal space for the band-- D Eng
  • Budget for more parties and gatherings-- BJ
  • Advertising and SEO-- DEng
  • Graphic Designer-- Ryan P
  • Social media storyteller to help fund Humans of NY-like stories that connect dots for orgs-- Ben G
  • Publish FF liturgies and/or music-- D Eng
  • Environmental/conservation/protection projects--Trey
  • Guest Speakers-- Evan
  • rent storefront by the month- D office meeting space-- D Eng
  • conferences that explore leadership and staff to other stuff- Sara N

LARGE DREAMS $5k+

  • Salaries UP-- BJ
  • more staff! (PoC) + women-- BJ
  • Bump staff up to full-time pay-- D Eng
  • Increase staff salaries even more-- Grace Dowd
  • raise/bonus for staff- evan
  • elevate more staff to full time-- Robbie E
  • family retreat-- Mira
  • retreats-- Evan
  • more church retreats-- Sarah N
  • Wellness Retreat-- Mira
  • Leadership retreats-- Breann
  • NICE staff retreat for Jonathan, Mira, Caroline, Ben and Leadership Team-- Jen Ugolino
  • Sponsor existing national retreats/events-- no name
  • TedX or Open or Post-E or something (but really well done) BJ
  • montlhy FCQ or similar lectures/events- Carolyn
  • Better videographing of services-- BJ
  • Support families in need- Angela
  • medical funds for familes in need- Trey
  • Bigger annual party-- Grace D
  • Have a whole complex with child-care center, soup kitchens, teen/community center-- Angelica
  • Permenant locaiton-- build/buy a space-- Angela
  • Office Space-- Mira
  • Office-- Breann
  • Scholarships-- Ryan P
  • Upgrade SUnday service space- Eric C
  • Fund for people to help get therapy/counseling-- D Eng
  • Plant new churches in NYC- no name
  • slush fund lol-- grace dowd
  • College sholarships for seniors- Susanne
  • even more google and fb ads- Ryan P
  • Lock-Ins- Ryan P
  • send leaders to Left Hand-- BJ
  • Admin support staff member who coordinates with local communities and orgs and runs show up team-- Ben G
  • provide resources/liasons with churches/colleges who wnat to become affirming-- Carolyn
  • pride parade giveaways/promo items-- D Eng
  • new van? or alternative to van that would be easier?
  • publish- Ryan P
  • invest in cosial enterprise? WON
  • fund for needs of congregants medical emergency/brokers fee etc
  • brand new identity- Ryan P
  • Keep the Roulette longer (1:30?) BJ (?)
  • venue that are accessible to people throughout the week and staffed with peope who will promote forefront ideas in a non-church setting --KW
  • direct mail-- Ryan P
  • pride float- Grace Dowd

I IMAGINE (MIRA)

I think we have something unique here at Forefront where we have cultivated a safe space for children, women, people of color and the LGBTQIA+ community.  I believe that these communities will lead the way in the future in what it looks like to be Just and Generous.

To anticipate that, I would like to better equip our Children's Ministry leaders for a more progressive approach to "Sunday School," that serves teens, Queer families, and children who wrestle with gender identity or cultural identity (or both!).

With a growing population of minorities in our congregation, I'd like to see our church continue to hold a safe space for them by bringing in speakers they can identify with and holding workshops to build bridges and bring reconciliation between community groups.  

So many people I've met at Forefront (including myself), found our church online.  I'd like to see us have a better online presence.  Let's bring back our Midrash podcast and soup up our FB live feed - because I believe that the Gospel message that we are living out at Forefront, is something that people nationwide will want to hear.

Enneagram prayer practices

Sunday marked the end of our Enneagram series during Lent.  To close out this journey we thought it would be great to dive into the prayer practices that disrupt our habits & lead us back to health.  We wanted Sunday to reflect the idea that our friend Aaron Niequist articulates that church should be "more of a spiritual gymnasium than classroom".  We wanted to practice praying together rather than just hearing about it.

That being said these were not our ideas.  We've been borrowing heavily from Christopher L. Heuertz's book "The Sacred Enneagram" during this series & his ideas were central to our practices on Sunday morning.

We decided to walk through 3 practices that were related to each of the intelligence centers.  See the chart below for specifics of each type.

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The first practice we dived into was chosen primarily for the Thinking/Head center, 5-7s.  This practice originates with Julia Cameron, author of "The Artist's Way" & as one author writes they're designed to "unlock a lot of the chains of my mind and open up the dam so that creativity can flow".

You can read more about the how to do them here but it's not that hard.  Just write, dust out the cobwebs & settle your mind for the day.

Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing,
done first thing in the morning. *There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages*–
they are not high art. They are not even “writing.” They are about
anything and everything that crosses your mind– and they are for your eyes
only. Morning Pages provoke, clarify, comfort, cajole, prioritize and
synchronize the day at hand. Do not over-think Morning Pages: just put
three pages of anything on the page...and then do three more pages tomorrow.

The second practice was chosen primarily for the Instinctive/Body center, 8-1s.  We introduced this very simple practice of a prayer labyrinth back in 2016.  You can read about it & download the labyrinth here.

Walking a labyrinth with your feet or your finger, as you can do here, is meant to be a meditative practice to draw you into the mystery of God, to a place beyond words, images or other mental content.

Our third & final practice was for the Feeling/Heart center 2-4s & was facilitated by community member Theresa Elwell.  You'll have to listen back to the service to fully experience what she walked us through but here's an excerpt from the practice she led us through the week before to get a taste:

First, just drop into your breathing… noticing your inhale and your exhale….

Now bring your awareness to your heart area, noticing any feeling or sensations there…

I invite you to allow these words into your heart….
gently and quietly reciting them to yourself if that’s comfortable for you.

I am imperfect, and I am worthy of Love. 

I am flawed, and I am worthy of Grace.

I love and accept myself just as I am. 

Breathe into the Divine Spirit that lives within you. 
Breathe into this energy.
Breathe into this power.
… and give thanks.

When faced with the next challenge or struggle, we can practice
pausing, 
breathing,
coming back to our centers, 
back to our hearts,
and remember that we are loved. 

Amen.

Here's the full service for you to experience or relive these practices:

Racial Justice / Theology resources

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Our Epiphany series on race is the start, not the end, of the conversation on race. There is still so much to learn and discuss and do. If you'd like to get more involved in racial justice initiatives at Forefront, email us!

To dig in more, here is a list of resources recommended by last Sunday's panelists:

Theology Books

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone

America's Original Sin by Jim Wallis

A Theology of Liberation by Gustavo Gutierrez

Introducing Asian Feminist Theology by Kwok Pui-Lan

Womanist Midrash by Rev. Wilda Gafney

Rainbow Theology: Bridging Race, Sexuality, and Spirit by Patrick S. Cheng

History / nonfiction books

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

The Color of Success by Ellen Wu

The Making of Asian America by Erika Lee

How the Irish Became White by Noel Ignatiev

Waking Up White: Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving

Films

"13" (Netflix)

“Who Killed Vincent Chin" documentary 

Articles

Model Minority and the Wedge between Black and White America by Kenji Kiramatus

White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

Three Pillars of White Supremacy by Andrea Smith 

The History of the Idea of Race and Why it Matters by Audrey Smedley 

"The Case for Reparations" by Ta-Nehisi Coates

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack 

Why We Never Talk about Black on Black Crime by Michael Harriot

How America Spreads the Disease that is Racism by not Confronting Racist Family Members and Friends by April Harter

Opportunities for White People in the Fight for Racial Justice

On Whiteness (Interview)

Interview of Ashley Putnam conducted by Sarah Ngu

Q. You’re appearing on panel in February 4th for church to talk about race and your grappling with whiteness. When did you start being conscious about race? 

I think I first starting grappling with race and privilege when I started working in social services in NYC. I grew up in Texas, I went to Barnard College in NYC and then moved away. But when I moved back to NYC in 2008, I found Forefront and got a job working in frontline social services in a “Welfare-to-Work” type program, serving low-income New Yorkers who were looking for a job.

The first thing that surprised me in my work was really me coming to terms with my own bias. The people I saw, the people living on public assistance, included college-educated people, middle-class white people. I didn’t realize I had a preconceived notion of welfare, very much influenced by stories we hear in the media.

The work itself also brought me to grapple with racism in ways I had not expected. I began to see the systems of discrimination that impacted my clients. For example, who was perceived as qualified for a job? Having dreadlocks, for example, might make someone “not a good fit” for an employer. At the end of the day, people tend to hire those who look like them, talk like them. We have decided that a certain group of people are less qualified for a job based on implicit and sometimes even explicit bias.

I really struggled to come to terms with how unfair this was, and also how it benefitted me without my even being aware.

But I don’t think I thought about structural inequality until more recently.

Q. How did that begin?

 During my time in policy school in NYU, I was really interested in welfare policy. This narrative of people being lazy and “living off the system” was really pervasive in how people understood what I was doing for a living. When I started to research, I learned that welfare in the 1930’s was initially only intended to benefit white widows, and local policies made it difficult for women of color to participate. The policy itself was discriminatory, even before the Ronald Reagan stereotype of the welfare Queen and all the implicit ideas we have now. And yet, in the country at large, there are way more white people on social services than people of color.

We have a racialized idea of poverty. I didn’t realize that I assumed all of the same things until I was sitting down with a family after the recession that could have been my mom and dad. I thought, “Ok this can happen to anyone.” These are human beings making difficult economic decisions. Policies have put all these parameters on how they can live their lives because we make assumptions based on this same narrative of “laziness” or “working the system.” We now regulate people’s lives so intensely, we have more or less criminalized poverty.

I started working for the City after grad school, about two years ago. At work I was offered the opportunity to go through a training called “Undoing Racism.” It was perhaps one of the most difficult and game-changing experiences I have had in both my personal and professional journey.

It was a 2.5 day course — I recommend it highly — and it really talks about our mainstream American definition of racism and how to start to think differently about race, structures, inequality.

Q. What is the mainstream American definition of racism? 

Coming from Texas, the response might be, ‘I don’t use the N-word, so I can’t be racist.” Or it’s, “Sometimes I think all the taxi drivers are from this one country, and I’m not racist —it’s just a presumption.” Racism is often defined as explicit prejudice or bias. In our post-Civil Rights era America, we define “racism” is this individual choice we all make to not be explicitly offensive to someone. But racism isn’t just prejudices and biases.

The Undoing Racism training focuses on structures of privilege and power. For instance, although my work in social services was in cities where there are primarily communities of color, one of the questions that I’d never asked was, “Why do people of color primarily live in cities?”

As one point in our country’s history, they didn’t. This shift to cities was a result of racism in rural areas and discriminatory housing policies. We basically forced people of color into certain areas, refused to give loans to people in their neighborhoods (redlining) and now we say, “Look at those people in the ‘ghetto.’ Stop being lazy and go find a job.” We don’t even realize that we created those “ghettos.”

This training was also the first time I’d ever talked about what it meant to be white. Someone had asked me, “What do you like about being white?” I was stunned. I didn’t know how to answer that question.

The only answers I could come up with were more about privilege than they were about culture. It was about power, being treated a certain way in a situation as opposed to how someone else might be treated.

Q. What is whiteness? 

A lot of the training is about how race is a construct — we are all part of the human race and we’ve created these arbitrary lines in the sand. “Whiteness” is a kind of blanket term for “majority culture.” My heritage is Dutch, German, English and French, but I don’t know much about my family that settled or what their culture was or what foods I eat that are part of that culture. American-whiteness is about assimilation to that which is the “mainstream culture.”

One of books I’ve been looking at is How the Irish Became White, which is about what it takes to get the things that come with whiteness: Power, privilege and economic preference. Because when Irish people came here, or Catholics or Italians, the American majority culture didn’t like them either. This was probably true of my German ancestors when they settled in Texas. And in many ways, oppressing other people is how new groups get a step up on the economic ladder.

Q. What are some a-ha moments you’ve experienced when it comes to race?

I think coming to terms with racism and whiteness is a constant journey. It means struggling to undo what you’ve been taught your whole life: That society is fair and just and treats everyone equally.

When I first started dating Dart, I remember having a moment I really failed to listen and understand. I was waiting for him on the stoop of his apartment in East Harlem. I remember being angry because he had left me waiting for a while in a neighborhood I didn’t know very well.

 Ashley & Dart

Ashley & Dart

After waiting a while, I had given up and gone to a friends’ house when Dart called. He told me he had been stopped by a cop, harassed, and given a ticket for walking through the park near the house, because you’re not allowed to be in the park after 10pm.

I basically called him a liar – I assumed it was a bad excuse for blowing me off. I said, “That’s not true, I’ve been in that park at night. There are always people in the park at night. It’s fine.” He told me how the officers were really aggressive with him, even after he demonstrated that he lived down the street. He even pointed out a woman walking her dog through the park at the same time, asking the officers, “If the park is closed, why is she allowed to walk through the park?”

I was horrible to him after that conversation. I think I was trying to rationalize my own understanding of the world. I told him, “You’re just whining and complaining and being dramatic. You should’ve been nicer to the cop.”

Since I’ve lived in East Harlem, I’ve interacted with police in the neighborhood regularly, and my treatment is very different. It’s often, “Are you okay miss? Are you all right?” There is this mindset of, “I need to protect your innocence.” Especially as a white female, I realize how very differently I’m treated in certain spaces, especially in a neighborhood that is presumed to be a “bad” neighborhood. I see more police officers in my park in East Harlem on a Saturday than I ever did in Prospect Park where people were openly drinking without any concern for a ticket.

Q. If we define “racism” simply as saying offensive things, we wouldn’t be able to make sense of what happened to Dart…

Not at all. One of the things I’ve been thinking about is how you may not harbor any racial animosity towards anyone or think anyone is less valuable, but we all participate in and perpetuate a system that encourages officers to stop someone who looks like Dart and not someone who looks like me.

He and I could be doing the exact same thing – being in the park after 10pm – but the presumption that I am innocent means the law is applied to him, not to me. It could be that the officer had other reasons he had to make that stop – a quota or something he needs to fulfill – but at the end of the day the outcome is still biased.

Dart was stopped and ticketed for nothing—he was literally carrying my takeout dinner through the park on his walk home.

It’s always been hard for me to understanding how traumatic and frustrating that must be for people. I would imagine thinking, “Am I less valuable as a member of this community? Why do I have less right to be here as that woman next to me with her dog?” It must have only made it worse that I refused to believe him.

I couldn’t acknowledge what had happened because it hurt for me to see that my experience of the world was not true for everyone. So my way of not acknowledging it was to say you’re wrong, you did something wrong, as opposed to acknowledging that something is unfair or unequal. I think that’s the harder part of coming to terms with racism for people who don’t directly experience it – we need to listen, empathize and believe people, instead of saying, “I don’t see it so it can’t be true.”

Q. Where would you like to see Forefront grow when it comes to race?

When I worked in the social service sector, we never asked clients about what they wanted. We just assumed we were doing a good thing, that we understood their needs better than they did. Churches are in danger of doing the same thing: “We ran a soup kitchen and therefore we did good for the community.” And it’s a whole other thing to have difficult conversations about racism. It means we also have to talk about power, decision-making, and why we do what we do here.

I think the other difficult ask is to talk about racism with people who aren’t here in our immediate community. Many of us moved here from places like Ohio, Indiana, Kansas, and, in my case, Texas.  We have a much deeper calling to take these difficult conversations home to our people. Imagine, you may be the only person a friend of yours or family member encounters who will speak about your own journey to understand racism in this country. We too often rely on people of color to do that work for us. I understand – it’s uncomfortable to talk about race, I certainly don’t feel like I have the answers – but these are OUR friends and families. If we don’t talk to them, who will?

I’ve been doing that informally with some Forefront members – almost like an accountability group. I often want to get mad when having these tough conversations, but that’s not productive. Talking about race requires a lot more thoughtfulness and empathy. It’s awesome to see how Forefront is approaching it. The next step is just to listen: Where should we go from here? What does it look like to have a group in the church that cares about racial justice? Where can we support communities of color that are already doing this work? I’d love to see ways our church can do that.

Institutional Racism and the church (sermon)

 Our attempt at visually demonstrating the difference between equity and equality.  See more here .

Our attempt at visually demonstrating the difference between equity and equality. See more here.

In August of 2014 modern day civil rights activist Lisa Sharon Harper went to Ferguson, MO. She’s an acquaintance at our church and was part of our FCQ series.  This time she went to Ferguson to bridge the gap between white and black people surrounding the death of Michael Brown.

If you remember from a couple of years ago, Michael Brown, a young black man, was shot dead by a white police officer. Brown’s body lay in the streets for 4 hours before anyone came to take Brown to the hospital.  The officer who shot Brown wrote out an incident report that conflicted greatly with the accounts of eyewitnesses and ultimately it was police officer Wilson’s reports that were backed up by Ferguson’s police chief. We’d later learn that even though there were inconsistencies and gross professional misconduct in officer Wilson’s actions, there’d be no punishment for the officer.

The ensuing protests in Ferguson turned violent. Many were arrested. Over 90 people were assaulted and seriously hurt. Reporters were also hurt and assaulted. Military grade vehicles occupied the streets of Ferguson and curfews enacted. Rightfully so the tension remained.

Harper found herself bothered by the fact that there were fewer white allies marching and protesting with Black people in Ferguson. In fact she didn’t understand why so many churches in the city, churches who considered themselves diverse and multicultural, refused to show up.

After convening predominantly white pastors, elders, and community leaders throughout Ferguson, Harper, along with Pastor Leroy Barber came and preached a message. The message was taken from a passage we love here at this church mainly because Jesus uses it in his first sermon. It’s Isaiah 61:1-4. For those in need of a reminder here’s what it says,

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty, instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.

 They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations. –Isaiah 61:1-4

The Reverend Barber spoke to the group and what he said had quite the impact. He said in effect that what Isaiah is telling us is that those who’ve been consistently oppressed, those that have been in pain, those who have witnessed the struggle first hand, they are the ones that will lead. They will be the oaks of righteousness. They will rebuild that which is broken.

And then Barber and Harper said to the pastors of all of these churches, they said, “What’s happening right now are fulfillment of Isaiah’s words today. The oppressed are working to lead the way to a new way of living. The broken are the strong ones who fight for injustice. They are working to bring the end to devastation. Do you believe that they can lead you? Do you believe that you can be led to peace by the people of color here in Ferguson Missouri?”

Finally a young pastor spoke up. He looked around the room and spoke a truth that I think is important for many of us to hear today. He said,

“As a white man I’ve implicitly been taught that I’m the one that leads everyone else.” Someone else spoke up. “It never occurred to me that I could be led to peace by a group like we have here in Ferguson.

As disheartening as that is, it comes as a product of America’s collective history. There is an institution that has long established the words in Isaiah as being implausible. They discount the fact that the oppressed should ever lead and in fact, laws throughout the years have been put in place to ensure that the oppressed aren’t ever given the opportunity to lead restoration. When I say institution I’m going to go back quite a ways but for the sake of time I actually have to leave a bunch of stuff out.

The philosopher Plato sets a ground work for western thought in the year 300 when he writes in his famous book, The Republic, that races should be treated like precious metals, with light skinned people being considered gold while those who are darker be treated as bronze, copper, and other common metals. Plato’s works became part of a predominant western thought, which manifested itself in the decisions of the learned popes.

Pope Nicholas the V began the West African slave trade by ordering European nations to enslave anyone who didn’t convert to Christianity.

Pope Alexander the VI “gifted” much of what we now know as America, Mexico, and Central America. Sociologists believe that the swath of landed gifted was inhabited by upwards of 100 million native people. The condition in which the pope gifted the land was that western Europeans settle there and convert everyone to Christianity. Those who don’t convert deserve death. Sociologists then say that after Europeans took over the land gifted by the Pope that the population of said area decreased by 80-90 percent. There is a quote from one of the conquistadors saying,

“When we became tired of the killing, God saw fit to give the savages smallpox” – Bernal Diaz Del Castillo.

In 1751 beloved American figure, Benjamin Franklin lamented the declining Anglo-Saxon population and declared that America should protect the White population by becoming an Anglo-Saxon only colony. He made his argument before the British Parliament.

When the Declaration of Independence came to in 1776 Thomas Jefferson declares that all men are created equal, which we like to celebrate. Just a few paragraphs later Jefferson has these words to say about Native Americans,

The last of these complaints, however, is one that reads: (King George) has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In some ways Ben Franklin, with the help of Jefferson got his wish. Upon the United State’s first ever census people of color residing the US were listed as Chattel. That means, any property deemed necessary for production of goods and livelihood. Other things considered chattel at the time included pitchforks and horses. That’s what non-white human beings were reduced to here in this country less than 300 years ago.

Also in 1790 came the Citizen Naturalization Act, which said that only white men had the right to vote, which as we know, is of profound importance when shaping a new nation, or even an old one. The naturalization act in so many words proclaimed that immigrants to the US could be categorized as white. We have Irish, Germans, Scandinavian, and others across Europe forsaking their own culture to legally be seen as white and procuring their right to vote. This law remained in effect for so long that in 1922, less than 100 years ago, a Japanese man named Takao Ozawa sued the US government for the chance at being categorized as white and thus considered a citizen of the US, capable of voting. The US census decided to count Mr. Ozawa as Chinese even though he was clearly not of Chinese descent. In fact, anyone with any semblance of appearing Asian were qualified as chinese, effectively minimizing their humanness, culture, and heritage, another reason that I think the idea of not seeing color is detrimental. At the end of the day there has only remained one constant on each US census from 1790 to 2010. That is the fact one category remains, it’s the category that refers to people simply as “White.”

What about the fact that the Japanese were interned, basically imprisoned during WW2 simply because they were Japanese! That’s in the lifetimes of some of our family members! Fear brought upon by our history is not reduced to the African American population.

Around the same time as the Naturalization act went down, Congress set into motion something called the 3/5 compromise, which decided that African slaves should count as 3/5 of a human being. This was just the beginning of institutionalizing racism amongst Africans living in the US. And continues to be perpetuated throughout our history.

Now I know that some of you might be thinking, “But this was so long ago. America has made great strides.” I think that’s a myth. Our racism might not be overt as it once was but laws set in place hundreds of years ago still have major consequences today.

African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites.

  • The imprisonment rate for African American women is twice that of white women.
  • Mass incarceration. Black children are 18 times more likely to be sentenced as adults.
  • Education - Look at the stats. 18 percent of minority students account of 50 percent of suspensions.
  • Racial wealth inequality - whites make 18x more and 10x more than blacks and Latinos respectively.

If African Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates as whites, prison and jail populations would decline by almost 40%.

I think it manifests itself in more informal ways.

Today we don’t say “black ppl” we say “we want to crack down on drugs” but why do police target black neighborhoods more if blacks and whites use drugs at same rates. In fact, during the crack epidemic of the 80’s, which greatly affected the African American populations, we called it the war on drugs and we incarcerated a record number of people.

Today we have another drug problem. We have the opioid crisis, which greatly affects white people. We don’t incarcerate them though. We don’t even call it a war. We run tv and internet commercials giving addicts and their families options to get help!

Today we shine giant spotlights right at all section 8 housing in the name of safety. Do the police shine giant spotlights in your neighborhood in the name of safety? They don’t in mine? Today we don’t say “black women” we say “welfare queens” and immediately an image of black women come to mind even though most welfare recipients are white.

In the past weeks and in the coming weeks we’ve asked you to take a look at the history of our country and its dealings with minorities in regards to housing, educational, and job discrimination. I encourage your groups to look at the disparities between white people and people of color in every one of these scenarios. Our disparities are set a part from the beginning of our country’s history.

So back to a couple of weeks ago when I talked about equity versus equality. Once again, equality says that all have the ability to see over the sheet. The sheet is set at a certain height. But we must acknowledge that some groups, from the get go, have been reduced to less than greatly hindering their ability to have equitable status. Church, if anyone of us has the mindset that everyone has an equal chance to succeed, the way that our country was inherently set up makes that line of thinking faulty and illogical. Let’s stop talking about pulling up by bootstraps when there were systems in place set up to stop that very thing from happening.

This manifests itself in a couple of ways within our own lives. The standards set from the beginning of North America’s existence creates within us a implicit bias against people of color. This isn’t just for white people, this is for all of us.

The implicit associate test, given by Project Implicit shows that 75 percent of test takers have biases against people of color. Even people of color have biases against people of color. That means three out of every four of us in this room have some sort of bias against people of color. And like I said last week, it’s not overt. We generally have blind spots but these blind spots make a huge difference.

Ohio State University did a study on this implicit bias and it shows that it greatly impacts the way we treat people of color in regards to first encounters, whether or not we arrest, shoot, or prosecute people of color. And I want to stress that we have many fine people that work in law enforcement here in our church. We are great people but we are influenced by a history that is designed so that our brains think differently about POC’s

How often do you look at someone and innately think, that person must be dangerous, smart, weaker than me, a doctor, jobless, on welfare? I can go on. In fact I will go on. According to the extensive research done on implicit bias we see that our institutional racism brings about a personal racism. We are indeed affected by the structures of inequity that have long affected America and its people.

Furthermore the church has responded with complicit actions to keep inequality inequitable. In their book Divided by Faith, Michael Emerson and Christian Smith present data that shows the vast majority of Christians right up until the start of the Civil War believed that Native Americans, Slaves, Asians, and other minority groups had no souls and therefore weren’t worthy of Christianity. In fact, the majority of Christians used scripture to justify slavery pointing to passages like this one in the book of Colossians,

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord – Colossians 3:21

On a side note, can we stop saying that we take the Bible literally? But I digress.

Others like famous preacher Cotton Mather advocated for slaves’ rights but ultimately did very little do bring about equity for minorities, both men and women alike.  And If I’m being frank I think there are many churches, maybe ours included who are doing the same thing! We’re advocating for the kingdom of heaven here on earth but aren’t doing enough to bring the light of Christ. This isn’t so much an indictment as a challenge for us to be different.

Ultimately, most of the Christian church has historically stood on the side of the oppressor, a direct contradiction to the radical call of the gospel message. I’ll go even further to say that parts of the American Christian church are in danger of becoming irrelevant due to the fact that they still stand on the side of the oppressor. After the US declared 200K El Salvadorians living in the US for 16 years, “Illegal” I unfortunately saw a fair share of religious folks come out in praise of a country that would protect its people. Unfortunately what they don’t see is that this perpetuates a hundreds of years old pattern in the US and remains that antithesis to the gospel message. So why not just shut the whole church down? Why not just throw the baby out with the bathwater? I’m tempted but I believe that the Epiphany, the incarnation of Christ will not be defeated.

As I said a couple of weeks ago, we’re in the middle of Epiphany. Regardless of the intensity of this message I think that this is a time of celebration. We’re celebrating the fact that the light of Christ is here. We’re celebrating the incarnation of god to show us what the kingdom of heaven looks like. The kingdom of heaven looks a whole lot like Jesus. And so I’ll continue to remind us in this Epiphany season that our job is to partner with God to bring the kingdom of heaven here to earth. How did Jesus do it?

He interacts with the Samaritan, the SyroPhoenician woman, the Roman Centurion, the demoniac, all of whom were fundamentally different than Jesus. Jesus does not treat all people equally. Read the scripture, he doesn’t. He treats those who are victims of racism, oppression, and hurt, better than others! Jesus does not bring equality. Jesus brings equity. That is the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus breaks down temple systems through his death. There was a clear delineation between the Jewish part of the temple and the gentile part of the temple. In fact, Gentiles were warned not to go near that part of the temple under penalty of death. But Jesus’ death changes the systems of the temple and invites all in.

Lastly, the picture of Pentecost, the spirit of Jesus upon the people once again shows what happens when the kingdom of heaven comes to earth.

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.  When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. – Acts 2:4-6

There is a picture of all the languages, all of the differences highlighted and yet the spirit of the Lord descends equitably on them all, giving each of them the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Time and time again the Bible points to the fact that the Epiphany season, the light of Christ, the Kingdom of Heaven, is an equitable kingdom where our differences are celebrated and the gifts of God are made for us all, no exceptions. Frankly, that’s the good news of the Gospel and like I told you before, we get to usher that gospel message into our community!

A couple of weeks ago we talked about developing the willingness to listen. I talked about the fact that listening to the experiences of others creates empathy as does cultivating a practice of grief for all that we’ve heard today and all that we hear from other members of our community.

I want to point out two more things that I think are important to do today in regards to being a church that changes systems. I think we need to hear the voice of the prophet Isaiah and the sermon of Reverend Barber. We need to pay attention to the question asked by our prophets and the questions asked in Ferguson Missouri. Do we believe that the oppressed are the ones who can lead us to peace? Do we believe that some of us as the dominant culture can sit at the feet of those who have long been held back and be led? If we can say yes to that then I think we can take the next steps to bring the kingdom of God.

1.    Be an ally and show up. Hannah Johnston at St. Lydias talks about the fact that they have a ministry where they simply show up in support of others in the city who deal with racism. That sometimes means that they are there as allies for a Black Lives Matter rally. Other times it means being present when the city thinks about passing a law that will increase institutional disparity. Often it’s in support of refugees or those served by DACA.

As some of you have heard or not heard. One of the ways that our church will work to change systems is through our work with the Arab American Support Center in NYC and working with the city of NY directly to help change laws and that perpetuate racism. I invite you to find out more about the orgs we’ll support and invite you to show up and be an ally for those that need allies.

2.    Prayer matters here at our church. We say it every Sunday. We have a prayer team and I don’t think we take advantage. I think prayer allows us to take all of our thoughts captive, like Paul calls us to do in scripture I think prayer gives us the mind to see everyone as a child of God. I believe that the power of prayer changes implicit bias beset upon us by systems of inequity and gives us different eyes to see. I believe that a cultivated prayer life is one that allows us to reorder our minds to change systems.

And as we celebrate Epiphany we celebrate the we extend the light of God, that the spirit is at work in us to bring about a just and generous system of equity to our community.

Let’s pray the same prayer that Lisa Sharon Harper prayed with the church leaders in Ferguson four years ago.

1. Close your eyes.

2. Remember Isaiah’s statement that it will be the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, and the imprisoned who will repair the ruined cities and the devastations of many generations.

3. Imagine yourself being led by the oppressed in your town, city, and state.

4. How does it feel in your gut to imagine following the lead of the least of these?

5. Be brutally honest with yourself. Do you believe the Scripture?

6. If not, then confess your unbelief to God, and ask God to help you believe.

7. If you believe, then ask God to guide your steps as you enter the movement to repair what race broke in America."

Decolonizing Christianity (sermon)

sermon.JPG

Hi everyone I’m Sarah Ngu and I’m a deacon at forefront. I handle FF’s social media accounts and I help run with grace and D our lgbtq ministry, queer communion, and I’m a very proud member of our Brooklyn heights small group.

So, I’m going to tell you a bit about my family. Here’s a photo of my siblings and I in Malaysia. We’re Chinese-Malaysian, and we moved to the United States when i was ten years old for a bit of an unusual reason: My dad was sent by his church denomination to start a church here. Our denomination was founded by a Thai man, and so most of our churches were in Asia and we wanted to expand around the world. America, to be honest, also seemed to us like a modern-day Sodom & Gomorrah: full of sex, drugs, violence and gun ownership.

Here’s a photo of my family a year after we moved to California. As you can see that, in addition to the fact that I look basically about the same age now as I do then, we have several trophies. Those were all from softball. My dad was very eager for all of us to play softball / baseball, because he wanted us to play American sports. My dad wanted us all to become Americanized, partly because as a pastor he wanted to reach white Americans.

Track and soccer were never encouraged because my dad saw those as Malaysian sports. He wanted us to mingle with the whites. My sisters discovered only after years of softball that they preferred soccer and track (one of my sisters was recruited to run for college)—I was the only one, what a surprise, who really enjoyed softball.

My dad is also quite good at languages and I remember he would listen to the radio and practice rehearsing whatever he heard in order to sound American. We kids all grew up speaking English but we had Malaysian accents, which I remember trying to get rid of, because if you talk with Malaysian accent, people will not think you are very smart. If you talk with a British or Australian accent, okay lah. But with a Malaysian accent, it’s going to be a pro-blem.

But the thing that I remember most from my dad’s lessons in Americanese was that he would always say, “Don’t be intimidated like an Asian. Speak up and be assertive like my white colleagues.”

Now, my dad is a fighter; he loves public speaking, he’s very charismatic, so on one level he was just rebelling against the stereotype of submissive Asians. And I get that he was just trying to help us adapt and give us practical tips.

But note that he did not say, “Americans talk in more direct and assertive ways, and even though that’s not our public communication style, that’s what we have to do to be taken seriously here.”

He said, in contrast, “Don’t be intimidated like other Asians. Stand up for yourself like white people do.”

The former is about how to hustle here in America; the latter is... about shame of your culture. It's about internalizing white supremacy.

When we talk about white supremacy we tend to think of the KKK, Charlottesville. But no one talks about how white supremacy can be to use the ancient language of the bible, like a ghost, a demon, that gets under your skin into your psyche and start to possess you. If you’ve seen the movie Get Out, you’ll know what I mean.

You see, my dad and mom grew up right around the eve of Malaysia’s independence from British rule. They grew up in a country that was still, and is still, trying to overcome more than a hundred years of a legal, political and cultural system that put white people at the top, a system that did introduce modern education and technology but that also took my country’s natural resources and used it to rebuild their country especially after WWII.

But perhaps one of the most insidious effects of colonialism and imperialism globally that still lingers on today is the feeling that white people are superior. More capable. More civilized. You can still see that legacy in how most of the models in fashion ads in Asia are white or Asian people with more “white features” partly due to plastic surgery, in salary disparities between white “expats” and everyone else, and so on.  

I’m not making any personal accusations of anyone in this room, I’m just saying this is the system we live in. And when I say “white people” I’m not referring to certain biological features. If you look at the history of race, we really only started identifying people by their skin color and organizing them into hierarchies around the late 1600s with the advent of colonialism and Atlantic slave trade. So when I say whiteness, I’m using it as a shorthand for “dominant group,” but which group is dominant is something that changes over history. This will be particularly relevant later on when we get into scripture.

So when my dad’s mom wanted to send my dad to the best university, it’s not too surprising that she sent him to an English boarding school. When he got there, his English wasn’t the best. So his classmates mocked his pronunciation. One of the guys would tease him and say, “Could you pass the sugar please?” I mean, if you think about it why would s-u-g-a-r is pronounced “shu-gar”? My dad at the time could speak three languages - 福州话,客家话,普通话,- and his classmates only one, but he was the one who was made to feel inferior.

When you’re excluded from the dominant group, you have two options: You can either withdraw and hang out with your own kind, or you can try your best to assimilate and be accepted by the dominant group. My dad chose the latter option. To this day, he is proud of the fact that he didn’t join International Christian Students Club with all the Asians, he joined Christian Union which was where the white students were -- he was quite popular in fact and became secretary at one point.

It’s sad to me that although my dad grew up in an era in which British colonialism was formally over, he was still embedded in a kind of colonial Christianity.

Look, I don’t want to diminish the agency and choice that we people of color have made to choose this faith because we are compelled by its fundamental story. But it gets hard sometimes. Honestly it’s hard to hold onto this faith when it’s been transmitted to you by the people who have colonized you, enslaved you, and you look around and you see the books my dad has to read for seminary and how most of them are written by white men, and when I look at the top 100 largest churches in America and how 93% of them are led by white pastors and only 1 of them is led by a female co-pastor, and when I look at whose books and podcasts are being published and circulated, who’s getting the speaking engagements and conference invites — I mean my church in Asia raised kids on Focus on the Family and exclusively sang songs from a white Australian band named hillsong — when I look at all of this I can’t help but think that not much has changed since colonialism. The legal structure may not exist, but the culture of colonial Christianity still remains.

So why am I still here?

Let’s get into Scripture. Let’s look Paul’s letter to Titus, his friend and mentee. In this letter, which is in the bible, he gives Titus a whole list of instructions for how to really set up and grow the Christian community in a Greek island called Crete. He tells him what kind of elders to appoint, the ways families should be structured and behave, and towards the end, he inserts this statement which reminds me of what my dads advice to ud:

”Declare these things; exhort and reprove with all authority. Let no one look down on you.” (Titus 2:15, NRSV)
Now why would Paul say that? Maybe Titus has some confidence issues, and people around him are kinda arrogant. I’m sure that’s all part of it.

You know if Titus was in a small group he might say, “Hey guys can you pray for me I have this big presentation I have to make and big decisions, and I’m feeling a little nervous if people will listen to me.”

And everyone would be like, “Yeah we’ll pray for you. You got this.”

But hold up. Is Titus feeling insecure because he’s Titus, or are there some larger forces going on here?

Let’s figure this out.

So we see Titus appear again in a book in the bible called Galatians, where Paul is talking about his trip to Jerusalem and he is talking about how there is this faction of Jews who are trying to get all these Gentile converts to the faith to be circumcised. And Paul writes this:

“But even Titus, who was with me, was not compelled to be circumcised, though he was a Greek.”

Ah, so we see that Titus is Greek, meaning he is a Gentile, which is a word for someone who is not Jewish.

Why does that matter? Well if we go back to the book of Acts, we read about this tension and power dynamic between Gentiles and Jews in the early church, in which Jews had the upper hand.

By the way recall what I said about whiteness being shorthand for dominance. Obviously throughout history different groups of people have been more dominant than others. And In this context, our bible tells us that it was the Jewish people.

And what I’m going to narrate is going to portray Jewish people in a negative light; I’m just restating whatever the text in our Scriptures states. I don’t really want us to be caught up in questions of whether it was really and historically true that Jewish people at that time acted that way, and whether Paul had an agenda; we have to be super mindful of the fact that the verses I’m going to recite have been used to villainize and persecute Jewish people, and force them to assimilate and to convert.

What I want us to take away from the text are deeper truths that I think Paul is trying to convey about what it means to be a diverse community and what it means to hold power.

With that really important frame, let’s get into it.

So I mentioned this tension between gentiles and jews in the early church. If we go to the book of Acts chapter 15, this tension really comes to a head. Because there are a fair number of Jews who were saying, “Ok we get it that God is now opening up our covenant with God to include Gentiles because God’s given them the Holy Spirit and we see the Spirit evident in their lives. But if they’re coming into our country -- I mean, our covenant -- they gotta assimilate. They’ve got to get circumcised and follow law of Moses.”

Why was circumcision such a big deal? You really see this debate about it all throughout the NT. It was, and still kinda is, the marker of identity for Jews. It was commanded by God; God, as portrayed, in the book of Exodus was about to kill Moses’ son because he wasn’t circumcised. If you’re not circumcised, you’re not part of the covenant. (Of course if you are a cis woman, I guess you’re off the hook since no one seems to really care).

As an aside, as immigrant, it’s really interesting to me that so many of the key flashpoints between Gentiles and Jews are physical: They are about what you eat, how your body is formed, etc. Because so many of the transitions that immigrants have to go through are also physical: Its about your accent, what you eat, what clothes you wear, how you hold your body.

So the early church is at a crossroads and it has to make a big decision about how it’s going to integrategentiles into thecovenant:

Peter gets up and say: “ My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as God did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith God has made no distinction between them and us.”

The church decides that we’re just going to ask Gentles to observe four laws - no sexual immorality, eating food offered to idols, no eating meat that’s strangled or blood… some trace these back to the laws of Noah that Jews believe apply to all humans, but the bigger deal is what’s left out from the list: No mention circumcision and honoring the Sabbath, which is a huge deal because it’s one of the 10 commandments.

This significance of this decision is that what it means to follow Jesus and be Christian — to be part of this new spiritual community — is not about assimilating into the dominant group’s norms or in this case laws. What holds this diverse community together is the spirit of God which is in all of us.

So now that you have that context from the book of Acts, let’s jump back into Galatians. Paul’s writing about his trip to Jerusalem in Heidi he is bringing his Greek friend Titus, and he notices Peter, one of the key leaders in the early church, acting very strangely. He notices that Peter would eat with Gentiles, including Greeks, but when certain Jews -- would come, Peter would separate himself from the Gentiles and eat with the Jews. And Paul is fuming, he’s says, “"If you, though a Jew, are living like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

If we were to translate this into modern-day America, we might ask, “Hey why are all the white kids sitting together for lunch? Why are all the blacks kids sitting there? Asian kids sitting over there?” And I can’t help but picture Titus, going to Jerusalem with Paul, kinda like a new kid shows up in school, and he’s wondering, “Who’s going to sit with me for lunch?”

Paul is going ballistic in this letter, he’s like:  

“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified. The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?”

I’ll repeat: Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?

He’s arguing: our shared identity is about the Spirit of God, not with whose bodies or flesh matters more than others. And he would later say in that same later that in Jesus we are no longer slave/free, male/female, Jew/Greek — essentially these hierarchies are abolished. We are bound together by the same Spirit, so why we are then replicating these dynamics in church? Yes let’s bring in diversity but not inequity and hierarchy!

So when we look back at Paul’s words to Titus, where he says, “Don’t let anyone look down upon you” — a formulation btw which I much prefer over “don’t be intimidated” by it places the responsibility on the person who is intimidating you not you and your feelings - because we can read that as “Don’t let anyone look down upon you because you are Greek, you are a Gentile, you are not part of the dominant group.”

If he was writing a letter to the church today, he might say, “Don’t let anyone look down upon you because of your sexuality or your gender identity.” Take pride. He might say to you now, “Don’t let anyone look down upon you because of your job or your lack of a job your height your weight your body your mental illness your physical ability your addiction where you were born, whether you come from a shithole nation or not.” Because EVEN if the most powerful person in the world looks down upon you, there is yet a higher power PAUSE whose spirit is in all of us. There is a higher truth.  

As a queer person, Paul’s not always my favorite, but I love Paul when he’s bringing the heat like this. Because stuff like this is what brings me back to this faith and tradition.

But we have a lot of work to do to realize this radical vision. So what are we going to do to de-colonize Christianity?

Takeaways:

1.   Let’s start looking at our consumption: Whose books and podcasts are we consuming? Is it all… mostly white people? Especially white men? Let’s start listening and paying attention to other voices especially within the church. I’ll post on FFs Facebook page some recommendations and you all can add to it.

2.   Let’s talk about church. Who preaches? Who is paid to be on staff? who’s an elder? a deacon? who tends to sit in the front vs in the back? Who talks the most in small group? Who is listened to more? Who do people make eye contact with when they are talking?

My friend Derrick, who is Singaporean, once ran an experiment where he would observe his reaction to his friends’ comments and statements, and if he reacted differently if it was a female friend or coworker vs a male counterpart, and he said, “Omg sarah, i realized I do take women less seriously, i am more dismissive of their comments.” What if we all ran that experiment also? And do the same thing for race? For people who speak different accents?

3.   One of my favorite examples of de-colonizing church can look like is in the book of Acts. they had this radical socialist system where no one had any economic needs because people would share resources and property. They had this daily distribution of food to widows, because widows had very little family to support them financially. But they started getting complaints that Greek speaking widows were being overlooked compared to Hebrew widows. So you know what the apostles, the leaders of the early church, who were mostly hebrew decided? they weren’t like oh we will track our distribution processes better, they said: Let’s appoint a group of seven deacons to handle the distribution of resources, and we are not even going to make that committee 50/50 Greek and Hebrew, we are going to ensure the entire group is Greek.  I love this example because the early church recognized the fundamental problem was not resource-distribution but power-distribution. And they needed to level the power dynamic. What if we applied that logic today to current problems of inequity?

4. Ok to all my fellow immigrants out there, what cultural ritual or even religion have you been told to stay away from because it’s not Christian? What if you explored those rituals and even religions and found a way to authentically integrate it with your faith? If some of you are like what heresy is this... consider Christmas and Easter. Let’s look at Xmas. The date of Christmas comes from a pagan midwinter festival celebrated by the Druids, a Celtic religion, who would celebrate it by cutting down evergreen trees and putting it in their homes; Easter itself is probably influenced by an ancient Babylonian goddess named Ishtar whose symbols, as the goddess of love and fertility, were eggs and rabbits. So Europeans been playing this game for centuries; we gotta get in on the action. We’ve been missing out. Why do we have to assimilate into their version of christianity?

Lastly.

I think of my dad and how I kinda wish he was here — he’s not attending because of FF’s affirming stance on LGBTQ people — because when I think about how the Gospel can be a truly liberating force, I think of people like him, and how I, deeply wish, he, and all of us, could truly be free.

Why Forefront Brooklyn Has Become My Chosen Family

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Kisha L. first visited Forefront Brooklyn during spring 2017. During the first service she attended, she saw Grace D. stand up in front of the audience and talk about how she is a queer deacon at Forefront. She immediately turned to her best friend and said, "I think I've found home."

Since then, her experience at Forefront has been "awesome and overwhelming in a really good way. The sense of community is not something that I've known in church before." She cites herexperience of three Queer Communion (a FFBK ministry) members volunteering to help her move in, even though she had only met one of them before briefly at church. "I didn't feel I deserved it at first; I felt I had to earn help or community so it was hard for me to even accept it... I didn't know genuine care like that." Her first QC event was a discussion group hosted in a QC member's apartment to discuss the Nashville Statement and race. "I'd never been in a space that was so religious and queer at the same time. It felt good to be around my people."

After only a handful of months, Kisha volunteered to make waffles and host a brunch for QC at her apartment. "It was a way for me to give back. I've had a really hard time with church before Forefront, which stopped me from going to church for several years, until I found a space where I was 100% accepted. Hosting was the least I could do."

To help make FFBK create a home for more LGBTQ+ Christians, give here: https://buff.ly/2Dm8MQU

To learn more about Queer Communion, check it out: https://buff.ly/2DlhYVN

Taking Back "Evangelical"

Our senior pastor Jonathan Williams has a new article up on Huffington Post.

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Christian Fundamentalists have hijacked the word, “evangelical” and I’m ready to take it back.
The word, “evangelical,” comes from the Greek word euangelion, meaning “the good news” or the “gospel.” I believe that the Christian faith can still be good news but there must be a reckoning.
Today, Christian Evangelicals have done enough damage such that the word “evangelical” conjures reactions that belie the word’s meaning. Tell me: The last time you read a headline that said, “American evangelicals ….” did you think, “Oh that’s going to be good news?”

Read more here.

When the Forefront Community Helped Me Pay My Bills

 Emem Offong, an elder at Forefront

Emem Offong, an elder at Forefront

I have been a part of Forefront church for almost 10 years. In that time,  I have seen and experienced examples of true community countless times.  One such example occurred in 2009 when I was freelancing and having a tough time making ends meet. I had started hanging out with other freelancers at church, one of whom was becoming a good friend.  As we got closer and shared more about our lives, we realized we were both struggling financially. So for most of that year, we shared our earnings with each other. If she made some money from a freelance gig, she shared it with me and I did the same. What I needed that year wasn’t prayers, it was cash. And thanks to my friend, I was able to pay my bills and take care of myself during a really difficult time. Her generosity is the reason I still live in New York today. It is also one of many reasons why I am immensely grateful to be a part of this community. 

Prayers of the Peacemakers

In this tumultuous season, Forefront Brooklyn added a time of prayer and reflection in our worship services. We want to prayerfully respond to the tension and the division in our country. Forefront community member Ashley Putnam wrote a moving prayer of peace for our nation. We encourage you to pray this prayer and share it with others that we might be conduits of real peace.

Prayer of the Peacemaker 

Lord, we come to you today with heavy hearts. It seems every day we are waking up to devastating news, political divisions, natural disasters, lives lost. 

Our hearts long for your peace, your justice, the world that you desire.

Lord open our eyes and hearts this morning, help us to see the distance between our politicalized mainstream American culture, and the radical love you want us to practice.

Lord, in a world is hurting and broken, where people fear each other and judge each other before they love each other, we pray we will be the hands and feet of your love. 

God make us instruments of your good, guide our hands and feet to action, make us more than a people of thoughts and prayers. 

May we be community in a world of isolation, mercy in a world of judgment, and reconciliation in a time of division. 

Lord hear our cries. 

-Ashley Putnam

The New York Times profiles our founding pastor and church

 Photo taken by Jackie Molloy for The New York Times

Photo taken by Jackie Molloy for The New York Times

The New York Times profiled our founding pastor, Jonathan Williams, and his family's story. Read about what happened when Jonathan's father came out as trans, and how that's impacted our community's theology, particularly on LGBTQ issues.

In case the message wasn't clear from the article, to our LGBTQIA brothers, sisters and all non-binary folks: You are fully affirmed and welcome to participate in the life of the church in all levels of leadership, ritual and service. In fact, you're welcome to join our thriving queer community over at Queer Communion--it's led by leaders at Forefront and is open to anyone who is anywhere on their journey of faith and gender or sexuality. They run monthly events which are open to anyone, including people outside of Forefront. 

BabaHero: Entrepreneurs in our Community (interview with Tommy Cohen)

Interview with Thomas Cohen, member of Forefront. 

Q. You've launched a subscription box business for new fathers -- BabaHero -- which has been featured in Entrepreneur, Buzzfeed Parents, and WNBC New York. Can you tell us about your journey towards fatherhood—and later on, your business? 

A. It started when we found out that my wife was pregnant with twins, Zara and Amari, back in November 2014. We were elated but conscious of the fact that it might not happen. We had lost two due to miscarriage before—Emem, Mira and Jonathan at Forefront were there when we needed them through those tough times. We just leaned on Forefront Church for prayer. 

As we got closer and closer to the pregnancy date, I was excited and started reading every book I could on parenting—I probably read 10 or 11 books, in addition to tons of articles. I just wanted to be the best parent I could be. I just wanted to be involved especially as a dad. 

Q. Why were you so excited to be a parent?

Before we were pregnant, I found myself questioning whether I was truly ready to be a dad. I never knew how much I wanted to be a dad until that was taken away from me. Also I know a lot of dads get bad reputations for being absent—digging a little deeper, as an African-American dad, the typical stereotype is that they are not there for their children (although my parents were great). I wanted to debunk that.

Q. And then partway through the pregnancy, you received news that you would be laid off. What happened after that? 

I was working in HR at a company for five years and I was laid off in May 2015—our girls were due in August. It was a really scary time—just thinking about how I was going to take care of them and afford to feed them. Looking back, I feel I was programmed to feel that since I was the man of the house, my role was to provide financially. I was frantic, thinking, what am I going to do? 

What really helped was that my wife was willing to go back to work shortly after our girls were born because she didn’t want me to get a job, where I would be miserable, just to have a job. I’m really thankful that she was willing to be the primary financial provider for the family. I became a stay-at-home dad and the primary parent of our twin girls for 18 months. It was an amazing experience.

Q. Was it hard to transition from being anxious about providing towards being excited about being a parent? 

It was kind of hard. After the 5th or 6th interview where I just kept getting “No”s — to be honest I still don’t know why, as I have a BA and Masters in HR, in addition to five years of work experience in a multibillion dollar company—but maybe in the bigger picture God had a different plan for me. 

None of what I’ve accomplished so far would not happen if I landed a job and didn’t stay at home with my children. When they were six months old, I felt that I had the parenting down pat and I was looking for other ways to contribute financially, as we were bleeding financially. I was wrapping my head around, “What is the problem I have? What is the solution for it?” And that’s how the business came to be.

Q. Can you tell us more about the business, BabaHero?

It's a subscription box business for new dads to help them transition to fatherhood.  “Baba" translates to dad in many languages, and “hero" is any dad or parent who just wants to be a hero to their child. In the box, you may find baby wipes, teethers, books, hand sanitizers, bath toys, etc. Every box will include a gift for dad — a way to say thank you and encourage them to bond with kids. Some dads will find socks, gadgets, tools, coffee or edibles. 

When we conceptualized the business, there were a ton of subscription boxes for new moms but nothing much catering to new dads. There were “survival kits," but I chose a different philosophy. You’re not supposed to survive fatherhood—if you approach it that way, you’ll always be stressed. I believed that you should embrace fatherhood and really enjoy the time of being a father, including the ups and downs. 

Q. What was it like starting a business while parenting? 

It was a busy time. They don’t go to sleep until 11pm or 12am, so I start working on the business from 12-3am. When our kids would wake up throughout the night as infants, we split the labor 50-50. As one of them didn’t want to nurse—she only took the bottle—I would feed her, and my wife would nurse the other one. 

Q. In your ideal world, what would society expect of parents? 

Society is changing—two years ago, I got one day for paternity leave. NYC is changing its paternity leave structure to be more supportive of fathers. Ideally, I would like to see us head in the direction where being a stay-at-home dad or mom is okay, where it’s not shocking for a father to take care of the kids, to change diapers, etc. 

Q. Has Forefront Church has been helpful at all in your journey as a father and an entrepreneur?

I would definitely give Forefront credit. Recently, we attended a family small group, which has been amazing to hear other stories from parents and realize that we aren’t alone, and that there are people going through the exact same things we are. The group also gives me insight into how other parents raise their children, what products they use, etc. It’s also been a great experience to see my girls interact with other kids during Kidstuf (Sunday school) — they are under two so they haven’t attended daycare, so being with other kids helps them develop their social skills. 

Q. Has Forefront been supportive of your family’s parenting structure?

Yeah, definitely. Forefront has a female pastor, which hasn’t been true of some of the churches we’ve attended in the past. The community has been open and receptive to me being a stay-at-home dad. Quite honestly, it’s refreshing, especially compared to down South where I grew up. Forefront is a very open church—they talk about issues that really matter in society, such as the LGBT community. They’ve challenged my upbringing and my programming after 20-30 years of attending certain churches. Jonathan is very good at preaching in a way where I can relate to him, where he allows us to come to our conclusions instead of twisting the words of the Bible to fit an agenda. I grew up Southern Baptist and then later on attended predominantly Chinese churches with my wife. Forefront was an opportunity to start over and open my mind to what church really could be. 

How Forefront Helped Save Our Marriage (Interview)

An interview with a member of Forefront.

Q. Why did you join Forefront?

My spouse and I were on the verge of separating—we were at the end of our rope and out of options. Obviously we love each other, we’re together, it’s great, but at the time, when your back is against the wall, what are your options? It was like, I don’t know, maybe we should try church again (we were done with church for a really long time until Forefront). I needed to find someone else to stare at. [laughs]

Q. So how exactly did Forefront help your marriage?

It wasn’t so much the Jesus factor or God, although that underpins everything. It was being around other people who have been married and almost divorced, or people who can reflect back to us how they see us and each other. Because we could no longer see each other the way that we needed to. It’s helpful to interact with someone and see, “Oh maybe I’m not a jerk, so maybe I don’t need to be the jerk that I am to my husband.” It was the same for him.

Q. What makes you stay now?

The community. My best friends have come from here. I’m continuing to build that community—it happens all the time that somebody new shows up who is willing to dive in and be part of the community. There’s also the writing guild I lead here.

Also, Forefront’s quest for asking questions instead of necessarily answering them.

Q. What are questions that you’ve been able to explore here that you haven’t elsewhere?

I mean, [laughs] the existence of God, the existence of hell, the infallibility or not of this biblical text. I have a lot of issues with what I perceive to be the sexism of the Christian faith; I try to hold space for Christianity and my feminism. Because one way that I can look at Christianity is: A bunch of men were so intimidated by the power of a woman to give life that they created a religion which required you to be born a second time by putting your faith in a man.

When I attended Jonathan’s and Jubi’s small group when the church first started, Jonathan held space for questions like that. Other pastors have been quick to answer questions with scripture and answer questions with ”more faith.” Jonathan held space to not have answers to questions and to acknowledge that if someone is having a crisis of faith, maybe the answer shouldn’t be the very thing they are questioning.

I feel like that there is space here for having a period of time where I don’t believe anything at all and that’s okay — these crises of faith are no longer a “crisis” and just a natural part of being human. It’s exactly the right kind of place for me because I’m not sure about anything ever a hundred percent, and that just needs to be okay.

Click here to give to our "Imagine" Campaign.

 

 

Why I Choose to Stay in Forefront, Even When It’s Uncomfortable (Interview)

An interview with Joanne Howell.

You and your small group from your former church, International Church of Christ, were looking for a new church a few years ago. Why did you all decide on Forefront? 

We felt welcomed. No one asked didn’t ask us, “What are your beliefs?” in order make sure that we could fit with them. I certainly did a lot of praying and I felt that this was the answer to prayer. Yeah, it didn’t fit with box of what we knew, but it was an opportunity to learn without the sense that you had to accept the church’s way of looking at things. It was also important to me that our children liked this church—I didn’t want to have to wake them up on Sunday morning and push them to come. 

But it wasn’t a completely comfortable transition?

It was when we had a baptism of someone who was gay. She told her life-story on stage. Frankly, it’s still something that’s hard for me. I wrestle with both sides of the argument. The way that I’ve resolved it is that I understand both point of views. I feel unsure about what I believe, but I don’t feel as compelled as I did earlier to have the right answer. It’s something that you can have a different opinion on.

Why don't you feel so compelled to have the right answers? 

I come from a background where it’s “Thus saith the Lord” [laughs] If the Bible says it, then it’s true. One of the things that I’ve really loved and embraced here at Forefront is a new understanding of how to approach Scripture. It really doesn’t intellectually make sense to just lift it all up and say, "If it’s there, it’s literally true." 

You work as a lawyer, right? So did you compartmentalize how you mentally approach your professional work versus the Bible? 

I absolutely did. It’s not even rational. I think, subconsciously, that’s always been a question mark and this church has brought that question to the forefront. 

I feel my experience with God is what keeps me here. It doesn’t feel like it’s in danger because my understanding of Scripture changes. Before it was, “It’s gotta be exactly what you see the bible and if you get it wrong, you can’t go to heaven.” 

What keeps you here at Forefront Brooklyn?

We have looked around at different churches, and frankly I came to the decision that this is what feel better for me than any place else — at least I can continue to grow as a Christian. It feels like other churches have very clear doctrines and I guess I’m not as comfortable with that anymore. I now realize I need some room to question and figure things out. 

I feel my experience with God is what keeps me here. It doesn’t feel like it’s in danger because my understanding of Scripture changes. Before it was, “It’s gotta be exactly what you see the bible and if you get it wrong, you can’t go to heaven.” 

My connection with God feels more honest and genuine. Now it includes my questions. Before I had to lock out anything that didn’t fit. I couldn’t process those parts. 

This is a young church. There are still some things we feel are lacking in Forefront, and I expect that as time goes on, various things will get addressed -- they are already starting to be.

Click Here to give to our "Why Forefront" Campaign. 

FAQ's about our Why Forefront Campaign

Why are we having a “Why Forefront” Campaign?

As we’ve talked about, Forefront Brooklyn and Forefront Manhattan decided to split our finances for 2017. Before 2017 we worked under one budget with both locations’ giving going to the same bank account. We operated under one combined budget.

As we separated our finances we found some good news, that with a few cuts Forefront Brooklyn was in fact a self supporting church. That means that we’re not receiving any financial help from outside churches or organizations, and we’re not receiving financial help from Forefront Manhattan. We’re able to cover staff salaries, rent, and about 2,000 dollars a month in ministry expenses.

That being said our margins are slim. We want to operate in such a way that we don’t have to make more cuts but can build into our ministries and families while maintaining financial stability. We’re praying that this campaign will create a financial margin that allows us to make upgrades to our kids’ area, to make positive changes in the ministries that serve our whole church, and keep us from tightening our belts further.

What is the Goal for our "Why Forefront" Campaign?

We’d like to raise $60,000 with 12% of all that is raised going towards our Refugee Relief Fund.

The money raised will go towards:

Improving our Kidstuf area by providing new equipment, new curriculum, and creating a more aesthetically pleasing area for kids and families. You can learn more by clicking here.

Funding our Forefront Brooklyn ministries, which include but are not limited to, supporting our lay leaders, paying our staff to help care for and disciple our community, paying for events including outings and retreats, and helping to cover the almost $2000 in monthly expenses ranging from coffee and bagels to paying insurance, and purchasing new signs.

As you know, rent in this city is crazy. Some of the money given will go toward renting our Roulette space each week and towards renting spaces for events throughout the year.

Why are we having another campaign after we raised money last year in our “Together in This campaign?”

Our "Together in This" campaign did its job. Our community raised money that allowed both Forefront Brooklyn and Forefront Manhattan to continue to operate in its full capacity. In fact, much of the money given to our TGIT campaign allowed Forefront Brooklyn to become the self supporting church that it is now.

Our TGIT campaign also helped us to make up the parts of the budget affected by the planned end of outside giving from our generous benefactors. It put us in great shape and allowed for us to make this financial split without incurring large cuts in salary, expenses, and ministries.

TGIT put us in a position to move forward in a positive direction, and our "Why Forefront" Campaign allows our church, Forefront Brooklyn, to continue to make strides towards living out our just and generous vision. This is our opportunity to create growth and stability in our church.


Explain the Refugee Relief Fund.

The start of our church coincided with the arrival of Hurricane Sandy. We recognized the need and were able to raise money to help victims of Sandy all over the East Coast. We started a relief fund because we recognized that our money would be best used if we were able to give it to multiple organizations, causes, and people.

In the same way we recognize that there is a wide swath of refugees in need of help. One organization that we've partnered with in the past, CAMBA, helps settle refugees in and around the city. We also know that there are major needs on the Syrian border where hundreds of thousands are in need of supplies to simply live. We want to be able to help refugees in every time and capacity. There are other organizations in NYC and throughout that can use our help. Just like with Hurricane Sandy, we want to use this money when and where it’s needed without limitations.

The money we receive will allow us to act swiftly when CAMBA notifies us of new refugee families who are settling in NYC. It also allows us to use our resources to immediately help ongoing needs in places like the Syrian border though the work of our friends at Gather for Goats.

Why isn’t there an option to personally support refugee families?

Simply put, we didn’t want our community to have to choose between supporting our church and supporting refugee families. Instead, we decided that it was more effective for our community to both support Forefront and know that as we support our church, we’re also supporting refugees in our city and beyond.

For those who are interested in personally supporting refugees, we encourage you to join Greater NYC Families for Syria and participate in the great work happening with them. 

Why are we giving 12% to support refugee families?

Throughout the years Christian tradition has dictated a tithe of 10%, which stems from Jewish Levitical laws of the Old Testament. We know that every dollar counts and in some ways, 10% of our giving is a sacrifice for Forefront Brooklyn. CS Lewis had a popular quote that goes like this,

“I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.”

Although it sounds like a trite number, giving a little more, 12% of our total puts us in a position of truly trusting God with our provisions. We want to practice what we preach, and we hope that our community’s generosity spills over to others.

What do we do if we exceed our goal of $60,000?

Our hope is that we get an abundance, which will allow us to reimplement effective ministries like MidrashNYC, Marriage and Singles Retreats, and Leadership Retreats. Our hope is that we’re able to add those ministries back into the life of Forefront. Remember, whatever we get above our goal allows us to give even more to Refugee Relief.

What happens if we do not reach our goal of $60,000?

As I’ve previously stated, our church will not close. We’re ultimately a self supporting church. However, I also stated that our margins between giving and expenditures are quite slim. Any decrease in giving will ultimately result in the tightening of our budget even further. These cuts will most likely come in the form of staff salary reductions, which unfortunately hamper our staff’s ability to effectively serve the church.

What can we do to help?

We can give! Choose to give to Forefront Brooklyn Ministries, Forefront Brooklyn Kidstuf, and even Forefront Brooklyn’s general fund!

Pray for our church. We say it every week. Prayer matters and makes a difference. Pray that our church aligns with the calling of God and that we work to bring God’s kingdom to this earth.


Thanks so much for all your help and support! I’m amazed at the way God has used our church community over the past 5 years and I look forward to seeing what God has in store for our future!

- Jonathan Williams, Lead Pastor

Why Our Brooklyn Ministries Matter

Why Our Brooklyn Ministries Matter

Everything we do is with the intent of loving people and bringing them into the life-changing presence of community. Our ministries, outreach, and events all reflect our values of community, humility, generosity, and diversity. When you give to our Bk ministries you make it possible for more people to be invited into the just and generous love of Jesus. 

 Leadership Resident, Caroline Hughes, leads our volunteer setup ministry team each Sunday. 

Leadership Resident, Caroline Hughes, leads our volunteer setup ministry team each Sunday. 

Here are just a few examples of the ways your gift will serve our community and our city:

$1250 - The cost of rent for one Sunday at the Roulette

$700 - New signage and storage bags for our lobby and sidewalks

$450 - One month's rent for our van parking space (The van stores all our Sunday supplies.) 

$70 - Coffee and bagels for one Sunday morning

$300 - An appreciation event for our leaders and volunteers

$800 - Weekly programs and printed materials for one year

$350 - Application fee and supplies for the Atlantic Antic Street Festival

$150 - Rental space and food for the Women's Fall Party outreach event

$10 - Allows a staff member to meet a newcomer for coffee 

$250 - Allows us to bring in a guest teacher like Rabbi Dan or Isaac Archuleta

$1000 - Allows us to have one Faith, Culture, Questions event this fall

$8000 - Allows us to do a weekend prayer/rest retreat

 

Why Kidstuf Matters

At Kidstuf, we believe in providing more than just childcare on Sunday mornings.  We provide space so babies, toddlers and children alike can form friendships and grow in their relationship with God.  We pride ourselves in being intentional about meeting the needs of the diversity of our community.  In everything we teach, we focus on these Biblical truths:

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I am loved by God.

We are created in the image of God.

Jesus taught us how to love generously.

 

We learn how we can continue to live out the Gospel in our daily lives, in our homes, in our schools, and in our community.  One of the ways we do this is through community outreach events. You can learn more about our current kidstuf events and curriculum here. 

We need your support to keep up with the growing needs of Family Ministry!  Read about each need below and how contributing will help that particular area of our ministry.

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Curriculum Development and Planning: $1200/month. There is a lot of free and paid curriculum out there.  $500/month would cover a basic curriculum for the children downstairs.  However, none of it would take into account, the vision and mission for our church as well as the unique makeup of our Kidstuf Kids. With more funds, we can cover the time and resources it would take to develop a curriculum that is unique to Kidstuf.  We can take the time to develop curriculum that is inline with our vision and mission, and celebrates the diversity of our Kidstuf Kids.  We want to celebrate the diversity in their backgrounds and experiences, the diversity in their learning styles and the diversity in how they worship.  We want to develop curriculum that keeps in mind what goes on in the calendar year and integrating that so they see how the relevance of their Christian faith in the world today.  We want them to find a place in their faith within Kidstuf and then in turn see how their identity in God, their faith and their walk with Christ can be used to bring shalom within themselves, in their home, school and in their neighborhood.  

Library: $400 Children can explore Biblical themes in the context of what is happening in their world today, e.g. the importance of observing Earth Day and how the Bible tells us that we are stewards of the earth and then reading about how a little girl has done just that in a storybook.  Biblical stories come alive as we read them along side children's books. 

Snacks: $480/year. There's just something about apple juice and goldfish crackers that just brightens up every child's morning!

Toys for the Nursery: $300. We want to update our resources and purchase high quality toys made of wood. Toys will be purchased that are both sustainable and encourage children to learn through play.  

Kidstuf Environment: $2000. We want kids to look forward to coming to Kidstuf and our families to take pride in it, and be encouraged to invite friends. One of our parents, Gretchen Chern, has so generously donated her time and talent to design a fun and inviting environment.  We will be using backdrops that are child-safety approved and can be set up and packed down quickly and efficiently.  

Personal Development: $700 per Kidstuf Staff/Volunteer. Our goal is to fund three Kidstuf leaders.  This money goes to funding the attendance to at least one Children's Ministry Conference this year where we can network with other Children's Ministry leaders.  We can learn from different voices, all with varying experiences to expand our knowledge on Children's Ministry so that we can better serve the families in our church and our neighborhood.

Pastoral Care for new families/current families and volunteers: $400/month  Much of the growth of our ministry stems from taking the time to care for our families and volunteers.  We take time to check on the wellbeing of new moms, hear the stories of new families coming in so as to better serve them and their children, and pour into our volunteers who continue to sacrifice part of their Sunday morning to investing in the future of our church.  Caring for the health of our parents and volunteers, ultimately produce healthier relationships in which our children can flourish.

Volunteer Appreciation Event: $300 In ministry, we have learned that caring for and appreciating our volunteers make them feel appreciated, this in turn, produces a healthy and thriving ministry.  

Baby Dedications: $35/baby. $700 will cover the next 12 months. This is an immediate need.  Our babies from our baby boom are being dedicated and we want to welcome them into our church home with love. These funds go towards Baby Dedication church services and gifts.

Mother's Day and Father's Day:  $250  We want to honor the Mothers and Fathers in our church community and those that visit on these Sundays.  It's not a side note to us.  We value them, we value what they do in raising their family and we value their role in our church too.

 Our Easter Egg Hunt this year attracted roughly 150 kids and adults!     Photo Credit: Katherine Pastrana

Our Easter Egg Hunt this year attracted roughly 150 kids and adults!    Photo Credit: Katherine Pastrana

Outreach:  $500-$800. We saw the success of outreach events such as the Easter Egg Hunt, made possible by the generous sponsorship of members of Forefront.  We want to do more.  We want to make space to bring together families who don't always have the means to enjoy pricey activities for their kids.  We want to make space for them to enjoy an afternoon of fun without having to break the bank. In turn, we want our Kidstuf kids to see what it means to serve our community.

Cushioning: $500.  Emergencies come up.  Families/kids/volunteers may have urgent needs.  We want as a ministry to be able to serve those who pour into our families and are a part of our community when/if they need us.

Click on the button below to give to Kidstuf. Giving to Kidstuf means that you have contributed to raising up the next generation of church and investing in their future.  Thank you for joining us in caring for our families and our community!