Rev. Esteban Lugo says that the church must speak out and bring the message of Christ’s grace and truth to situations such as those that have recently occurred in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y.

Both communities have been the sites of violent protests following the decisions of grand juries not to indict white police officers who had killed black men. Communities across the U.S. have also seen protests.

“We need to look at the bigger picture here,” says Lugo, director of the Christian Reformed Church’s Office of Race Relations. “It is something that has to be confronted.”

Whether it involves the family of a victim or of a police officer, he said, the church needs to step up and ask, “How do we serve our community in biblical ways that will help us to be a healing presence and work for reconciliation for all people involved?”

Especially in the currently charged atmosphere in which protests continue, the voice of the church cannot be silent, Lugo says, adding that too few churches are actually speaking out about the issue of racial justice.

He says that churches have to be concerned about all that is going on and “all of the hurts that neighborhoods and communities they exist in are going through.”

The first grand jury decision came in late November and involved the death of Michael Brown, who was shot on Aug. 9, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri.

The next grand jury decision came earlier this month in a case involving Eric Garner, who died in July after being put in a choke hold by a New York City police officer.

“As we look at these situations, we in the church need to consider how Jesus came with grace and truth and taught us to be in a right relationship to God,” says Lugo.

It is a relationship that applies to all sides in the current disputes, he says.

“It is OK to protest, but protests need to point to the way of righteousness and not to ways of violence. Jesus never, ever condoned violence.”

But, he says, Jesus also spoke the truth to those who held power. And in today’s world that means it is important to realize racism is real, says Lugo. “The sin of racism has been with us for a long time.”

Racism has deep roots, entangled in lack of adequate health care, education, and jobs, the pain of broken family relationships and the ongoing feeling that one can’t measure up to the ways of the dominant society, says Lugo.

 “To ignore those things is not really getting at the heart of the issue.

“Some people today are saying that the system is broken. But it isn’t broken. It is doing what it was designed to do -- to support  the dominant culture and keeping the power there,” he says.

Kate Kooyman of the Office of Social Justice agrees. “I think the sad truth that is being exposed is that the system was never meant to ‘protect and serve’ everyone,” she says. “As I’ve listened to the voices of people of color, that’s become very clear.”

Injustice in the criminal justice system is an ongoing focus for the Office of Social Justice, Kooyman says. One aim is to empower church members to work toward restorative justice.

Restorative Justice in schools, for example, would provide an alternative to suspensions and expulsions for students who violate rules; instead, they would be guided through a process that allows them to take responsibility for the harm that was done, and then be reconciled into their communities.

The hope is that Restorative Justice programs in school might impact what’s being dubbed the “school to prison pipeline.”

“It’s also a really tangible way for Christians to answer the call to be peacemakers,” says Kooyman. “The belief that punishment somehow rights wrongs is deep in us, but it’s not deep in the gospel. What Christ teaches is restoration -- and Restorative Practices give a really practical idea of how to live that out.”

Restorative Practices also offers a method for ensuring that all voices in a community are heard equally.

“The protests after Ferguson and Staten Island are, for many, a way of making voices heard that have long been ignored. It’s a way to demand that those in power listen. I think the church could grow to be a place where people could learn to really listen to each other.”

The Office of Social Justice hopes to encourage trainings on restorative practices throughout the denomination. It is also offering a range of resources for people to use in seeking racial reconciliation this Advent season.

The Office of Race Relations offers programs such as the “Dance of Racial Reconciliation” in the U.S. and “Widening the Circle” in Canada that can help churches to speak in biblical ways to issues related to racism.

“These programs help participants look at the ideal of living a life of a grace and truth in the reconciliation that Jesus taught. They also pose the dilemma of the sin of racism, asking why it is so hard to reach this biblical ideal,” says Lugo.

Designed by Christian Reformed pastors and leaders, these racial reconciliation curriculums are for everyone in the CRC. Many churches have used them, but many others haven’t, says Lugo.

Race Relations also offers the Cultural Intelligence Building workshop which focuses on concrete skills to improve the ability to act and react in positive ways across cultural lines.

These four concrete skill areas are: (1) knowledge, (2) motivation, (3) interpretation, and (4) behavior.

Through carefully tailored interactive exercises, says Lugo, participants become aware of their personal life-long journey in Cultural Intelligence (CQ), as they build their capacity to improve their CQ over time.

“This workshop helps us to learn how to value and navigate other cultures besides our own,” he says.

By going through these programs, a church and its members could become more aware and able during times such as these, when the racial climate is so intense and divided, to speak out in the name of Christ.

“Those churches that have gone through these programs are serious about being connected in their relationship to their communities and to speaking out about racial justice when the need arises,” says Lugo.


Kate Kooyman of the Office of Social Justice agrees. “I think the sad truth that is being exposed is that the system was never meant to ‘protect and serve’ everyone,” she says. “As I’ve listened to the voices of people of color, that’s become very clear.”

-If that is the message the church is bringing, then we can kiss reconciliation good bye. It is not a message of reconciliation or hope, but a partisan one that is not borne out be facts in evidence.

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The more I think about that statement by Ms. Kooyman, the more offensive it seems. To assert that the system was and is intended to oppress, leave vulnerable, and not serve those who are not white is a most unfounded, unchristian calumny on all those who serve as police officers, lawyers, judges, parole officers, prison guards, counselors, and more within the criminal justice system. I should not have to point out, but apparently I do, that many of these people are themselves "people of color." It is a sad day when a spokesperson for the church I love should so thoughtlessly stoop to such insults. She, and the denominational leadership, owe the dedicated men and women of our criminal justice system an apology.

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I think it is really important not to overstate. When I read (from this article):

“I think the sad truth that is being exposed is that the system was never meant to ‘protect and serve’ everyone,” and

"Some people today are saying that the system is broken. But it isn’t broken. It is doing what it was designed to do -- to support the dominant culture and keeping the power there,"

I really cringe, in large part because this kind of overstatement does create division -- needlessly and unjustifiably.

Just what "system" is being referred to here (in both statements)? I live in the US. I've worked as a practicing attorney in Oregon -- both Marion County and other counties -- for over 35 years. I'm a member of the Marion County Sheriff's Citizens Advisory board. I've done over a decade of criminal trial defense work in this county, as well as post-conviction and habeas corpus work. In all these case, I oppose the state ("the system"). I'm not naive, nor have on been on "the system's side" -- I've been on the "other side."

If the mid-Willamette Valley counties in Oregon are part of this purported "system" that supposedly is "[not] meant to 'protect and serve' everyone" or is designed to "support the dominant culture and keep[] the power there," then I have really been fooled, and for a very long time.

Don't get me wrong. Injustice happens. But in my very substantial and practical experience, I've encountered only a handful of egregious injustices that I thought might be the result of "design," or at least deliberate intention, but even then not by the "system," but by one or two individuals in that system, and always against "majority culture" defendants. The most egregious was the prosecution of a former policeman who was forced to a stop on a highway and beaten by a very bad guy (high on alcohol and heroin at the time) before the ex-policeman, who carried a gun, was able to shoot his attacker (who died). Had he not, he would have been beaten to death. Amazingly, the ex-police officer was prosecuted, but only after political pressure came from a Portland area House member who got on the House floor to condemn the Marion County DA if they "gave special treatment to ex-cops." The only special treatment here was against a white ex cop, because he was an ex cop. This case wasn't worthy of prosecution, and that was proven when it took the jury, after a week of trial, a mere one hour to both eat lunch and come back with a verdict of not guilty. But my client's life (and his family's) was turned upside down and then some. Had he not been an "ex cop" he would certainly not have been prosecuted. And yes, he was white, Baptist, and married to a woman (on his way to church choir practice when the event happened).

Another egregious case I encountered involved an old redneck, white guy incarcerated in the state prison, who complained (in a habeas corpus filing) that he wasn't getting medical attention. He wasn't. He had drunk far too much in his life which caused liver problems, but the prison system decided he wasn't worth the expense of treatment (contrary to law). The assistant AG argued my client had no medical issue. My client's badly swollen legs said otherwise. Literally in the course of the legal arguments, my client died -- of that which the assistant AG said didn't exist. He smiled -- in front of the judge no less -- and said, "well Your Honor, I guess we were wrong."

I handled hundreds of cases, in multiple counties, against many different DA's, involving a number of different police departments and sheriff's departments. I had clients of all area available races, ethnicities, sexual orientations (I defended a man, on a DUII, who had recently been crowned "Ms Salem"), economic classes, occupations, ages, genders, and anything else you could think of. In general, I found the prosecution bent over backwards to "be nicer" when my client was a minority race/ethnic group (old Russian believer, Hispanic, black, etc) or female -- anything "minority" or not male. Certainly, the county prosecutor's office had turned extra mean to my "ex cop" client (as had the local newspaper, jumping on the ex cop favoritism theme).

So maybe I'm just naive, or completely unfamiliar with "the system." Maybe, but I don't think so. I suspect I've handled more criminal cases -- all from the defense side no less -- than most people in the country, or the denomination. Do I know a lot about Ferguson, Missouri? No. NYC? No. But I'm not sure I know much less than those who express such condemnation of "the system" as a whole. And I suspect most places in the country are not so different than where I live. Why would they be?

Let's be careful about making incredibly broad claims that do little more than stoke fires of division, anger and hate.

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The concept of "restorative justice" is a good thing, very good. In fact, I favor, promote, implement and use those concepts in my law practice -- and have for decades. But it should be made clear that "doing "restorative justice" requires the participation of both (or all sides). One party in a dispute cannot by him or herself restorative justice create.

My concern as to CRCNA's promotion of "restorative justice" is that while we promote it with words, we don't seem to practice it. Almost immediately after the Ferguson, Missouri shooting, CRCNA employees in Grand Rapids -- identified as CRCNA employees as covered by CRCNA News -- marched in street protests about the event, not in a way that called for restorative justice (being concerned with both sides or all sides) but in a way that favored one side of the facts, even without knowing or having cause to know those facts. Doing that sort of thing, not waiting for facts to develop, taking sides quickly, condemning with broad strokes, creates a poisoned atmosphere from the very beginning. And once injected, the poison is very difficult, often impossible, to extract.

Practicing "restorative justice" would have considered the position, the perspective, and the life of police officer Darryl Wilson in this case. If you take all of the communication from CRCNA employees/agents, whether from articles in the Banner, in CRC News posts (like this one), or on the streets of protest in Grand Rapids, I don't think you will find one statement that speaks favorably, compassionately, understandingly, even neutrally, about Officer Wilson. Why not? Does "restorative justice" not demand that both sides (or all sides) be considered?

This is not the practice of "restorative justice," no matter how much the concept is otherwise promoted. I agree that "the church could grow to be a place where people could learn to really listen to each other," but if this church doesn't itself wait, listen and learn before taking sides itself, how can it be such a place?

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This kind of pre-judgment and selective activism is what happens when we keep talking about ‘systems of injustice’ and ignore the wide scope of sin itself. Fighting a ‘system’ is harder to get behind if your ‘protest’ signs have to say, “Hands on your gun - don’t shoot.” The more we sideline Total Depravity for Selective Depravity, the more we play into the plan of Satan to confuse the Gospel. The OSJ has an immense potential for Gospel witness. I pray some associated with it will stop falling for a cheaper, power-hungry social gospel.

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