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.