The story is from Birmingham Revolution, but it could be my story. It took place in 1968, but for me it could have been 1988.
Edward Gilbreath relates the story of Glen Kehrein, who founded Circle Urban Ministries in Chicago. When he was a student at Moody Bible Institute in 1968, a group of students were on a retreat in Wisconsin and on the same campgrounds at that time were members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, and others.
As an evangelical in Chicago, Kehrein had been warned about the civil rights movement. Dr. King had been labeled a “communist,” and Chicago had turned into a war zone after King’s assassination. Even with all those warnings, somehow the professor leading the student retreat invited Ralph Abernathy to come over and give a few words to the students. Could Abernathy give his perspective on race and justice in America?
Kehrein remembered that when Dr. Abernathy finished talking, all the students could think to ask him were questions about his personal salvation and his understanding of the conservative tenets of evangelical doctrine. Kehrein noted many years later, “We were clueless.”
That could have been me in 1988. It could have been me in 1998 as well, I suppose. And I must confess that I still hold back when it comes to broader issues because there is such a narrowness in each particular “tribe” of Christianity. We only want to discuss what is important to us.
Even now, when I venture “off the reservation” and want to talk about issues beyond abortion, traditional marriage, or personal salvation, my comments are meant with silence. The crickets just chirp away.
Healthcare? Nothing, unless it’s a Tea Party fan who wants to repeal Obamacare and act like nothing else is wrong.
Immigration? Nothing, unless it’s someone who simply says, “Close the borders!”
The poor? “Let them get a job!”
Even more “theological” issues like the presence of Christ in communion, or the place of women in ministry, or other matters… mostly we just don’t know how to talk. If I can get something moved to a theological issue, maybe we yell.
But if it’s a cultural/policy issue… nothing. It’s almost like someone looking at me and thinking, “What are you, a socialist?”
But the narrowness of my evangelicalism comes out in my own denomination when I gather with my fellow pastors in our urban section. There are some who quietly vote for Democrats, and in my denomination that’s just… just… socialist.
Yet, for them in their situations, there are issues far beyond the narrow things we talk about as evangelicals. There are poor all around them. There are immigrants all around them. And those issues matter. These are great men who have the issue of personal salvation settled. That’s not the issue. The issue is the poor and the immigrant and how to minister to them, not lecture them or figure out a way to ship them back to Mexico.
Gilbreath’s book, Birmingham Revolution, succinctly drives at the narrowness of my past views. It exposes what has been a weakness. It exposes what I still don’t feel comfortable talking about in “mixed” company.