What Do Social Justice Christians Need?

By Melanie Vaughn-Colwell

It was one of those blind-siding pastoral conversations. A member of Oakhurst approached me and said, “You know during the election when you preached that sermon on such and such, I thought to myself, ‘What more does Melanie want of me?’ But I went out that weekend and knocked on more doors than I had ever knocked on before.”

“What more does Melanie want of me?” The member who said this to me is the kind of person who has dedicated her life to following Jesus and working for social justice. She shows up for the Poor People’s Campaign initiatives, congregational antiracist initiatives, and get-out-the-vote initiatives. In her comment to me, I could tell I had triggered some kind of shame that she was still not doing enough. How on earth had I inadvertently delivered such a graceless and spiritually exhausting message? How often do I mimic the shape of the demanding and capitalist-based messages of my early evangelicalism, just with different content? And how on Earth can that nurture wholeness and liberation for Christ’s church?

As in every sphere of American society, I was feeling the exhaustion of the people of Oakhurst Baptist Church, not to mention my own. From our early participation in the Black Lives Matter movement, to the election in 2016 and everything that followed, to the pandemic, we had not stopped moving. In my own spiritual journey these days, I have been slowly turning to people like Reverend Tricia Hersey, aka the Nap Bishop, who are challenging us not to use the tools of western capitalism, patriarchy, competition, and grind-culture to bring about liberation. We can’t fight the system by using the system. 

Oakhurst lovingly offers its pastors the gift of a sabbatical every four years, and so this sabbatical I worked with Oakhurst member Rev. Dr. Anna Mitchell Hall, author, researcher, coach, and church consultant with ConvergenceUS.org. Anna works with social justice congregations on a weekly basis and has been surveying and registering our exhaustion. Together Anna and I spent the summer asking the question, “What do social justice Christians need?”

Dr. Hall led me in looking at where we saw Oakhurst really come alive over the last several years. What occurred to both of us was that those come-alive times happened when we got together just to be together, including fellowshipping, listening to one another, encouraging one another, and laughing together. Along with worship, the other places where Oakhurst really shows up are the places where we get to participate in each other’s lives and support each other. Long after we started gathering in person again after the pandemic, we continued the tradition of gathering every Wednesday night via Zoom for Digital Dinner just to catch up on each other’s lives. This weekly fellowship continues to this day. When a member of our congregation writes a book, we all gather to hear them read an excerpt and ask them questions. Several times a year our member, Dr. Lynn Farmer, curates an Oakhurst Arts Cafe with poetry, storytelling, music, and visual art. We show up in droves to celebrate what our siblings in this fellowship are creating. During these times together we are often stunned by the beauty and then suddenly laughing hysterically at the humor.

What do social justice Christians need? We need each other. We need regular connection to one another and to be invited to participate in each other’s lives. We need to rest and be affirmed that rest is holy. We need to play together. We need to laugh…a lot, because life is hard and that helps. We need to come together to find joy in the midst of reality. We need to be present for one another in the difficult storms of life. We need to be truly intergenerational in all we do. We need our siblings in faith to affirm God’s light shining through us. We need to be encouraged and nurtured for the justice work we are already doing.

What do social justice Christians need? We need each other.

Once a year, Oakhurst has an All-Church Retreat in Hayesville, NC. Oftentimes, a large majority of our congregation chooses to attend. There is a guest presenter and a time of delving deeper into our faith and asking crucial questions together. But there are also rocking chairs overlooking the lake and mountains where church members will rock for hours as they talk or not talk to one another. There are children running through the common area, creating their own art and games. There is a late-night gospel hymn sing and a bonfire. There is a talent show where we celebrate each other’s poetry, story-telling, and singing. And on Sunday morning, we spend an hour getting into groups to create worship together and then at 11 a.m., we worship in perhaps our most beautiful service of the year.

Dr. Hall asked me, “What if we use the All-Church Retreat as a model for what we need, not just for one weekend a year, but all the time? It is more time together. It’s space just to be. It’s listening to one another. It’s delving deeper into our faith. It’s definitely playing! It’s truly intergenerational. It’s communal meals. It’s singing and dancing. It’s joy. It’s creating worship together.” When she asked me this, I got those Holy Spirit goosebumps all over!

I returned from sabbatical this week and I’ve got so much work…no wait…so much play to do! Pastor Ashley Robinson and Music and Worship Arts Coordinator Josh Cowan and I are dreaming up new spaces where we can truly be connected-community together, allowing God’s creative, playful, joyful light and love to flow through us as the Body of Christ. . Rev. William C. Martin paraphrased the Tao te Ching by Lao Tzu is his book, The Art of Pastoring. Perhaps my favorite thought is “Thought 68—Play”:

The wise pastor approaches the serious

business of the church

with a spirit of laughter and play,

like a child at frolic with her playmates.

Because she has nothing to gain,

she has no need to compete

with herself,

with her colleagues,

or with the congregation.

The work is important,

The spirit is light.

May the Holy Spirit continue to play among us and through us as the Body of Christ is continually nurtured to shine God’s light in the world.

Melanie Vaughn-Colwell (right) is pastor at Oakhurst Baptist Church, Decatur, Ga., and advocate of justice, joy, and compassion.

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