Friday, October 12, 2012

Christian radicals

I was a couple years out of seminary. I had one year of pastoral experience. I had taken courses like Steve Mott's Politics of Jesus and the Church and the Poor at seminary; I had read Ron Sider's book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. We were cooking our meals using Doris Longacre's Living More With Less. We were ready to live out a more radical Christianity and take on the big issues of hunger, poverty, and racism. So we moved from our local church which we didn't think was as ready to engage those same big social issues as we were and we headed for a Christian community in Germantown, Philadelphia. After responding to an ad for a job opening as the first coordinator for Evangelicals for Social Action, I was interviewed and hired. It was a heady time for a wanna be Christian radical. I was interviewed by Vernon Grounds; I stayed with Ron and Arbutus Sider for a few weeks before my wife and young son could move down; I opened an office in a building owned by the Other Side magazine. John Alexander worked down the hall. My wife chose a row house right down the street and we got to work repairing the walls and ceiling and terminating the roaches (you can't terminate roaches). We were living in the city. We joined Jubilee Fellowship which was an eclectic mix of youngish evangelicals, many of whom had their doctorates, some were published authors, and others were experienced social activists. We worshiped in a small community center and we tried to engage the problems of our low income community. We got involved in protests. We stood in lines for hours at the bank, the post office, and the DMV. We had to drive for miles to get to a supermarket or else pay the much higher prices of the neighborhood "convenience" stores which our neighbors had to pay if they didn't have transportation. We heard gunfire from the streets: people were mugged and even killed on our block. There were many anxious nights. First thing I did each morning was check to see if our car was still parked out front. We met our neighbors in our row houses. One night the couple next door was fighting. Her screams for help were so loud I went to their front door and knocked; the husband and I talked for hours on our front steps. On other nights, the neighbors on our other side had parties and we tried to sleep through the steady, loud, boom - boom of the beat of the bass.

I travelled with Ron as he was a much in demand speaker. I wore the ESA hat and spoke on "getting churches involved in social issues" and "why and how we should live more simply". There were many times I felt like I was in way over my head. People would call the ESA office and ask to talk to me, the director, and they would expect some kind of expert on radical Christianity and how to apply it to life. I was only a novice myself but it was funny how when someone has that title, director, others automatically assume you know it all. I had two great assistants from the Mennonite Central Committee. They were young Mennonites who had volunteered for a mission assignment. They were committed Christians who were there to serve. And we had a great time together trying to figure out what we were doing. I only stayed with ESA for a year although I followed its progress for many years. And what ESA was committed to is still very much a part of me. That year helped to me to grow up in those commitments and I had some great mentors. We eventually moved back to New York and I took another job as a local church pastor. I was taken back to that experience with ESA as I read a new book titled Moral Minority this week. It's a fine history of those early years of the rise of the Evangelical Left by David Swartz who is a history prof at Asbury University.