Response to Larry L. Anderson, Jr.’s Presentation at December 1, 2021 Colloquium
Part of Educating Urban Ministers in Philadelphia After 2020 project
Presentation Question: What deeper crises in the Church have the events of 2020 surfaced, especially in terms of poverty, economic inequalities, health, and loss, and how do these impact the church’s ministry approach?
Dr. Larry Anderson presents a compelling exploration of some of the underlying issues that our recent cultural factors have worked to unearth. I tend to caution people against being a prisoner of the moment with a myopic view of life that exaggerates present circumstances at the expense of larger history. Yet 2020 felt truly unprecedented. The collective impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic, the groundswell movement for racial justice, and heightened political/ideological schisms in our nation created as challenging a context in which to do ministry as I have experienced in 20 plus years of pastoral ministry.
It would be prudent to recognize that though the specific manifestations might have been unique in scope, the present root issues were not particularly new. Rather, these challenges have forced churches to engage intentionally with matters that have always existed such as poverty, economic inequality, and loss, whether they were already doing so or not. Dr. Anderson bases his treatment of these matters on both research and his own observational experience as a practitioner with boots on the ground. We benefit from recognizing that his conclusions are not derived from mere statistics thrown from the lofty perch of an ivory tower but from wisdom gleaned from walking with very real people who carry the burden of many of these problems.
Dr. Anderson cites sources such as Health Affairs and the CDC in documenting the disproportionate impact that marginalized communities have experienced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and its related wake. Though all people have experienced relative hardship in this season, people representing Black and Brown communities and those of low-income communities have borne a particularly heavy burden through these difficult times. He then provides an explanation of the “Why.” Rather than merely pointing out the fruit, Dr. Anderson helps us to identify the root. Again, some of the fruit of 2020 may have been uniquely unprecedented. Yet wisdom would be for churches to understand that these forces may have been the catalyst to excavate root problems that have long been with us.
Dr. Anderson points to some of the disproportionate impact in his explanation of the root issues associated with poverty and even how our view of those factors affects our understanding of terms that we may have felt were shared universally when that may actually not be the case. As he wrote, “When many people thought of the essential workers needed during this pandemic they thought of the doctors, the scientist, the health officials, and even governmental officials to regulate it all. However, the reality is half of the people that were putting their lives and their families’ lives on the line on a daily basis were serving as cashiers, custodians and personal care aids, to name a few, and to add insult to injury these types of employees many times were just making minimum wages.” My own church experienced this disparity firsthand where a significant portion of our church community were considered first responders because they served in the medical or public health fields. Yet we also observed that though the pandemic was difficult, they had certain privileges based on their relative affluence. They could adapt their schedules to accommodate children’s needs, for example. Many of their occupations allowed them to work virtually from home. When vaccine appointments became available, they had more relative ease in procuring those slots than some others may have. The reality was that those with means had a greater chance of thriving even in the midst of the common hardships associated with a pandemic and quarantined life.
Dr. Anderson also referenced the challenges that families in certain pockets of Philadelphia experienced, especially with schools that were underequipped and lacking resources to benefit children who probably needed the greatest help. We experienced similar dynamics in Baltimore where it was heartbreaking to observe that the pandemic only served to widen the unjust chasm that already existed. In cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia, the harsh truth is that the neighborhood in which you are born and raised has already made the chances of educational success more daunting than for children in other schools in the same city. And as Dr. Anderson noted, the pandemic just exaggerated those inequities with the reality that Black and Latinx students will often pay the highest cost.
We have all been witness to the tragic effect these injustices have on precious people in our cities; wonderfully made in the image of God yet gradually broken by the harshness of a sinful world– substance abuse and the market that moves poison through our streets, violence that we must fight not to see just as a statistic but each one of 496 homicides in Philly pointing to a life, family, and community that has had its trajectory horrifically altered. Though we are smaller, in my own city of Baltimore we just mourned our 300th murder, mainly young Black men representing a disproportionate ratio of the population.
Yet with these and many more real challenges associated with the issues addressed in this presentation, Dr. Anderson points us to the hope of Christ’s church to rise up for such a time as this. “Deconstruction” is a hot topic and most church leaders seem to use the term in a pejorative sense. And as Dr. Anderson astutely explains, part of the Church’s call is to proclaim unadulterated truth in a society which increasingly questions as Pilate did, “What is truth?”
However, there is a certain kind of deconstruction that these forces of 2020 have unearthed that can help refine the church. Questioning what the church has traditionally been about and allowing these challenges to purge the dross and move the church to be that city on a hill as she was always intended to be. As Dr. Anderson describes, a vision for the church to be a missional force – not just doing what it has always done but actually seeking the Lord to know what the people in the community require from the church with the hopes of introducing them to God.
As Dr. Anderson addresses how a seminary should equip leaders for a time such as this, he speaks a powerful word that we help churches recognize success is about sending capacity, not seating capacity. The call must be to train leaders who are able to address the obvious spiritual needs of a generation, but recognizing that as holistic beings, spiritual needs were never intended to be set apart from physical, mental, and emotional needs. From my own observation, this could mean placing a high priority on training leaders to become gospel fluent in areas such as trauma response, mental health awareness, and gender conversations, for example. The world is already having conversations about all of this and more. The church cannot afford to be a generation behind everyone else as it has sometimes tended to be.
Though some prophesize a dark era for the coming church, I pray that we embrace a vision to recognize a God who is sovereignly on the move. The Lord invites us to have eyes wide open and to stay faithful in our day. Even if it will require a pivot.