To my young sisters and brothers in ministry –
I write you in the 16th year of our new millennium, as the challenges of our world seem increasingly difficult to overcome, yet I am hopeful that with your innovation and passion, we can together create the world we need.
I write you 5 decades after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, when we have lived under a Black President and a Black First family for 8 years. I write you during a time when you can see people who look like you and come from where you come from represented in every level of our government.
I also write you during a time, when despite all these achievements, some of you still fear for your life and wonder if it matters. Some of you have turned to church, to find sanctuary and refuge, but instead have too often been greeted with the same hate and marginalization that exists in our world. I write you during this time to say that, we your parents and grandparents, your church fathers and mothers, have too often failed to listen to your cries for freedom and dignity–neglecting to stand with you, demonstrating that your lives matter.
I also write you, because we need you. The movement to which the Gospel calls us loudly is at a crossroads. We are at risk of becoming so institutionalized that we will lose our power and fervor, and forget our full call. We know we are called to be personally transformed, but we are also called to extend the grace of God in places and spaces where it has not been previously extended.
And we see you doing that. I see you— our children, my children—who may or may not be wearing the Baptist label or church label but participating in movements like Black Lives Matter, living that call every day.
As the older generation – the Moses Generation – far too many of us have failed to see the connection of our movements to those who come after us. We have led you to the edge of the promise land, but have not taught you how to live there nor listened to you tell of the struggles there. We have forgotten that God has a role for those who have come after us. And for that I am sorry.
And so, in seeing the connection between my movement era and yours, in embracing the role God has for you, I want to share with you the challenges we’ve struggled to overcome, the lessons I learned in the face of those challenges, and the opportunities for transformation that are before us all.
We are not born with knowing the “hows”, “whens” and “whats” of advocacy and social transformation. There is a cultural construct that will pressure us to give up, to co-opt us. We are easily coopted if we focus on the moment rather than the movement. The movement requires sacrifice and suffering. Focusing on the moment leads to burnout, anger, retaliation and violence.
So keep your eyes on the movement, knowing as Marian Wright Edelman once said, “service is the price we pay for the space we occupy.”
In your action you have reminded me of the important lesson I learned years ago – that the church cannot be the church if it avoids the heart of prophetic ministry, which is social justice. The gospel must be extended from the sanctuary out into the streets and into the suites of corporate power.
But we must reject the bifurcation and stratification of life into either spiritual or secular categories. Our holy call demands it. This binary misrepresentation keeps Christians out of the public square and social justice advocates out of our sanctuaries.
Sisters and brothers, I encourage you to use the talents you were born with, the skills and abilities that you have developed. Each and every one of you is called to serve and make a contribution. You may not be able to fight against all evils but you must fight against some evil. Start where you are.
But as you start where you are, remember that others start where they are. Remember that there are diverse approaches to social justice ministry. Some of us employ the methodology of confrontation, while others of us utilize the methodology of collaboration which includes cooperation and negotiation. Whatever the approach, all of our eyes are focused ahead on transforming structural injustices.
Because no matter our approach, we must know our work for social justice is public and collective, we must speak truth to power, while also empowering the powerless. We must move from simply “doing for” to “doing with.” But you must not must not seek to go it alone. Raise your voice and you will discover compatriots and comrades in and out of the faith community.
In her valedictory address to the Shaw University class of 1927, Civil Rights giant Ella Baker called to her classmates, saying: “Awake youth of the land and accept this noble challenge of salvaging the strong ship of civilization by the anchors of right, justice, and love…let us resolve that for the welfare of the whole, for the good of all, for the uplift of the fallen humanity, for the extension of Christ’s kingdom on earth…there shall be no turning back…we will strike against evil, strife and war.”
So my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, let us resolve to never turn back, to not be lost in the moment but to remain steadfast in the movement of justice, reconciliation and love. Let us follow Christ on this mission and together we will reach and thrive in the Promised Land
The Rev. Dr. Aidsand F. Wright-Riggins, III
Executive Director Emeritus, American Baptist Home Mission Societies
Executive Team, New Baptist Covenant