Where is God moving in the city and in the Church? What is God’s invitation for UniteBoston this year? These are the questions that our staff and board prayerfully considered in a recent retreat. Together, we came up with six ministry priorities for this year – We are grateful to have you as part of our mission as we are all UniteBoston!
What does it mean to embody God’s call toward conflict transformation? Today, Lexi Carver shares some insights she gained on her journey studying peacebuilding in Northern Ireland. Lexi is a member of the Church of the Cross and is passionate about understanding how the Church can be a force for peace building rather than violence. Read below to hear her share about some people she met who are actively living out God’s call to “love your enemy (Mt. 5:44).
Last year, I was lucky to take a short class about conflicts in Northern Ireland for my studies in conflict resolution. I knew the Northern Ireland conflict wasn’t “over,” as reverberations were still felt by all who’d lost loved ones during the Troubles (the period of widespread violence that lasted from the 1960s into the 1990s), and many who still suffered from systemic injustices, safety concerns, and bitterness.
Even symbols were still a point of major contention, with flag-burning being something of an annual pastime, considered by some to be a “harmless” way to vent feelings of aggression and dislike of the “enemy” group.
The Irish nationalist/Republican residents were primarily Catholic, while the pro-British loyalist/Unionist residents were primarily Protestant. In visiting Northern Ireland, I wanted to know most of all how people drew on their faith in responding to violence, injustice, and ethnic division and discrimination when it occurred across ecumenical lines. So I went to Northern Ireland looking for the Church.
Spoiler alert: Much of what I saw wasn’t very pretty, but its strong parts glow brightly with the love of Christ.
As is often the case in conflicts and oppressive systems that operate on a nation-wide scale, the loudest voices are often ugly or impotent or full of excuses and nice buzzwords that don’t mean much. But the quietest voices are often the best ones to learn from.
I was frequently taken aback by how much of the church décor, sermons, and attitudes were political—even while some priests repeated a refrain insisting that the conflict was “not religious” in nature, as if this absolved them of responsibility. I left many interviews deflated by the clergy’s unwillingness to lead their parishioners in the challenging ways of Christ’s love, including ecumenical respect for their neighbors.
By the end of the week, I’d seen many corollaries in Northern Ireland to the sorts of injustice and religious nationalism that make headlines within the US, reminding me of oppression, cross-cultural blindness and obstinacy, and ingrained mistrust back home.
Perhaps the priests themselves, I thought dejectedly, weren’t great examples of reconciliation work. Some of the laity, however, were more open-hearted. I met an inspiring Catholic who’d been a therapist during the Troubles and practiced iconography in the Eastern Orthodox style to help her get through that difficult work:
But I wanted to find someone who was leading reconciliation work between churches, and I knew this would need to involve the clergy or at least happen with their blessing. Finally, at Clonard Monastery in Belfast, I found what I was looking for.
The priest who welcomed me beamed with a Christly peace and joy. I discovered that he was one in a line of many at Clonard who intentionally avoided the common attitudes, prejudices, and hand-wavy non-solutions, and instead did the slow work of walking through difficult conflicts in close, loving relationships with their so-called “enemies”. His mentors and predecessors had been willing to lay down their lives for it, including a pair of priests – one Protestant and one Catholic – who had agreed many times that whoever outlived the other would bear the coffin and speak at the other’s funeral1. Another Catholic priest at Clonard had won the trust of both sides’ political leaders and helped to facilitate the 1994 peace agreement—the same one who was known for the then-radical act of performing last rites in the street for a pair of Protestant British soldiers who were killed when they attacked the Catholic funeral of an IRA member.
The darkest days of violence were over, the new priest told me, but the conflict remained; ongoing reconciliation was still needed. He told me sadly that many local Protestants and Catholics (both clergy and laypeople) had been furious with the monastery (and the Protestant churches they worked with) for their reconciliation efforts. Despite the fact that the most violent aspects of the conflict had died down some years ago, working with the other group was still viewed as traitorous. No matter; he continued his work. He had recently helped to organize inter-denominational prayer services (a more radical and fraught endeavor in that setting than it would be in the US). He spoke highly and tenderly of his Protestant counterparts, with whom he clearly had real, abiding friendships and genuine respect. When I asked if he would vote for Northern Ireland to join the nation of Ireland, he shook his head and said that even though he wanted it, he would not vote for it unless he believed his Protestant brethren could live peacefully with it. Perhaps one day, they would, but not now.
When I asked if I could take home any incense from the monastery, his face lit up: “Never have I had a Protestant visitor ask me for incense!” He generously insisted on giving me roughly an entire pint of it (thankfully, airport customs didn’t question me about the copious amounts of glittery powder in my luggage). Leaving Belfast that day, my heart was gladder: I’d found the Church as I’d hoped it would be, casting Christ’s light into the world beyond its own doors.
1 Fr Gerry Reynolds, a Catholic priest, and Ken Newell, a Presbyterian minister, were known for their extraordinary and tireless partnership in the work of reconciliation in Northern Ireland. For more about their work, I recommend the book Unity Pilgrim: The Life of Fr Gerry Reynolds CSsr by Gladys Ganiel.
2 Comic relief, while not always polite, is one way the locals deal with the tensions. This video from The Blame Game deals with flags and accents.
P.S. If you’re interested to hear more about a structured conversation model to help churches, individual Christians and communities to engage in conversations across deep divides with greater courage, equity, healing, and fruitfulness, click here to learn about the consulting work we offer on kingdom conversations.
This year’s theme for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is “Do Good; Seek Justice” (Isaiah 1:17); chosen by the Minnesota Council of Churches. This year’s theme integrates a holistic understanding of justice, including how we can live our unity as Christians so as to confront the evils and injustices of our time, and in particular addressing the sin of racism.
The 2023 theme was developed with the assistance of a group of Christians in Minnesota, USA, convened by the Minnesota Council of Churches. Minneapolis, MN became a flashpoint for calls for racial justice and equity during the responses of communities to the George Floyd murder. This received world-wide attention and spurred on an awakening for the unjust reality that communities of color have faced for centuries and the change that is so imperative today.
Read below to hear about how UniteBoston’s staff members Rev. Devlin and Rev. Kelly have been wrestling with the relationship between unity and justice and implications for UniteBoston’s work in the city.
Rev. Devlin Scott’s Reflection:
Like the world we inhabit today, the worlds of both the Old Testament and New Testament were ethnically diverse and richly textured by an assortment of cultures, languages and customs. And, also like today, ancient peoples had a number of ways to distinguish between locals and out-of-towners, friends and enemies, the elite and the marginalized. Prejudice comes in all varieties- yesterday, today and tomorrow.
God uses prophets to call His people to a better standard than the one set around them. The Prophet Isaiah called the people to “Learn to do right; seek justice…(Isaiah 1:17).” Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King prophesied that “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” And so many other voices call us to this same standard. The relationship between unity and justice is that of true “shalom” – peace; something that activates all of God’s people to participate, protect and promote right relationship between all people and creation.
I have sat in Christian spaces that promoted unity, but lacked justice. I think about the church where I was the only black staff member. I remember when I was given the reason our church wouldn’t acknowledge the atrocities around us (Travon Martin at the time) was because my white pastor didn’t want to offend the police in the congregation. Never mind me, a staff member of color. I have stood on stages and proclaimed mission statements that celebrated the diversity in the room, while I took home less pay than my white counterparts who were less educated, had less experience, and carried a lighter load for organizational impact. Prejudice comes in all varieties: yesterday, today and tomorrow.
This week of prayer is a moment for us to be convicted of Christ’s prophetic command, “Love your God with your heart, mind and soul, strength… love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37-39).This is the commandment made possible through the redemptive work on the cross that reconciled us to God (vertical) and to one another (horizontal). One is incomplete without the other. The two do more than complement each other; each is worthless, impossible, or false without the other. This concept was revolutionary in Jesus’ day and, I believe, we still have not quite tapped into this revolutionary love in application.
“Revolutionary Love” is about ally-ship. To be an ally is to take on the struggle as your own, to stand up even when you feel scared, to transfer the benefits of your privilege to those who lack it, and to acknowledge that, while you too feel pain, the conversation is not always about you. Is that not what Christ did with his life, death, and resurrection; not just for us, but as an example to us?
Each of us may not have directly participated in the atrocities of our ancestry, but we can accept responsibility. We may not be victims of the pain of the present, but we can mourn the wrongdoings, the loss of life, identity, and self-respect in order to be a part of the healing. We can be allies. We can be like Christ, by taking up our own undeserving cross for the sake of our neighbors. We can uproot the sin of self-preference and preservation that is inherently at the very core of humanity since the first Adam chose obsession over obedience.
I believe the Church is still the hope of the world; not because she is perfect but because she bears the name of the One who is. Therefore…we do good; seek justice.
Rev. Kelly Fassett’s Reflection:
Unity without justice at the heart of it is no unity at all.
This is something that I heard in prayer last spring as I was reckoning with some tough feedback we received as an organization. This feedback led me on a journey of interviewing leaders of color in the city, asking them about UniteBoston’s programs and communication and how we can better include and partner with communities of color towards holistic flourishing in the city.
One thing that surprised me in these interviews was people’s perception of the term “unity.” Throughout my life, unity has been a positive concept, conveying a coming together, peace and harmony. I was surprised when in multiple interviews, people of color described how off-putting the term “unity” was. One pastor said, “Unity”- with a giant eyeroll – “NO, thank you!” She added, “Unity often implies tacit agreement and everything lined up, tidy, and comfortable. Yet for Black people, unity often means that our culture and perspectives are erased.”
I then began to notice how often White people are at the forefront of “unity” initiatives and how persons of color tend to be at the forefront of “justice” initiatives. So this year, Devlin and I are intentionally seeking to clarify the “unity” in UniteBoston and also the relationship between unity and justice.
I am learning that unity and the oneness Christ calls us to is not an ethereal, surface-level concept of getting everyone in the same room, but is instead a deep work, requiring both truth-telling and restorative healing of wrongs. True Biblical unity involves strengthening interpersonal relationships and also dismantling sinful systemic power structures such as white supremacy. In this way, unity and justice are intrinsically linked.
Thus, I am beginning to see that the mission to “unite Boston” is much more deep and complex than I had ever realized. I am currently grappling to understand what this means for how we communicate, operate and serve as an organization. I don’t have many answers at this point, but I am learning that there are a lot of areas I don’t see clearly on my own. Whenever possible, I need to yield my power and privilege and follow persons of color to take the lead.
I want to close with this litany written by Dr. Yolanda Pierce who so clearly conveys the need to pause and sit in the complex realities of working for justice.
A Litany for Those Not Ready for Healing
Let us not rush to the language of healing, before understanding the fullness of the injury and the depth of the wound.
Let us not rush to offer a bandaid, when the gaping wound requires surgery and complete reconstruction.
Let us not offer false equivalencies, thereby diminishing the particular pain being felt in a particular circumstance in a particular historical moment.
Let us not speak of reconciliation without speaking of reparations and restoration, or how we can repair the breach and how we can restore the loss.
Let us not rush past the loss of this mother’s child, this father’s child…someone’s beloved son.
Let us not value property over people; let us not protect material objects while human lives hang in the balance.
Let us not value a false peace over a righteous justice.
Let us not be afraid to sit with the ugliness, the messiness, and the pain that is life in community together.
Let us not offer clichés to the grieving, those whose hearts are being torn asunder.
Let us mourn black and brown men and women, those killed extrajudicially every 28 hours.
Let us lament the loss of a teenager, dead at the hands of a police officer who described him as a demon.
Let us weep at a criminal justice system, which is neither blind nor just.
Let us call for the mourning men and the wailing women, those willing to rend their garments of privilege and ease, and sit in the ashes of this nation’s original sin.
Let us be silent when we don’t know what to say.
Let us be humble and listen to the pain, rage, and grief pouring from the lips of our neighbors and friends.
Let us decrease, so that our brothers and sisters who live on the underside of history may increase.
Let us pray with our eyes open and our feet firmly planted on the ground
Let us listen to the shattering glass and let us smell the purifying fires, for it is the language of the unheard.
God, in your mercy…
Show me my own complicity in injustice.
Convict me for my indifference.
Forgive me when I have remained silent.
Equip me with a zeal for righteousness.
Never let me grow accustomed or acclimated to unrighteousness.
– Dr Yolanda Pierce
Through hosting larger public gatherings like the UB concert, and also through collaborating with other organizations, 2022 was a year in which we continued our work as an incubator and catalyst for unity, reconciliation and shared mission, for the flourishing of the city. Read below to see UniteBoston’s top twelve highlighted photos & videos of 2022!
This Sunday, we are featuring a blog written by Reverend David Wright, Executive Director of BMA TenPoint and former UniteBoston Board President. Read below to hear Rev. David’s word about God’s abiding presence, an encouragement for Christians in Boston in this new year.
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.“
– Isaiah 7:14
“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
– Matthew 1:23
When Judah was on the verge of destruction by its enemies God, through the prophet Isaiah, told King Ahaz to ask for a sign that the catastrophe would not happen. King Ahaz refused God’s offer, so Isaiah provided one anyway. Isaiah tells Ahaz –and us– that a virgin will give birth to a Child and His Name will be Immanuel.
As Israel is suffering under the oppression of the Roman Empire, Matthew reminds us of this sign. “God with us;” what an unimaginable prospect! The God Who is so holy, that people couldn’t approach the mountain on which He appeared for fear of death; the Creator of the Universe whose throne was Heaven and who rested His feet on the earth; the God who parted the Red Sea and allowed Israel to walk through on dry land; this same God is “with us!”
John picks up this theme in his Gospel and tells us, in so many words, that God took on flesh and lived among us. In the person of the Son, Jesus Christ, God walked with, talked with, and deeply engaged with us on a personal level. And this all starts with the virgin giving birth to Jesus; it all starts with Christmas.
While all of this is Good News, to be sure, the Greater News is that He is still with us! The Presence of God, through His Holy Spirit, now abides within and among us. No matter if we face the destruction that Israel faced during the time of Ahaz, or the oppression Israel faced in the days of Matthew, God is with us!
None of us have survived the Pandemic years unscathed. The pains and losses we have suffered –individually and collectively—are real. But the promise of God remains sure. He is with us. He has never left us, He has never forsaken us, and He never will! That is the promise of God. That is the beginning of Epiphany.
Whatever you are facing at this moment, whether good or bad, difficult or easy, remember that God is still with us. And no matter what we face, we can be of good courage because the One who is with us has overcome this world!