Sometime in 2016, J.R. Rozko, who directs the efforts of Missio Alliance, asked me if I was interested in doing a workshop at their upcoming conference in Alexandria, Virginia. I agreed and when he asked me what issue I wanted to address, I said that I wanted to talk about black Christians. Had the question been posed a year ago, my reply might have been different. I was knee deep in doctoral studies at that time and might have suggested some obscure element of Pauline theology, but when he called, we were nearing the end of what I now call “The Bloody Summer” when it seemed as if every week there was another story of a black person being killed or mistreated by police and civilians. We were not safe at pools, convenience stores, traffic stops, or playing with toys in our neighborhood.
I realized that if my scholarship did not touch directly on the concerns of black people, then the long journey to become an academic was meaningless. Those deaths were not about me, but they were about families who lost loved ones. They were tragedies in their own right, but they reminded me of why I began the journey that has occupied much of my adult life. I wanted to help our people function and serve the Lord in a culture that was often hostile. The questions that would lead to the Call and Response Conference then filled my mind before the election later that year that reconfigured the Christian landscape and left many people of color questioning their place in the church and the culture.
I wanted to speak about black Christians because I noticed a few trends. First, there were questions within the black community concerning the continued relevance of the black church. Groups like the Black Hebrew Israelites and radical black nationalist organizations were questioning the ongoing need for the black church. Furthermore, some elements of the Black Lives Matters movement said quite openly that this was not your parents’ civil rights movement. The church would not take the lead. There was also the reality of black millennials leaving the church. I grew up in the black church and love her still. But I thought that it might be helpful to have a conversation on ways that we may renew her.
I also realized that black Christians were not all in the black church. Of the 79 percent of black Americans who are Christians, 53 percent are in black churches; 14 percent, however, are in evangelical churches. These black Christians also had their own issues to ponder. The election raised new questions about the relationship between evangelical understandings of the gospel and the historic black union of the call to personal conversion and social justice. For all the talk about an exodus from evangelicalism, it remains the second largest cluster of black Christians. We could not simply wish them away. They need our support too. But there were other black Christians still; 4 percent of black Christians are in mainline traditions (fmchr.ch/breligion).
A Corporate Response
It became clear that I lacked the knowledge base and the skill to speak to all these groups in the time allotted. We needed more time. As much I was happy to be invited to speak at Missio Alliance’s conference, I noticed that in many conferences where the majority of the people in attendance are white, people of color find themselves at the “conference within a conference.” That is, we are trying to find the workshops and speakers that speak to our needs within a wider gathering whose attention is directed elsewhere. We huddle at lunchtimes and coffee breaks attempting to share stories and build relationships.
A group of us wondered: What would happen if we did things differently? Lisa Fields, Natasha Robinson, Dennis Edwards and I (Santes Beatty would later be added to our number) dreamed about a conference that focused on the hopes and trials of black Christians no matter where they found themselves.
Most conferences are either black church conferences or black evangelical conferences or black mainline conferences. Rarely are all three groups together in the same space. Rarely do we get to talk and strategize together. The Call and Response Conference wants to pool the resources of African-Americans in different Christian traditions to think practically on how we might equip black Christians and those who minister to them for gospel work in our day.
When I speak about our vision in this way, people often ask me if they are allowed to come if they are not black. I answer a hearty, “Yes!” Christians of color have come for years to conferences when they were not in charge and found something valuable that blessed them. Furthermore, if you have black Christians in your congregation or in your community, it might be valuable to listen to the issues that they face. It is a time to learn. This conference is for black Christians and those who minister to them. Therefore, if you are in one of those categories, you are invited. Nonetheless, this conference is not designed to explain black culture to white Christians. It is a conversation within our culture about how we might effectively function as servants of the Lord in our day.
What can you expect at Call and Response? First there will be great speakers drawn from black churches, black evangelical spaces, multiethnic churches and mainline institutions. You can expect practical workshops on issues like: black apologetics, publishing, youth work, equipping women, blacks in academia, community development, and more.
Speakers will include Sho Baraka, a hip-hop artist, philosopher and social-thought leader in contemporary culture; Santes Beatty, the director of multiethnic ministries for the Wesleyan Church; Amena Brown, a poet, speaker and author who was named one of Rejuvenate Magazine’s Top 40 under 40 Changemakers; Christena Cleveland, a social psychologist, public theologian, associate professor at Duke University’s Divinity School and the author of “Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart”; Charlie Dates, the senior pastor at Progressive Baptist Church in Chicago, an affiliate professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and an adjunct professor at Moody Bible Institute; Joyce Dinkins, the executive editor of Our Daily Bread Ministries; Christina Edmondson, the dean for intercultural student development at Calvin College; Dennis Edwards, the senior pastor of Sanctuary Covenant Church in Minneapolis and the author of “1 Peter” in “The Story of God Bible Commentary” series; Lisa Fields, the founder and president of the Jude 3 Project; Brandon Harris, the Protestant chaplain for the Georgetown University Law Center and Georgetown University’s main campus; Michelle Higgins, the director of Faith for Justice and an organizer for the Leadership Development Resource Weekend; Nicole Hubb, the national director of events for GirlTrek; Doneila “Dee” McIntosh is the lead pastor of Lighthouse Covenant Church in Minneapolis and a founding member of Black Clergy United for Change; Marvin McMickle, the president of Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, New York; Natasha Sistrunk Robinson, the founder of Leadership LINKS Inc. and the author of “Mentor for Life: Finding Purpose through Intentional Discipleship”; Truth’s Table podcast hosts Michelle Higgins, Christina Edmondson and Ekemini Uwan; and me.
We will be led in worship by a powerful choir drawn from churches here in Rochester, New York. There will be concerts featuring artists like Brown and Baraka, but most importantly, we are hoping that God shows up and speaks a word to his people about the work that he has given us to do in our day. We hope to see you there.
You are warmly invited to join us Oct. 4–6 at Northeastern Seminary, 2265 Westside Drive, Rochester, New York, for this one-of-a-kind event. I encourage you to visit callandresponseconference.com to get more information and register.
Esau McCaulley, Ph.D., is the assistant professor of New Testament and early Christianity at Northeastern Seminary, an associate member of the Association of Free Methodist Educational Institutions and an affiliate of the John Wesley Seminary Foundation. McCaulley has served across many professional and cultural contexts throughout his ministerial career and theological study, and he has dedicated his work in Christian higher education to instructing students on the proper interpretation and application of biblical texts.