“Jesus made himself an immigrant to break the system.” Host Pastor José Reyes of Iglesia Nueva Vida in Cleveland, Ohio, began the 2021 inaugural Justice Network Summit challenging the church to take seriously how to fix the broken immigration system. He commented that the immigration system all over the world needs to be addressed, citing the difficulties in his native land of the Dominican Republic and how its citizens discriminate against their Haitian neighbors.
Reyes’ opening address led into a panel of his church members sharing their stories of immigration. Both panel members and the congregation shed tears over their heart-wrenching stories, including one woman watching her husband being shot on the steps of their church. Their stories of suffering and struggle spoke volumes about the need for the church to step into this process.
Pastor Jaymes Lackey delivered another challenging message titled “A Methodist Ethic of Justice.” Pulling from both John Wesley and B.T. Roberts, Lackey reminded the church that the Wesleyan tradition would focus on action first, then spiritual needs. “If we have to pick acts of mercy or piety, we [as Methodists] pick acts of mercy.” Lackey also noted, “We are educated beyond our level of obedience.” His drawing on our traditions rooted the current movement in our past.
Thursday evening keynote speaker Superintendent Amelia Cleveland-Traylor pushed the audience to be truly free, beyond the masks worn and the roles played. She lamented in particular the pressure on people of color to assimilate to majority White culture and how that prevents them from being truly themselves. She proclaimed, “Jesus saves us from our sin and breaks the yoke of oppression” and “If we were free, we would not be afraid.”
Worship at the event included a diverse team of Topher Noyes (who planned the selections), Eric Logan, Vanilda Reyes de Noyes, Amizielis Figueroa, Jaymes Lackey, Soo Ji Alvarez and Ephram Wilkoff. Songs focused on justice issues and aimed to equip the churches for engaging on this at home. The host church’s dance team Ministerio de Danza (Ministry of Dance) along with flags by Serena and Jeff Oriero added physical expression to our musical and spiritual offerings during the evening sessions.
Friday morning began with a proclamation from Superintendent and Pastor Charles Latchison, who exhorted the congregation with “whatever spirit fullness looks like for you, we need you to walk in that more.” He noted, “Love smells differently after you’ve been restored.” Latchison also asked, “Lord, is there anything broken in me that needs healing so I can hear you well?”
Larissa Malone, a professor at the University of Southern Maine, addressed the topic of critical race theory, explaining its origins and some common tenets. To put it basically, critical race theory examines the relationship of race and racism and society. It began in the legal field because scholars noticed that justice was actually not blind but seemed biased against people of color. Questions from the audience helped the attendees to acquire a better understanding of this theory and how it intersects Christianity.
Superintendent Michael Traylor spoke on the “Relationship of Diversity and Justice in Church.” Traylor noted, “Justice leads to diversity. Diversity doesn’t always lead to justice-centered churches.”
Several panels during the event addressed various issues such as immigration, discipling for racial justice, women clergy of color, and preaching. The stories of the women of color clergy moved many and helped understand the barriers they have faced as both female and minorities in a predominantly male and White clergy denomination.
The preaching panel included Pastors Ben Wayman, Katie Sawade Hall and Joe Alvarez all bringing their take on Isaiah 50:4–9, the lectionary passage for the upcoming Sunday. Sawade Hall proclaimed during her segment, “If there is anything the last 20 years have made clear, it’s that White, evangelical, American Christians have struggled to know how to suffer for the sake of the gospel.”
In addition to the main sessions, eight workshops allowed participants to gain more hands-on approaches to anything from parenting to worship to rethinking incarceration.
Friday evening’s keynote speaker Dominique Gilliard shared from the theme of his new book, “Subversive Witness,” which each attendee received. Gilliard shared this particularly striking commentary, “We cannot allow the gospel that we proclaim to be dictated by what our members are ready for on their own terms. As pastors, we are called to disciple our members into faithfulness, not acquiesce to their disobedience.” He also noted, “When we really look at why young people are leaving the church, it’s because they see it as a social club without moral or spiritual authority.” His talk and book give a spiritual basis for justice work rooted in biblical examples.
On Saturday morning, the previously formed ally groups gathered to share their future intentions and what they had gained from the conference. Bishop Linda Adams closed the event with an address titled “Wake Up!” in which she said, “We are calling the church to a path of discipleship that asks about our founding charism and calls us to embody it in the 21st century.” She also served communion along with Bishop Matt Whitehead. He also shared on Saturday, “Thank you for both the hopefulness of this conversation and for the prophetic finger in the chest. It’s just been wonderful to be here.”
Pastor Marissa Mattox Heffernan served as emcee for the event, and noted that, “Justice is the result of community salvation. We were created to walk in relationship.” The Justice Network is posting talks from the summit on its resources page. Save the dates of September 8–10, 2022, to attend the next summit in Southern California.
Katherine Callahan-Howell is the founding pastor of Winton Community Free Methodist Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.