Meg E. Cox
Moving Forward, Together “If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together.” In her work as an executive minister in the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC), Debbie Blue lives the words of that African proverb as powerfully as she spoke them at a reunion of Sankofa travelers last year. Sankofa is just one of multiple ministries of reconciliation and justice in the ECC. Participants in Sankofa journeys are paired cross-racially and travel together to historic sites of the civil rights movement. “It’s a wonderful journey where we can go through the chaos together, internally and externally, and see what God is trying to do with us as a church,” Blue reports. One outcome of Sankofa is the establishment, in 2007, of a Department of Compassion, Mercy, and Justice, which Blue now leads. Founded in 1885 by Swedish immigrants, the ECC has become more multiethnic in recent decades, and denominational leaders had been responding proactively— for example, by ensuring that more people of color will be on the executive board. Continuing education sessions for clergy in 1998 and 1999 celebrated ethnic diversity, and then the Sankofa journeys began. Blue says they have been “powerful in the life of the ECC.” Largely because of these journeys, awareness has been growing that it is necessary not just to meet people’s needs but also to ask why the needs exist in the first place—that is, to learn how to act in justice as well as with mercy and compassion. But what is justice? Though the denomination eagerly embraced the department, Blue recalled, it realized quickly that the department couldn’t define for the
L eading Ladies church what justice is. “We had to bring in folks from every level of the church to define it—to unpack and discern what God was calling us to be as a people of compassion, mercy, and justice.” A good chunk of Blue’s work for the past three years has been focused on an effort to produce a resource paper that reflects the communal discernment process of defining justice. She and the executive vice-president of the ECC assembled a team to determine what the scope of the document would be. Participants were staff members and activists—academics, clergy, and laypeople—diverse in age, gender, and ethnicity. “We were all in the same room to unpack,” Blue recalls, but “a variety of factors—race, culture, theology, and more— influenced how we understood justice. If we were struggling to come to a biblical and theological understanding of justice, we could imagine how the church would be grappling.” After much discussion, the team drafted an initial document and sent it out to readers throughout the denomination. During the time the document was under development, political polarization in the nation was rapidly worsening. “Social justice” language was becoming a part of that polarization. “It’s the justice piece that threw us into a tailspin, because we were at different places on the spectrum,” Blue explains. “It took a lot of work to get us to a place where we met in the middle, where we could feel that this is where Christ is on this issue and say this is who we are. This isn’t political. We’re living out the whole gospel.” After the initial group of readers submitted their feedback, the document was revised, then presented at the 2010 annual meeting, where additional feedback was sought. A new round of revisions preceded completion of the final document, which was presented to delegates and approved at the most recent annual meeting this past June. Blue emphasizes that the resource paper is not simply a resolution. It is a teaching document that will form the basis for curricula, continued conversation, and active participation towards making things right in our broken world. She says without hesitation that “the process of approval was worth its weight in gold.” Discussions on the floor of the 2011
annual meeting illustrated the value of the years of arduous dialogue. Reactions to the resource paper were positive until delegates reached the historical section of the paper, which calls the church to own its complacency over, or complicity in, injustice, and exhorts them to lamentation and confession. When familiar objections to that section were raised (“I have no problem with race,” for example, or “Why should I take responsibility for the injustices that are named?”), the people who publicly took issue with that perspective were “white brothers and sisters,” Blue recalls. “That says we’ve come a long way toward owning our part in the brokenness of our world, in confessing and wanting to move forward— together.” Blue is no stranger to racism or, to a lesser degree, gender discrimination. “The women in our denomination still struggle with getting equal opportunities, so I don’t want to minimize this issue, but I often feel that race trumps gender. One clear exception to that occurred while teaching in Kenya,” she explains. “The men there were very clear about not wanting to sit under a woman.” She says she experienced the “double whammy”—racism and sexism— most in the secular world, when coworkers at a major institution suggested she’d never finish the degree in engineering that she was pursuing. “That was quite a journey,” she recalls. “I knew within five minutes of obtaining the position in that department that I wasn’t wanted.” Thankfully that is clearly not the case in the ECC. Sankofa is a West African word meaning “looking backward to move forward.” Locally, regionally, and nationally, the people of the Evangelical Covenant Church are looking backward and moving forward together, a journey that Blue thanks God for allowing her to participate in along with her Covenant family.
Meg E. Cox is a writer and editor, mom and neighbor in Chicago’s Rogers Park community.