When Jeff rose from his seat and stood at the podium, I could feel the nerves in my stomach. Far from speaking to a joint session of Congress or delivering a keynote speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Jeff was instead speaking to the Holland, Michigan City Council. Yet what he was going to share during public comment represented the work and passion that 11 of us had invested over the course of two months. So on the night of June 20, 2018, when Jeff stood and began to address the eight voting members of council, along with several clerks and lawyers, I felt surprisingly nervous. Would our prepared statement make any impact? Had we struck the right tone, the right statistics, the right timing?
Our public statement to City Council was about the lack of affordable housing in our community. For Ottawa County, Michigan, this has been a topic at the forefront of our political discourse for a couple of years. But it was only the past two months that this group of eleven Christian citizens gathered together to educate and organize ourselves to make a difference.
For our nation, however, one issue has captivated our national consciousness in the last two months more than any other: the separation of families at the southwest border and the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that catalyzed it. President Trump has since changed his administration’s policy and the battle has turned towards Congress’ decades-long inability to pass meaningful immigration reform.
However, I believe it is now important to reflect not just on the policy itself, but on our reactions to it. The American public responded with an outcry and outrage that feels almost unprecedented in its speed, force, and unity. Protests were quickly organized across the country, all five living First Ladies spoke out, and Christian figures from Franklin Graham to Rev. Dr. William Barber II stood publicly against the policy. Denominations made unified statements condemning the practice, petitions were signed, and prayers were given—and rightfully so. Separating families who are seeking asylum in the United States does not serve the ends of public justice. The family is the foundation of community and a God-ordained institution. I am encouraged by the forceful Christian response to the family separation.
But I am cautious.
While the response has demonstrated the vitality of the virtues of compassion, justice, and unity, I see less of the virtues of perseverance, wisdom, and endurance. The long, deep work of justice requires more than outrage. The deep work of justice is more than an angry spasm in reaction to the latest issue.
We are created by God to be part of a political community; so part of our lifelong discipleship as Christians is to grow as political disciples. I have been thinking about this a lot because of the simple seven-minute presentation we gave to my City Council. We asked the City Council to remember the immediate needs of many low-income families as they consider solutions to affordable housing. Our county, like many others, desperately lacks affordable housing. It’s easy to imagine young professionals flocking to our area with degrees and disposable income; it’s harder to remember the challenges and voices of the many families who are already struggling with the shortage.
The reason I’ve been reflecting so much on this seven-minute event is not because of the issue itself, but because of the experience of discipleship. Our group of 11 met for almost ten hours over two months as we worked our way through the Center for Public Justice’s Political Discipleship curriculum. We met with a City Council member and a community expert on affordable housing. Several people on our team spent hours researching the laws, history, and critical issues surrounding housing in our county. It required babysitters and sacrifices of time. We then distilled all those hours of accumulated learning into one presentation for our small city’s City Council meeting.
After all of that, what did we accomplish? Two pages entered into the city’s minutes, seven minutes of speaking, and, a few new relationships with key decision makers in our community.
Although small, these accomplishments should not discourage us; rather, they should help give us the clarity and drive to push forward and persevere. Should we stop speaking out? No—but only responding with outrage is not enough. Discipleship, by definition, is concerned with the long haul—with the less-sexy virtues of perseverance and resiliency. We learned, made new relationships, and did something meaningful as part of the process. But most importantly, we honed the habits and skills we will need to continue engaging our political community in the future. Why is that growth the most important of all? Because the crisis at the border is not going away, nor is the housing crisis in my city. Neither should we.
Should we be concerned? Yes. Should we be angry? Yes. But the question is how will we channel concern and anger into meaningful change? We are so used to reaction that we are at risk of missing chances to be proactive. What habits can we cultivate for the long haul?
I don’t just mean relationships with family and friends; rather, I am referring to reaching out in your communities to get to know people who are close to the issues you care about. Try to meet someone locally who knows more than you about a topic you’re interested in pursuing. Learn from them and also share your passion. Maybe a new alliance can form. Maybe they can connect you to something bigger. Or maybe you just share some mutual encouragement and challenge. You will not have the impact you long for until you actually talk with people face to face and seek out new relationships that open up new doors for political engagement.
Join in the Work Already Being Done
Don’t try to do your political engagement alone. Put together a team. Join a group that’s already there. For millennials it is often more natural to address problems within the digital realm, but there may be groups near you already deep into the work of promoting fair housing, juvenile justice reform, or policies that promote paid family leave. In our city, we discovered a couple of task forces and committees that are working on the issues we care about. The word “committee” doesn’t usually invoke floods of inspiration, but we can accomplish so much more collectively than individually. Christians should be the first to admit that we need each other to pursue public justice. Yes, this might mean making a commitment, but this, too, is healthy discipleship. Social media tempts us to respond to every single issue that comes across our screen. Our communication and technology allow us to know instantly and globally; however, this is exhausting and often distracting. We know and do a little about a lot of things. Why not find a group of folks locally that does a lot about a little?
Imagine a Third Way
Political discipleship is not just about picking sides. The Christian citizen is called not to serve a political side, but to serve God. This should free the Christian citizen to imagine different ways of doing things that unlock us from our dichotomized thinking. Rev. Dr. Matthew Kaemingk offers this sort of imagery in his work on Muslim immigration. The right and the left are stuck in visions of bigger walls and wider doors, but he offers the third image of a welcoming table. Christians can change narratives in this way by offering up alternative proposals to policy. This means that we have to be wise and educated about the issues we engage with. Let’s strive to understand the nuances and facts that shape them. Do we know what policies are actually shaping migrant treatment at the border and what the history is? This kind of third-way thinking can be a refreshing and compelling witness to our political communities which are so often entrenched in polarization.
Consider how much beauty and good has been accomplished in the world because people were gritty and unwavering in pursuing the public good! Perseverance doesn’t just look like an individual pushing a boulder up a steep hill; it looks like friends praying for each other in living rooms. It looks like setting up another coffee meeting with an acquaintance who will connect you to the heart of an issue. It is staying rooted in worship and prayer and the joy of God, who is our strength. These things keep us going and keep us focused on the big picture. Perseverance is sometimes just a dose of perspective: the little things you do matter, because they matter to God. A little seven-minute speech is never wasted. As Paul reminds the church in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 15, Christ is risen from the dead,
"Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain."
-Dan Carter is a husband, father, neighbor, reader, runner, and Senior Pastor of Calvary on 8th St. located in Holland, MI. www.calvaryreformedholland.org