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Persist and Persevere

Being Jesus-centred on the long road of justice-focused work

About a year ago a friend asked me, “What is the difference between doing and being?” The question stumped me because each time I thought of the act of being, it was associated with an equivalent act of doing: if I am this, I do that. The two seemed inseparable. It took me a few weeks of contemplation to express that while being is indeed often associated with doing, there has to be more to it than that. My being can’t be restricted to what I do, particularly what others see me doing; it has to be a deep-seated part of who I am, how I am, what the world sees and what it does not. My being exists when there is much to do and when I am in a waiting season; when the lists are long and labourers are few; and when it seems that my doing just isn’t enough. I concluded that while being is often associated with doing, there is danger in the two being inextricably connected.

In Matthew 25:34-40, Jesus references what it means to care for the least of these and draws a parallel to caring for him. As our relationships become more Jesus-centred, this focus determines how we love, extend grace, forgive, and exist in community. In caring for the least of these, we put aside our individualistic focus and look to the collective betterment, even when that collective may differ from us.

Over the last few months, I’ve wondered how many believers have read, meditated on, prayed about, and sought to become more like one who cares for the least of these. As we continue to live with the day to day realities of life during a pandemic, compounded by the weight of persistent systematic and systemic injustice, I have questioned where the children of God are in caring for all of humanity. Where have we disconnected our being from our doing? And where does this reality require deeper introspection? 

Pop-Up Justice 

In response to the broadcasting of recent fatal killings of women and men of colour, there has been a surge of justice “pop-up shops.” These temporary initiatives carry some benefit but they are not sustainable. Massive amounts of people may patronize the initiative, but it was not built to last. There are endless conversations – panels, webinars, book discussions, interviews and town halls – that have taken place from May until now. These are great forums for cultivating education and moving toward racial reconciliation, as well as uncovering the persistent effects of racism and inequity. But these efforts have to evolve beyond conversations and education to sustained and strategic action. On the opposite end of the spectrum are those who are immobilized, determined to wait this season out without any response, action, or heart movement. For this group, “this too shall pass” becomes an all-too familiar saying and the comfort of complacency weighs heavily. But I ask again, what is the difference between being and doing? Where do we find ourselves in living lives that are Jesus-centred and justice-focused? In what ways can we care for the least of these in our respective communities throughout the world?

It seems insufficient to meditate on all the ways Jesus is loving, compassionate, forgiving, humble and gentle without asserting that he is also focused on justice. Jesus cares for the widows, the children, the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed and the differently-abled. Jesus meets them in their places of hurt, he heals them, and he restores them. Jesus sees them and in doing so, he not only lives out what it means to do justice work but to be justice-focused. He exemplifies what it means to be love, a restorer, and compassionate. 

How do we make sense of all that is happening in our world, holding to Jesus’ model as our lens to which we view recent events? What exactly does it mean to be Jesus-centered and do justice-focused work? What does it mean to be a believer of and contributor to a just existence for all people? 

Like Water on Stone  

We live in a society that does pop-up justice well. We erect – or tear down – the right symbols of justice or injustice. We gather people. We create beautiful, meaningful and necessary art through murals and music. We cultivate spaces to lament. We foster opportunities to learn and engage. But if our justice focus is exclusive to all the things we do, fatigue soon comes. The work of justice-seeking is long-suffering and persistent! Dr. Julia Jordan-Zachery, Professor and Chair of Africana Studies at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, described prolonged engagement in meaningful work as “slow drips on a brick.” I believe justice work is the same. It is not only the work we do day after day, it is how we show up in the world that may sometimes seem meaningless and mundane but we keep going. We keep persisting. We keep pressing. We keep asking. We keep teaching. We keep learning. We keep mentoring. We keep growing. We remain slow drips on a brick, knowing that our efforts will eventually make a difference and that the work is never done. 

In July of this year, many across the U.S. grieved the loss of a Civil Rights icon, Representative John Lewis. Representative Lewis organized his first sit-in during his late teens. He continued this work for 60 years, long after the end of the Civil Rights Movement. While most of us will not live lives that match the legacy of Mr. Lewis, his work serves as another model for what it means to be justice-focused. Lewis and countless others knew the Movement would forever be remembered as a significant part of the U.S.’s history in addressing segregation and racism, but it did not resolve all matters of discrimination. Dr. Michelle Alexander wrote about The New Jim Crow, addressing mass incarceration within the U.S. Dr. Camara Jones speaks often about The Gardener’s Tale, an allegory for racism, and the roles of discrimination and inequity in healthcare that perpetuate health disparities. There are other persistent challenges, including the over-policing of Black and Brown children in K-12 schools, also known as the school-to-prison pipeline; substandard housing and environmental justice cases like the ongoing lead water crisis in Flint, Michigan; and predatory lending practices that prohibit disenfranchised populations from achieving even a semblance of a sustainable route out of poverty. The issues seem endless and the weight often feels unbearable. But we remain as slow drips on a brick. 

As the November elections in the U.S. near, Americans prepare to go to the polls and exercise the right to vote. We show up on Election Day and cast our ballot. But the work doesn’t stop there! No matter where we live, we keep pushing, holding our elected officials accountable, engaging with our local leaders, and questioning ever more how we continue to be justice-focused. This is the work we get to do day after day, month after month, year after year. This is the work that believers also must be involved in, and we do this work from a position of being Jesus-centred. 

We engage in this work from a posture of love, even in the face of what feels like insurmountable hate. We do this work with compassion, even when our patience wanes and other routes seem more advantageous. We do this work with hope and assurance, remembering our call to plant seeds knowing we may never reap the full benefits of the harvest. We do this work with a focus on Christ, remembering we are a part of God’s work, but no one’s redemption – including those within our communities – rests solely on our shoulders, abilities, or efforts. We do this work from a place of integrity, selflessness and promise, knowing justice will prevail. We do this work even unto the least of these, remembering there is always some place, someone, some community, some child, and some school waiting for us to serve. Let us not turn away in comfort and complacency. May we go forward, being the light of Christ for all the world to see, always remembering that “as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”

Graffitti: Dear God - please bless my family and friends and the entire global community as we go through this crisis. Let no harm come to them. Gracias
Street art photographed by Mark Scandrette.

Recomended Resources

I picked up a few books from my shelf this summer to read or reread. They included:

  • Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman
  • The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone 

I am transitioning to fall by reading: 

  • Another Way: Living and Leading Change on Purpose by Dori Grinenko Baker, Matthew Wesley Williams and Stephen Lewis; 
  • The Politics of Jesus by Obery M. Hendricks, Jr. 

These readings have helped me remember I cannot engage in justice-focused work without searching my heart to ensure my being is Jesus-centred. I am reminded that this work is to the (U.S.) polls and beyond; six days, six weeks, six months, six years. It is our doing and our being. We remain slow drips on a brick, sometimes witnessing an expedient change, but remaining consistent for the long haul as well. 

  • Sabrina is an Assistant Professor of Public Health at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington and resides in the Southeastern United States. She spends much of her time teaching, researching and writing about health equity and social justice.

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