+ The Story Table takes a conversation important at Fuller and brings it to life at a shared table. People who embody the theme in unique ways tell their stories around the table, and members of the community are invited to listen in. This Story Table, hosted in Chicago by Walter and Darlene Hansen at the Fourth Presbyterian Church, focuses on faith and fear. We were honored to host local pastors and ministers, students, trustees, and others to reflect together with moderator and Fuller President Mark Labberton.
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Mark Labberton, President
Marshall Hatch Sr., Senior Pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church
Wayne L. Gordon, Pastor of Lawndale Community Church
Reggie Williams, Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at McCormick Theological Seminary
Shannon J. Kershner, Pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church
Sandra Maria Van Opstal, Executive Pastor of Grace and Peace Community
Mark Labberton: Let me welcome all of you to Story Table. We’re very glad that we’re together, and I want to begin by just saying a brief word of introduction. You have the program that we distributed, that gives you a bit of a statement about each of the people around the table, but just in case you don’t know them, let me just say their names so that you can know and correlate who they are with the brief title that has been given on the sheet.
Shannon Kershner is the pastor here at Fourth Presbyterian. We’re very grateful again for the privilege of being able to be here, and thank you for that. Reggie Williams is associate professor at McCormick Theological Seminary, and we’re very glad to have you, Reggie. Wayne Gordon is pastor at Lawndale Church here in Chicago, and we’re very grateful for him and for his longevity of ministry: 42 years in the church he has served there.
We’re thankful for Marshall Hatch Sr., who is the senior pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church. We’re very glad for you being here—
Marshall Hatch: It’s a long name.
Mark: Yes, it’s the longest name—you win that award! And we’re very grateful for having Sandra Van Opstal here as well. Sandra is executive pastor at Grace and Peace Community Church here in Chicago. We had hoped that Otis Moss was going to be with us until yesterday, when we learned that he wasn’t going to be able to join us, so the circle is just the six of us.
When we were thinking about the desire to have a Story Table in Chicago—especially in light of current global realities like the bombing in Manchester, England, what’s happening in various war-torn parts of the world, and issues in our own nation—we realize that issues of fear and faith are very prominent. They’re part of the social landscape, the economic landscape, the racial landscape, the gender landscape. They affect all of our lives every day. When we think about certain urban centers, issues of faith and fear are natural to think about. Chicago has a reputation for that, especially in recent years—which is why I’m asking you, as faith leaders in a context like Chicago, to spend some time tonight thinking about faith in a context of fear.
The interesting thing about fear, as we all know from our own experiential point of view, is that there’s no one in the world who knows a fear-free life. Everyone understands fear. We actually need fear. It’s a good gift that we’ve been given, but it’s a complicating gift with many dimensions that we’re going to spend some time tonight exploring. Fear is ubiquitous—for every person of every culture, race, and gender, it is going to be part of our experience.
I think the affirmation of the Christian faith, and the interesting thing about the witness of the Bible, is that the God that is borne witness to in Scripture is a God who endlessly takes fear with great seriousness. Surely one of the most important refrains over and over again in the Bible is simply acknowledgement of fear as a human experience, but also an admonition on God’s part—“Do not fear”—not because it isn’t often justified, but because God wants to contextualize it.
It gets more complicated than that, because there’s more that the Bible has to say about good fear and unhealthy fear. We’ll have a chance, I think, to explore this over the course of our conversation.
I have to say, as we get started, that I could easily tell the story of my life through the lens of fear. It would easily be possible for me to look back on experiences, people, anxieties, threats, dangers, and uncertainties that at different times of my life shaped decisions I made, relationships, things I did, things I didn’t do.
If I, as someone who’s lived a privileged life, understands a lot about fear in my own experience, it certainly stands to reason that in a much more complicated social setting, with people in so many other kinds of circumstances, fear is not hard for me to understand. I lean into fear because I think it’s such an important subject and because I think it’s the ground of our faith.
Thank you for sharing the conversation. I want us to begin by just thinking about words that we associate with fear. We’re not going to try to come up with refined definitions of fear or faith, but let’s start on the fear end. What are some of the words and images that come to your mind when you just think of the word fear, just out of your own experience here in Chicago or beyond?
Wayne Gordon: Scared. Sometimes things are scary.
Reggie Williams: Danger.
Shannon Kershner: Probably strangers.
Marshall Hatch: Terror.
Marshall: Mm-hmm. Terrified.
Sandra Maria Van Opstal: Insecurity.
Shannon: I would also think captivity, temptation, be captive by it.
Reggie: Risk and vulnerability.
Mark: What is it about vulnerability, Reggie, that you think is connected to fear? How do you relate those two things?
Reggie: Exposure to danger. There’s the connection between vulnerability and a request for safety. I’m afraid that I sense that I’m not safe. There’s the demand for safety that is the cause for battle and wars and so forth, instigated by fears of others.
Mark: Other words, other images.
Sandra: Anxiety, stress.
Mark: I wonder if you saw some version of a film shown at my school when I was a kid—about how you should avoid talking to strangers, and in particular that you shouldn’t take rides from strangers and all of that kind of thing. This caused me nightmares for several weeks after I saw it. Then, one day I was walking home from my piano lesson. I had only my piano book and one thing in my pocket, but I saw this big kid coming toward me, and I thought, “This is it. It’s happening now.”
As we got into close range, in the most amazing way it was like watching a slow-motion nightmare unfold. He grabbed me and threw me down on the ground. He began to beat me up and then finally sat on me. Now, the most memorable moment was that I saw he had huge candy bars inside of the coat he was wearing. I think he had pilfered those on the way, and now he was trying to pilfer whatever he could get from me. It was show and tell day—that was how young I was, in grade school—and I had a Chinese coin in my pocket. That was the only thing I had.
He was not impressed, so that led to further beating. In life’s great stories it was not a great trauma, but it was definitely an experience, a feeling like the imagined nightmare actually was unfolding in real time, where now, suddenly, the big kid isn’t just theoretically a threat, he’s actually a big threat. It was a very important early grade school experience to me.
It’s an example, I think, of the fact that the tension that fear often brings out is this contrast between what we know is a psychological experience on one level, and on another level is actually a very physical, real threat, like real things really do happen to real people in real time. One of the reasons why I wanted to invite all of you into this context is because you all live at the intersection with people.
As a pastor, as the seminary professor, as leaders in Christian ministry, you are with people before, sometimes during, sometimes after experiences where the idea of fear and the reality of danger actually have collided and caused people to have to face those circumstances. I’m just curious, when you hear that kind of narrative, what comes to your mind as maybe a fairly recent experience of someone in your own circle, family, friends, people in your congregations? When you think about the theoretical threat being actualized, what do you think of?
Reggie: Someone facing the actual experience of something that was threatening.
Mark: Right. Yes?
Mark: Go for it.
Shannon: I had actually been thinking about this since you first asked us to consider stories, and about the interaction with faith and fear. I’ve been thinking about it in particular through the lens of a story about a woman named Sherry, who I met about 10 or 15 years ago. I was a fairly new pastor at a church in Texas, and my name was out on the marquee. She’d apparently drive by to and from work every day, and one day she decided to stop in and asked to speak with me. She’d seen my name and wanted to speak with a clergywoman.
She came into my office and sat down. She had the quietest voice I’ve ever heard, so I would have to just lean so close to even hear her. She began to tell me her story: about domestic abuse, and about the fear she experienced every day in her home at the hands of her husband. What drove her to my office that day was that she started to see it become a threat to her daughter. She told me this, then she would use a lot of religious language and talk about her church.
I had to ask, “It sounds like you have a church home. Why are you coming to visit with me about what’s going on?” She said, “Well, I know what my pastor would say if I went to him. He would tell me that I’m not being submissive and that this abuse is my cross to bear, and that clearly this is just what’s going to happen, given the fact that my husband is the head of our household. I know what he would say, and I want to know what you’re going to say.”
We talked some. I mean, I had to put away all the seminary language, and talk in other ways about how I understood some of those scriptures. I said, “The root of it is that God wants you to be whole and safe, and that’s what God wants for your daughter.”
I had some resources that I gave her. I mean, you just feel so inadequate. I myself was afraid in that situation for her, in that small town. I wrote her name on a sticky note and put it on my computer, and vowed to pray for her on a regular basis, and I did. I said, “If you feel safe enough will you check in at some point and tell me what’s going on.”
I didn’t hear anything for a couple years. Then I got a phone call from a woman who was leaving a domestic abuse shelter in Dallas, trying to make her way across the country, and needed some financial assistance for gas. We got her what she needed, filled up her van, and right before she was leaving I said, “Now, wait a minute, who told you to call me? How’d you get us?” She said, “Sherry. I met her at the shelter, and she told me that I could call here.” That meant both that Sherry was safe, and that something had happened in those two years where she had been able to get out.
It was Holy Week, and it was Luke’s Gospel passage that year. I remember because I felt like an angel had just sat down on the hood of the car and the earth was shaking, because it was just this powerful moment.
For me, this is the way the Spirit can just upend and bring healing and transformation. After that, Sherry called me almost once a year for at least four or five years. I would recognize her voice immediately. She just called to check in and let me know things were okay.
It was a powerful experience for me about ministry, but it was also a recognition that those of us in ministry, especially those of us in pulpits interpreting Scripture, have got to remember the power that we have to either use the Scripture as bread and as a way to increase faith and wholeness and healing and justice, or we can misuse it as stone, which had been clearly her experience. The church had been increasing her fear and her sense of not being worthwhile enough to imagine God’s dream for who she was.
In this culture that pulsates with such fear right now, we have a responsibility to think about how we are or are not contributing to the upbuilding of fear.
Mark: Thank you.
Marshall: I often think about, in my context, the political implications of fear, and how fear is used as a tool of controlling populations, controlling people, and what it feels like when the police are not a part of alleviating fear but a part of creating more fear itself. What it feels like to be in a community where the historical context is social control by means of terror and fear.
I remember, interesting story, we have periodic trips we do to Ghana with small groups of teenagers, and their first time we take them through the passport process and take them overseas on their first trip. The first year we did it with a group of kids, in 2009, the parents almost became obstructionist.
There was one kid raised by her grandma who almost had to get disrespectful in responding to her grandma: “I’m going whether you want me to or not.” It took a while for me to peel back how debilitating fear had become in our context, that people literally held on to their children, really unhealthily stifling their ability to be exposed to the world.
Mark: Feeling like they might lose them . . .
Marshall: The context was one of compounded fear. I remember the logjam being broken because we had a conversation with the parents, and I personally had to go in and talk to parents in a group. Finally, with a sense of truthfulness, I told them, “I can’t guarantee you nothing is going to happen on this international trip, that they are going to be 100% safe, but I will tell you this, given the context that we live in, they’ll be safer leaving here, going to Ghana this summer, than they would if they just stayed on the West Side of Chicago.”
It was interesting, that was the logic that broke the logjam of the parents, with just how debilitating fear is, particularly among oppressed and exploited people. Fear is used to control people, and it’s probably why the Scripture is anti-fear, because actually faith is the road to liberation in a very practical sense.
Mark: Thank you.
Reggie: Mark, I’m sitting here trying to think of a recent story. I have no engaging or catchy story of recent events beyond the election, and shock in my faith community on that Sunday following. It’s too bad that Otis is not here, because he struck the right tone that morning. It was a powerful moment on that Sunday morning after the election, when the fear in the congregation was palpable in my predominantly black congregation on the South Side at Trinity United Church of Christ. After the service, after he had finished preaching, and there were a lot of tears, I was walking from . . . I guess I do have a story.
Mark: We always do.
Reggie: It’s nothing gripping. I mean, it’s nothing beyond just this—
Wayne: Let us decide if it’s gripping.
Reggie: It was an engagement with an elderly black woman. I’m usually walking out and shaking folks’ hands, saying, “Have a good week,” and I touched this lady who was sitting in the pews and she looked up with her face full of tears. Then I grabbed her hand and she just said, “We’re going to be okay, we’re going to be okay.” It was after hearing that encouraging story, the sermon in which Otis said, “We have been through this, and this, and this, and this. We have this history of being through this. You were a child of Sojourner Truth. You are a child of—”
Marshall: Harriet Tubman.
Reggie: Harriet Tubman. “You’ve sat under the ministry of Reverend Jeremiah Wright. We’ve been through these moments before. You’re going to be okay.” Calling to mind what someone described as the faith files, going through the faith files, these moments when we’ve had to overcome things and God has been with us.
Marshall: Reggie, you know what’s interesting is that this was happening all over the country the Sunday after the election—obviously the fear in certain communities, in my community. What was interesting is that the word of prophecy was actually Kendrick Lamar that I heard—
Reggie: “We gon’ be all right.”
Marshall: “We gon’ be all right,” yeah. It was interesting that it did not come necessarily straight from the pulpit, but it started in the rap game, and we picked it up and gave it to the people, that “we gon’ be all right.”
Reggie: It’s interesting how that works because did we pick it up, or did they pick it up, or was this a reciprocal deal? I mean, because this is an ongoing debate, from the experience of being black in the United States.
Marshall: It’s reverberating.
Reggie: It reverberates, yeah.
Marshall: From a distant past, yeah.
Mark: It’s verbal, it’s physical, it’s communal, all those things are happening. It’s got to be grounded in the reality of lived experience, which is partly the narrative that Otis was talking about, the background of remembering, remembering, remembering, obviously a huge biblical theme. It was interesting today, I was in a coffee shop and I sat down at a table next to four Chicago policemen.
After I eavesdropped for a few minutes on their conversation, I said, “I wonder if I could interrupt you for just a minute. I’m trying to understand Chicago. I’m a visitor here. I’m hosting an event tonight partly about fear in Chicago, so I wonder, if you were to just name the top three or four fears in Chicago as you see them from the position of being a policeman, what would you say?” I’ll tell you what they said, but what would you say?
Reggie: The number one would probably, of course, be violence.
Marshall: The issue of personal safety.
Reggie: Be what they would say.
Sandra: I think from the reference point of my community—the northwest side, in the Humboldt Park-Hermosa area—it would be immigration and status. I didn’t chime in because I needed to collect my emotions before I started talking. But I think there is the sense of insecurity, the sense of anxiety, the sense of stress that particularly our children are under . . . because they speak both English and Spanish and they understand, they hear things.
They come to our after-school program and they coach one another on what to do if somebody knocks on your door. To be eight years old, to be eleven years old, and to have to coach not only your brothers and sisters and neighborhood friends, but your parents on what to do if someone knocks on your door—to be afraid.
If you drive down the street and get pulled over, many of us are afraid for many reasons, but I keep thinking, “If I didn’t have papers, what would this be like?” I would make sure all my tail lights were perfect . . . I probably just wouldn’t drive. There’s a constant fear of just walking out the door, and that’s in a sanctuary city that says, “We want to welcome you here.”
Just the insecurity and the stress affects their health as children, carrying that kind of load for themselves and their family. We literally have plans in place for each child, telling them, “If your parent does not come and pick you up, here’s what you do.” I didn’t have to go through that at eight years old because my parents had a green card. What would it feel like to be carrying that load of fear as a child?
Wayne: I’m a white male in America, and I’ve had this unique privilege of living my adult life in an African American community on the West Side of Chicago, and I think, when you’re talking about fears, I’m a fearless person. I mean, I don’t experience fears in a lot of ways. I have some, and I may divulge them later, I’m not sure. I haven’t decided yet.
One of the things that has been such an unbelievable privilege, and at the same time a heartache, is that I have learned the fears of young African American men in Chicago, the fear of police. I was taught in Iowa, “When you have a problem, run to the police.” In Lawndale, it’s run from the police, and there is just the mistreatment.
I was driving down 16th Street, which is a pretty rough street in Chicago on the West Side. It’s a warm day, my windows are down, and I see two squad cars up on a curb, with four 16-year-old kids there, one girl, three boys, and these police officers are screaming and yelling at these kids. I stop my car in the middle of the street and the police stop and look at me and say, “What are you doing? Keep going.”
I said, “I’m not going anywhere.” They said, “What are you doing?” I said, “What are you doing? What are you doing with these young people here?” They said, “You don’t know what’s going on, so keep going.”
By this time about seven more squad cars had shown up, and I said, “I heard you talking to them. I’m a pastor down the street, and I don’t appreciate the way you’re talking to these young people.” They said, “What do you mean, talking?” I said, “I heard you use words. I’m the pastor,” and they said, “F—[expletive]!”
I said, “Whoa!” They said, “You’d better go.” I said, “I’m not leaving until you leave,” because I just didn’t trust the looks. I saw the look of fear. Can you imagine standing at a bus stop and a squad car coming up on the sidewalk and then another one coming the other way, for children. They’re just children, 15- and 16-year-old kids. I’ve got thousands of these stories, of seeing life through the eyes of others who have been mistreated and experienced intense racism in our country.
I count it a privilege to be able to have seen that, but then to try to empathize and put myself in their shoes, and to do my very best to walk with them. What you were saying, Shannon—you were the right pastor that day, and you just listened. You had no real answers but you just listened. We need to listen to people and their stories, to listen when someone says, “Well, the police stopped me and I didn’t do anything wrong.”
I had my skepticism my first few years in Lawndale, but it wasn’t too long before I realized, “This is a false ticket!” That’s an inside joke, but it’s one of Marshall’s stories, maybe he’ll tell it. For a black man, driving while black in Chicago often is something to be feared.
I have this unbelievable privilege, but it also has a huge responsibility. That’s why I stopped for those kids that day. I probably wouldn’t have stopped 25 years ago. I think that’s part of pastoring, to come alongside people, to listen to their fears, and to then validate them. It’s so important to validate the fears of others and to walk with them in that.
Mark: Part of what I want us to return to a bit later is what that story also illustrates, which is your willingness to step toward the danger and into the middle of somebody else’s fears. We have to ask ourselves, I think, as people who care about a world of fear, whether the kind of church and community of people we’re cultivating are people who are growing in their capacity to step toward danger.
Often, I think we can suggest we are cultivating another kind of instinct, so we’ll come back to that. Thank you for that story. Well, when I sat down next to those cops and asked, “What are the top fears you think people in Chicago have,” you’re right, the first thing they said was, “Will they survive the day?” They said, “Honestly, probably some of them fear that we’re the ones that are going to kill them, or they’re afraid that somebody else is going to kill them.”
I said, “How many people that you encounter would you say in a given day actually carry that fear actively?” One of the four said, “I’d say at least 50%.” Another one jumped in and said, “I’d say it’s at least 80.” Now, this was not in a particularly dangerous neighborhood of Chicago. This is not the front edge of the drama that’s unfolding in Chicago, and yet for them that was the first thing.
The second thing was immigration, actually. They said, “I think it has to do with whether or not they’re going to be deported in some sort of way.” The third person, who’d up till then been very quiet, said, “I think there’s a different kind of danger, too, and it’s the danger that they won’t have value.”
Shannon: The police officers are interpreting how people experience that.
Mark: That’s right.
Shannon: Thank you.
Mark: This one said, “I think it’s that they fear that they won’t have value.” I said, “If they don’t have value, what happens?” The only one who hadn’t spoken at all at that stage said, “That changes the game.” I think this brings us, in my mind, pretty close to the core of what is so amazing about the language of the Bible, about a God who tends to the vulnerable, who always sees us as vulnerable people in our value.
That recasts, really, in a dramatic way, why then each life matters, why each story, why each community, why each long, complicated narrative and simple story is something that God weighs with full seriousness. But this is the anxiety, in one way or another, whether it’s the woman who appears in your office, or whether it’s somebody a policeman might encounter, like the teenage kids on the street—this feeling that somehow their life just does not have value.
Does that seem like a descriptive to you? What would you have said to those cops if you’d been sitting there and they said that to you?
Reggie: I’d completely resonate with that, the sense of having one’s life or one’s meaning or one’s purpose validated. It sounds for me like what I told my kids. I try and have them thinking about what it means to be Christian. Rather than using fear to convert people, as Jonathan Edwards in his notable sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” rather than using fear to convert, thinking about what your life could be.
When I was a youth pastor and speaking about becoming Christian, the language was not so much what will happen to you when you meet God, but what could your life have been. God had wonderful dreams of your life being fulfilled in many different ways and so forth, and you may miss it through wasted potential.
Potential, value, for that officer, perhaps, it’s not so much that other people may not give you the esteem that you’re looking for, but perhaps you might miss the opportunity to be who you should be in someone’s life along the way. It’s not a matter of what society gives to you. It’s what you may be able to do if you fulfill your potential in that community in the right way.
Mark: Right, the value.
Reggie: The value that’s placed upon you is not so much your being given it from the community as much as perhaps you realizing that and fulfilling your God-given potential.
Sandra: I think being surrounded by a group of people who are naming your value creates a new sense of not only, “I’m valuable and I mean something,” but also, “I can be something.” I have to say, having grown up in a home where, even though the exterior community may not have communicated that my family had much value, inside my home my mother used to tell me, “Sandra, you can be anything. You can be the President.”
Now I know I can. “You can be the President, you’re so many things, and don’t let anyone steal your dreams.” I hear her voice. When I was the first person in my family to go to college, I would hear her voice in my ear, “Don’t let anybody steal your dreams.” When I would come to those spaces where I felt like, “Does my voice matter at all? Does what I contribute matter?” I heard her.
Even in seminary, I mean, I’m in the front row crying during lectures, and I feel so out of place as the only one wearing any color in the room and emoting in the front row, feeling like I wanted to break out in song after the lecture. I just felt dissonance, but I had my mother’s song in my ear, that I was meaningful, that I could be anything, that God loved me, that he had a purpose for me.
I remember very distinctly hearing from you, Coach, when I worked with InterVarsity and would bring students to Pastor Hatch and to Coach in the community. One of the things Coach would say to the InterVarsity students coming from outside the neighborhood is, “I’m just going to tell you one thing. Remember their names. Use their names. Tell them about themselves. Tell them you’re glad to see them and look into their eyes and use their names.”
I think that sense that you get from your community, from your church community, from your family, from your grandmother, whoever gave that to you, is something that is lacking in our communities. It’s probably everybody’s fear. Do I matter? It’s the fear I still carry with myself as a 40-plus-year-old woman with a degree and all these things.
I still walk into a room and I am saying, “Am I important here? Will my voice matter? Will anyone listen to me? Am I going to be seen as credible?” I carry that all with me and I have the experiences I have. I imagine the young women in my community—of course they’re going to be doing things, and looking for things in the wrong places, because they want to know that they matter, that they’re worth something, that somebody loves them. So they end up in some bad decision-making because there was nobody there to tell them, or no matter how much in the family they told them, the exterior role they were in repeatedly told them they didn’t matter.
That could be both from what they saw and what they didn’t see. They didn’t see leaders that looked like them. They didn’t see professors that looked like them. They didn’t see authors that looked like them. They didn’t see CEOs that looked like them. So therefore they don’t belong. No matter what was said in the home, maybe that flourishing was stomped on in the process somewhere.
Mark: One of the things that connects with what you’re saying is that there’s a strong sense that fear is viral, it’s like a social infection. It’s very seldom that it’s just about my own personal experience. It’s often cast in social terms and a lot of it does have to do with the surrounding culture, the environment that we live in. Part of why we can have a topic tonight like faith in a culture of fear is that we do have a culture of fear, not just individual experiences of fear, but patterns of fear and histories of fear, tribal fears that are existent.
Let’s just talk a little bit about that. There’s existential fear, the individual, personal experience of fear, but there are plenty of examples of fear and faith. What you gave as examples just then is both. It was both the social, viral effect of some of the things that can cause fear, but also in the context of a family, a network, a community of other people who have validated your identity to you, there’s also the positive side of the counteractive voices that are strengthening to you in the face of fear. It works in both directions. What does that cause you to think about?
Shannon: Well, I think about raising a teenage girl, and particularly last fall with the tapes and all of the language about women and our bodies and what was okay and not okay from someone else’s perspective. She was terrified about what it meant, because she’ll be 16 this summer and she’s already experiencing the fact that, when she walks down a street, men who she doesn’t know feel like it’s okay to comment upon her appearance, that they have some sort of ownership over her very personhood and her body.
I had my own response to that fear that is out there, and just as a woman, that fear continues to permeate. It always has, but it just got a little highlight on it. I think that for me as her mom, what we’re trying to do, what we’ve always done because my parents did it for me, was try to tie in language of baptism with her. I came from a preacher’s family, what can I say?
I’ve been parented out of my baptism, which is this idea that that is who tells me who I am, that I have value because I’m a God-beloved child. But not just me, everyone is created as one of God’s beloved children, so that also hopefully instills some sort of sense of value in those other folks, too. I’m having to work real hard these days making sure not just my teenage daughter, but my preteen son too, can see the world through those things and not lose their voices in the process—and claim their authority, because no one’s going to give it to them.
That viral fear of vulnerability from a physical perspective as a young woman is something that is very, very close to home right now for us.
Marshall: It’s like the most significant human fear is meaninglessness and loss of agency, which I think, all of us being in the image of God, is what that is designed to give us just by being. Humans are made in the image of the Creator, and we build communities around that theology.
The church that I pastor, there’s an interesting book on the history of the congregation. It was made up of people who had migrated from the South, some of them barely literate, and a researcher came in, wandered into the congregation—it was a storefront church—and wrote a book called Filling the Spirit. She described how people created meaning for themselves in a ghetto by creating this space called a church building and the gathered church in there, and the different groups and auxiliaries and their uniforms help people to have a meaningful sense of self.
I also thought about the whole Black Lives Matter movement, and even though that does not necessarily come out in church, how deeply theological that is in the context where black bodies or black lives don’t matter. The kingdom, of course, is represented when the margins are brought to the center. That’s when the kingdom has arrived. It’s not as if only black lives matter, but it’s as if the lives that have mattered least matter most.
Shannon: Mm-hmm, yeah.
Marshall: The kingdom has arrived because obviously everybody’s life matters, but it just seems that the explosion of social media and a lot of even criminal activity is being carried out of people’s sense of trying to declare that “I’m somebody,” and not being able to make the distinction between being famous and infamous. In a culture of celebrity it’s however you’re known, being known in and of itself lends meaning to your existence.
Mark: I love that pairing of meaning and agency, because that’s such a powerful combination. I have a friend who, when his kids were little and they were having anxieties as many children do, about monsters under the bed or in the closet or whatever it might be, they as a family established a practice of what they called charging the darkness.
All the kids and the parents would get in the hallway outside the bedroom, and the child who was terrified would name all the things that they were afraid of. Then, one by one, all the family members would go in and charge the darkness, go into the room, make sure that it was all clear and that really it was okay. It was about agency and it was about meaning.
It matters that you have these fears. It’s not wrong that you have these fears, and you have something you can do about it. You can actually galvanize yourself and we are with you in this process, and you are not alone in going in and trying to do that. Now that doesn’t have universal application clearly. There’s a validity around caution and danger, not charging the darkness at times, but there’s also a power in agency and meaning that I think is captured in that family’s experience.
Sandra: I think that’s what happens in worship on Sundays. We just had a worship last night, and that’s actually how I would describe what happened. There was a charging of the darkness. There was this moment. In our church, we sing the same thing over and over until we believe it, and the worship leader tells his or her testimony—
Wayne: Sometimes it takes a while.
Sandra: Sometimes 30 minutes. I record them sometimes because I do a lot of training in worship, and I want people to know we sing a song for 30 minutes. The anthem last night was “There’s Nobody Like You,” and so it was “There’s Nobody Like You!” over and over. Then it moved to, there’s nobody that knows us like you do.
There’s nobody that knows where we’re going to be in the year, there’s no one that knows our dreams like you, so everything from meaning to safety, to actual safety. I put the video on Facebook because I just want to see it. People were dancing, literally charging the front of the church, dancing and singing that anthem—because that’s what it takes to go back out the door as I do Monday through Saturday again, this charging of the darkness. I was laughing when you were talking about it because I have an actual picture of what that looks like.
Shannon: Yeah, I think that is what church is supposed to be about—that practicing and rehearsing the way God understands the world and the way God sees us, so that we can go and try to live that way and then come back for a refresher all the time.
Mark: Right, continuous undulation.
Shannon: It’s not an escape at all.
Sandra: It’s not an escape, because our church—I like to describe it as a community center that happens to have a congregation on Sundays—we’re doing things, we’re in the community, we’re at City Hall, we’re in these places. So it’s not to escape, it’s to remind and to remember and to send out.
Mark: One of the things that would help me in the course of the conversation we’re having here—you’ve got faith, you’ve got fear, and I was just saying something to Pastor Shannon before we started the dialogue. It would be interesting to see how these sit side by side in some kind of a strange relationship to each other. Are they mutually exclusive? What is faith that we would see it as something other than or exclusive of, or what is the relationship to fear?
Marshall: Can you have faith without fear?
Reggie: Can you have faith without fear, yeah. It seems to me that the way we typically understand faith is some kind of cognitive exercise that is impervious to fear. There are things on the outside, and you bare knuckle believe something hard enough that nothing can break you of that belief. Then you’ve got faith that can move mountains if you believe strong enough, like casting a spell or something.
I don’t think that’s what faith is. I think faith probably has as much to do with habituating yourself in a way of living as it does with what you may bring yourself with sheer willpower to believe in an impervious way.
Mark: What would be an example of that habituation that is a grounding in faith?
Reggie: Well, we do it all the time. Set my alarm clock. I don’t actually, I can get up without an alarm clock.
Shannon: Don’t brag.
Reggie: I can say I’m going to get up at four in the morning and I’ll get up, but my wife has to set her alarm clock. That is a pattern for her that she’s set, where she knows that’s going to happen. You set your alarm clock. She’s going to get up and she’s got the things that she’s going to do tomorrow. She’s got a calendar. That’s a simple act of faith that tomorrow will come and that she will be here tomorrow.
Mark: A readiness.
Reggie: A readiness for it, an expectation of that happening. It’s not a “I need to believe that I’m going to be here tomorrow.” It’s just a simple act of daily activities—
Reggie: Of trust. Now, in what ways does our understanding of relationship and community with God and with each other habituate it relationally? We’ve got Christianities in the United States with habituated relationship to others that are really dark and negative, so that the faith itself is sinister, and it’s Christian, or it gets a Christian label.
We’ve been talking a lot about the experience of people who are marginalized, but fear is not only after the election something that people of color in this country have been addressing. What brought about, I think, that awful election, is white fear of losing significance, white fears of losing a place of prominence. It’s white anxiety. Fears that shape how we understand each other are not simply the experience of people of color, but being habituated in a superior social position is a white experience.
Wayne: Let’s make America great again.
Reggie: Yeah, yeah, retrieve America’s greatness. Historically, I do research on the Harlem Renaissance. Black people in the United States, at a time perhaps some may understand them to be trying to show to white America that we are also human. But the effort to show the rest of the world black humanity creates great anxiety in white people.
Co-humanity is a threat to that superior status. That’s fear, and you’ve got theologies that have been written based on that as well. Howard Thurman in the 1940s, his book Jesus and the Disinherited, has a chapter on fear as one of the dogs that have hounded the disinherited historically. He’s talking about the way people, communities, are habituated in fear and shame, much like a dog that has had an abusive master.
“I raise my hand and the dog cowers,” as Thurman says. Communities have been habituated to know themselves and what society says of them by fear. “The remedy to that fear,” Thurman said, “is to recognize not what society says about you, but that you are a child of God.”
Marshall: Reggie, you touched on something very interesting. I mean, black fear is not the same danger in this context as white fear. White fear, privileged fear, fear that controls economies and armies and has hegemony over other people, can be very dangerous, and I think—
Reggie: It is very dangerous.
Marshall: It is very dangerous. It is actually Hitleresque in the sense that fear, from a dominant population, is very dangerous.
Sandra: I think that creates a culture of fear. Therefore, with the rest of us, we just find our place in that culture of fear because—
Reggie: Build that wall.
Sandra: Right, if that culture of fear is created, a culture of scarcity, then the rest of us find our place and we end up fighting one another, trying to figure out our place in the whole thing. I think that’s what makes it hard to navigate a culture of fear, because you’re afraid of so many things.
I remember when—those of you who are familiar with the Enneagram—I was doing some Enneagram work. I was reading Richard Rohr’s book and listening to his lectures, and he talks about how countries have temperaments. He talked about how the U.S. is a culture of fear. You can see it in our news, you can see it in how we teach, you can see it in how we prepare people to grow up—we have this culture of fear.
When I listened to that, I just sat back in my chair and said, “Yes, that’s what I experience.” I’m like you, it takes a lot to make me afraid, but when I sat back I thought, “Yes, that’s what I feel around me”—this “There isn’t going to be enough. What if they come?” The hope I find, the security I find, is that actually that’s the narrative of Scripture, is faith in fear.
It’s not faith or fear, it’s not faith and fear, it’s faith in fear—because so much of our faith legacy is people who were on the run, people who were being marginalized, people who were being persecuted, people who were being annihilated, so when I read the story of the Jews in Egypt I’m not surprised. I can imagine being a people that’s just growing in number, and everyone’s scared of your presence. I know what that’s like because I hear it on the daily news and I hear it in the grocery store.
From people of every ethnicity and culture, I hear that about my community. “There’s too many of them. They’re multiplying so fast. Don’t they use birth control?” I mean, there are all these fears around our multiplication of numbers. “Where are they coming from? How can we build a taller wall?” Actually, that’s why I read the Scriptures. It’s almost like I’m laughing as I’m reading them, like I know what this is like, God. You were there.
Like you were saying the pastor said, “You were there in that,” and so somehow in the midst of this you are here with us.
Mark: We could go on for hours and hours tonight isolating, dissecting natures of fears, all of which is the vivid context that we live in. We’re wanting to bring about, exactly as you’ve just said, the cultivation of these habituated practices—how do we actually live with faith in fear?
All of us in different ways are in contexts where we’re given responsibility to nurture that. I want to pick up on that language that you both used in different ways to describe some of those ways. The charging the darkness instincts, what is it that we endure to cultivate that?
Marshall: It’s as if faith is an embrace of the future. I mean, I think about, as you were sharing, you can’t have faith without fear. You can only have faith because you fear, and you can’t have it without courage. Faith has to be a “be strong and be courageous” outlook toward the future. Many of us came into ministry impacted. I was 10 years old when Dr. King was killed—he organized here in Chicago in 1966 and lived in Lawndale.
That story is an incredible story. I still try to imagine a local pastor, co-pastor of Ebenezer in the midst of a great social movement, with the FBI director declaring you the most notorious liar in the country. That embrace, that faithful embrace of a future for the country, still having a dream, is just very inspiring to me in the 21st century.
Mark: Marshall, what’s the story for you of the moment, as you were developing this kind of vision, and learning to practice and live into courage? Give us an insight into how that got cultivated.
Marshall: It was very interesting all along the way, but there’s an interesting story. I went to McCormick—
Reggie: That’s good.
Marshall: I had a class on the Gospel of Mark as a first Gospel written that, according to the deconstructionists, did not end where the one we have now ends, but ends with the women going to the tomb and it’s empty. It was not only such a tremendous challenge, but an undergirding as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth. Not so much that he knew that the Father would raise him, but he believed it, and they went to the grave and he wasn’t there. To me as a realist in many ways, a realistic faith walker, it’s much easier to not necessarily believe everything has to turn out the way I think it should or turn out good—
Mark: The antidote to fear is not a perfect world.
Marshall: To embrace the future and go into it. If it is the destiny of America to be predominantly people of color, I’ve shared in my book, then what we ought to do is take all of our resources and invest them in children of color and the values that we believe in, if that’s the destiny of the country. Faith to me is embracing the future.
Mark: For you it was that intersection between the lived experience that already had taught you it’s not about happily ever after, and the text.
Marshall: And the text.
Mark: What are some other stories of that? What’s cultivated courageous responses to living in a world of fear for many of you?
Reggie: Can I . . . ?
Reggie: Again, just, I don’t think that fear is necessarily a bad thing.
Mark: No, in fact as I said, it’s an essential thing.
Reggie: There are some important elements to fear. It’s when my kids do not fear running free in traffic that I’m scared. There’s a problem.
Mark: Standing in the middle of a fire.
Reggie: There is a problem when my kids do not fear touching that hot stove, there’s something to be concerned about. Fear can work in some ways like a gift, a necessary gatekeeper and a goad towards productivity.
Reggie: My students don’t fear turning in their assignments late or not turning in their assignments. They should. There are some healthy things to fear. I think when fear works as an obstacle to our being able to be with each other, then we have some serious problems.
Mark: Something gets stopped.
Reggie: Something gets stopped. It works as an obstacle to knowing and being in relationship with each other. When we are talking about “Build that wall, because what I have is mine. I need to protect mine and me,” or when it stunts my ability to participate in what God is doing in society. Here I speak as a Christian. Here then we must do something about those fears.
Sandra: I was going to address that actually. I was thinking as you were talking, it’s not so much that we’re afraid, it’s what we’re afraid of and who we’re afraid of and why. One of the ways, I think, I’ve grown in that area is by being in relationship to and exposing myself to what God is doing around the world, being in friendships with people who are different than myself, spending multiple summers in Lawndale when I was living out in the suburbs with my parents, coming alongside leaders in my community and asking questions and trying to understand what they’re afraid of, why they’re afraid of it, what I can do about it.
My experiences with Christians in Egypt and in Turkey and in Jordan, and learning from Syrian refugees who are here in this country, is teaching me about what it means to live practically—
Mark: The life of faith in the middle of fear . . .
Sandra: The life of faith in the middle of fear is what changes me, so when I hear things on the news I’m like, “We shouldn’t be afraid. We should actually be welcoming them because there’s something about their faith, there’s something about their ability to grow and flourish in the midst of persecution that the church in the U.S. needs.” We desperately need that, so how can we learn from our brothers and sisters who are different than us, especially in the church, because we have those abilities?
I mean, we’re family, so we can just show up at their doorstep in Uganda and Kampala, and say, “Hey, brother, I’m here for a couple of weeks. I want to see what you guys do.” I plan on doing that this spring, because my friend, who I recently met, was telling me when I come back from the U.S. and step off the plane, it’s likely they will arrest me because of the work I do speaking truth to power, and that’s okay.
I literally had my mouth open, like “Oh, wow! That’s faith in fear.” For me, it’s been learning particularly from the church in marginalized or persecuted experiences across the world that even in my own community on the northwest side of Chicago I don’t experience.
Wayne: I think it’s Psalm 56 that says, “Whenever I’m afraid, I will trust in you, oh Lord.”
Reggie: You’re my hiding place.
Wayne: Yeah, so that when we have fear it leads us to trust. I remember this violence going on in Chicago. Of course, if you live in Chicago you just feel the pain and some of our neighborhoods are just filled with this violence. About five years ago I was preaching about the kingdom from Zechariah 8, and in that section it says that young children are playing in the streets where the adults of ripe old age are sitting on the park benches watching them.
All of a sudden I remember that those are the vulnerable, the elderly and the young in our society. When I first moved to Lawndale, all the little girls were doing double Dutch in the streets and all the boys were out playing baseball, but you know what? They don’t do that anymore, and it hit me while I was preaching that.
Then it hit me that, this was in April, we had already had 10 murders in Lawndale in the first four months of the year. All of a sudden I just started to weep in the pulpit, and it was uncontrollable. So our church said, “We are going to lean into this violence. We’re going to figure this out. We’re going to do something to stop it and do a little part. If the church doesn’t, who will?”
We started fasting every Wednesday, and praying, and asking God to lead us, and those kinds of things. I wish I could tell you something changed, but the murder rate went up. It went from 11 to 17 to 33, and last year we had 44 murders in North Lawndale.
How are we going to address that? People are so afraid of this violence. Long story short, we’ve been studying this for five years—I’ve read almost everything I can on why there is violence in Chicago—and we decided that we were going to start a little program. Marshall’s working on this, too. We’re working together on it, we’re helping each other.
For a little bit over minimum wage, about $12 in Chicago, you can pull somebody that’s in “the gang culture.” I don’t have time to go into all of that, but they want a better life. We have a Lawndale Christian Legal Center that represents young people 24 and under who get in trouble. What ends up happening is that we start a Lawndale Christian Peace Initiative, and we are looking for the most “at risk”—we don’t like to use that word, but just for this group to understand.
Either you’re a shooter or you have a likelihood to be a shooter. In order to get into our program you couldn’t be in school and you couldn’t have a job, and it’s for 18- to-24-year-olds. We had 20 young “gangbangers” in our program, and we used what we call the “Four Ls”: Listen, learn, love, and then live together. And it’s not them listening to us, it’s us listening to them, to the young people.
Two weeks into this program I’m taking a young man to a court case. We’re talking along the way and he says to me, “Listen.” I said, “What’s your case?”
“It’s a gun case.” He got caught carrying a gun. On the way there I said, “You mind if I pray for you before you go?” I’ve only known this young man for two weeks. He said, “No, pray for me.” I’m driving, I’m praying. I keep my eyes open when I pray, it’s okay, good. I take him, I drop him off. He gets out of the car, I’ve known him two weeks.
You know what he says to me? He says, “Coach, I love you.” He goes in. We’re doing great. This story’s going to be hard for me to tell, but I want to tell it. Two weeks ago, two weeks ago yesterday, I’m actually at Cook County Jail when it happens, but a car pulls up in front of our church. Two young men get out, one with an automatic, high-powered rifle, another with a handgun, and right in front of our church, they target a young man and shoot.
Nine shots are fired and it kills this young man right in front of our church. It’s the most devastating thing that’s ever happened to me in my life, this young man lying there. Now our young men are not safe to come to our church. They’re afraid to come to our church. The other thing about Black Lives Matter, I quickly got our texting and emails from our church out to our church family because I wanted everybody in our church to know this happened. I didn’t want them to hear it through the news.
Most people here have no idea this happened. Do you know that not one of the stations in Chicago had it on their 10 o’clock news? This happened at 2:45 in the afternoon, Wednesday, May 10, and the Tribune and the Sun Times, neither had an article about it. I don’t know what’s worse, a young man being shot and killed in front of a church, or a young man being shot in front of the church and nobody cares enough to report it.
His life didn’t matter and wow! We’re still recovering from this. The young people have been teaching us their fears, and we’ve been listening to them. We had the young boy’s funeral. He was 19 years old, a teenager, and 300 young gangbangers were at that funeral. To greet every one of them and call as many of them by name as I knew, and to hug every one of them, and to listen to their pain, and to listen to their sorrow, I’ve learned more in five weeks than I did in five years of reading about it.
They don’t want to stay in this lifestyle, but I wonder, where are we in our society? The fear is there, but also the insignificance of life that I just can’t believe this story didn’t make the news, and I don’t like the news, but I mean, it’s just like, wow!
Mark: No meaning and no agency.
Reggie: Yes, the story didn’t make the news. That is supposed to happen in those communities. It’s supposed to happen down there. Let it happen on the North Side—
Wayne: Where is there a church in America that that could happen?
Reggie: In Chicago, on the South and the West Side, that’s where that can happen, because those lives, that’s supposed to happen.
Shannon: It would make the news in front of this church.
Mark: It would?
Shannon: Yes, it would.
Marshall: Lead story.
Shannon: When you were asking how do we cultivate faith or courage—part of what my staff and I are feeling called to do is actually cultivate a sense of dissatisfaction within the culture of Fourth Presbyterian Church. We’re trying to speak race, racism, and white privilege in a way where those of us who don’t have to know that story on a lived basis become dissatisfied with the way the world is, so that we can do what we can to change ourselves and have the courage to be honest about our fear of what we will lose. It’s about making people mad, about shaking things up so that God can work with us to help do whatever God imagines and hopes for the world.
That’s why our staff just went through this anti-racism training with Chicago-ROAR. It is not a conversation that my congregation frankly even knows that we’re starting to have for the most part. It is going to be a threatening conversation for a lot of my folk. It’s going to be uncomfortable and it’s probably not going to be super fun, but what I’m feeling that we are being called to do in the city of Chicago is to be stewards of the power and the privilege that we have, to cultivate this dissatisfaction so that we can start to be changed.
Wayne: I like that word, dissatisfaction.
Shannon: It’s going to be scary, but moving into that is the only way I feel like we’re going to be faithful in living out our baptism. I mean, how else can we be a faithful community, how else can we say we’re following Jesus crucified and risen, if we’re not willing to head into that fear and be willing to say, “What do we need to change and let go of?”
Wayne: That’s facing your fear, and that’s exactly, I think, what you were saying, Reggie, earlier—that one of the tales of this last election was that white people are afraid to lose so much right now in America, and so unwilling to face those fears. For your congregation to take this step . . .
Shannon: Well, they don’t know this yet.
Wayne: No, I know, but even for the leadership to be facing that fear. John Perkins often says that for some reason it’s been okay for years to be a Christian in America and be a bigot. We’ve got to work to change that, but it’s uncomfortable. Obviously I’ve had to deal with my white privilege, living in an African American community, because I walk in a room and some things change. It’s like, wow! That’s a sad commentary, but it’s real.
Shannon: We also have to, and I have to get over this, I have to let go of thoughts like, no, I don’t want to do that either. We’re giving this up, we’re going to say the wrong things, we’re not going to do it right. I’ll mess up in whatever leadership that we’re being called to do, but if we’re paralyzed by that perfection thing or that task or whatever . . .
+ The Story Table takes a theme from FULLER magazine and brings it to life at everyone’s favorite conversation place: the dinner table. People who embody the theme in unique ways tell their stories around the table, and members of the community are invited to listen in. If you are interested in hosting your own Story Table, we’ve prepared a guide that you might find helpful. Download our Story Table Guide. Explore other Story Tables here.
Mark: [speaking to the audience] I’d like to invite the rest of you into this conversation because this terrain doesn’t, of course, belong just to us at the table. It belongs to all of us, and we each have different intersection points of both questions, comments, commentary, observation. Let me just invite you to engage with each other and/or to engage with people at the table, so let’s have the hand on the right.
Jennifer Wright: I’m Jennifer Wright, a teacher on the South Side of Chicago. Listening to your conversation and hearing from our students, I really feel that fear has killed faith, and because there is no faith then there’s no fear. Our students don’t care if they get shot. They don’t care who they may hurt, so there’s a space that I think the faith community is overlooking because we’re dealing with a generation. I’m not sure if you guys know Kendrick Lamar’s new album. He has a section on there where he says, “All of my grandmothers are dead. Nobody’s praying for me so I’m on your head.”
He’s saying that there’s a space, where those grandmothers on the bench were watching their children or their grandchildren, that doesn’t exist anymore. Our kids don’t feel like there’s a space for faith where a God actually exists and loves them and cares for them. It makes sense. If they start to look at their lineage and their history, where is God? My question or charge to all of us is, how do we speak to that, because faith and the community of young, black and brown children is dead. That’s my reality.
Reggie: Thank you for that really fascinating juxtaposition about faith, death, and fear killing faith. That’s a very real, raw existence in communities where Cornel West talks about the presence of nihilism. Just nihilism, where there once was community and on Sunday morning we sang the songs that the ancestors sang and trusted in God.
We’re on the other side of that now, with all of the violence in the community. I saw this thing where someone asks, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And the kid says, “Alive.” This is a very constant reality. The only thing I would say in response to that, because my wife also teaches on the South Side, is that while that may be a very palpable reality for quite a number of kids, it’s not the entire community. There is still something very vibrant within African American communities that says that God does exist.
In our church over in Trinity, we do have young people who are killed. Each time that happens, we grieve. I am sick of burying kids and hearing that news, hearing those stories. Somehow there is the identification with the crucified Christ that happens within black communities, where we meet Christ in the suffering that keeps hope a real and present reality.
It’s a very palpable reality that God is with Christ on the Cross, God is with us in our suffering, and it’s not the end. Suffering doesn’t have the last word. Now, how that translates to those kids who are thinking, “I want to be alive when I grow up,” is the challenge for churches who don’t have youth ministry, perhaps, who don’t have active engagement with young people, but that is the condition of our community and our churches there on the South Side. Very real.
Mark: There’s another hand—yeah.
Lukeeya: I just want to speak about fear in general. As Dr. Labberton said, fear can cause panic, fear can cause paralysis, fear causes paranoia. There are lots of things that fear causes and I do understand there’s a healthy fear of a respected law officer. But the Bible says that God did not give us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of love, power, and a sound mind. I think we as Christians in America, we’re just soft.
I don’t know if we want to hear that. We’re soft as Christians. We’re comfortable, and we’ve learned how to combat fear with faith. He says love, power, and a sound mind . . . That is a tripartite aspect of our soul. One of the things I totally agree with that we’re talking about is that I was happy at my grandmother’s place.
My grandmother told me, “When you kneel before God, there’s no man that you cannot stand in front of.” This is a woman who had crosses burning in her front yard in a crazy time. Fear is a spirit, and when it turns into paranoia and panic and paralysis, we only give fear power and we don’t exercise our faith. That is how to overcome that fear, whatever your fears are, because most fears we’ve heard are false evidence appearing real. It’s like fake news.
Most of the things that we fear will never come to pass. There are some legitimate fears, but when you learn how to combat fear, most of it will dissipate and you will be able to discern what is the real issue. What is the legitimate thing, what’s the legitimate threat? In some communities, there are legitimate threats.
There are honest fears that people have, and sometimes we just dismiss them. I know that’s something we as Christians need to pay more attention to. We can start kneeling more, praying more, and stop just being upset and uncomfortable.
Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I’ve been fearful, and you’re not talking to someone who’s lived a perfectly charmed life. I grew up in a community that Money magazine said was the most dangerous place to live, the worst place to raise kids, across the street from the biggest crack house in my county.
I grew up in the largest county in the world, the methamphetamine capital, and growing up there I saw sexual assault. I’ve been kidnapped. When my car breaks down like it did last year, and I’m with my young son and we’re up late and it’s dark, he says, “You afraid, Mommy?” I said, “No, son, I’m not afraid, because God is watching us, and God is in control. You don’t have to worry, because even if something bad happens he is still sorry, he is still in control.”
We got to get that back. I don’t know where your grandmothers are, but most of us here have had grandmothers. I don’t care if you’re Latin, Asian, black, Caucasian, most of us in this room had a grandmother who was praying. We need to go back and we need to find that, and we need to exercise that faith. For some people there is legitimate fear.
You’re white, you’re male, your fear is that things are changing, and I can empathize with that because there’s a fear of the future. There’s also the fear for my husband—he’s going to kill me for this—he has four Ivy League degrees, but when we’re driving and the cops pull me over because I am driving too fast, they ask for his driver’s license.
I just had a car towed out of our garage that belongs to a 29-year-old family member. It’s been sitting collecting dust for two years. He is afraid to drive. His BMW, that he earned with his own money, he’s afraid to drive, because the first year he bought it he was arrested and handcuffed in the back of a squad car. He didn’t get a ticket. “We’re just checking.”
That also applies to all four of my siblings: the doctor who’s the medical director of a hospital in a major state; the attorney who’s also a CPA; the engineer who’s in an undisclosed country right now because he’s a hacker for the U.S. government; and the one in the military. All of them, as well as my cousin, have been pulled over for no reason, on average five times. Hands on the roof, spreadeagle, for no reason—and didn’t get a ticket, numerous times.
Now, is it fear because yes, things have happened. My nephew was shot twice in the chest for taking out his cell phone to take a picture of the cop who was abusing his friend. Or my brother, who’s the tax accountant in Beverly Hills, actually disappeared for several days because the cops beat him senseless, and when he was going to file a lawsuit, that’s desperate, that is real.
Dropping my son off at school this morning, I heard there’s a courier floating around here in Chicago encouraging people in the black community, “If you see a suspected illegal immigrant, call this number so they can get picked up,” teaching us to turn in our friends. That is real for that community. Every community, every group of people has legitimate fears.
If we as Christians can learn how to fight through the fake fear, the fake news, the fake whatever and really begin to use discernment, spiritual discernment, which is a gift, then we can actually focus on what is really going on, as the body of Christ.
Mark: Thank you very much. Others who might want to comment, raise questions, make observations.
Karl Ostroski: I’m a tall, thin, educated white Anglo-Saxon Protestant attracted to women, so I’m the man in every representation of that race. I appreciate what you said earlier about how I’m going to mess up. It is inevitable, given my social location, my culture, my work environment, everything I do, that I’m going to do something that dishonors or disrespects the imago dei of my brother or sister or some other human being on this planet.
Now I know that people like me can get paralyzed by the fear of “I’m going to hurt someone. I’m going to do something and then when I do, I’m going to want them to validate that our relationship’s still okay when they can’t even handle the fact that I said what I just said or did what I just did,” so I appreciate that. I’m in IT. We talk about fast to fail, so the culture is, develop something, do it wrong, and learn from it.
Shannon: Fail forward.
Karl Ostroski: Yes, so I appreciate the freedom, I think—you spoke to people like me, saying, “Yes, we are going to mess up.” That’s part of extending grace and receiving grace from our brothers and sisters, so thank you for that.
Mark: Fear can be isolating.
Karl Ostroski: Yes.
Mark: Hugely isolating in its own way, yeah. Thank you.
Sandra: Can I respond to that since that’s my husband?
Mark: Now you’re in trouble.
Sandra: One thing I was thinking earlier is that facing our fears actually leads to freedom. I remember I was once leading a program, the Chicago Urban Program, and someone who wanted to work with that program gave me a list of things they wanted to learn. They came in as a volunteer with this agenda of things they wanted to learn—including things they wanted to learn from you, Coach.
I had to sit down and tell them, “This is not how you enter into a community. This is not how you do this.” The conversation that ensued afterwards was all about, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to come across that way. I was afraid there would be misunderstanding.” I said, “No, that’s just called entitlement. That’s not miscommunication, that’s actually entitlement. That’s what happens when . . .”
We had this conversation and he was upset. It took a couple of years to work through that word that I had spoken, but he came back and said, “I really needed to hear that, because I wasn’t set free from my entitlement. I didn’t realize it was there. I was afraid to fail, I was afraid to say the wrong thing, I was afraid to be perceived a certain way, but I actually didn’t realize that I actually was that way. I was afraid to be perceived as entitled, but I was entitled.”
When I was able to address that, it actually set him free as a person. His fear of failure, in addressing that straight on—he’s a different person now because he was able to just lean into that.
Mark: Maybe one more comment or observation from anyone? As we bring this to a close it’s just evident that a conversation is a conversation, it’s not a problem-solving exercise, it’s not a fix.
Reggie: Can I make just two quick observations?
Wayne: You were the one that said you had nothing to say. He had no stories.
Reggie: No stories. One thing it would be important to address is the narrative we believe ourselves to be living as Christians. What is this narrative of being a Christian? Is it that we accept Christ so that we can then become moral people and make it into heaven? Is there something of God’s expectation of us on Earth? Is the mission of the church something along the lines of bringing justice into society, giving people what they need to live well, to connect people back into relationships? What is this narrative that we understand?
I think that will describe what faith means for us. The narrative that we understand of what it means to be a Christian is the content of our faith. That’s first. I would be on the side of the one who recognizes that the narrative of faith is the one about living in community with each other.
In that context, in that narrative, the goal of life as it is portrayed by the Gospel, is one of making peace between God and humanity, between humanity and humanity, between humanity and the Earth.
Sandra: Creation, yeah.
Wayne: Creation. It’s peace. Peace is something that has to be understood from Bonhoeffer. It’s not the demand for safety and the end of my vulnerability, but it is living alongside fear, venturing, with a venture towards peacemaking. That’s it.
Mark: I think that’s a great way for us to draw what we’re doing here tonight to a close, because certainly what we’ve opened up is the can of worms that we all live with every day. Different people in different contexts experience it more vulnerably and more agonizingly than other people do, but all of us share as human beings in a world of tremendous uncertainty and vulnerability.
It’s often an elaborate set of practices that we become very good at to try to mask the fact that we live with fear, to try to control fear, to try to manage fear, and clearly some people have greater privilege and opportunity to do that and other people have less. That creates its own extraordinary set of complicated narratives.
I want to suggest, as this comes to a close, that the goal is not to eradicate fear from the world. It’s actually to acknowledge the presence of fear, and to not cultivate a discipleship that’s trying to hide from fear, but a kind of faith that actually enables us, with strength and hope, to lean into the realities of fear. And not just our fears, which is often the individualized preoccupation of Americans, but our collective fears, our social fears, the fears of people that are like and wholly unlike us.
I hope that part of what we take away is an opportunity to continue to reflect in our own lives—as I do, I think, almost every day—to consider what are the fears that are in me? What are the fears that are in the world I’m a part of? How do I lean into that with deeper faith, greater courage, and deeper wisdom that doesn’t try to eradicate any of those things, but sees them as an opportunity to understand the presence of God in the middle of a vulnerable world?
That, clearly, is the hope of the gospel that points us to Christ, who is the most vulnerable, the most prone with every possible identification with us to step into and feel his own fears. I think it’s rather extraordinary, really, that the Gospels don’t do anything to mask even the fears of Jesus, but draw us into the presence of God. I feel like God’s presence has been with us tonight, and I thank you for being part of this conversation, and for everyone who’s here. Thank you very much.
Multiple: Thank you. Thank you.
Mark: Good night.