Forum addresses the elephant in the church

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The Dallas Examiner

“Speaking to the Elephant in the Room: the church’s response to the …isms,” was the lengthy title for a faith-based examination on subjects that have an equally lengthy negative history for many during the Zan W. Holmes Jr. African Heritage Lecture Series event held Feb. 2.

The question and answer-style community forum held at the St. Luke “Community” United Methodist Church addressed issues of racism, sexism, homelessness and homophobia by a panel of guests moderated by Demond Fernandez of WFAA.

Part of the purpose of the gathering was to encourage the exploration of solutions to the myriad of issues presented announced Dr. Michael Bowie Jr, senior pastor of St. Luke.

“Churches have two things they can do,” he said as he introduced the program. “They can be historical, or history-making.”

Jeffrey Halstead, retired chief of the Fort Worth Police Department, addressed the role of churches when it came to tackling violence caused by, and directed toward, police.

“There is something significantly flawed within our current criminal justice system,” he declared.

The former chief said further that, if 10 perent of the overall population is Black yet 90 perent of the prison population is also Black, that proved the crime remedies already in place were not working. It was an issue that Halstead said he took to religious leaders while he was chief.

“We have got to host some type of community event where we and the community reach out,” he recalled. “And for those that are now incarcerated, when they get out, we’ve got to get them instituted in the community in a positive, faith-based method and do not let them go back to what got them there in the first place.”

One parent asked why police training methods had placed the burden of not being injured upon so many young men stopped by police and not upon the officers.

“It is changing,” Halstead answered about the training police receive, but agreed, “It isn’t happening fast enough for your demand as a brother, a sister, a father …”

He revealed that police are killed most often during traffic stops, and second-most often during domestic dispute calls. Part of police training also involves watching video footage of officers as they die in the line of duty. The retired chief maintained that sort of instruction leads to the institutional idea that every driver is a potential threat.

“When a hand leaves our sight, you are getting your weapon,” Halstead asserted, explaining the patterns that current training has created. “We know you are getting your ID, but our training is you are going for a weapon …”

The former chief added another note later in the discussion.

“The way training is done today is totally unacceptable.”

Another major topic of the evening was that of sexism and sex roles within the traditional church. Dr. Irie Lynne Session, president of The Black Ministers Fellowship, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), voiced her concern that women have historically been excluded in major roles within most churches.

“The faith community hasn’t stepped forward enough,” she said on getting more women involved in religious leadership and cited a “fundamental devaluation of women” within many interpretations of the Christian faith.

When Dr. Neal Cazares-Thomas, senior pastor of Cathedral of Hope, was asked if he had seen the existence of sexism in the way churches commonly operate, his answer was, “Absolutely.”

He expanded on his answer, indicating the issue became more complex when it came to church members who identify as homosexual, bisexual, transgendered and the numerous other designations they may self-identify.

“The role of the church is to be counter-culture,” Cazares-Thomas voiced as he offered that Jesus played that same role during his lifetime. He resented that modern churches tended to turn away souls based on traditional expectations of sex and sexuality.

“The truth is there is not one church in this world where some person is not self-identified as LGBTQ …” the reverend affirmed, stating churches have only been comfortable with such members as long as they have stayed in specific roles.

“The root is, we have always been here …” Cazares-Thomas said, and argued the time had come for both women and the LGBTQ community to step forward in active church leadership.

The battle against poverty was another area where churches could make a bigger, better difference, many panelists expressed. Rev. Jonathan Grace, pastor of Church at the Square homeless ministry, pondered the old adage “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.”

Grace admitted that a concrete solution that included social justice was more complicated.

“We have to meet immediate needs of poverty and that is where our churches do a pretty good job,” he said. “If that is all we do we are really sustaining poverty? We also have to be active about the ‘teaching a person to fish’; being at the schools, making sure the school system is running correctly.”

The audience applauded in agreement.

Job training also played a part.

He added that churches had a duty to become more involved with larger political issues. He then illustrated that point as he wondered what might happen if a man was trained to fish and could afford all the equipment to do so.

“You go to that fishing hole and there’s a big wall around it. Or, if some company had been dumping toxins into the water and all the fish are dead. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done,” Grace conceded. “That third level of justice we have to be, as the church, engaged on a systemic level of poverty are our laws. Do the poor have a voice? And often they do not.”

When one attendee commented that poverty is sometimes viewed as a temporary situation, Session again spoke up.

The doctor – who is also Spiritual Support and Leader’s Circle director for the nonprofit group New Friends New Life, a service provider for survivors of sex trafficking and prostitution – emphasized that for some women poverty was “a way of life,” and church members volunteering to hand out food once a month didn’t go far enough to foster change.

“We walk with the women day to day,” she explained. “We pay rent, we pay utilities, condos; we have a part of our organization that find jobs for them.”

Session informed those gathered that more houses of worship needed to get similarly involved in their communities.

“What would happen if a church decided that we are going to take one or two people and take care of them for two years?” she wondered aloud. That would include paying for college, job skills and housing. “Many of these churches, we have money but we are spending it on ourselves.”

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