Last week I travelled to the Great River Region’s CYF Conference in Hot Springs, AR, for my first trip to Razorback country. I was struck by the beauty of the campground–its rustic cabins, pine forests and the Ouachita River that bordered the site. Only the love and kindness of the campers, counselors and keynoters surpassed the beauty of the grounds.
Our theme for the week was prayer. With the help of our keynoters we learned about how prayer offers us an opportunity for reflection and for spiritual discernment, as a way to draw closer to God, and as a means of strengthening and encouraging those around us. It was a hopeful message, one that resonated deeply with me, as I have too often limited prayer to being an opportunity for confession or to present God with a wish list. Prayer, I now realize, is first and foremost a blessing rather than just another religious obligation.
The week’s theme coincided well with the peace and justice discussions I was able to have with the campers. We talked about putting our faith into action—what it means to resist the temptation to be armchair Christians and to faithfully witness to peace and justice in our communities. We realized that prayer is essential to a life committed to justice–that reflection and discernment is imperative to faithful action.
Our reflections on prayer also led us to reflect on the church’s historical role as a witness for peace and justice. We focused especially on the actions of faith leaders and laypeople during the Civil Rights Movement, discussing luminaries like Fred Shuttlesworth, Diane Nash, and Bayard Rustin. We also grappled with Martin Luther King’s stinging indictment of people of faith who preferred turning a blind eye to injustice to being labeled “nonconformists” and speaking against it.
So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.
I was impressed by the campers’ willingness to engage in these discussions, to question the role of the church in society and to commit to more faithfully working for justice in their communities. I was especially encouraged by the open-mindedness of a woman who realized for the first time that the Little Rock Nine were people worth celebrating. She could remember with pride their simple yet courageous decision to go to school in the face of widespread opposition to desegregation. Rather than being mired in remorse by the shameful racial relations of her state’s past, she could lift up these nine students as heroes of the Civil Rights Movement and of Arkansas’ state history. To her, these students became exemplars of courage and perseverance and inspirations for future movements for social justice.
Reflecting on our church’s past and present roles this summer has been challenging. Though not always an easy process, it has offered new perspectives on living a life of faith and has given me opportunities to grow and mature as a disciple of Christ. I hope the campers I meet this summer can continue to share this opportunity for reflection and growth.
Jonathan Cahill is a 2014 Disciples Peace Fellowship Intern, sponsored by Federated Church of West Lafayette.