Why — and How — You Should Develop the Social Justice Ministry of Your Church
By Cynthia L. Hale, M.Div., D.Min.
On July 5, 1968, Christianity Today published an article titled, “Can We Awaken the Sleeping Giant?” Author Ronn Spargur argued that the church was too lethargic, too complacent, too sleepy, too unbothered about doing the work of living like Christians. “Here is the Church’s weakest link: those who confess Christ and then do nothing for him.” Too many Christians were unbothered about giving “tangible meaning” to their asserted beliefs that they should love their neighbors as themselves.
Over 50 years later, has the church awakened? Or are we sleeping, silent — or worse, self-satisfied? The charge continues to be leveled against the church. Obery Hendricks, in his book, Blow the Trumpet in Zion: Global Vision and Action for the 21st Century Black Church, says:
Generally speaking, our churches today are so engaged in hyper-spiritualizing worship, building churches into big business, and turning themselves into gospel entertainment centers, that we sometimes lose sight of the real mandate of the gospel. In this sense, our focus is often fixed on “Church-ianity” rather than Christianity.
As he explains, church-ianity’s concern is institutional maintenance rather than ministry to the world. Too many churches (and not just Black ones) are focused on maintenance or providing for the people on the inside while the people of the world perish, spiritually and literally.
It is time for the church to speak up! The world needs to hear from us, because many believe that the church is irrelevant and that we are indeed a silent giant with no desire and no power to change anything.
SALT AND LIGHT
This assessment of the church does not square with what Jesus says about us in Matthew 5:13–14: “You are the salt of the earth . . . you are the light of the world.”
Jesus spoke these words to his disciples, both then and now, as he sat on the Mount and taught them kingdom principles and practices by which they were to operate in the world. He wanted us to know who we are. He wanted to make clear our position and responsibility in the world.
When Jesus came into the world, he came as light to dispel the darkness of evil, ignorance, sin, oppression, devastation, dishonesty, despair, and death. Anyone who claims to follow Jesus is rescued from darkness and given light and understanding to make the right decisions and choices, along with the power to walk in the light as he is in the light.
Salt is a basic commodity today, but in the ancient world, salt was highly valued. The Greeks used salt as currency, medicine, and sacred offerings. The Romans had a kind of jingle, Nil utilius sole et sale, which means “Nothing is more useful than sun and salt.” Salt is a preservative, and when rubbed into meat, it keeps it from spoiling. Christians are to have this kind of influence in the world. Without our godly presence and participation in the world, this thing will spoil; the evidence is all around us.
Jesus wants us to understand that we have a moral obligation to be “different.” We cannot think like others think; operate like they operate. We dare not ignore the desperate circumstances and cries of the people, acting as if what happens to the people around us is not our concern. We cannot say to ourselves, As long as it does not happen to me and mine, then I don’t need to get involved.
We are already involved by virtue of the fact that we represent God in the world. We are therefore charged with the responsibility and the authority of keeping this thing on track.
THE CALL AND EXAMPLE OF JESUS
We take our cue from Jesus, who ministered in a world not much different from ours. In his book The Politics of Jesus, Obery Hendricks notes: “Jesus, his family, and, with few exceptions, everyone he encountered throughout his life were impoverished and oppressed, exploited by the religious establishment, brutalized by the Roman citizens.”
It was in this context that Jesus’ ministry was formed. He made this clear in his inaugural sermon, as he read from the Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah, recorded in Luke 4:18–19, and claimed it as his mantra, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
When Jesus preached this sermon, he was making clear that his purpose on earth and his mission were one in the same. We could easily read this passage from a spiritual perspective, as I was taught while growing up in my home church, thinking that Jesus was simply addressing the needs of the souls of men and women. But when we look at the context in which he lived and read the Scriptures, particularly the Gospels, it is clear that Jesus came to proclaim radical economic, social, and political change.
Jesus came to shake up the status quo, to radically change the distribution of authority, power, goods, and resources so that all people, especially the “least of these” might live their lives free of political repression, enforced hunger, poverty, and undue insecurity.
Jesus not only sought to address the symptoms of people’s suffering, but he also wanted to alleviate the systematic causes of their suffering. Jesus spoke truth to power, calling for a reversal of the injustice that was rampant in the land.
Jesus’ style of ministry was “prophetic.” He carried out the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, who were called to transform the social order by speaking out against it. The prophet also spoke on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, the downtrodden, assuring them that one day justice would prevail. The prophet further empowers the oppressed to free themselves from all that is holding them captive.
As Jesus’ disciples, we are called to do no less. We are to be prophets and priests. James Cone affirmed this in a lecture titled “Loving God with Our Heart, Soul and Mind”: “Ministers are both priests and prophets. They care for the souls who are wounded by personal loss and hurt, and they fight for justice for the people who have been wronged in society.”
It is not an either-or, it is a both-and proposition and privilege that we are given as ministers of the gospel. We have a responsibility to be prophetic and priestly in our message and our ministry.
TOOLS FOR PROPHETIC MINISTRY
We need practical tools to develop the prophetic, social justice dimensions of ministry. I started Ray of Hope Christian Church with a group of upwardly mobile, progressive young adults who, like me, wanted to change the world. We started our church in the South DeKalb area of Decatur, Ga., the nation’s second-wealthiest African American county. (Prince George County in Maryland was number one.) At the time, the poverty level in our county was below 2 percent.
But as our community transitioned from white to Black, we were redlined and could never attract upscale restaurants, hotels, or other amenities that would sustain a healthy and prosperous community. Atlanta closed its housing developments, giving its displaced residents Section 8 vouchers. They moved to the suburbs, including ours, and gradually the number of persons living in poverty increased. By 2021, the poverty rate in our county was 14.45 percent.
When we first started Ray of Hope, even with no apparent needs in the immediate community, we were determined to provide for the “least of these.” We made sandwiches and soup on Saturday mornings at the church, boxed the lunches, and drove to Atlanta to distribute them. We didn’t have to look hard for homeless people — the homeless population was growing rapidly there. We also connected with ministries in downtown Atlanta that had homeless shelters and feeding sites.
This ministry grew to the point that we started using our bus to pick up homeless men on a Sunday morning, bringing them to our church for breakfast, a shower, clean clothes, and worship. At other times, we would get on the bus after church, go downtown, and meet the men and some women in the park. We sat and talked with them to learn what more we could do for them. It was our desire to see them off the streets.
The ministry that began in the church’s kitchen has now become the Reconnection Ministry, which services extended-stay hotels just five miles or less from the church. We provide meals, life skills training, and job fairs. The Reconnection Ministry was the beginning of our Outreach/Social Justice Ministry. Our social justice ministry started organically.
Developing a social justice ministry requires that you identify the people with a heart or passion for it, the expertise and experience to make it a reality, and allow them to do it. When we decided that we wanted to have a counseling center, a psychologist in the church helped develop the center and trained others to partner with her. Through the years, members and ministries have been invited and encouraged to dream of what was possible in line with our vision and in response to the needs they have become aware of in our community, nation, and world.
While there are programs and ministries that flow directly out of the Outreach/Social Justice Ministry for whole church participation, every ministry of our church has a social justice or outreach component. For instance, our senior ministry, The Golden Rays, collects toiletries, socks, clothes, and cleaning supplies to make baskets for those who live in extended-stay hotels and a temporary living facility for families. The women’s ministry has a backpack drive for children and delivers them to schools, shelters, and the Domestic Violence Safe Home.
The signature ministry of our church is the Hope Through Health Clinic. The clinic began by identifying the poorest county in the state who might need our services. We contacted the state representatives and other leaders in the county, partnered with them, and held our first mobile health clinic in a school building in Cuthbert, Ga. We provided dental, medical, and eye exams; prescriptions; food; and clothing. We committed to being there for three years, and county representatives worked side by side with us in every aspect of the clinic. By the third year, they could conduct their own clinic, and we were able to move to another county.
EDUCATION, ADVOCACY, ACTION
Leaders need to use every means available to educate people on the issues that rob them of a quality of life and life itself. As a pastor, I realized I have a captive audience on Sunday mornings. I use the pulpit to talk about the issues that matter to our community.
When the HIV/AIDs epidemic first surfaced, I knew there needed to be greater awareness in our community, and the stigma of it needed to be addressed. I also knew that my people would never attend a forum on HIV/AIDs on a weeknight or even a Saturday morning. I dedicated a whole service to the topic and preached on the subject. Then I invited a group of people who were health care professionals, as well as those infected with and affected by the disease, to dialogue about it. I have used Sunday mornings, along with Bible studies, to address human trafficking, domestic violence, COVID-19, voter suppression, human sexuality, and other justice issues that people are uncomfortable talking about.
We are called to advocate for policies and programs that put an end to the ills of our society: homelessness, hunger, and unemployment. We also must advocate for better wages, health care, and other employment benefits, as well as low-cost and affordable housing and daycare.
At Ray of Hope, we do this through attending Lobby Days at the Georgia State House, writing letters to the institutions known for unjust practices, and appealing to elected officials to vote in favor of laws that would benefit those for whom we are advocating. As just one example, QuikTrip planned to build a truck stop in the heart of our community. While truck stops provide vital services, they can also harm a neighborhood and the environment. We partnered with other churches and neighborhood associations to write letters and attend meetings with the Board of Commissioners who had to approve the truck stop. Eventually, QuikTrip’s application was denied on the grounds that it would harm our community.
We must provide programs that transform a person’s life. In 2013, I kept hearing that girls from the local high school were being recruited as sex workers and then sometimes transported out of the area. This disturbed me greatly, and I wondered what our church could do about it. My minister to women shared that the Women’s Ministry Council wanted to develop a human trafficking ministry. One Sunday morning, I hosted a panel with community partners during our worship service.
Following the panel discussion, I issued a call to action to solicit people to be boots on the ground. The minister to women formed a planning team with those who expressed interest and signed up. They researched organizations in the city to formulate a partnership; reached out to local organizations to schedule in-person meetings and to understand the needs and opportunities to develop a partnership; sent invitation letters to prospective volunteers, completed applications to the programs, conducted training, secured background checks; and developed a calendar and schedules for activity.
Human Trafficking Ministry Calendar
· January — Human Trafficking Awareness Training and Interest Meeting
· February — Attend Anti-Sex Trafficking Lobby Day at Georgia State Capitol
· Second Saturdays — Monthly Meetings
· Third Fridays — Phoenix Diversion Life Skills Training. The Phoenix Program is an alternative diversion program offered by the Office of the DeKalb County Solicitor-General. This voluntary program diverts those cases where women of any age have been charged with prostitution. Participants should be ready to change their lifestyle and head in a healthy direction. Ray of Hope volunteers attended court each month with these women and provided life skills training.
· Every Friday — Princess Night, when volunteer teams travel together in an Out of Darkness van to engage with individuals possibly being exploited in the commercial sex industry, offering prayer, resources, and hope. While engaging, they deliver roses and handmade cards, communicating to women they are valued and loved and that there are opportunities for hope, rescue, and recovery. The cards include messages of encouragement and our 24/7 hotline number. Women are rescued and brought out of bondage.
Women can volunteer at the level of their comfort; while some have a passion for street ministry, jail ministry, or more personal experiences, we also have opportunities to send cards, make blankets, prepare toiletry kits, lead life skills training, attend monthly court appearances, and more. There are many ways to participate in the ministry so that we can reach, rescue, and restore women.
Through collaboration and partnership, social justice ministry can transform lives. When the Super Bowl was held in Atlanta in 2019, we formed an alliance with others in our community to respond to the spike in human trafficking activity. And Ray of Hope volunteers assisted in renovating, remodeling, and sponsoring the prayer room in the safe home secured by Out of Darkness in our community.
I know that some say this work is only possible for a large church with multiple staff, but that is not the case. Ray of Hope’s social justice ministry is led by capable and committed lay people in the congregation and expanded through collaboration with other organizations. It is time for the church to be awake and alive, not asleep and silent, in the face of the needs around us. It is time to have our passion for social justice stirred up, and time to exhort our people to get involved and share the work. With leadership and partnership, we can impact and transform this present world for the kingdom of God.
About the author: The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Hale is the founder and senior pastor of Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur, Ga. She earned her master of divinity degree from Duke Divinity School, and was a featured preacher for the 50th anniversary of the Office of Black Church Studies. This article is adapted from her Martin Luther King Jr. Lectures at Duke in April 2023.