Back in early 2018, when the Conference was entering into a time of strategic discernment about what our future might look like, one of the questions we posed went something like this:
What is it that the Minnesota Conference UCC can offer that no one else likely can or will?
That’s a question I still think about all the time as I contemplate our ministries together. What is it that we in our UCC congregations uniquely have to offer in this moment? What distinctive gifts do we bring? What is our particular piece of the transformational work needed in the world?
These are the questions I’m asking now in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, too. In the last five weeks, we’ve seen Minnesota and the entire nation respond to that horrific event with a mix of anger, profound sadness, and what appears to be a renewed commitment to systemic change and true racial equity.
But what is the Church’s role in this important work? What is our role as the Minnesota Conference United Church of Christ?
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns, was recently Krista Tippet’s guest on the “On Being” podcast. As the two talked about the ongoing narrative in this country of black death and racial injustice, Wilkerson said something that struck a chord with me. She said: “…laws are necessary, but they’re not sufficient… if the hearts have not changed. And so I view myself as on kind of a mission to change the country, the world, one heart at a time. I feel as if the heart is the last frontier because we have tried so many other things.”
Changing hearts as the last frontier of meaningful social change. That is a distinctive role the Church can meaningfully claim!
The ministry of Jesus was a case study in changing hearts. He called people to confession and truth. He caused those he encountered to examine their own minds and hearts and invited them to a journey of purposeful and life-long change. He dared to crack open sensitive issues of his time and challenge traditions and laws that caused harm to “the least of these,” He appealed to those around him to practice extravagant love, deep compassion, and wide mercy. He dared people to expand their understanding of who their “neighbor” was and what loving that neighbor required. And he did it all while meeting people in the harsh realities of their own lives, seeing their pain with eyes wide open, and helping others to understand that pain as an affront to God.
The example of Jesus moves us to that same heart-changing work today. We can call each other to accountability in our own church families, through bold preaching, brave and vulnerable conversations, and a willingness to identify within ourselves and within our churches a need for repentance and change. We can provide spaces in our wider communities for truth-telling and heart-felt listening. We can step forward and speak up when our voices and our presence can make a meaningful difference, and step back when it’s more important that the voices of those most in pain be heard. We can be a Church and a people dedicated to change in ourselves, in the institution of the Church itself, and in our world. And we can do it one person, one heart, one encounter at a time.
The pursuit of racial justice will require much of all of us. Policies and laws must be changed. Systems must be dismantled. Centuries of injustice and harm must be mended. But all of that must begin, and will only be sustained, if hearts are also transformed. The work of changing hearts is a particular piece all of us in the Minnesota Conference UCC can meaningfully dedicate ourselves to now, with faithfulness and humility and courage.
How will you begin? I’ll be praying for you and your congregation as you do your part, and I’ll be eager to hear all about it.
Your partner on the journey,
Rev. Shari Prestemon, Conference Minister