“What we need is a new Jesus movement in this country!” These were the words of my Jewish colleague sharing with a room of secular and faith-rooted activists about the urgency of the political moment. It was just a few weeks after the election of 45. The churchy side of me loved his comment. I’m a faith-rooted activist, after all. I live and breathe getting Christians involved in social justice work. But my colleague wasn’t just patting Christian activists on the back for what we’d been doing. He was advocating for a change, for something new in how we do activism. I grappled with this for months. I was deeply moved by the idea of a new Jesus movement but it felt antithetical to my training. Best practice in faith-rooted organizing told me to draw from my faith in the public square, but the point was not to convert anyone to my faith. Best practice in pastoral ministry told me to draw from social justice values in the life of the church, but the point was not to convert anyone to my particular policy or political party. What if what my colleague was interrogating was what we meant by church and politics, in the first place? Rather than the church developing a political strategy, and our social justice groups developing a faith-rooted approach, that the church itself can be a cultural strategy for political transformation. As the radical social historian Jeff Chang contends: “Cultural change always precedes political change.”
Throughout history it is the work of church planting to spread Christianity among new people and places. Church planting as a missionary strategy is how the religious right has spread white supremacist, hetero-patriarchal capitalism and the toxic Christian nationalism which upholds it. What if the Black Church and other social justice-oriented church traditions – especially those of us who consider ourselves radical, leftist, and/or alternative – deployed church planting as a cultural strategy for political and economic transformation in the US? This calls for an emergent liberative ecclesiology to be a movement that would organize new disciples not crowds, commit to base building not platform building, form a multitude of new sacred circles not elitist secluded hierarchies, embody a radical politics not merely seek to change politics in the public square.
There are diverse faith communities of contemplative activism that center and are led by Black and other historically marginalized persons emerging across the US independent from and on the edges of religious institutions. These communities gather in homes, coffee shops, schools, community centers, outdoors, online, and in the streets. Womanist theologian Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes in her article “Why I Gave Up Church” says these communities are places where:
“people tackle tough questions about faith (and not just Christianity); where they venerate poetry as canonical expressions of who God is and what God is doing in the world; where the hymnody includes Beyoncé’s ‘Freedom,’ Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Fear,’ and Susan Werner’s ‘Why Is Your Heaven So Small;’ where they pour libations to the ancestors; where they meditate and walk labyrinths; where they talk self-care and empowerment and learn to love and accept themselves as ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ in the image of God (Psalm 139:14); and where they support and sustain one another as they engage in the struggle for justice in the world. They are places where people find Jesus. These communities are often small and scattered … They often do not call themselves church, but that is precisely what they are. It is my hope that they will become a leavening agent for U.S. Christianity and that one day they will be the normative image of what ‘church’ is. Or at the very least, perhaps they will proliferate enough that those of us in … exile can more readily connect with them.”
To seek the proliferation and equipping of these communities, I have joined with a group of black and white, queer and straight, gender diverse clergy activists to launch Liberating Church, a project seeking the wisdom of the antebellum hush harbors as a promising model of a church movement that was both liberating of the society and the wider church. Hush harbors emerged alongside of and were the antibody to slaveholding religion – the precursor to the religious right. Many enslaved Africans were not content with slaveholding Christianity, the racially integrated plantation church which upheld it, or black folks’ approximation of plantation church that was under the master’s gaze. Hush harbors were secret and illegal meetings, often in the wilderness, away from the plantation church and culture, where enslaved Africans would gather to worship and organize for personal and political transformation, blending their native religious beliefs and practices with Christianity. From the hush harbors emerged the Spirituals, Underground Railroad, and slave revolts. The hush harbors were decolonizing monastic missional communities, faith-rooted small groups on the fringes characterized by radical formation, friendship, and fierce revolution. Virtually overlooked when interrogating what faithful Christian community entails in the US, the hush harbors are a needed witness to cultivate new liberating expressions of church for these spiritually and politically volatile times. As the North American church grapples with an eroding position of privilege in society, how do the antebellum hush harbors offer a vision of church from the margins? In what ways did the antebellum hush harbors function as expressions of church? Where are the contemporary hush harbors within the North American church amongst Black communities?
After literature review of hush harbors, decolonial theory, and other voices and traditions, we discerned that a Liberating Church consists of eight interdependent marks.
Using these marks as a framework, Liberating Church is now engaging in ethnographic research. We are currently interviewing and immersing in 8-10 startup Black spiritual communities that we suspect are 21st century hush harbors. We are on a journey together into these places on the edges of our communities and institutions where Black folks and their accomplices are liberating Church and society, where we believe the Spirit is most on the move in the US. Once the ethnographic research step is complete, we will share what we’ve gleaned through published materials and hosting regional group gatherings.
We are launching a series over the next several months to highlight one of the eight marks of liberating church each month on our social media platforms. The goal is to bring exposure to our work and invite our supporters into a conversation about the project. We welcome your feedback! It is our hope that the hush harbors of old and the present will inspire other individuals and communities to steal away from plantation church and society, to discover the God present on the margins, bringing risky freedom still!