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Where Faith and Justice Meet

I believe there is a disconnect between Christians and the poor. Most Christians, including me, don’t act like Jesus who spent his ministry teaching, healing and living among the marginalized. In fact, Jesus was one of the marginalized.

The way we practice our faith can be called “devotional.” We can be found praying, singing and listening to sermons while the homeless remain homeless and hungry. This gap between need and inaction is troubling, but some churches reflect the understanding that Christians must respond to the pain and suffering of the marginalized in concrete ways.

I believe that the First United Methodist Church of Holland is living its way toward an authentic faith, one that uses the hands and feet of its members to live out its values. This week I talked with Lead Pastor Brad Bartelmay to learn about the foundations of the church’s activism.

Brad was raised in Youngstown, Ohio, “a great place to grow up.” He was a high school sophomore and able to grasp the grim realities of economic collapse when the steel mills closed on “Black Monday.” While he grew up “unchurched,” he felt the call to ministry during college. He received a classical education at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary, affiliated with the United Methodist Church, but was also challenged to consider the contemporary issues of systemic injustice and white privilege. The work of Rosemary Ruether and black liberation theology became influential. “The Gospels are about developing a personal relationship with God, but they’re also about living the ethic of Jesus and contributing to the establishment of the Reign of God.”

Situations arise when a prophetic voice is desperately needed. Injustice must be condemned, and people mobilized. Early in his ministry a black family awakened to find a burning cross in their front yard in a community near the church he was serving. Brad pushed back against the racism and worked to develop a circle of support for the family. When the casino was being built in New Buffalo Brad spoke against systems of income inequality and corporations that prey on those who are addicted.

Brad’s first exposure to the LGBTQ community occurred while he was in high school. He noticed tension in a girlfriend’s family, and he came to realize that her father knew about and resented her brother’s sexual orientation. Through witnessing the young man’s pain Brad experienced the destructive nature of bigotry first hand. His support for the LGBTQ community came from this and other personal experiences.

Who are the marginalized? According to Pastor Brad, they are people hungering to be known, cared for, respected and seen as real human beings. The myths spun about them are not who they are. “We objectify them so that those “objects” can be cast aside and ignored.” As products of capitalism, we have been told that life is a competition, it’s “everyone for themselves.” Seeing the marginalized as human beings in need would perturb our plan to get ahead.

Can we end poverty? “That’s unlikely.” We haven’t created systems that are fair. And, as a consequence of human nature, of taking care of ourselves and ignoring others, “You will always have the poor among you….” (John 12:8, NIV). “As Christians, we are called to do our part, called to establish the Reign of God, but it remains for God to finally fulfill that task. What we can do here, is establish a church where the marginalized are seen and valued. Poverty is a reality, yes, but marginalization is never acceptable. We can be a place for those who don’t have a place.”

How about policy changes that would have a positive impact? “We are growing aware of the positive impact that affordable housing can have. Everyone deserves a home. Everyone deserves justice. There is a great deal of tension between the two political parties regarding immigration, economics and creation care (to name a few conflicts) and, hopefully, we will find a way to resolve those tensions.”

Next week we will learn what else Lead Pastor Brad Bartelmay had to say about First United Methodist Church of Holland and its relationship with the marginalized.


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