by Jo Kadlecek
Sophia is the Greek word for Wisdom, and Propel Sophia seeks out the voices of truly wise women and asks them to share worked examples of how they express faith in daily life. Pull up a chair at Sophia’s table, won’t you? There’s plenty of space. Learn more here.
We really didn’t know what we were doing but we knew we had to do something. A Haitian immigrant had been brutally attacked by police, creating an uproar in our city. So a group of us, friends from our church, decided to get together, to gather regularly, dream big and small, study history and search the Scriptures until we realised our purpose together: unity and healing.
We looked like a tiny reflection of the United Nations: Jamaican, Chinese, Spanish, Nigerian, Australian, African American, even a descendent from a Puritan who arrived in New England on the Mayflower Ship. Our diversity was easier than it might sound, though, because we lived in the multi-cultural capital of the world, New York City. Nonetheless, our goal was sincere: to foster a sense of unity and reconciliation across ethnic and cultural lines, to show the world a different way was possible. We called ourselves the Racial Unity Ministry within our church and wondered if our acronym—RUM— might draw more than a little attention.
That was almost 25 years ago, before Black Lives Matters but during an era when headlines, sadly, became too common: African Americans and African immigrants targeted, beaten and shot by NYC police. Yet even before some of the racial tensions, our pastor had put the challenge to our congregation: what kind of church could we become to make all of New York City glad we were there? How could we as Christians live in a way that would make a real difference for God’s Kingdom? So this small group of friends responded to his challenge with RUM.
We held leader-less retreats and gatherings where we read aloud portions from Dr. King’s speeches, and poems from Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou. We listened to sermons from Dr John Perkins, and shared quotes from Desmond Tutu and Sojourner Truth. We sang hymns and spirituals and prayed for grace and peace across cultural divides. We laughed a lot, cried some, marched a few times and ate a lot of rice and beans and cornbread.
Mostly, though, we wrestled every time we met with Paul’s challenge to us from 2 Corinthians 5:18-21: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
What did it mean for us as twenty and thirty year olds to live out a ministry of reconciliation? To be committed to the hard message of reconciliation where we didn’t count people’s sins against them, even after centuries of institutional racism? How could we as a small group of friends be Christ’s ambassadors in a city where dozens of languages from around the world were spoken?
I wish I could say we started a movement. Or that police shootings or racial profiling ended. Or even and especially that Christians—white Christians in particular—changed their ways, confronted their stereotypes and finally celebrated the God-given diversity within Christ’s body. None of that happened. I only know our own hearts grew a little softer, our sense of justice a little clearer and our conviction to be better neighbours wherever we lived became a little more grounded in the Gospel.
I also know that we learned this wasn’t just another political fad or social effort or even an attempt to right the wrongs of racism—RUM simply grew out of our own genuine need. Somehow we knew that the body of Christ wasn’t complete without one another. As a white suburban American woman, I knew I needed brothers and sisters from other cultures and backgrounds to show me more of God, to enlarge my understanding of his greatness and to deepen my vision for the kind of unity we’ll experience in heaven, that which we read about in Revelation 7:9: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.”
Today, some of these RUM friends still live in NYC, a few have sadly passed away, others moved back to the countries of their ancestors or on to career callings and family life. But all of us took that charge seriously to become the kind of church that makes our cities glad we’re there (even if we fail). And to be reconciled to God as we try to live in the privilege we have as ambassadors, giving our best to care for this ministry of reconciliation across all things that divide God’s people.
And I think deep within our Christian friendships and journeys, we still know that reconciliation and bridge building are always and only possible because of this: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
After living in NYC and Boston for over 20 years, Jo Kadlecek now lives in Sydney, Australia, with her Aussie husband (who was a part of that original RUM group). She is a writer, editor and teacher who’s still trying to figure out how to be a good neighbour. Her most recent book, Woman Overboard: How Passion Saved My Life, is available in audio and print form here.