As we transition to the season of Lent and during the month of February as we celebrate Black History Month in the United Methodist Church, I am very excited and grateful to share with my readers the perspective and reflections of our guest writer for February, the Reverend Cedrick D. Bridgeforth, Ed. D. I hope you find Rev. Bridgeforth’s notes to be both inspiring and challenging as you prepare to preach a bold and prophetic word in your own congregation. – Dawn Chesser
February 2016: Unnatural Disasters — The Stony Road to Hope
Rev. Cedrick D. Bridgeforth is Lead Pastor of Santa Ana United Methodist Church in Santa Ana, California. He is also chairperson for Black Methodists for Church Renewal, an official caucus of The United Methodist Church that works to raise up prophetic and spiritual leaders who will be advocates for the unique needs of black people. He completed eight years as a district superintendent in the California-Pacific Annual Conference, and he also served as pastor of Bowen Memorial (1999-2003) and Crenshaw (2003-2008) United Methodist churches.
He was born in Decatur, Alabama, where he resided until he enlisted in the United States Air Force, where he served for four years. It was during this time that he felt the call of God upon his life. After completing his military service, he returned to Alabama, where he held several jobs before enrolling at Samford University in Birmingham. He graduated in May 1997, with a Bachelor of Arts in Religion, and then enrolled in the Claremont School of Theology, where he completed his Master of Divinity degree in May 2000.
While completing his studies at Claremont, Rev. Bridgeforth worked as an admissions counselor at the school. A year after graduation, he was hired as Director of Alumni and Church Relations (2001-2003). Rev. Bridgeforth earned a Doctor of Education degree in Organizational Leadership from Pepperdine University in 2005. In addition to serving as a pastor, Rev. Bridgeforth has served as a course instructor at the University of La Verne’s Ecumenical Center for Black Church Studies.
Rev. Bridgeforth is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. (Beta Psi Lambda Chapter), and he has published two books: Thoughts and Prayers and Thoughts on Things That Make You Think: And Prayers to Help You Pray About Them.
In a recent episode of the show “Tiny Home Nation,” there was a couple who once owned a 1200 square foot home in the Colorado Rockies. A few years ago, a wildfire swept through the area and destroyed their dream home. They spent weeks after the fire trying to recover artifacts and mementoes that would help them connect with what was to be their retirement home. Week after week, considered what life would be like without the home they had worked so hard to build, while also trying to envision life in a new place and a new house, void of memories of what had been destroyed in the fire.
That episode took my mind back to the fire that damaged our home. I had graduated from high school that May, and in September of that same year, I went to basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Two months after leaving home, I received an emergency call from my mother, via my First Sergeant, informing me that there had been a fire and that all of my high school memorabilia, pictures, and clothes had been destroyed. I remember feeling helpless, sad, and without a way to express my emotions. The couple in the television episode spoke of their grief, and although it has been two decades since my basic training days, I could empathize with their pain. A natural disaster had turned one couple’s dream into a nightmare, and an all-too-common occurrence turned another family’s existence into ruin. One form of destruction was the result of natural means, and the other caused by human error and an electrical short.
In 2016, we have learned what to do in the event of a natural disaster, but what do we do in the face of human errors that cause unnatural disasters? Natural disasters are acts of nature that cause damage to property, people and the environs, such as: earthquakes, tornadoes, flash floods, typhoons, hurricanes, lightning strikes, wildfires, and so on. We have drills, warning sirens, signs, and evacuation routes to aid us in escaping or avoiding as much harm as possible. We ensure that children, the elderly, and the vulnerable members of our society are aware of the precautions to be taken in the event of such emergencies. However, there are many unnatural disasters plaguing many in our cities, our congregations, and our families that we have not adequately addressed as a society or as a church. Unnatural disasters are responses, reactions, and consequences that cause damage to people and communities without the means and will to speak truth to power and to expect justice in their plight for safety, security, and reasonable happiness. Examples of unnatural disasters you may explore are:
- Mass incarceration of black and brown men and women for crimes perceived as petty or minimal while crimes perpetuated by their white counterparts go unpunished or minimally punished.
- Domestic and child abuse victims and perpetrators who sit in our pews and serve in church leadership without a place to utter their truth.
- Police shootings of unarmed black teenage boys, the influx of illicit drugs in some communities, and the proliferation of prescription drug abuse in others.
- Food insecurities experienced by our elderly who must decide between buying groceries or filling their prescriptions.
- Addicts who would benefit from mental health rehabilitation and drug treatment instead of incarceration.
- Immigrants from countries south of the United States who experience more difficult paths to citizenship than those from European countries.
- Residents who are priced out of their neighborhoods to make room for new lofts and cafes to lure those who gentrify revitalized urban centers.
What is listed above is in no way an exhaustive list of unnatural disasters. Each community may view and assemble its own list and explanations for them.
Reflections on the Colorado couple’s dilemma about what to do to reclaim their dream of having a house in the mountains also prompted a poignant question from the host: “Given what happened here and the chance it could happen again, why would you want to build here again?” His inquiry is one appropriately asked by someone who was not emotionally invested in what had been before the fire. He had no ties to the land nor had he lived through the process of dreaming the dream, seeing it come to pass, and then knowing the probability of it never again being a reality for them.
As the couple responded to the host, the wife began to cry as she explained what it meant to her to live on the land, high above the hustle and bustle of the city. It took her to a peaceful place she had always longed to enjoy and to experience on a daily basis. For her, the place held great value, promise, and hope, but for the host and even for me, as an observer, I did not share in that thought. I shared in her loss, because of my own loss. There was a connection around our grief of experiencing loss.
Some places in history and some characters in our lore conjure mixed emotions and warring thoughts. Those who have lived through tornadoes, earthquakes, and typhoons understand the power of nature and our own human limitations. However, when an experience of an unnatural disaster is a constant reality, what is a family, community, or congregation to do?
Birmingham, Alabama, is a beautiful city. I lived there while attending college, and I found the history of the region fascinating. But African Americans who lived in Birmingham prior to the 1970s (or so) would not have seen the city the same way. The thought of that city and Bull Connor, fire hoses and dogs unleashed on children, churches being bombed, and Jim Crow segregation in every arena of public life would repulse them. For me, it was history to be learned and absorbed; but for others, it was the memory of their lives. For all, it is a place and time we dare not forget.
The industrial centers of the North and Midwest were once grand destinations for African Americans as they migrated to find work in factories and industries far from the agricultural economies of the South. Those making their journeys from Georgia and Mississippi to Chicago and Detroit believed they would find greater economic, residential, and educational opportunities in their newfound destinations. Many did fare well and were able to establish themselves in those cities while building political and economic capital. However, the collapse of the auto industry in and around Detroit has left the descendants of those migrants scrambling to survive. The senseless homicide rates among young African Americans in Chicago have left many numb to the violence and deaf to the cries of those young people seeking a future with hope.
Jerusalem is a holy city. Jerusalem has a history of joy and pain, peace and war, life and death. It is a city, a place, that has experienced natural disasters and unnatural disasters. It is a city that has been a symbol of triumph and victory. It is also the city where Jesus was praised on Palm Sunday and crucified on Good Friday.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who were sent to you! How often I have wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But you didn’t want that. Look, your house is abandoned. I tell you, you won’t see me until the time comes when you say, Blessings on the one who comes in the Lord’s name” (verses 34-35).
The challenge here is to acknowledge the needs of the people and meet the needs of the people, while also understanding that the places we may have to go to meet those needs and to understand those needs may not be in the best of places or circumstances. We will have to empathize with those who suffer. We will have to show compassion to those who may feel victimized by us, our laws, our politics, our policies, and our unwillingness to see and to hear their deepest need. We will have to be the ones who come “in the Lord’s name” to bring good news in times of natural and unnatural disasters.
The Lenten Season is an excellent time to reflect on how we respond and react in the face of disasters caused by our words and deeds, as well as when we choose not to say or do anything to further acts of mercy.
By the end of the “Tiny Home Nation” episode, the couple had rebuilt on the site of their former home; but this time, they built a 500-square-foot home and made it their permanent residence. Within four months of our house fire, our home was rebuilt and my family had moved back into it. My friends, teachers, and others forwarded me pictures and yearbooks so I would have high school memories. The following summer I was home and was rustling through our storage shed and discovered many of my things, including my original yearbooks, had been in storage since before the fire. That was a happy ending to what had been a sad tale.
Examining the history and plight of a people can soften a hardened heart when taken in view of what God speaks to Abram. God is clearly in a space where God is preparing Abram to expect God to fulfill God’s covenant with him. God’s plan to bless Abram with many descendants and to follow that with a great blessing of land and wealth is a foretelling of the formation of a nation. However, along this Lenten journey we must see that God tells Abram his people will be immigrants in a land where they will also be enslaved. Abram’s descendants will emerge from enslavement with great wealth and will occupy a specific geographic region.
The covenant and promise God spoke to Abram gave the people hope. Often, hope found in a promise is enough to spur a people to serve and to persevere. Optimism is also a catalyst for hope, to a point. We see hope for justice and equality as a driving force in movements springing up all around us:
- Hope for better and equal pay for equal work.
- Hope for equal treatment under the law and clear paths to citizenship and to voting booths.
- Hope for the content of one’s character to be the ultimate measure of a person instead of the color of his or her skin.
But, we know hope that is not balanced with brutal facts (aka “reality”) can bring despair.
In Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great, he examines a conversation he had with Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was the highest-ranking U.S. military officer in a prisoner-of-war camp in Hanoi during the Vietnam War. Stockdale was tortured many times during his eight years in captivity. In captivity, he was a leader among the other prisoners even though there was no sign or sense they would ever be released. Collins asked Stockdale how he managed to survive.
[Stockdale] replied: "I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade."
"Who didn't make it out?"
"Oh that's easy," he said. "The optimists."
"The optimists? I don't understand," I said, now completely confused.
"The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, 'We're going to be out by Christmas.' And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they'd say, 'We're going to be out by Easter.' And Easter would come and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.” Another long pause and more walking. Then he turned to me and said, “This is the important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can not afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be” (Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why some Companies Make the Leap. . . and Others Don’t. New York: Harper Collins, 2001. 84-85).
To this day, I carry the mental image of Stockdale admonishing the optimists: “We’re not getting out by Christmas; deal with it!”
For Stockdale, the optimist’s hope was in being released and that unrealized hope is what killed some of the prisoners. It was the ones who faced the brutal facts of their reality who gained strength to endure the imprisonment. Abram was faced with some brutal facts about what his descendants would face, but there was hope in the end—a hope they would posses “…land, from Egypt’s river to the great Euphrates.”
Some brutal facts every Christian must examine are the role and presence of people of different cultures and communities who are around us, but not acknowledged or embraced by us.
In this narrative are we most apt to place ourselves in the role of Abram (one with a promise), his descendants (ones who will suffer), or their oppressors (ones who welcome them as immigrants and enslave them). Whatever Lenten discipline(s) we are observing, they must help us face the brutal facts of our spirituality when it comes to issues of oppression, immigration, and inclusion. Our spiritual disciplines beyond Lent must inform and strengthen our ability and willingness to live out our membership vows: to faithfully participate in its ministries by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness to the world—regardless of someone’s homeland.
Paul is aware of the struggles of those who are seeking to be followers of Jesus. He knows first-hand what it means to experience conversion because he was once an enemy of the cross. That was not badge and identity he wore with great pride and conviction.
He was despised because of what he did, not because of the color of his skin or the creeds he recited in accordance with his faith. It was his intentional efforts to disrupt and to destroy Jesus’ followers that garnered him a vile reputation. But, here he places himself and his close associates as ones to be imitated.
His story can help people understand how spiritual disciplines help us expect change and experience transformation. Just because you were raised in a certain place and time with beliefs that no longer measure up to common decency and that do not honor all people as created in the image and likeness of God, does not mean change is not possible or necessary.
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