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Living call gives churches credibility, says Disciples of Christ regional minister

For churches to gain credibility in American society, an African-American regional leader of a mainline denomination believes that mainline Christians need to focus on living God’s call to do justice and form domestic and global church partnerships.

Jack Sullivan
Jack Sullivan, Jr.

Four visits to Africa convince the Rev. Jack Sullivan, Jr., regional minister of the Northwest Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), that African partners have a witness to offer mainline Christians in the midst of crisis in the United States.

“African churches know how to live the faith with integrity during times of social chaos and inadequate funding,” he said.

Jack, who lives in Seattle, went to South Africa recently to find peace, purpose and self-worth, as part of discerning a new way for him to be a church leader.
“We have had our own type of apartheid in our churches.  At times within U.S. society and mainline churches, African Americans feel robbed of self-worth in both intentional and unintentional ways. 

“It’s hard to exercise leadership, given the different worldview in white churches.  We have had to learn to be amphibious to be authentic to who we are within a predominantly white setting,” he said.

Jack returned from a three-month sabbatical visit to South Africa, where he explored what Disciples of Christ and United Church of Christ (UCC) can learn from Christian brothers and sisters in Africa.  He shared his experiences recently at the Pacific Northwest UCC Annual Meeting in Wenatchee.

In 1990, he visited Zimbabwe and Lesotho with Disciples and UCC staff, attending the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians.

In 1991, he spent two weeks in Egypt and four days in Israel and Palestine, learning about justice issues.

In 1998, he went to Zimbabwe for the eighth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Harare.

In early 2004 in South Africa, he spent time in Johannesburg and Cape Town.
 “I went there to discover a new way to be church and a church leader, and I believe we need to tweak the way we are churches,” said Jack, who finds that as a Disciples leader, his leadership is often limited to the “power of suggestion.” 

“I went to be energized by connecting with people who changed a nation,” he said.
Jack’s visit was funded by the Disciples of Christ-UCC Global Ministries as short-term Global Ministries staff with the United Congregational Church of South Africa, which is 96 percent black.  It was started in 1967 with support of mission funds.

In early January, he stayed with a family in Johannesburg who took him to the Parliament where apartheid leaders once ruled and now democracy is in place.
Jack learned about ministry with children and youth affected by AIDS, including an outdoor program giving youth rearing siblings a chance to be youth.

He visited Soweto—the Southwest Township—learning of the history of the 1950s land initiative, in which the white minority government moved blacks 20 miles from the city.  Soweto was the home of Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who led South Africa out of apartheid. 

“The church there was expected to be a social change institution, to establish the kingdom of God on earth.  For American churches to do this, there needs to be a fundamental shift in the role and function of clergy, allowing them to project a sense of the visible reign of God’s justice and peace,” Jack said.

In Cape Town, he found shanty areas still exist 10 years after democracy was established.

“People still live with the issues of apartheid as South Africans wrestle with land reform, restoring ill-gotten lands to blacks, and training blacks to care for the land.  Little has been reported about 400 white farmers killed over the years.  The government has been slow in providing land reform.  Poor Africans want to know when they will have land.”

When Mandela came into office, there was no electricity or running water in the townships.  Now many have electricity and port-o-pots for sanitation.  Mandela also gave people the small piece of land they were paying rent to use under apartheid.

“Mandela said people needed to forgive and work for healing.  Today people wonder how they can forgive, given the imbalance related to land,” said Jack, who also visited Robben Island, where leaders were imprisoned together and able to educate themselves and others to the level of bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

“I realize that transformation is not a program but a way of life for people who are spiritually connected to God.  As Disciples of Christ, we speak of revitalization, but the issue is to be transformed from what we have been in the past into a church God calls us to be now.

“TV, work and sports on Sundays, among others things, compete with the church for people’s time,” said Jack, a fourth-generation Disciples member.

“We need to compel people to know that the Good News is something to live out for themselves and their community.  Worship is not just to produce good, moral citizens who live and let live, leading to nothing more,” he said.  “Transformation is a spiritual concept.  The church is not a human construct, but people discerning the will of God for their lives.

U.S. mainline churches need a sense of transformation, living out a vision of how life should be,” he said.

“South African church people  were involved in defeating apartheid because of their faith that God does not intend people to live in bondage, but in wholeness,” Jack said.  “Transformation involves daring to live out that belief and being engaged in the marketplace of ideas.

“To the extent we live God’s call, we will be a credible voice,” he continued.  “The more we connect with people different from us—different races and cultures, mainline and more conservative churches—the more we realize we need to put our progressive theology into action.”

Describing himself as an evangelical liberal, he calls for U.S. churches “to huddle to evangelize and gain the energy, joy and zeal needed so we can influence our communities.”

“Our global ties are a privilege, teaching us how to act justly,” Jack said.  “We tend to panic as churches when we think we lack money. South African churches that lack money are joyful.”

For Disciples of Christ, three things make church:  a deep Christian spirituality, a passion for social justice and a commitment to community. 

“To be transforming, we need to work for justice, to be advocates for South Africa, for AIDS research and medicines, and to share more information about issues and life in Africa,” Jack said.

“A multicultural church begins with authentic partnerships that are local and global.  It is not caught up in survival but in faithfully and joyfully fulfilling the mission of the church,” he continued.

Jack challenges churches to become diverse through partnerships with people of other races, ethnicities, faiths and societies, through joining neighbors protesting profiling and racism, so “we will not be hollow when we enter partnerships with African churches.”

For information, call (206) 938-1008.

By Mary Stamp - The Fig Tree - Copyright © September 2004