By Austin Almaguer
I found myself sitting in the meeting room of a local Islamic Center this week. Around the conference table were faith leaders from across northern Virginia: rabbis, imams, pastors, priests and lay leaders. The gathering was hosted by V.O.I.C.E. (Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement) and our conversation focused on the issues facing our communities of faith. The perspectives shared were as diverse as the faith leaders present.
A pastor from a predominantly Anglo congregation talked about middle aged, middle class church members who suddenly find themselves unemployed after massive industry budget cuts. A priest shared her experiences working with a Latino family who had lived and worked in the United States for over 30 years but due to a broken immigration system found themselves without access to needed healthcare for a life saving surgery. We talked about our local schools, sky-rocketing housing prices, predatory lending and many other forces at work in our communities that were putting a heavy strain on people of faith.
Since this was only my first meeting with the group, I’ll admit I felt a bit in over my head. But I know these are important issues affecting my church so I knew this is where I needed to be. I also knew I had to be there because there’s been a question that’s kept me up at night recently.
It’s a question first posed to me during a sermon by Allan Boesak, the South African anti-apartheid activist. He said, “When I die, Jesus will ask me, ‘Where are your wounds?’ And if I tell him that I have none, the Crucified Messiah with scars on his hands and feet will respond, ‘Wasn’t there anything worth fighting for?’”
Where are your wounds?
That question has remained with me. I’ve been thinking lately that the model of missions I grew up with in church was quite risk-averse. We took up annual offerings for hunger, world missions and local ministries. Sometimes we brought bags of food or used clothing that had sat in piles in the back of the closet. Occasionally missionaries shared their experiences in the worship service.
These were formative experiences, to be sure. Meeting immediate needs through special offerings is valuable and much needed. But if I’m honest, they don’t make me uncomfortable. They don’t put me in a position where I might be wounded by the encounter of human suffering. They don’t force me to invite injury to my clean reputation and respectable Christianity so I can stand with the poor and advocate for the oppressed. Yet this is exactly the kind of discipleship Jesus calls me to.
Jesus always seems to talk about faith as a daring adventure; a journey that requires courage and boldness as we give voice to the voiceless and hope to the oppressed. The Biblical witness tells us that justice and advocacy aren’t peripheral to the Kingdom of God, but a central focus. That’s the kind of Christianity my soul craves. The kind of faith my heart needs. And the more that I talk to other people of faith, the more I realize that I’m not alone in feeling this way.
CBF’s Advocacy in Action conference in March was a great way to take all these grand ideals I have about the church and learn about how I can make them live and breathe—how I can practice my faith in the public square. I had the opportunity to learn from other Christians who have discovered their deepest gladness in meeting the world’s deepest needs. I formed friendships with other Baptists who want to not only feed the hungry, but help put an end to the systems that cause people to go hungry in the first place.
My time at Advocacy in Action encouraged me to get more involved in my community and connect with other faith leaders. It didn’t give me all the answers but it did help me to start asking the right questions. I know it is just the beginning of a much longer journey—a journey to join Christ in bringing good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, sight to the blind and freedom to the oppressed.
I welcome the wounds I will pick up along the way.
Austin Almaguer serves as Pastor of Vienna Baptist Church in Vienna, Va. and as the Northern Virginia Regional Representative for CBF of Virginia.