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Monday, December 2, 2013

Downward Mobility

Please welcome guest blogger, Drea Chicas, learner, artist, youth educator and community activist now working in full time urban ministry in Seattle, WA.

Every Sunday a kaleidoscopic blend of families worship together along polished pews in a local church. Beyond this colorful snapshot, however, exists an uneven power structure that privileges the body while pushing the needs and gifts of the surrounding community to the margin.

In this congregation, more than half of the members are white; 60% of the paid staff is white while 40% are staff of color. And yet, the church is located in a multi-ethnic, urban context where more than 50 languages are spoken and 41% of the residents are immigrants. Despite the community’s cultural wealth and capital, 18% of families live below the poverty line. And yet, the church’s yearly profit makes it an upper-middle class entity in the community.

When Jesus came to earth (the incarnation), he dismantled uneven power structures in order to walk humbly with, suffer with, and transform humanity, especially those on the margins of society. In the article “Rethinking Incarnational Ministry,” theologian and professor Soong-Chan Rah analyzes present day incarnational ministry and names its misappropriation and misapplication. Towards the end, Rah offers a constructive way to do incarnational ministry by emphasizing God’s mission for the city and the downward mobility of Christ.

In the first half, Rah singles out white Christians who have historically relocated to the city to jumpstart urban ministries by drawing on the theology of the incarnation. According to Rah, many relocators may have arrived with warped perceptions. They hoped to save “the fallen city populated by the sinful people of color” by taking on a messianic role (see post: White Savior Complex). Such dysfunctional misinterpretations of the incarnation may “severely” negate God’s work through indigenous leaders who have labored together for the city long before relocators arrived. Urban ministries rooted on the incarnation so often mirror American middle class ideals such as upward mobility.

US American churches, says Rah, are more concerned with upward mobility rather than the “downward mobility exemplified by the incarnation of Jesus.” Just as God emptied out of the “heavenly places and to the earthly realm (Phil 2:5-8)”, Christians must also mirror Jesus’ downward mobility in the form of humility and sacrifice. But many in urban ministry don't. Instead of practicing downward mobility, present day American churches are places where “power tends to speak more loudly than humility.” The author challenges us with this question: Are Christian communities able and willing to yield privilege in the same manner that Jesus laid down his privilege?

Rah’s analysis and overview of incarnational ministry holds urban ministries accountable. Given many church’s white majority how do we make certain that power and privilege within the body are not speaking more loudly than humility? Individual white people and individual people of color have given up power and privilege to some degree, but where are the unifying voices of the church Body laying down their privilege by walking together with those on the margins of our community?

Incarnational ministry isn't easy, trendy work. It’s hard work. It requires that we enter into people’s pain and walk closely together, just like Jesus did/does. Often, we'll have to go places we don't want to go and experience things we don't want to experience like oppression and poverty. Either way, God’s mission for the city is present, it always has been. What an honor it is to follow that mission here. Let's first confess and then continually lay down the power and privilege holding us back.

What are your thoughts on this? Do you agree, disagree? What power + privilege structures do you see in your parish?

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By Their Strange Fruit by Katelin H is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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