Mandate for Justice: Inside and Outside

Just Preach / Just Act: The 2022 African American Social Justice Preaching Series

On January 10 and 12, 2022, the Center for Social Justice and Reconciliation, at Union Presbyterian Seminary’s Charlotte campus, hosted a second African American Social Justice Preaching Series and welcomed Rev. Dr. William C. Turner Jr. of Durham, North Carolina, and Rev. Nelson Johnson and Joyce Johnson of Greensboro, North Carolina, for three online events, featuring sermons, lectures, and a lunchtime conversation with clergy. Titled “Just Preach / Just Act,” the series provided the opportunity to hear from Rev. Dr. Turner on the intricacies and imperatives of social justice preaching and from Rev. Johnson and Mrs. Johnson on their life’s work together in social activism and their sponsorship of our nation’s first Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Greensboro.

Recognizing that the world is in a tumultuous state as we recover from a global pandemic and make our way through political unrest and racial division, the Center asked the following of our guest speakers: Is there a word from the Lord for this moment? What are people of faith called to do as we confront these and other challenges?

Rev. Dr. Turner, Professor Emeritus of the Practice of Preaching at Duke Divinity School, focused his message on the idea of “preaching weighty matters” and directed the audience to Micah 3:8, which says, “But as for me, I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression, to Israel his sin.” We cannot preach the weighty matters of mercy, justice, and faith, said Turner, without first recognizing that the Holy Spirit is the source of justice. We neglect this third person of the Trinity, but there is no ministry of the Messiah without the Spirit.

Using the metaphor of a barbell, Rev. Dr. Turner reminded us that we cannot have a firm grasp of weighty matters (the weight of a barbell) so that we can lift them up for the people without taking the time to analyze and exegete Biblical texts (the handle of the barbell). Exegesis is the tuning of the ear to hear what the Spirit has to say to the church. As Rev. Dr. Turner concluded, “Preaching is about God and God’s work in the world.”

Rev. Nelson Johnson and Joyce Johnson, co-executive directors of Beloved Community Center in Greensboro, continued the conversation by adding, “Preaching God’s truth is more important than ever, but if we preach without acting, the preaching is diminished. It has no transformative power. Preach the Word, then act the Word.”

In reference to Rev. Dr. Turner’s powerful mandate to clergy, Rev. Johnson noted that we are indeed dodging the weightier matters. His hope is that the Truth, Justice & Reconciliation process that he and Mrs. Johnson have developed and are bringing into communities will be a critical part of moving us toward more truth and less polarization. The process involves getting citizens and leaders together to discuss and practice “deep listening” about matters of social justice.

Mrs. Johnson spoke powerfully about the process, noting that, “It is a human construct that we can and must do as we come together to speak truth in love. It’s everyday individuals and elected officials and religious leaders coming together and committing to speaking the truth in love.”

Perhaps the most beautiful moment in these conversations came when Rev. and Mrs. Johnson were asked, “How do you love those who live for hate?” “You have to believe in the capacity of the other to change,” Rev. Johnson replied. “Sometimes you have to reach across the line and touch another human being on the human level and make something new happen.”

Over the course of three rich and meaningful events, Dr. Turner and Rev. and Mrs. Johnson reminded us that everything we have was given. We must learn how to share, through both word and deed, in an equitable way so that all may live in Beloved Community.

*Recordings of each event in the “Just Preach / Just Act” series are available on Union Presbyterian Seminary’s YouTube page, under “Center for Social Justice & Reconciliation.”

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