When I saw the headlines that described looting and rioting in St. Louis I was surprised and deeply concerned after having lived four years in that city, developing a great love for the people and place. As I read about the tragic circumstances from which the violence arose it made more sense. I think about the times when I am deeply hurt and it ties into something that has happened before. The pain and anger are compounded as the wound is opened again and the scar tissue is torn. There is the urge to simply let it loose. I remember a metal trash can I had as a teenager and the times when deep in anger, I would just kick it again, and again, and again. This is not good, but it makes sense.
As I’ve been preparing to preach on Acts 6 this Sunday, I continue to think on the events in Ferguson, the suburb of St. Louis where the shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent rioting occurred. In Acts 6 the Christian community is growing in number and long standing tensions between Hellenistic and Hebraic Jews emerge. These two groups were partially separated by language and ethnicity but primarily by culture with a tendency for the Hebraic Jews (those steeped in Judaic culture) to look down on those more shaped by Greek (Hellenistic) culture. In these times there is a daily distribution of food to widows, in this emerging Christian community. Women in that day spent their lives associated either with the household or their father or husband, and without such connection were particularly vulnerable both economically and socially. As the Christian community grows the widows from a Hellenistic background are being overlooked in the distribution and it seems, in the text of Acts 6, that this is a function of numerical growth outpacing administrative capacity. However, with the historic tensions between these two communities it is easy to see how the Hellenists would have been deeply hurt:
This is a daily distribution so when someone is overlooked, I would assume that there is little or no food that day. If there are other avenues of receiving help these will be stretched thin over time. This issue of distribution is incredibly significant on a practical level. Even more though it takes on greater significance due to the history of grievance. Old wounds are opened as the appearance of preferential treatment on the one hand and discrimination on the other lead to questions. The apostles overseeing this, do they lack of the integrity? Can this community oriented around Jesus the Messiah become something more than the fractured Judaism we have known?
The solution to this complex issue involving practical care and generations of hurt astounds me. I don’t have the space to go through it all, but here are some of the features…
-A lack of defense or attack: The apostles neither defend themselves and the existing problems with their administration of the daily distribution nor critique the Hellenistic Jews for their grumbling against the apostolic leadership.
-Everyone is involved: This is not figured out behind closed doors or swept under the rug. Both the Hellenistic and Hebraic Jews are at the meeting where this is sorted out and both have a say in the solution.
-Addressing both issues: Not only is a better system of administration put into place but all of those appointed to these roles of leadership are Hellenistic Jews. Those who have been on the outside are given positions of authority and oversight of the resources necessary to care for their widows. By virtue of this decision the integrity of the apostles is vindicated, years of hurt are beginning to be redressed, and a new group of leaders are welcomed into the church, two of which will play pivotal roles in the following chapters of Acts.
There is much here from which we can learn. The church is clearly meant to be a place where the burdens we carry through both the years and generations are addressed and lightened. I don’t know what this means for those who mourn and call for justice in Ferguson, MO but I know that the church is present and at work. Once congregation I am familiar with, New City Fellowship, began over 20 years ago in the north of St. Louis to honor God and demonstrate the power of the gospel through racial reconciliation and care for the poor.
“In the first year of its existence New City began modest home repairs for widows in the Hamilton Heights area, an after school tutoring program for children, a cleaning company to employ single mothers wanting to end welfare dependency, and a Saturday recreation program for children.”
–History of New City Fellowship
New City Fellowship is committed to being a church where all the nations God has placed within the St. Louis community are welcomed to experience the reconciling love of God in Jesus Christ
…through a restored relationship with God and with one another across all racial, social and economic divisions
…through redeemed multi-cultural worship where the delight of God in us and our delight in Him is experienced
…through Christian community relationships where fellowship, love, increased knowledge of God and a commitment to take care of all basic human need is practiced
…and, through an equipping of the people of God that mobilizes each member to be a part of extending God’s justice and mercy to the nations and proclaims the unsearchable love of God in Christ Jesus to St. Louis and throughout the world. New City Mission Statement
It is our hope, as a new church beginning in Worcester that many experience the grace of God as we form a community where the hurts of the years and wrongs of this day are addressed and where we work to become good neighbors to the city, extending the love of Jesus through our words and deeds.