What can churches do when social unrest breaks out?
Written by Jimi Izrael
June 2001

When Timothy Thomas, an unarmed African American, became one of 15 black men shot and killed by police officers in Cincinnati since 1995, many were unsure where they stood when rioting broke out this year. But not the Rev. Bill Land of Cincinnati's L'Amistad UCC. He knows exactly where he stood.

"My ministry is based in the streets," says Land, "and I just happened to be standing not 50 feet from where the first trash can was thrown and then the riots broke out." Immediately, Land and his congregants sprang into action to try and quell the growing tension in his community.

But what can other local churches do if social unrest springs up in their own community?

Community must be involved

The Rev. Gailen Reevers of Lincoln Memorial UCC in Los Angeles has seen uprisings in Detroit and Los Angeles as a result of social justice issues. Social unrest is the consequence of people's rights being neglected, he says, and usually the community is moved to respond against the power structure in "a provocative manner."

During the Los Angeles rebellion sparked by the Rodney King verdict, local churches responded by speaking to their congregants. Some of the larger churches went into the streets to ease tensions. Reevers had his fingers on the pulse of his community and was able to act quickly.

"If you are involved with the community and you become one with the community," Reevers says, "then you can step forward as a credible voice of reason. But if you have had no visible presence in the community and come along as a Johnny-come-lately, then why should the community take you seriously?"

"When you're proactive, you have the element of time on your side," he says, "to be able to be reflective and be thoughtful, to make mistakes and [have] the ability to correct them."

Consistent presence crucial

The Rev. H?tor L?ez agrees. Now Central Pacific Conference Minister, he was in Los Angeles at the time of the rebellion. With his connections in the community, Lopez was able to pull together church and lay leaders to formulate a three-point plan that provided food and services to impacted communities. L?ez says that churches can confront unrest by providing a place to be heard and "speaking with power to people in power."

"There is a need to know how and when you will respond to crisis," says L?ez, "and it helps to have a network in place. A church that does not have a network in place in the community will not be able to respond adequately. Some things can only be dealt with by having a consistent presence."

Don't stand by and wait

But what about local churches that are caught off-guard? Is there any way to be prepared for social unrest?

Well, yes and no.

"Social unrest is not like a natural disaster," says Reevers. "But if you do sense that something will definitely happen in your community, why are you not doing something proactively about the issues that are causing the dissent? If you have that much foresight, why would you just stand by and wait for it to happen?"

"First thing we can do," says Land in Cincinnati, "is use the power of the pews. We need to dialogue with ourselves and with the community. The second thing is to articulate the problems of the community to the politicians. The church needs to adopt an interpretive role and take social justice issues to the politicians. We must come out of the four walls and preach into the four winds in our effort to show people the love of Jesus Christ."

Land says we must be involved politically, economically and socially and initiate community outreach programs out of the church based on a biblical mandate. "We need to be a church seven days a week," he says.

Church can be moral voice

The Rev. Don Mackenzie, Minister of University Congregational UCC in Seattle, Wash., concurs. He was caught off-guard by the violent turn demonstrators took during the World Trade Organization meetings there in 1999, but not by the underlying issues, which were on his radar long before the meetings.

"My church developed a conference to talk about the theological and social issues involved in globalization," says Mackenzie, "and even planned our own nonviolent protest."

"My opinion," he says, "is that the church should have a voice in the public arena about all issues of the common good, especially social justice issues. We need to have a voice that gives a moral dimension of these kinds of crisis. Our challenge to the status quo will inevitably precipitate these kinds of events."

'No blanket answer'

So what can local churches do when and if social unrest springs up in their own communities?

"There's no blanket answer to a question like that," says the Rev. Elice Higginbotham, interim association minister for the Ohio Conference's Southwest Ohio Northern Kentucky Association, which includes Cincinnati.

"Sometimes, churches can just provide a refreshment to demonstrators, or we can call upon those who have been jailed. Those are just some things that can be done but it depends on what the needs are at the time. Part of our gospel is being able to listen and respond to issues on a case-by- case basis, and that may be why one, concrete answer, alludes us."

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