Why do I Feel Like I am a Failure
When it Comes to Social Justice?
On Ministry and Chocolate Frogs
The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
The other day, I was invited to attend a meeting with several social justice leaders and legal advocates. I wasn’t sure what the meeting would be about, specifically, but I was interested in being part of a conversation on how a perspective of faith can speak to vital social struggles in our day and age. My colleague Cynthia Park went with me to see how this group’s focus might intersect with our ongoing work with Ministries of Compassion.
We went around the table and shared a bit about ourselves, making sure to highlight what were the key social justice concerns that we were working on. I shared my key concerns with the group: affordable housing, stable homes, and the opioid crisis. While there were other perspectives shared, it was soon clear that the focus of the conversation would be immigration. On the whole, I didn’t have an issue with this at all; the struggle in our society around immigration is one that we must all lean in toward more. The legal advocates shared their experiences. The social justice teams shared stories and struggles. Quickly, the conversation honed in on the role of the clergy in being public advocates for immigration reform, and, at that point, I realized that my eyebrows had furrowed.
As some in the group shared their hope that “people of faith” would step up more, I found myself struggling internally. As others pointedly expressed their disappointment in what they saw as the failure of clergy to lead appropriately in the community, I looked down at the table. I spoke up and wondered with the group if this label of “people of faith” actually exacerbated the struggle.
“Aren’t we all people of faith?” I asked. “What if we began from the assumption that we are all people of faith or are trying to be such and then sought to have theological conversations? Is there not a way we can lean into those deeper spaces of meaning and understanding and see what a relationship might offer?”
I don’t think they bought it, so I tried another time.
“If we put ourselves out as ‘people of faith,’ doesn’t that just lend itself to [insert “them” here] dismissing us and claiming to be ‘better’ ‘people of faith,’ thereby keeping this same division in place? It all becomes a competition of ‘who understands Jesus better’ or ‘who is the better follower of Jesus.’ Is there not another approach we might explore to foster understanding?”
I still don’t think they bought it. One woman—whom I respect deeply for her role in the community and her ability to ask important questions—pushed back and shared that she thought the clergy should be much more up front, out there in the public eye leading. She said that our presence has weight, that the authority we have makes an impact on the conversation. Someone else looked at the news clip on their phone and shared that a few pastors were, at that moment, protesting in Washington, DC.
I felt naïve. I felt like I had failed to do what I was supposed to do. I felt like I had missed the mark. And, I don’t like feeling like that, so I started to feel defensive. We had to leave the meeting early to go to other meetings with people in the parish, which only made me feel more like a failure. And, I resented that, to be honest. I struggled a great deal, and wanted to write out a few thoughts—for what it’s worth.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, there’s this wonderful scene when Harry and Ron first meet on the Hogwart’s Express train. Harry buys a bunch of magical junk food, and he and Ron tuck in to get a sugar high as they get to know one another better. Harry opens a particular box and sees an enchanted picture of Dumbledore included with a chocolate frog. While he is looking at the card, the chocolate frog suddenly comes to life, crawls up the window, and leaps out of the train.
“Oh, that’s rotten luck. They’ve only got one good jump in them to begin with,” Ron tells Harry.
This little exchange swirled into my heart last night as I struggled to understand why I continue to feel like a failure when it comes to social justice issues and my vocation as a parish priest.
I have always felt as though my particular leadership style was one that is best imagined or envisioned as alongside and underneath rather than in front of a particular community. The reality is that anyone who wears a collar is out in front whether they like it or not. We are conspicuous people who stand out at a party—or a bar. (An aside to the conversations around vestments and what-not: if we understand our conspicuousness as making us stand out and therefore be more available rather than being the best dressed at the ball, that makes all the difference). Maybe it’s the way I’m wired. Maybe it’s my own life experiences that have formed me to thrive alongside and underneath rather than blazing trails out in front. Of course it is those things, and it is my particular charism, my own particular way of embodying God’s grace within me—or put another way, God’s own particular way of inviting me into ministry in this world.
For me, I feel most effective—most authentic and most mindful of my vocation—when I work from within a community. When I am expected to leap ahead and lead “from the front,” in that particular way, I feel like a chocolate frog. Perhaps I only have one good jump in me to begin with, and then I’ll leap out the window and watch the enchanted train leave my desiccated body behind on the tracks. Hyperbole perhaps, but you get the point. Perhaps some might think I’m not brave enough. Some might even think I’m shirking my responsibility. But it’s not that. I’m trying as best as I know how to live into my vocation within this very diverse community of faith, as we lean into very difficult and important conversations.
When I heard the legal and social justice advocates express their frustration that the clergy weren’t being more visible, I wanted to do two things.
First, I wanted to ask them what particular church community they worshiped in and ministered in. I wanted to make sure that, if the role of the church in society is so important, what have been their experiences within that context in terms of shared ministry and shared frustrations? Do they know what it is like to feel as though you have to hold together a community who is struggling to understand their role in offering a glimpse of God’s reign of peace? Are they critiquing solely from the outside? I resist a utilitarian view of the church, and I fight against being a “set piece” in someone’s social agenda.
As well, my defensive self was screaming inside, wanting to list off the many accomplishments my parish has experienced these past four years (even as I cringed thinking of them as “accomplishments”): working with a community clergy group to help form a center with United Way; bringing together clergy leaders to begin to share our perspectives; working with dozens of community partners to improve available housing, hunger relief, and medical care; serving on task forces to confront the epidemic of opioid addiction; seeking ways to foster conversations around racial injustice with speakers and discussions; hosting vital conversations with leaders of other faiths to stretch ourselves out of our comfort zones; learning more about the county and city’s plans for redevelopment and growth and how that affects the community—and all the while cutting the vast majority of simple carbohydrates out of my diet. No small feat, my ego wanted to yell.
When I came back to my office, I began telling my chief of staff that I was frustrated but didn’t fully yet know why. I told her that I had never felt led to protest in my life, but as soon as I said that I realized that I had, in fact, been protesting my entire life. If we’re speaking in terms of naming out loud what we yearn to name, to seek justice, and to lean into God’s grace in my life, I protest as often as I breathe—or at least I strive to.
Perhaps the root of my own struggle with feeling like a chocolate frog is that I feel pressured to conform to one particular type of ministry. And, I fear that after my one good jump—what then? There are many paths, many embodiments, to the common goal of sharing in God’s Kingdom here and now. There are many faithful responses to the one call of Christ upon our lives.
I am reminded of our Baptismal Covenant that we share so often. I took these lines and incorporated them into a form of the Prayers of the People so that we actually hear and speak them each week at Grace:
“Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?”
“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”
“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” (Book of Common Prayer, 305).
If you want to know how my Rule of Life incorporates the call to social justice, look right there. (An aside: before we start meddling with the Book of Common Prayer, we better make sure we at least ask if we “get” this). The next social justice conversation I share with someone, this will be what I can offer. And I can mean it.
I guess I’m tired of feeling guilty. My entire priesthood, when others have taken their feet to the streets, I have taken my pen to the page. While others have headed to their congressperson’s office, I have headed to homes and coffee shops to visit with folks who think my sermons are too political. When others have vocally expressed anger, I have gone to my cushion to sit in silence and listen for some intimation of God’s direction. In my office and at countless lunches, I have leaned in to hear the frustration, anxiety, and fears of my people, and I’ve strived to teach theological reflection to my community. This ability to engage in theological reflection, I am convinced, might actually be the key to the warped Rubik’s Cube we find ourselves juggling (to muddle a metaphor). If we truly can all sit down and begin by claiming that we are all striving to be people of faith—if we can dare set aside the judgment that comes from this strange theological sophistication that we wear like an heirloom—might we be able to finally lay down our arms and recognize how we all yearn so deeply for wholeness and peace. It will take us being vulnerable and willing to empty ourselves, and as Tilden Edwards and I joked at lunch a few years back, “Kenosis doesn’t sell!” (Read Philippians 2).
The end “goal,” as it were, is the transformation of one’s spiritual consciousness that enables a fuller embodiment of God’s grace in all of life. It is a conversion of life—to use Benedictine images—that experiences a rippling expression of God’s love in the entire world. “To grow into the full stature of Christ,” is the way the Baptismal rite in the Book of Common Prayer describes it. There is no strict separation between action and contemplation. The mystics have always known this.
Perhaps I’m naïve. Some will say that Jesus did this and that, that he led in a particular way and raged against the powers. That is true. He did that. He also had moments alone to pray. He also had times of silence in which he sought a deeper awareness of his own vocation. And he also had times of deeply profound encounter one on one with other human beings, including Mary Magdalene, who, we will remember, went alone to the tomb and sparked the reorientation in spiritual consciousness that we all share in. His action flowed from his contemplation of his identity. The fruit he bore has enticed us for two millennia because of the way he stretched his roots deep into his awareness of God’s presence and loving call.
I guess I’m saying that I don’t want anyone else to feel like a chocolate frog. I don’t want them to feel guilty or shamed. I want them to feel invited, empowered, enticed. I want them to desire the fullness of what God has in store for them in this world. I want the hermit to know that their life makes a difference just as much as the clergy person who is arrested in protest. I want the wonderful people entrusted to my care to know that their uniqueness is a gift—that each of them has an opportunity to live into their charism, to become more aware of God’s presence and guidance in their life. To live—fully—and to know that each and every one of our lives makes a difference. This is the conversation I yearn to have.
Father Stuart, you are amazing, and the humility with which you express your thoughts and feelings is inspiring. You carry a huge weight on your shoulders, and you do it with such grace and compassion. Sometimes our strongest, deepest response to the insanity of this world is to be still and know God. To take the time to be conscious and present. To question and cry and struggle. Perhaps these moments of perplexity and angst strengthen our collective consciousness and our dependence on God’s Light and Love. Perhaps therein lies our transformation. I am moved by your introspection. Thank you.