Spiritual Progressive Faith Formation
Sounding the Trumpet: How Churches Can Answer God’s Call to Justice
by Brooks Berndt and J. Alfred Smith Sr.
A Pair of Docs Publishing, 2013
For forty years, J. Alfred Smith Sr. served as the senior pastor for the Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, a church with a national reputation for its ministry of black empowerment and liberation. Anyone who has been in Rev. Smith’s presence has likely been altered by the experience. He is a profound and eloquent person who carries within himself a joyful spiritual confidence coupled with a deep concern about the abiding presence of social injustice in our world. I would say that it is a relief to be around him because he affirms in his being the central message that we all long to hear—that hope and wisdom are reconcilable, that we can see the world exactly as it is with its suffering, pain, and injustice, and still feel with a full heart that we can transcend what is toward what ought to be.
In his new book Sounding the Trumpet: How Churches Can Answer God’s Call to Justice, he has joined with Rev. Brooks Berndt to try to convey—through an exchange of letters between Rev. Berndt and himself—how a church can seek to become a force for social transformation. Beginning in 2002, Rev. Berndt began attending services at Rev. Smith’s church; he was inspired and ultimately mentored by Rev. Smith before leaving the Bay Area to become pastor of a church in the predominantly white suburb of Vancouver, Washington. While a student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and a regular attendee at Smith’s church services in Oakland, Berndt participated in many church-supported social justice and organizing campaigns, and in that context the relationship between spirituality and social and political activism seemed self-evident.
Once in Vancouver, however, Berndt found himself facing the challenge of transmitting his own spiritual and political conviction—his belief that spiritual redemption and fulfillment requires transforming not only the self but also the social world—to a middle-class congregation for whom that was a new, unfamiliar, and even threatening idea. As an aid in addressing this challenge, and also out of a desire to create a record of Berndt’s efforts for the benefit of others seeking to build socially transformative churches and congregations across the country, Smith and Berndt settled on the idea of exchanging letters on a regular basis for a year’s time. In the letters, Berndt describes his ideas for sermons, his efforts to integrate scripture with calls to congregational action, his efforts to organize his members, and his attempts to involve his church in social justice campaigns. Smith responds with his own reflections, encouragement, and suggestions based on his lifetime of engagement in just this kind of effort.
Shaped into six parts entitled “From Crisis to Resurrection,” “Launching the Moses Project,” “Honing Your Craft and Sounding Your Trumpet,” “An Expanding Notion of Care,” “Teachable Moments,” and “A Great Time to be Alive,” the book tells two stories through these letters: the story of Berndt’s first year as a pastor in Vancouver and the story of two men devoted to transforming the world and offering their loving relationship as a way of doing so.
Challenging Secular Activists to Address Spiritual Issues
The challenge facing Berndt (or “Brother Brooks,” as Smith addresses him in his letters) is the opposite of the challenge facing most liberal and progressive readers of Tikkun. We who work in secular Left contexts and who subscribe to Tikkun’s spiritual progressive vision often have difficulty persuading those with whom we work to embrace the “spiritual” side of that vision. Our colleagues in social action projects and in philosophical and social-theoretical conversations are often passionately committed to democracy, economic equality, and the expansion of political rights to historically excluded groups, but they are closed to, put off by, or simply uncomfortable with the notion that these social and political objectives should be inherently linked to the realization of our collective spiritual being, to our common longing to live in a loving world in which our highest selves, our divine nature, could be made manifest on earth.
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Gabel, Peter. 2014. Spiritual Progressive Faith Formation. Tikkun 29(4): 45.