Having been an ordained pastor now for more than 20 years has afforded me the opportunity to see and be exposed to a plethora of experiences both inside and outside of the church. I am fortunate to have experienced clergy mentors and peers who helped me discern the delicate balance between a ministry that is focused on ecclesiastical concerns and one that has a strong social justice emphasis. The ministry nowadays has to be concerned about people not just spiritually but socially, economically, emotionally, mentally and politically as well.
Because of that reality, clergy who are theologically responsible and spiritually sensitive know that they must ask many different kinds of questions as they survey the social and political landscape that their parishioners live in on a daily basis in both our local and world communities. The churches, mosques, synagogues and parishes that we serve can no longer simply have a ministry in the community that specializes in picking people up when they are down in the valley of despair. At some point, we must climb the mountain to see who has been pushing them off the cliff!
It’s one thing to feed people who are hungry, but it’s another thing to ask the tough questions of our elected politicians about why there are so many hungry people in this, the richest nation on the planet. It’s one thing to provide shelter for people who are homeless, but it’s another thing to ask our elected officials why there is such rampant homelessness in the communities where we live. It’s one thing to provide benevolent assistance to people who are poor; but it’s another thing to ask our elected officials why there is so much poverty that affects adults and children so disproportionately in New York City.
Both types of ministry are necessary and important; the latter one, however, tends to be hard, tedious ongoing work that involves a commitment to be a part of coalitions and partnerships that are larger than ourselves or our individual houses of worship.
Perhaps our best, most shining example of that is the ministry of a young Black Baptist pastor named Martin Luther King Jr. I am convinced that what was most important to King is not that we would place him on a pedestal and borrow from his many quotes of oratorical brilliance to leverage our own political opinions. Rather, King would be concerned with the heart of the matter, accepting the challenge to fight for the “least of these” in our communities. People who can’t fight for themselves. People who are oppressed, mistreated and discriminated against. People who are hungry, homeless and dismissed to live a life in poverty when it doesn’t have to be that way.
That’s why I support the living wage movement and the Fair Wages for New Yorkers Act because they get at the heart of the matter: eradicating poverty in the city of New York and fighting for the “least of these.”
The Rev. Dr. Jesse T. Williams Jr. is senior pastor of Convent Avenue Baptist Church in Harlem, N.Y.