Downtown Chattanooga church launches series on social justice issues

Downtown Chattanooga church launches series on social justice issues

First-Centenary United Methodist Church hosting speakers on first four Wednesday evenings of 2018

December 11th, 2017 by Joan McClane in Local Regional News

Dogwoods are seen in full bloom around the old First Centenary United Methodist Church in April 2013.

Photo by Tim Barber /Times Free Press.

If you go

In January, First-Centenary United Methodist Church, 419 McCallie Ave., will host a series of talks on issues related to social justice. The talks are free and open to the public. Dinner is provided before the event at 5:15 p.m. for $8 a person. Reservations are required. To reserve a meal, call 423-756-2021 no later than the Monday before the program. Each talk will be held at the church’s Oak Street Center.

› Maternal and child health, Jan. 10 at 6 p.m.: Lisa Vincent, fetal and infant mortality review and prevention program manager at the Chattanooga- Hamilton County Health Department, will speak.

› Criminalization of people of color, Jan. 17 at 6 p.m.: Michelle D. Deardorff, Adolph S. Ochs professor of government and head of the department of political science and public service at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, will speak.

› Economic inequality, Jan. 24 at 6 p.m.: Michael Gilliland, board chairman of Chattanooga Organized for Action, will speak.

› Climate justice, Jan. 31 at 6 p.m.: Heather Bennett, co-director of Nashville-based Blessed Earth Southeast, will speak.

This January, one of the city's largest Methodist churches will be wading into some challenging and controversial topics, and asking a big question to its congregants: What does it mean to live out a Christian faith in America in 2018?

On the first four Wednesday evenings of the new year, First-Centenary United Methodist on McCallie Avenue downtown will be hosting speakers to discuss four social justice-related topics, including maternal and child health, the criminalization of people of color, economic inequality, and climate justice.

It's a gamble, said Donna Palmer, incoming president of First-Centenary's United Methodist Women, who helped organize the series.

"These are just hard issues," she said. "Within my church, there are different points of view. There is a range from liberal to more conservative folks."

Still, organizers want the events, which are free and open to the public, to be challenging, but not threatening.

"As a society, we don't talk with people that we might disagree with or engage in difficult conversations like we should, and that goes beyond religious dynamics," said 32-year-old Will Lauderback, associate pastor at First-Centenary. "But doing that is living out our faith."

The social justice speaker series was birthed after a small group of women from First-Centenary returned home from a spiritual retreat last spring.

Palmer, 71, had been working to build relationships with several younger women in the congregation, some of whom took part in the retreat. Like many churches, First-Centenary has been looking for ways to engage millennials, a group research shows is much less interested in church than previous generations.

In fact, research from the Barna Group, a California-based organization which studies the intersection of faith and culture, shows that 59 percent, or six in 10, of millennials who grow up in church end up walking away from their faith or from the institutional church in the first decade of their adult life. Meanwhile, the unchurched segment of millennials has increased to more than 50 percent.

One reason, according to Barna Group, is that few churches help young people discover a sense of mission.

"Millennials who remain active in church are twice as likely as dropouts to say they served the poor through their church (33 percent versus 14 percent)," according to a 2013 Barna analysis.

The national United Methodist Women had already announced a four-year focus on maternal and child health, the criminalization of people of color, economic inequality and climate justice. So why not stir conversation around the topics locally, the small group of United Methodist Women from First-Centenary decided.

"On the way home on the church bus, one of the young women said, 'Why don't we just focus on what the national organization is focusing on and try to come up with some hands-on activities for us to do?'" Palmer said. "We really want to be about doing, not just sitting in meetings. We want to live out the principles we are learning about."

Andrea Kelley, a 41-year-old mom and member of First- Centenary's United Methodist Women, said some of the church's older members may be surprised by the topics chosen, but they shouldn't be. The United Methodist church and United Methodist Women have a long history of pursuing social justice.

"We are a downtown church and we want to be there for the community," Kelley said. "It makes sense that we are starting to reach out on larger social justice issues. It's putting what I was taught in Sunday school into action. Love is the way to express those teachings. That is it. That is Christianity to the core."

Lauderback agreed.

"It's part of our foundational identity to take care of the least and the last and the lost," he said.

They know the topics can be political triggers. Still, they want the conversation to move beyond politics to faith in action.

When Palmer first learned about climate justice while attending conferences and training sessions provided by the national United Methodist Women she said she felt very uncomfortable.

"You look at our culture, at the whole industrialized world, and our carbon footprint and how if I go online and order something I am involving transportation and sometimes overseas labor, and I am involving a lot of manufacturing that contribute to pollution and the production of carbon," she said.

The knowledge moved her to make small but meaningful changes. She recycles, reuses and makes sure her light bulbs are energy-efficient now. Still, she hasn't adopted a radically new lifestyle.

"I live the way I live and I certainly want to do what I can do, but I am not going to give up my car," she said.

And with all the social justice topics being explored this January, Palmer said there is room for a variety of applications.

"Years ago, I didn't think about recycling, composting, things like that," she added. "Everyone has the potential to move and grow in their understanding."

Contact staff writer Joan McClane at jmcclane@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6601.

Spiritual and political profile of America

› Evangelical Christians: 6 percent of U.S. adult population

Political views

Fiscally conservative: 69 percent

Socially conservative: 79 percent

Environmentalist: 18 percent

Support Black Lives Matter: 18 percent

Advocate for LGBT rights: 4 percent

Pro-life: 84 percent

Own a gun: 30 percent

Spiritual views

Believe in absolute moral truth: 86 percent

Have an orthodox view of God: 100 percent

Say religious faith is important to them today: 100 percent

Feel a responsibility to share their religious beliefs with others: 100 percent

Believe the Bible is accurate in all of the principles it teaches: 100 percent

Believe Jesus sinned during his time on Earth: 0 percent

Believe Satan is not a symbol but a living being: 98 percent

› Non-evangelical born-again Christians: 23 percent of U.S., adult population

Political views

Fiscally conservative: 50 percent

Socially conservative: 59 percent

Environmentalist: 37 percent

Support Black Lives Matter: 36 percent

Advocate for LGBT rights: 27 percent

Pro-life: 63 percent

Own a gun: 37 percent

Spiritual views

Believe in absolute moral truth: 70 percent

Have an orthodox view of God: 89 percent

Say religious faith is important to them today: 76 percent

Feel a responsibility to share their religious beliefs with others: 31 percent

Believe the Bible is accurate in all of the principles it teaches: 55 percent

Believe Jesus sinned during his time on Earth: 46 percent

Believe Satan is not a symbol but a living being: 35 percent

› Notional Christians: 42 percent of the U.S. adult population

Political views

Fiscally liberal: 22 percent

Socially liberal: 31 percent

Environmentalist: 39 percent

Support Black Lives Matter: 38 percent

Advocate for LGBT rights: 39 percent

Pro-life: 46 percent

Own a gun: 30 percent

Spiritual views

Believe in absolute moral truth: 51 percent

Have an orthodox view of God: 57 percent

Say religious faith is important to them today: 39 percent

Feel a responsibility to share their religious beliefs with others: 22 percent

Believe the Bible is accurate in all of the principles it teaches: 24 percent

Believe Jesus sinned during his time on Earth: 68 percent

Believe Satan is not a symbol but a living being: 14 percent

› Adherents of non-Christian faiths: 6 percent of the U.S. adult population

Political views

Fiscally liberal: 35 percent

Socially liberal: 48 percent

Environmentalist: 43 percent

Support Black Lives Matter: 51 percent

Advocate for LGBT rights: 47 percent

Pro-life: 34 percent

Own a gun: 10 percent

Spiritual views

Believe in absolute moral truth: 53 percent

Have an orthodox view of God: 57 percent

Say religious faith is important to them today: 43 percent

Feel a responsibility to share their religious beliefs with others: 26 percent

Believe the Bible is accurate in all of the principles it teaches: 20 percent

Believe Jesus sinned during his time on Earth: 46 percent

Believe Satan is not a symbol but a living being: 34 percent

› Religious skeptics: 23 percent of the U.S., adult population

Political views

Fiscally liberal: 44 percent

Socially liberal: 62 percent

Environmentalist: 48 percent

Support Black Lives Matter: 53 percent

Advocate for LGBT rights: 66 percent

Pro-life: 13 percent

Own a gun: 22 percent

Spiritual views

Believe in absolute moral truth: 27 percent

Have an orthodox view of God: 18 percent

Say religious faith is important to them today: 4 percent

Feel a responsibility to share their religious beliefs with others: 2 percent

Believe the Bible is accurate in all of the principles it teaches: 4 percent

Believe Jesus sinned during his time on Earth: 69 percent

Believe Satan is not a symbol but a living being: 16 percent

Source: Barna Group