Is protest the new worship?

The Rev. Traci Blackmon, a Black minister at the forefront of the Ferguson protests said, “The Ferguson uprising was church.”

She tells a story, recounted by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in his documentary “The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song”, about holding a prayer vigil prior to going into the Ferguson streets. About halfway through the intended span of the vigil some of the young people said, “That’s enough praying.”

The slogan for her organizing work became #PrayingWithOurFeet, drawn from the words of abolitionist and formerly enslaved person, Frederick Douglass: “Praying for freedom never did me any good till I started praying with my feet.”

Where the young people are

Young Christians have ceased to tolerate the Church’s silence about the injustices of our society and are moving into the streets to do something about concerns of equity, dignity, and rights.

They want to be the hands—and feet—of Jesus.

In a survey of over 10,000 young people, the Springtide Research Institute discovered that 58% of those aged 13-25 say they have engaged in acts of protest as a religious or spiritual practice, with 39% reporting that they engage in some form of spiritually-inspired acts of protest at least monthly. 

Elizabeth Drescher, a professor of religion at Santa Clara University, says that people who attended Black Lives Matter protests and marches in the summer of 2020 reported experiencing it and other acts of social justice as a transcendent experience, something that is “bigger than oneself.” They also felt that gathering with others who held “common commitments and perspectives,” constituted “a meaningful way to make change”…which all sounds a lot like religious experience.

Is protest the new worship?

A witness of love

Recently I stepped away from local church ministry and began working as a Faith Organizer with the ACLU of West Virginia.

I started the job one week after SCOTUS handed down its anti-abortion decision in Dobbs v JWHO. My first week on the job was a whirlwind: in the midst of onboarding I attended an organizing meeting of a group of clergy in my area who support abortion as health care, facilitated a panel of faith leaders on Zoom speaking about abortion from faith perspectives, and tabled at a rally for reproductive rights at our state Capitol.

Our faith leaders’ panel met with huge success. So many people thanked us for talking about reproductive care from a variety of faith traditions. Folx messaged me afterward seeking further conversation with a faith leader or asking how they could get involved in the fight for abortion care. 

Despite the pouring rain at the rally, hundreds of people stood for hours listening to story upon varied story from people with uteruses who had had abortions.

At that rally, I had a profound experience.

The role of the ACLU of WV that day was not to promote its own work, but to register voters. I worked the table with my new colleague, a DREAMer who is the Immigrant Rights Campaign Coordinator for our state, both of us clad in our ACLU-WV t-shirts.

While we did register some voters, something else happened.

Person after sopping wet person, all young, came to our table profusely thanking us for the work that the ACLU does. “Thank you for what you do!” “I’m so grateful for you!” “We really appreciate the ways you fight for us!”

And person after person asked how they could be involved. Was there a volunteer sign-up sheet? No, because we weren’t set up to promote our org. But I took down would-be volunteers’ contact info on a note in my phone and walked away at the end of the rally with the names of six people who had ASKED to volunteer.

One young woman told me she couldn’t believe she was meeting people from the ACLU because they were like rock stars to her. She was entering law school in a few weeks because of the ACLU, she said.

Another woman wanted to make a donation and handed me $20.

I was struck by the ways people perceived the ACLU and initiated involvement with us, because this is exactly the kind of response the Church desperately wants. The Church wants to embody Christ’s love and goodness in the world. We want volunteers, donations to resource our work, and to be an example for others to follow.

Yet the Church fails to achieve this. And maybe the Church should look at why. 

Neglecting solidarity

When I talk about “the Church” here I need to name my context. I have pastored for 20+ years in Appalachia as part of a mainline denomination whose churches look a lot like the demographics of our state: older, conservative, majority white.

We are not in the streets.

We are not fighting injustice.

We are not forming relationships with people in historically excluded communities.

In essence, there are ways we are failing to be Jesus-y.

Churches and groups in my denomination do extraordinarily good charity work. We’re great at baby pantries and food delivery and disaster relief. These are important acts which meet the material needs of people who are impoverished in a state with great poverty.

But on the whole, our charity work is grounded in a power differential, where those who have “help” those who have not.  We don’t know how to do solidarity. We don’t do very well walking alongside people for the long haul or looking at the root causes of their marginalization.

Addressing the systemic oppression which creates and perpetuates poverty, white supremacy, and homophobia is what young people (rightly) long for.

But they don’t see their grandmother’s church doing anything about it.  

Bishop Yvette Flunder, senior pastor of City of Refuge, United Church of Christ, and the presiding Prelate of the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, says the desire for institutions to address racial justice and other progressive policies may be the principal reason millennials are currently moving away from the church as an institution.

“They’re trying to find like-minded millennials who are very interested in doing the work of policy, doing the work of justice, and organizing,” Flunder said. “And they’re feeling that the church, as it is called monolithically, is not really on board.”[i]

The log in our own eye

Like many others who are leaving churches, young justice-seeking people haven’t left Jesus. They’ve left the walls of the Church to be His body on earth, fighting for flourishing with people who are being oppressed by power structures.

In a time of steep decline in membership and involvement in the mainline Protestant Church, we would do well to look to where young people are living out their faith and do the Jesus-thing of meeting them where they are.

We would be a better Church if we followed their lead.

But if the white Church can’t create space to engage systemic problems of the world, we are going to have a hard time seeing the problems in our own system which preclude that engagement. It’s a chicken-and-egg conundrum.

Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

[i] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/where-does-the-black-church-fit-in-todays-black-lives-matter-movement


Rev. Jenny Williams (she/her) is an ordained United Methodist pastor who believes the Church needs to reclaim her prophetic witness by speaking into issues of injustice and walking with people marginalized by Empire. She currently serves at the Faith Organizer for the ACLU of WV. Read more of Jenny’s work here.


Feature Image Credit: Daisy Cooil via pond5.com

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