In two recent editorials I examined some of the reasons why so many (predominantly white) Evangelical Christians support Donald Trump and why other Evangelicals (mostly non-white) oppose him. At the end of the latter essay I remarked briefly on an under-reported but growing national trend of white Evangelicals rediscovering the biblical call to work for social justice.
I conclude this series with a close examination of one Evangelical church that is living out this call in the heart of “red-state” America. The information in this story comes from my brother, who has served on the staff of this church for the past 13 years.
The Church at Brook Hills is a large, successful Southern Baptist church in the suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama, that attracts over 3,000 worshippers every Sunday. Like most Evangelical churches, they have always placed a strong emphasis on evangelism (i.e., trying to persuade others to become Christians) and foreign missions (i.e., spreading the Christian message to other nations). Little attention was given to addressing social problems like poverty, racism, and economic injustice until a memorable Sunday in 2009.
On that day their pastor, a well-known preacher and author named Dr. David Platt, preached a sermon on James 1:27, a New Testament text that reads, “This is the worship that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” After several minutes of discussing what this verse meant, he announced, “We’re a church that takes the Bible seriously, and we’re going to do what this text says.”
The next week he commissioned members of his leadership team to figure out where in the world was the greatest concentration of widows and orphans with financial needs. Their research pointed them to India. Further inquiries led them to a Christian organization called Compassion International that supports orphaned children around the world.
“What would it cost to cover the expenses of all of the children that you are currently serving in India who lack financial sponsors?” Dr. Platt asked. “Perhaps half a million dollars a year,” they told him. “We’ll take them all,” he replied.
Over the next few months, church leaders began sifting through the church budget and eliminating all programs and expenditures that did not cohere with their new-found vision of addressing the practical needs of people in their community and around the world. In the meantime, members were challenged through Sunday sermons and home Bible study groups to look for ways to assist impoverished people around the globe.
To promote this effort, the church partnered with an outside organization to take groups of a hundred members at a time to poor communities in Central America where they received a hands-on education about poverty. Many of these people returned again and again to aid the people whom they met there. Dozens signed up to foster or adopt developmentally disabled orphans from the region. In the ensuing years, over 100 children have been adopted and over 300 fostered through this program.
The more people in the church learned about global poverty, the more they came to see its pernicious effects in their own community. Some of them began investing time and money in two low-income communities not far from the church, one a predominantly black public housing project and the other a Hispanic neighborhood. Working closely with local groups, they set up after-school tutoring programs, a health clinic, a kids club, and other programs to help the residents with their practical needs. Eventually, 17 families from the church moved into these neighborhoods to provide more hands-on assistance. They also started a Spanish-language Bible study group that developed into an independent church.
In 2010 a tornado struck Pratt City, a predominantly black suburb of Birmingham, destroying everything in its path. The Church at Brook Hills took a leading role in the recovery effort. Rather than swooping in as “white saviors,” they partnered with African American churches that were already serving the area and supported their efforts to rebuild their community. Hundreds of church members volunteered to help with the cleanup effort, and the church donated large amounts of money for reconstruction projects. They also took personal responsibility for helping 45 local families get back on their feet after the storm.
Through these efforts, church members became more aware of the needs and struggles of the local black community, resulting in the creation of a whole new urban ministries program directed by a top member of the church staff. One outcome of this partnership was the establishment of a two-week, faith-based job skills training program that has equipped nearly 800 people with poor work records to get and keep jobs. Fully 75% of these people had criminal records, yet their recidivism rate is less than 5%.
Similar concerns led the church to invest large amounts of money in a fledgling program that provided temporary housing and support services to women recently released from prison to help them transition back into the local community. Hundreds of women have now graduated from this program to lead productive lives.
In yet another outgrowth of their partnership with local black churches, the church created a program to ensure that poor children could start school on time. Schools in Alabama start classes in mid-August, but many poor children were unable to begin until their parents received welfare or disability checks at the of the month. Sensitized to this problem, the church set up a program to provide hundreds of children with free uniforms, shoes, backpacks, school supplies, and haircuts so that they could begin school on time.
Meanwhile, hundreds of people from the church continue to travel overseas every year at their own expense to build houses, hold medical clinics, support churches, and otherwise assist people with their material and spiritual needs.
Many readers will no doubt be surprised to learn that efforts such as these are being carried out by an Evangelical church. But the Church at Brook Hills is not unique; it is only one of many theologically conservative, “Bible-believing” Christian churches across the nation that are rediscovering the Bible’s call to aid the poor, the disabled, the prisoner, and the refugee. They might not be ready to embrace a progressive Democrat like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren for president, but they are doing more to effect progressive change in their communities than many self-described progressive groups. May they be the wave of the future!
(Chris Stanley is a professor in the Department of Theology and Franciscan Studies at St. Bonaventure University.)