By Bill Mefford, photo by Win Rampen
Working for the liberation of oppressed people while having spent most of my life deeply entrenched in the evangelical Christian community, and having attended a very conservative seminary twice, and having grown up in the South, and having benefited from systems of racist, sexist, classist, and Christian privilege; all of this might lead you to think I would be deeply invested in building bridges with the communities that I have emerged from so that those communities of privilege and white detachment would come to know the liberation that comes from working for justice. However, you would be wrong. Building bridges really isn’t my thing.
Now, do not get me wrong, I absolutely believe in the transformational power of relationships. I believe in relationships as the primary vehicle by which God uses to change the world. Relationships with people have thoroughly changed my life and I praise God for the amazing people I have known. When I lead organizing trainings I emphasize, especially among white church groups, the absolute necessity of creating spaces for people directly impacted by injustice and potential allies with privilege to begin mutual and honest relationships that can lead to solidarity and political power for the purpose of achieving concrete change. I absolutely believe in building these kinds of bridges. But I am exhausted from trying to build bridges with people who live in privilege solely for the sake of building bridges.
Let me tell you one story why (though I could tell dozens like this). When I first began working at the general level of the United Methodist Church, the board was known for being institutionally liberal. So, I reached out to a bunch of evangelical United Methodists, most of whom I knew from my time at Asbury, and invited them to a two day discussion between them and the employees I worked with at the time. I wanted to provide a safe space for them to get to know people at the board I worked at and for board employees to get to know some people who are evangelical, but who, for the most part, do not ascribe to the harsh rhetoric and dishonesty that characterizes so many evangelical leaders in the United Methodist Church.
This was a classic attempt at building bridges. And for the first of the two days it worked! Most of the attendees and the employees at the board remarked on how much they enjoyed getting to know one another and to find common issues; well a few at least. But the second day everything turned south. There was one prominent evangelical in the UMC there - a Vice-President at Asbury Seminary who I attended seminary with and who prides himself on once being a Democrat from Arkansas - and on the second day, sensing that actual relationships might be taking place, he went off. He recounted years of “failure” by those I worked with at the board (which occurred long before I started working there) and said there was no way we could be trusted. He blew the meeting up. He so soured the morning session that no one else who was there dared challenge him because of his prominence.
The bridge was effectively demolished. But in reality, the bridge was not that strong. We had had one day of superficial niceties, but it was not strong enough to withstand one person’s outburst. A few of us from this gathering continued to try and find meaningful ways to work together, but as far as creating a viable network among moderate to conservative evangelicals within the UMC to work together on important issues - that hope was dashed. And despite some honest attempts to cater to evangelicals, so too was my work at building bridges. Honestly, I found it took so much work and there was so little good that came out of it.
Instead, I began focusing, and have continued since, in being in relationships with people directly impacted by injustice. And if conservative evangelicals want to join me in that, then they are most certainly welcome. Indeed, they are ALWAYS welcome. But ignoring the demands of working for freedom from oppression and instead, investing scarce time and energy into building relationships that might or might not (and odds are on the might not) be of benefit for the work of justice is simply wasteful.
At first I felt some guilt for no longer working to build bridges and I was even accused by some evangelical friends for not working hard enough at building bridges. But the more I looked at the enormous task of working for justice for immigrants, at ending mass incarceration, at ending gun violence, and other significant areas of justice, I just did not have the time, energy, or even the desire anymore to build bridges with evangelicals or other privileged groups unless it was towards the building of movements toward achieving justice on these issues.
I started seeing that building bridges tends to serve more as a distraction for the church from its calling to work for justice. Here are a few ways I have seen that happen:
Building bridges becomes paramount rather than means to the end of achieving concrete change. For example, though there was in place a very strong faith coalition advocating for immigrants (the Interfaith Immigration Coalition), some DC-based groups got TONS of funding to needlessly create a coalition for evangelical groups that advocates for horrible goals like “fairness to tax payers” and “guaranteed secure orders.” Watering down common sense reform policies in order to bring a few evangelicals along (who have done nothing to sway the Republican Party by the way), has done irreparable harm to the overall movement for immigrant rights.
Building bridges is more focused on comfort than authenticity. For example, when I lived and worked in a poor neighborhood years ago I lead poverty simulation weekends for visiting affluent (and overwhelmingly white) church groups and some of the homeless men we worked with helped me out on the weekends as resources for the church groups to talk to and hopefully learn from. However, I noticed very quickly that church groups preferred to talk to homeless men who were at least becoming middle-class rather than homeless men who were currently homeless and who had not been socialized in middle-class ways. Some openly told me they could learn better if they could talk to homeless men who were washed and clean and who did not cuss. A few groups even said they could not talk to one homeless man because he talked with his mouth full of food! But we do not get to choose how palatable the truth is for sometimes truth is harsh and uncomfortable and we need that discomfort to challenge our privilege.
Building bridges is more for show than for genuine relationships. I remember a woman I met at the United Methodist General Conference in 2008. She was, and is, a far right conservative. She was also quite nice and we had a couple of cordial conversations, but I did not think too much of it because you tend to have lots of mundane conversations like these at these kinds of events. But she started following me on various social media platforms and she kept bringing up to me how “amazing” it was that she who was conservative could find “relationship” with me who is so “liberal.” I thought it was weird because we really did not have a relationship then and we do not now. We had a few nice conversations. Later, when some hard conversations happened over social media she was aghast that I was hurting “our relationship.” I reminded her we really did not have a deep friendship, but it upset her because being able to brag to others that you have a “friend” who is on the other side becomes a way to lie to yourself and others who you really are.
In writing this I am not condemning the hard work of building bridges for it is intense work. And I know some folks are called to it - and I say go for it and show the rest of us how to do it. But for me, time and energy are so scarce that I have no more desire to build bridges unless they serve the higher calling of justice. Bridges mean nothing unless they are used to cross over to the other side in order to achieve concrete change.