“Are you still about the Gospel, though?”
This question came from a woman who has supported Sunshine for many years, and her question rattled around in my brain for days. I realized that oftentimes buzzwords we use like “justice” and “reconciliation” may be misinterpreted by some. There has been both a change in activity and language at SGM during the past 20 years, but this is not a move away from our middle name. We are a Gospel-centric organization.
It’s true that the ministry of Sunshine Gospel has evolved over its 115 year history. For nearly 70 years SGM was primarily a “rescue mission” located in what many called “skid row.” Today that location is the world’s largest McDonald’s and the Hard Rock Cafe!
Then for about 30 years SGM was primarily a “youth outreach organization” in Cabrini Green, a large and notorious public housing community. During the past 16 years, while continuing and expanding the youth outreach work, SGM has become more broad based in our approach to the community, integrating programs for parents, developing real estate, creating work opportunities and most recently working to reduce violence.
You may know that our mission statement is taken from 2 scriptures:
Jeremiah 29:7 and Micah 6:8.
Our mission is to seek the renewal of the city through ministries of discipleship, justice, and mercy.
Our vision is to empower youth and families to thrive and lead prosperous, healthy lives through connectedness, opportunity, and economic sustainability.
I’ve spoken and written regularly about the Jeremiah passage, less so about the verses in Micah. The essence of the message of Micah 6:8 is that God calls his people to live out lives of mercy (aka compassion or steadfast love), justice and “a humble walk” with God. We call that last part “discipleship.” If you compare this verse and these concepts to many other scriptures, you find that these three basic principles are reflected constantly in scripture and they are rooted in the nature and character of God. Consider Jeremiah 9:23: 23 Thus says the Lord: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, 24 but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.”
I started at Moody Bible Institute in 1988, having been raised in a strong Christian family. I attended on and off for 8 years as we were married and had our first few kids. During all of this time I had a good handle on how the Gospel related to mercy and to righteousness. But then there was that third thing God tells us to know about him, about what he delights in: justice.
I have 2 confessions to make at this point. First, I didn’t know anything about what it meant for God to delight in justice or how this related to my faith. I always assumed that justice sounded “political” or must have something to do with court cases and therefore was to be kept at arm’s length. (I’ll get to my second confession in a minute!).
During my early years at Sunshine I began to get exposed to a pastor from Jackson, MS, by the name of John Perkins. Dr. Perkins was an amazing man that gained a high degree of visibility through the Promise Keepers movement. Dr. Perkins is an evangelist. Dr. Perkins is black. Dr. Perkins began to talk about “reconciliation” as the work of the Gospel. He spoke about reconciliation with God through the death and resurrection of Jesus, as well as our need to be reconciled across lines of race and class. I (and many others) heard and loved this message.
Then he spoke about what he called “relocation.” That was less familiar to my Christian ears but since I knew a lot about international missions, it was not a totally foriegn concept. Basically, some of us, as followers of Jesus, should move way outside our comfort zone to do the work of God and to share the message of Jesus.
But then he spoke about “redistribution” as his third “R.” At first, to be honest, that sounded political. But then I listened to Dr. Perkins. What he was arguing was that significant portions of our society have wildly disproportionate realities. Given my time working in the housing projects I knew this was undeniably true. I wrestled with the disparity confronting me. I spoke with my African American friends about what they thought. I listened to their experiences. It felt like scales falling from my eyes as I began to understand the impacts of racism, oppression, injustice in my own country. In my own city.
It’s important to understand a couple of things here. First, Dr. Perkins was never arguing primarily a political or even economic point per se. What he was saying was that as Christians, if we pursue reconciliation and live in communities that face significant adversity, we will naturally “redistribute” opportunity through our relationships. I’ve seen that, and lived that, first hand for the past 20 years.
The second thing that is important to understand (here comes the second confession!) is that people who seek to do justice oriented work, even when rooted in the character of God and the story of the Gospel, are highly prone to self-righteousness. It is what you might call a “besetting sin.” I have become aware of it and (hopefully) sensitive to it in my own life.
There is no disputing that “justice” is central to the character of God. What is more difficult is grappling with how it comes about, how it passes away, and what our role as believers might be. As both Micah and Jeremiah (along with many other scriptures) make clear, is that it is not optional. It is central to being ambassadors of YAHWEH.
In his pursuit of mercy, justice and righteousness, Dr. Perkins founded the Christian Community Development Association 30 years ago. CCDA was established to inspire, train, and connect Christians who seek to bear witness to the Kingdom of God by reclaiming and restoring under-resourced communities. Being a part of CCDA for the past 20 years has deeply impacted my personal faith, our family’s lives, and the direction Sunshine has taken to live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a thoughtful way in Woodlawn.
In the coming year, I’d like to unpack how CCDA principles have been formative in how we engage in our community. We’ll be discussing in depth the ideas of relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution, as well as unpacking the 7 core values that Sunshine affirms in our mission:
Gospel of Grace
The verse we are focusing on this year is Colossians 2:6-7 “ So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.”
After 20 years in Woodlawn, we are thankful for the roots of the Gospel growing deeply in our hearts as well as the community roots we’re establishing as we partner in Woodlawn. We are so thankful Jesus has been so faithful to care for us and those in our community and we will spend some time this year sharing all the things we have to be thankful for. But, to answer the original question, yes, we are still very much centered around sharing the good news of the Gospel that Jesus became flesh, lived among us, died on the cross, and then rose again to save us from our sin. As he reconciles us to God, we also work to reconcile with each other. The Gospel remains at the center of who we are and why we do what we do. We hope you’ll engage with us more in this discussion in 2020 and will be encouraged in your own faith!
– Joel Hamernick, Executive Director