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‘Think and laugh and be compelled to reimagine’

The Rev. Shanea D. Leonard will keynote the fall evangelism conference

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Shanea D. Leonard, national coordinator for Gender & Racial Justice in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), knows what it’s like to lament by being honest before God about the pain they have experienced in the church.

“As someone who stands at the intersections of being a marginalized person in several ways, I know what it’s like to experience racism, homophobia and inequity because of my gender identity and orientation,” they said.

So, when the Rev. Dr. Kathryn Threadgill and the Rev. Dr. Ray Jones of Theology, Formation & Evangelism Ministries invited Leonard to be the keynote speaker at this year’s Evangelism Conference: Addressing Harm, Embracing Hope, Leonard felt honored.

“These types of conversations, which tend to be a little more progressive, need to happen in these kinds of places in the church,” Leonard said.

For Leonard, if the point of evangelism is to share the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is indeed good news, then how can it not move in a way that exemplifies inclusivity? How can it not acknowledge the places we hurt, and what it means to reconcile at a place of justice and inclusion? For this is “the gospel that Jesus promotes,” Leonard said, creating places where justice and the marginalized are centered alongside lament, which owns the harm the church has caused and the places where the spirit of the gospel message have not been upheld.

The Rev. Shanea D. Leonard

In moving from lament to hope at the Evangelism Conference at Montreat Conference Center, set for Oct. 30 through Nov. 1, Leonard will bring their whole self. They will not run from the hurt and pain that people have experienced in their faith but won’t get stuck there either. For God, Leonard said, is unfolding a new life in the church.

“We’re acknowledging where we’ve been and moving into the hope of what the church is becoming,” they said. “We’re going to think and laugh and be compelled to reimagine. We will sit with our pain, and yet look toward our hope.”

But even that isn’t enough for Leonard. They want the people who come to the conference to leave with a mandate — with the idea that they are going to back into their context to make a difference.

“To reengage evangelism with a new lens,” they said. “That is predicated on hope that acknowledges pain and reimagines what the Spirit is doing in their lives and in the lives of their community.”

Both Jones and Threadgill are looking forward to connecting evangelism to the way people are formed to be like Jesus by engaging the full life of God that is offered to all of us in our neighborhoods and communities.

“We must address the sin and harm we have caused by judgment, hypocrisy and leaving siblings out, or driving them away from church,” Threadgill said.

Jones added that evangelism cannot be about harming others with our judgments of who is in and who is left out of the family of God. Instead, Jones believes we are to be like John in the wilderness, bearing witness to the incarnation of God’s good news in Jesus Christ, with these words:

“Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every hill be made low. The crooked road made straight, the rough ways smooth. And all the people will see God’s salvation…” (Luke 3:4-6).

“This hybrid conference will offer participants an opportunity to lament and repent of the harm the church has caused through evangelism,” Jones said. “We will embrace a new hope and a new understanding of evangelism for our 21st century communities.”

The Rev. Gregory J. Bentley, co-moderator of the 224th General Assembly and the pastor of Fellowship Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Alabama, will preach on the theme “Addressing Harm, Embracing Hope.” Phillip Morgan, director of music at Central Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, will lead music.

 The conference has a registration fee of $70, a discount made possible by the Presbyterian Mission Agency. Learn more and and register here.

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