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Unity and justice on display ministering in America’s Second City

NEXT Church national gathering panel focuses on doing God’s work in Chicago’s South Side

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Tanya Watkins, executive director of Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, spoke as part of a panel last week to the NEXT Church national gathering. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Otis Moss III, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, and Tanya Watkins, executive director of Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation, which carries the memorable acronym SOUL, may take slightly different approaches to serving their community.

But as they explained during a NEXT Church national gathering panel discussion last week moderated by the Rev. Shawna Bowman, an artist and pastor of Friendship Presbyterian Church in Chicago, their missions are the same: How do we make the world as it should be, as God intended it?

As a girl, Watkins and her grandmother would stand in long food lines outside a church. “I thought, if this is what I need to experience to be a good Christian, I’m not sure I want to have anything to do with this,” said Watkins. “We don’t protect the poor and stand in the gap for people in poverty. We exploit and harm them.”

But now, she says, “my faith calls me to this work.”

SOUL, she said, is part of the Black liberation movement. A pivotal moment for her occurred almost four years ago, when organizers were attempting to shut down the Cook County Courthouse so that bond court could not be held. Surrounded by faith leaders, elected officials and other organizers, “for the first time at age 40 I found myself singing from my gut as loudly as I could in a spirit of righteous rebellion,” Watkins said. “I realized this is the church, not necessarily a brick-and-mortar building. It was this liberatory movement for justice.”

“That’s the work I am very grateful to do and be a part of. It’s the center of my spirituality,” Watkins said. “I’ve never felt closer to God than I have while being in struggle and community with folks in the movement.”

The Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III is pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

“Tanya won’t toot her own horn,” Moss replied, “but Tanya is my pastor. She is a community pastor. I’ve never witnessed her show up to anything without other people. She witnesses and interprets for them … People in Chicago have such respect for her work.”

Moss, one of America’s most gifted preachers, is the son of another preaching icon, the Rev. Dr. Otis Moss Jr., the pastor emeritus at Olivet Institutional Baptist Church in Cleveland.

“I didn’t know there were [faith] traditions that aren’t justice centered until I went to college,” Moss said. “My parents were children of the civil rights movement. The met in the movement. Dr. King officiated at their wedding. Liberation and social justice — I heard that all the time. I thought, that’s what people in churches do.”

Then he started to meet people of faith for whom the work of bringing about social justice meant very little.

“I thought, who are these people? How could you claim to walk with Jesus and know Jesus if you don’t embody him?” Moss said. “Not many were preaching what Jesus preached.”

“What’s beautiful” about the faith community at Trinity United Church of Christ is “they show up everywhere unashamedly Black and unapologetically Christian,” Moss said. A man who lives in a housing project next door to the church announced this to Moss one day: “I ain’t never coming to your church. I ain’t never coming to anybody’s church — but Trinity’s my church, because you are committed to the community, committed to liberation.”

SOUL is focused on a number of issues important to people everywhere, including access to clean water and nutritious food, fully funded schools, healthcare and access to jobs with “robust, living wages,” Watkins said. It embraces an abolitionist worldview that seeks to dismantle the prison-industrial complex and end militarized policing “while creating a society that provides everything people need to survive,” Watkins said.

“How do we create a world where people don’t need to harm other folks in order to survive? It’s a lot of work, but we are grateful to live in a community with places and spaces like Trinity United Church of Christ and Pastor Moss,” Watkins said. “I see you and your people getting out into the community. You’re in real relationship with people fighting the criminal justice system.”

“We work,” Watkins said, “in the name of righteous rebellion.”

The Rev. Shawna Bowman, pastor of Friendship Presbyterian Church in Chicago, moderated last week’s panel discussion.

“If you’re going to claim you are a follower of Christ, you make a claim to be part of a liberation movement,” Moss said. “A relationship with Christ should disturb you and make you uncomfortable if you are in power. If you’re afflicted, you should be comforted.”

In the tradition of the Black church, “there is no sacred and secular separation,” Moss said. “We shout in church the same we do when we see Luther Vandross or Whitney Houston sing.”

When we witness “capitalism in ecclesiastical garments, it’s not practicing this radical faith that in the words of [the late U.S. Rep.] John Lewis gets you into good trouble,” Moss said. That kind of faith “flicks tables and destroys redlining and mass incarceration.”

“We serve a God who was incarcerated, who had a terrible public defender, who dealt with a judicial system stacked against his people,” Moss said. “He was executed by the state, and we walk around with a cross around our neck saying we don’t understand what this mass incarceration is all about.”

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