Tag Archives: social justice

The Missionary as Change Agent

Richard Poethig as a fraternal worker in the 1950s in the Philippines

Richard Poethig as a fraternal worker in the 1950s in the Philippines

by Richard Poethig

A recent Wall Street Journal item caught my attention.

The title “Christian Missionaries Against Colonialism” set my mind in motion. Part of my life had been dedicated to work overseas within the context of what had been called Christian mission. The WSJ article writer David A. Hollinger was making the case that the old image of missionary as a carrier of colonial imperialism had taken a sharp turn in the 20th century.

His recent book “Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America” tells the story of the changes in the mission experience which brought a new brand of missionary into being.

I respond to Hollinger’s thesis from within our family’s overseas experience. We served in the church overseas in the mid-20th century when the post-World War II period was bringing dramatic global changes. The global conflict was a challenge to the colonialism which had dominated the history of the previous four centuries. Our family spent fifteen years in the Philippines, a nation which had been within the Spanish orbit since 1517. The United States began its own colonial experience in its victory over Spain in 1898 and its colonial administration of the Philippines in the 20th century.

The change in mission thinking came with the political and social upheaval at the end of the war in the Asian arena. The global conflict, especially in Asia, challenged the Western presence in former colonial nations. Mission churches had become national churches. Nationals had become leaders in the churches and in the schools, hospitals and other structures begun during the missionary presence. National leadership within the churches in Asia was called to deal with the post-war rebuilding in their nations.

The churches in Asia renewed their relationship with the counterpart Western church bodies. The leadership in the Asian church bodies chose the fields in which they needed special help. The leadership in the Presbyterian Church, USA was especially aware of the new day in its overseas mission. Charles Leber, the leader in the Board of Foreign Missions, was the initiator for change in the 1950s.

In twenty three years from 1936 to 1959, Charles Leber visited 58 churches in fifty-eight countries. Dr. Andrew Thakur Das memoralized the work of Leber in changing church thinking: “Of these 18 journies, perhaps the eleventh in 1953, was the most significant. On this trip he visited Switzerland, India, Pakistan, Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong, Malaya, Indonesia, Philippines and Germany. Somewhere on his way to Bangkok, he wrote to his colleagues at “156.”

“Let us change the name of the Board; let us eliminate the term ‘home base’; let us change the name ‘missionary’ into ‘fraternal worker’; let us invite fraternal workers from other lands into the United States of America.”

Thus began the reality of the new day which had come to mission. Action was taken by the PCUSA for a name change from “foreign missions” to The Commission on Ecumenical Mission and Relations, A person in overseas work was no longer a missionary but a fraternal worker. A person was no longer sent, but was called by the overseas church to a special work which that church saw as their need. The fraternal worker was linked with a national who was the primary partner and the supervisor.

As a case in point, my work to which I was called by the United Church of Christ in the Philippines was in the field of industrial evangelism. Across Asia and in other “so called” developing countries, the emphasis was upon the growth in urban centers and in the industrialization process. The term ultimately developed for the field of work was urban-industrial mission. Our minds were on the social changes taking place in the developing world. The emphasis was on justice ministries.

Cross cultural friendships developed out of this cooperative work. This brought changes in the way the work was carried out and the way this change was communicated to the those in the congregations in the United States. It is here that Hollinger’s thesis carries weight. The message and the engagement in the overseas work changed the thinking on mission within the U.S. churches. It dramatically changed the “colonial” view which had been part of the mission message in previous generations.

These changes in the Western churches overseas mission took on a global meaning with the creation of the World Council of Churches in 1948. The representation of the churches in one global organization opened the door for the leadership of the former overseas mission churches on the world scene.

Within the Asian region the ecumenical process had been underway with the creation of the East Asia Conference of Churches in 1956, later renamed the Christian Council of Asia. The organization of regional council of churches had a direct impact on how work among the regional churches was to be organized and supported. One case in point was the immediate recognition within the churches in the region of the growth of urban centers and the force of industrial development upon the people and culture of their nations.

The changes in urban and industrial development hastened the cooperation of the churches globally in the field of urban-industrial mission. The regional councils in Asia, Africa and Latin America each had their counterparts in this area of social change. At the global level a desk was created at the World Council of Churches in the 1960s in Geneva, Switzerland which gathered the stories, the work and the issues of urban-industrial in these global regions. Those who worked in these regions became change agents both in the work of urban industrial mission and in the consciousness of the countries in which they were citizens. In his writing Hollinger touches upon the ecumenical churches reconsideration of the meaning of mission in this current age and how it strengthened the sense of globalization within the congregations in the United States.

Hollinger makes the case that in the 20th century the attitudes of the missionary community, by their commitment to the people and the work in overseas communities, had opened a cross-cultural understanding. The acceptance of the traditions and the history of the nations in which they lived and worked provided a new framework for their own lives. It was this view which they brought back to their own country. The missionary and especially their children became among the strongest opponents of racism and the colonialism formerly associated with Christian mission.



Remembering Reinhold Niebuhr in the Era of Trump

by Richard Poethig

This past season a PBS documentary titled “An American Conscience” lifted up the life and work of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr is remembered for the crucial role that he played in mid-20th century international affairs. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, who saw the dimension of Niebuhr’s understanding of power in politics, have kept his influence alive in their own political thinking through these latter years.

This week as James Comey, former director of the FBI, testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on his conversations with President Trump, the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr in his thinking will come to bear. A June 4, 2017, article in The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, relates Comey’s attention to Niebuhr’s theology of power. The Guardian quotes Karen Greenberg, of Fordham University, on how Niebuhr’s influence on Comey will play out in the upcoming Congressional inquiry: “If you think of moral man caught in an immoral society, for someone who truly understands Niebuhr and the inherent conflicts between power and justice, this all has an aura of destiny to it.”

Niebuhr’s strength was in his ability to speak an incisive and prophetic word to the power politics of his day. I was fortunate to have sat under Niebuhr when he was a professor of Christian Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. My years at Union—1949 to 1952—coincided with a crucial period in Niebuhr’s teaching and political influence.

It was the period of the Cold War. Niebuhr was invited by George Kennan, the U.S. Secretary of State, to participate in the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff.   Out of these policy discussions was borne the Cold War policy of containment. In this period Niebuhr wrote one of his most influential works on international politics, “The Irony of American History,” which showcases the maintenance of the balance of power between the Soviet Union and the United States in a nuclear age.

Niebuhr’s understanding of the way power is used in society was the strength of one of his first books: “Moral Man and Immoral Society.” It was written in the depths of the Depression in 1932 and after a ministry in Detroit, in which he faced off against Henry Ford and his domination of the automotive industry and the workers under his control. “Power,” Niebuhr wrote, “has become the significant coercive force of modern society. Either it defies the authority of the state or it bends the institutions to its own purposes. Political power has been made responsible, but economic power has become irresponsible in society. The net result is that political power has been made more responsible to economic power. It is, in other words, again the man of power or the dominant class which binds society together, regulates its processes, always paying itself inordinate rewards for its labors.”

Niebuhr wrote this in 1932 at the depths of the Depression. It has a ring for us today when we realize that what is happening to us is a replay of the economic power, in the hands of political power, which is calling the shots, rewarding itself, and telling us this is all in the cause of “making America great again.” Niebuhr’s words ring true today and we hope that there will be those who will give leadership in bringing justice to the work of our government agencies, in the deliberations of our courts, in the freedom of our media in support of the truth, in the health of our unions on behalf of worker rights and in the voice of our people to be heard in the preservation our democratic processes and pursuit of human rights.

Chapter 23 – On the Line

“Workers pour molten metal into castings, circa 1950s,” Teaching & Learning Cleveland, accessed October 6, 2012, http://csudigitalhumanities.org/

Beyond their jobs in the steel mills, Richard and the other the Ministers-in-Industry participants take part in evening discussions and study visits to deepen their understanding of the church’s responsibility with industrial workers. At work, they continue to shield their identities as seminarians to keep the situation real. The seminar discussions are alive with the retelling of the day’s events and the culture of factory life, as the seminarians become more engrossed with the lives of their co-workers. Study visits to United Steel Worker offices and the U.S. Steel headquarters, and to the rectory of Father Charles Rice, a prominent “labor priest” in the Roman Catholic Church, round out the program. Over the summer, the seminarians go through a sea change in their perspective on the effects of industry on working people, and the direction of Richard’s ministry is now more clearly in focus.

Chapter 22 – The Summer of 1950

Edgar Thomson Works of U.S. Steel in Pittsburgh.

In the summer of 1950 Richard goes to work in the steel mills of Pittsburgh. The job was both necessary to help pay the tuition at Union Seminary, and also part of his theological education. Through Richard’s first “field work” experience with the youth at Arlington Avenue Presbyterian Church in East Orange, he puts together a program exploring world religions that includes a field trip to a Black Muslim mosque in Newark. Ultimately, Richard decides that the suburban environment is not for him. He accepts an invitation to join eighteen seminarians in the Ministers-in-Industry project organized by the Presbyterian Institute of Industrial Relations (PIIR), a program for which Richard was later to serve as the last dean. Posing as regular college students, the seminarians get jobs in the steel industry in Pittsburgh and engage in seminar discussions after work about the role of the church in the lives of working people. On the splice bar line at the Braddock Works of U.S. Steel, Richard learns about hard physical labor and worker solidarity.

Chapter 16 – The Shaping of a Socialist

In June 1948, Richard prepares for his upcoming study trip to Canada to see “democratic socialism” in action. The governing Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) party in Saskatchewan was holding its convention in Moosejaw. Before he leaves on his journey, Richard accepts an offer from the League for Industrial Democracy to serve as Student Secretary in the fall. Richard hitchhikes 1,000 miles from Greenwich Village in Manhattan to the Madison, Wisconsin, farm of Walter Uphoff, the Socialist candidate for governor. In Madison he meets up with a group of eighteen students. Richard decides to throw in his lot with three other men and travel the remainder of the way in E. Scott Maynes’s  Model T Ford half truck. At the CCF convention, Richard is moved by the down-to-earth nature of the delegates and their pragmatic concern about how the government programs were serving the people. In meeting one of the CCF’s founders, Richard receives validation of his conviction that there is a place for religion in social and economic justice.

Chapter 14 – A Union Summer

podcast artworkDuring the summer of 1947, Richard works for the Dress Joint Board in New York City’s Garment District. The experience heightens his liberal sensitivities toward the issues of working people. His fellow student summer workers clue him in on the ideological struggles within the union, including the affiliation between some garment manufacturers and the mob in an effort to control the union. Richard listens to the stories of hardship of the garment workers applying for unemployment benefits.  The stream of people he interviews resembles the cast of characters  in Leo Rosten’s  The Education of  H*Y*M*A*N  K*A*P*L*A*N, with their unique accents and their creative and amusing way of speaking the English language. Richard also learns more about the the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL) from his co-workers. The summer experience affirms his growing support for organizing a liberal  student movement.

Seeking New Light Along the Road

After attending the recent  220th Presbyterian General Assembly meeting in Pittsburgh, a question was put to me: Who is winning the battle between those with a biblical literalist view and those with a wider interpretation of Scripture?  And how is this affecting the future of the Presbyterian Church?

First, this struggle is not new to the 220th General Assembly.  Its roots go back to the late 19th century and the advent of Bibiical criticism within the larger movement of scientific inquiry. In the background was the study of Charles Darwin and his work on the origin of species. The height of the controversy erupted in the fundamentalist-modernist struggle in 1925 in the Scopes Trial in Dayton, Tennessee.  The accused was John Scopes, a high school science teacher, who was charged with teaching evolution in a state funded school.  The fundamentalist point of view  for creationism was presented by William Jennings Bryan, a Presbyterian, and three times Democratic candidate for U.S. President.   Attorney Clarence Darrow took up the defense of John Scopes and evolution as being consistent with religion.

The  fundamentalist-modernist controversy  was a central issue in the Presbyterian Church in the 1920s and surfaced in the competition for Moderator of the Presbyterian Church General Assembly in 1923 when William Jennings Bryan, defender of creationism, ran against Charles F. Wishart, President of the College of Wooster  who supported  the teaching of evolution in the college.  Wishart won the election by a vote of 451-427.

The Presbyterian Church continued to be embroiled in the controversy through the 1920s into the 1930s when New Testament professor John Gresham Machen of Princeton Theological Seminary took up conservative cudgels to fight the modernist theology being taught at the Seminary.  In 1929 Machen  led a group of conservatives out of the Presbyterian Church to form the Westminster Theological Seminary.  In 1933, his efforts to organize an Independent Board of Presbyterian Foreign Missions brought on his trial and suspension from the ministry.  In 1936 he organized the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  Since 1936 we have seen many divisions and  the creation of new denominations within  the Presbyterian family.  Like the Machen exodus, the divisions are rooted in differences in Scriptural interpretation and in theological points of view.

Second, in the struggle over Biblical interpretation between conservative and liberal folk, the dissidents who leave the denomination claim that the modernists or the liberals, however you want to call them, are not true to Scripture.  The modernists or the liberals  avow that the issue is the interpretation of Scripture and the new resources that have helped  bring greater light to Scripture.  It is this new light which energizes the modernists or liberals in their viewing  issues related to race, women and gender concerns.  These are the very issues that have created the splits in the denomination.  The new light brought to Scripture has opened us to see the Creator’s concern  for the well being of  all  created life.   Scripture  and the Gospel of Christ opens the door to the rights of all people no matter what their race or gender.

The splits which have come from a Biblical literalist interpretation of Scripture have centered on these issues.  We fought a Civil War and a church split, north and south, over the issue of race.  Women have struggled for centuries to be recognized as equal partners to men.  Children born into the human family have an equal right to a life free from prejudice because of their gender orientation.

Those who leave us because of our Biblical interpretation, disavow the new light that we have found which sees the Gospel’s openness to people no matter what their race, their gender or their sexual orientation.  We have fought these battles  within the Presbyterian denomination over the last century.  They have been hard fought battles, gaining small victories of justice for racial equality, for women’s ordination and for full acceptance of gays and lesbians in the church community.  But along the way those who have disagreed with this new openness have left us to create new  religious communities.

The Presbyterian Church, USA will continue on in its search for new windows on a Gospel which sheds a brighter light on the Creation into which we have been born.  Some will not agree with this venture into the future, and will leave us, but this is the road to which we have been called.

Welcome to “On the Sidewalks of New York”

This is a note of appreciation for all those folks who have found themselves reading or listening to “On the Sidewalks of New York.”  This website was the good work of my daughter Margaret.  The autobiography was originally written for the family, especially the offspring, who wanted me to put down my stories on paper two decades ago. Under gentle pressure, the stories have now been elevated to public listening via podcasts.

After some hesitancy, and lively conversation with Margaret, a theme for this blog was decided upon. Thinking back over time, it became apparent that the Depression years, which left a deep impact upon my consciousness, is in replay in this last decade. I came through my young adult years, after having chosen a religious course, realizing the close relationship between a prophetic religion and the equality and justice called for in our society. Today, most organized religion is seen as retrogressive in the cause of justice to bring balance to the inequalities evident today. So I decided that this website would engage the conversation about how the prophetic religion we have inherited from our Biblical heritage needs to come into play within this political season. So let the discussion begin.