I woke up one morning not long ago to a Washington Post article about sexual abuse and misuse of power in a large Christian denomination (the denomination I grew up in).
According to the article, a woman reported that while pursuing a degree at one of the denominational seminaries, she was raped by a fellow student. When she reported the alleged rape, she was told by the head of the seminary to simply forgive the assailant and keep quiet about it all. Then she was disciplined and placed on academic probation for two years.
Sadly, news like this isn’t rare. A church leader using his power and position for self-protection and maintenance of the status quo rather than caring for the most vulnerable is not exactly novel.
In fact, it’s practically cliche.
I got angry just writing that last paragraph. And, while anger might be an appropriate response, we need more than anger in the face of evil. We need something that moves us forward in hope.
I’m moved by the power of Paul’s words in his letter to the Romans: “Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good” (12:21).
The brilliance in this statement is its simplicity and movement. Paul points us to the key in defeating evil: doing good. It’s not some grandiose vision that feels unattainable, but it also doesn’t allow shoulder shrugging and ambivalence. When you are faced by evil, do good.
One of the ways our church is trying to do good is by partnering with Safe Berks, an organization that provides housing, counseling, training, food, and even legal assistance to victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. In the face of rampant abuse of power, serving with an organization that empowers the most vulnerable seems like a profound act of aligning ourselves with the Spirit of Jesus.
Over the past 13 years, we’ve developed a simple, yet effective way to involve a significant number of our congregation in practical service with Safe Berks, all the while raising awareness among our neighbors about an organization that is doing a good work in our community. We call it our “Campaign for Safe Berks,” and it takes place over the course of a week in June.
Throughout the week, people sign up for shifts during which they canvass neighborhoods and pass out flyers listing items Safe Berks needs (shampoo, deodorant, suitcases, toilet paper, etc.). We regularly pass out over 8,000 flyers and, in return, receive thousands of donations from hundreds of homes. We also involve over 100 people from our congregation, enabling all of them to do something significant and, while they’re at it, build relationships with those they serve alongside.
But it’s not just the value of the donations, it also gets the word out to over 8,000 homes (an estimated 20,000 people) that if you are a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault, there is help. There’s a place to go, people who care, hope … and hope is a big deal. In fact, it’s the thing that doesn’t disappoint us (which is another thing Paul tells us in Rom. 5:5).
So offering hope is a powerful good.
Of course, hope alone isn’t enough. There is more to do than simply offer hope, and we can’t become complacent, imagining that we’ve “done our part.” But at the same time, we need to be careful. In the end, the work of saving the world is what Jesus does, not what we do. And our small acts of good are in reality acts of hope on our part as well; just as Jesus turned water to wine and a few loaves and fishes into a feast for thousands, he can take our small acts of love and turn them into something significant.
I think of this when I hear what Mary Kay Bermondsey, CEO of Safe Berks, says about our annual campaign:
“The Koinos community . . . has been a true friend to us for many years. The items they collect each year are those most needed by those who come to us to forge a new life, free from violence. The time, effort, and love that goes into this drive fulfills both the material needs of our clients but also the emotional and spiritual connection they need. We could not do the work we do without the Koinos community and all those that support us.”
What we do is significant, but particularly in concert with the good done by others (note the “and all those that support us” part). It’s not about any one person, or church, but all of us, together, learning to love our neighbors.
That is where the magic really happens. Small acts of good done on our own can feel futile — like using a water dropper to combat a forest fire. But when we come together to follow Jesus’ call to love our neighbors in whatever way we can, we find that each of our little acts of love is actually joining into the larger, restorative work Jesus is doing in the world. This is what God’s Kingdom looks like: our little drops of water caught up in the work of the Living Water.
As a good friend recently reminded me, this is why we do these good works: not in the hope that others will join us, not even because we believe we can change the world, but because we believe that Jesus is changing the world, and we want to be with him where he is.
Originally published for the summer 2018 issue of Shalom! A Journal for the Practice of Reconciliation