Woody Dalton first encountered Anabaptism in seminary. He says, “Anabaptists were the first group I’d ever studied that seemed to take Jesus at His word. They weren’t trying to explain away the Sermon on the Mount; they weren’t trying to explain why Jesus didn’t really mean to love your enemies or to honor and help the poor.” More than 30 years later, Dalton and the Harrisburg (Pa.) Brethren in Christ Church continue their quest to follow Jesus and take His words seriously—a journey that is transforming the church’s vision and community.
In the late 1990s, our church, Harrisburg BIC, was an almost entirely white congregation set in a largely African-American community. I’d been there for 18 years. Despite our attempts to build relationships with our neighbors, we were still a predominantly white church. Yet our neighborhood had, if anything, become more diverse. I came to realize that we needed to either “get in or get out” of this community. And to be honest, I thought we were destined to get out. But as a church, we said, first, let’s pray.
One day, after a year of praying, I was really frustrated. I pointed my finger toward heaven, and I said, “We’re trying to discern Your will. How about a little help down here?” And while my finger was still in the air, there was a knock on the door. It was James Roach, an African-American man from the community. “My wife, Mary, sent me,” he said. “She was praying, and the Lord told her that we’re supposed to come to your church. Is that ok with you?” Is that ok with us?! I pulled my finger down and thought, Wow, I didn’t think You would be that direct.
To my surprise, the Lord began focus-ing us inward, back into the city, back toward diversity. We began to pursue a new vision to become a multicultural church transformed by Jesus. Today, that vision continues to unfold, drawing us closer to our Anabaptist roots.
Answered prayer, then a vision emerges
From that dramatic moment, we began to move forward. We thought, God wants us to stay—what do we do next? A key turning point in reaching the community came when Cedra Washington, our associate pastor of outreach and discipleship, joined our pastoral staff. I simply can’t overstate how important her commitment to the church and its vision has been through the years. No matter how long we’d been there, this all-white church, we just had no credibility in the African-American community, but Cedra did because of her leadership in another local church.
What was interesting was that African Americans started to come, and they’d shake my hand and say, We really enjoyed the service,” or “We really love this church, we’ll be coming back.” And then I’d watch them walk straight over to Pastor Cedra to get her perspective on the church. She was like a gatekeeper. Sometimes gatekeepers keep people out, but other times, gatekeepers open the gate and say, “It’s ok to come in here.” Other African Americans trusted Cedra that Harrisburg BIC was really sincere about this vision and that it was all right to join this emerging community.
The church realized immediately that if we invited different races and ethnic groups to join the congregation, then the church needed to change. Worship needed to reflect all the groups represented among us. When you invite people to be part of your congregation, you have to make adjustments that say, We’re glad you’re here, and you are a vital member of our community.”
The second thing we realized is that we needed to work intentionally toward racial reconciliation—to live out our Anabaptist commitments to peacemaking and belonging to community. How can you have a truly reconciled church or people really loving each other and caring for one another and not talk about what has happened for the past 400 years and not talk about current conditions? How can you say, “Please come to our church, but we’re going to ignore all of the issues that impact your life, and we’re going to ignore all the issues that have historically divided us, and we’re going to pretend none of that exists?” Our church started racial reconciliation classes because you have to address these issues in order to have authenticity in your relationships.
What holds us together?
After many years of purposeful work, our church today enjoys great diversity. We have so much diversity, in fact, that sometimes the differences are breathtaking. More than 14 racial and ethnic groups comprise our church body. But the differences span beyond race and ethnicity, to socioeconomic status and education as well. When I’m in a good space, I look out and see all of this beautiful diversity, and I say, “The only thing holding us together is Jesus Christ.” And then, when I’m afraid and in a bad space, I look out with fear in my heart and I say, “Oh my Lord, the only thing holding us together is Jesus Christ.”
As a congregation characterized by startling differences, we must find our core identity as a community in Christ. When it comes to following Jesus, we are unashamedly Anabaptist. By that I mean, we value community, serviceto our neighbors, peacemaking, being people of the book, leading biblical and Spirit-led lives, and living simply (which we need to distinguish from poverty, which is not a choice).
These commitments fit very well in an urban setting. In fact, I think the core values of Anabaptism have aided our church growth. We have to be very creative in our ministries. We have to be focused on holistic outreach, because often in an urban setting, it’s not enough to say, “All you need is Jesus.” A relationship with Jesus is the most important gift in anyone’s life, the most important turning point; but the bottom line is that if a person needs detoxing from drugs—and I don’t mean this in a sacrilegious way—Jesus isn’t enough. Or, if a person’s hungry, Jesus needs to come along with some food. We have to be holistic in the way we approach things here.
We believe that the greatest thing that Jesus offers people is grace. Modeling authenticity, talking about our need for it so that grace can interact with our lives is part of the culture of our congregation. We are human beings—real, live human beings being saved by Jesus Christ. Our emphasis on grace doesn’t mean we’re not trying to help people grow spiritually, morally, and relationally, that’s part of our job. But for that to happen, to really happen, from the inside out, you can’t be pretending to be a whole lot better than you are. And so, I think authenticity is attractive to people. It draws people, but it’s also absolutely essential for real spiritual growth.
A countercultural community
If we are the people who Jesus calls us to be, we will be countercultural in many ways. Younger people seem to especially resonate with Anabaptist values. For some reason, Harrisburg BIC keeps getting younger as I get older. I think a big part of this is our vision. Young people value diversity; they don’t see it as a threat. They see our commitment to service and making a difference in our community. People are tired of wars; they’re tired of materialism; they’re tired of living in a society where community is fractured even along family lines. Anabaptism has a tremendous amount to offer to young people and others who are looking for something better, something beyond the cacophony of our nation’s divisive political discourse.
Politics are inherently divisive, while our Anabaptist understanding of the kingdom of God brings people together. The kingdom of God is coming, no matter who is in power in America, no matter what political parties do, no matter how we vote. And nothing can stop the Kingdom that we’re part of. Our leader has already been elected before the foundation of the world. I’m not saying don’t vote or don’t care about politics, but we have to keep it in perspective. Our unity is in Christ, and we have to live in light of that.
Don’t get me wrong: I love many things about this country. But our culture is very seductive. If we take the words of Jesus seriously and keep understanding the values of the Kingdom, we just can never be too comfortable in this environment. Our society values materialism and competition, glorifies violence and power, and celebrates narcissism. Cultural sins are the most dangerous because they take sin and normalize it and popularize it. As a result, when you engage in sinful activities, you feel like you’re being a good person in your culture. I have to keep questioning myself and help church members question themselves about what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and what Jesus is really calling us to.
Many people are looking for a countercultural community that offers an alternative to our society’s values. With a lot of seeker-friendly models, we try to blend into the culture as much as possible, which I think is a huge mistake. People don’t want more of the stuff that they’re stuck in. They want to catch a glimpse of something transcendent and spiritual and something that says, “Here’s a whole different way of life; here’s a whole different Kingdom that’s working itself into the world.”
The adventure of following Jesus
If we follow Christ and His kingdom, we will find ourselves in all kinds of places we never dreamed we’d be. I never dreamed I’d be in Pennsylvania, as a southern boy coming up here with all these Yankees; coming from a racist environment in the South to pastoring a diverse, multiracial church; coming from the middle class and being deeply concerned about the poor and how we can minister to the hungry and people with addictions. The adventure of following Jesus has many times called me out of anything that has ever been comfortable. Like any adventure, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever done.
I believe we are called as a congregation and as a denomination to the greatest adventure: to radically follow Christ—His words and example—even when that moves us beyond all that is familiar or comfortable. We have a prophetic and distinct heritage as a denomination. We look squarely into the difficult teachings of Christ. We take seriously the words of the Lord’s Prayer—“Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven”—and believe our Church should reflect the beauty of God’s kingdom, where people “from every nation, tribe, people, and language” will stand before the throne in worship. We invite all believers into fellowship with us, but we must not lose the saltiness of our identity in the process. Our Anabaptist heritage calls us to esteem the poor, the meek, the peacemakers, those who mourn, those who are last. In a world skewed toward a different set of values, we are called to follow Jesus and the values of His kingdom, to pursue the challenging and disarming way of life that Jesus defines as truly blessed.