This week I was asked to give a presentation to the United Church of Christ General Synod on the possibilities of collaborating with the United Nations. I was delighted to do so because I have held a vision for years of local churches and denominations missionally benefiting from the dynamic groups that make up the UN. Here is what I told them: I’ve been the pastor of four congregations, two United Methodist Churches, and two UCC churches as well as serving as an Associate Conference Minister, national leader in the UCC, and now is the CEO of Convergence, a UCC affiliated consultancy.
In all of the churches I have pastored or consulted with, each had unique justice challenges, but more often than not they were intersectional with larger national and global injustices that in time began to feel intractable. My local church could make a difference in our community, but over time we felt smaller and smaller in the face of growing global crisis.
I recognize now that that feeling was a symptom of the poverty of imagination that I held within my own leadership. That changed for me in 2013.
In the summer of 2013, I joined an international group of ecumenical faith leaders in a small town in the southern part of coastal Thailand. On that trip, needing to get some fresh air one evening, I found myself accidentally on a street called “Walking Street.” I now know that Walking Street is famous as the place young girls are trafficked. I was overwhelmed by blaring neon lights and surrounded by young girls with short dresses lined up on each side of the street. I could not believe what I was seeing. The scale of it was extraordinary, and I continued walking hoping to find my way out of this human hell hole.
I finally reached a less dense area further down the road where I came face-to-face with true horror. I stood watching a little girl maybe four or five years old dressed in a tight leather skirt, caked in make-up, dancing seductively in the middle of the street. In horror, I watched one man walk over to another man and hand him cash. He then walked over to the little girl, grabbed her by the hand, and took her inside of an unmarked building.
That moment created a crisis for me, and while there’s more to the story, the fundamental shift was this: I was not OK to live in a world where we would sell our babies. Nothing about that was OK with me.
I came back to the United States, back to my local church, with no idea how my church, my life could make a difference in stopping a global network of predatory crime. But of this I was sure: doing nothing was not an option.
This was a perfect teacher in this one way: while human trafficking happens in almost all of our local communities, the scale of the networks and infrastructure needed to perpetrate this global crime is mindboggling. It’s more than one church, one denomination, one system alone can take on. If we were to make a difference, we had to think differently, partner strategically and leverage resources in new ways. This was a fundamental shift in my understanding of the leadership opportunities of a local church pastor.
I began talking about this experience with people in my life and church. I was lucky: I very quickly connected with a nonprofit organization called Stop the TRAFFIK which has now developed an extraordinary intelligence-led technological platform with IBM and others to track and disrupt human trafficking networks. STT found its footing in the global conversation through UN working groups which I still engage today. Additionally, my local church happened to be located close to the CDC in Atlanta, and I had a number of scientists in the congregation who were studying trafficking as a global health crisis. Many of them were already working within the framework of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. As I learned about that framework, I began to recognize it as an essential opportunity available to mainline denominations as a whole.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) serve as a brilliant framework for organizing the mission work of local congregations in Mainline Christianity. They are not magical in the way that they are organized, but they have been around long enough that across the world, companies, governments, organizations, and networks have embraced them as a way to talk about the positive change they are invested in making in the world. I now sit in meetings with leaders from IBM, Facebook, Uber, PayPal, the Rotary Club, Salvation Army, Jones Day law firm, and so many more where I hear the language, “We are committed to working on SDG 8.7. Or “In this initiative, we are working with partners organized around SDG 8.“
Those statements delight me every time. They give evidence that there’s a growing, dynamic, trusted network of diverse partners from all sectors of culture working together for a better world. We must be among them.
Author adrian marie brown writes in her book Emergent Strategy that change moves at the speed of trust. What collaboration with organizations connected to the United Nations grants us as denominational members is a global network imbued with just enough trust to work for justice, equality, and peace at a powerful scale. It’s not perfect. In fact, sometimes it’s like herding cats. But it’s worth our investment.
We have a unique gift to bring to the UN space just as we have much to learn. As faith leaders, we are by our constitution, our very nature, wisdom bearers. We are storytellers and mythmakers. We are theologians and shamans and mystics. We care for the thriving and surviving of this beautiful planet as God‘s creation and of all creatures on it.
If we mean what we say, that we want to create a more just WORLD for all, then we have to work collaboratively within globally-scaled frameworks to create the change we seek.
Imagine your congregation partnering with well-resourced businesses, governments, and local organizations, to transform our collective approach to climate change, racism, healthcare, poverty…imagine rooting that work in your community but, because of those collaborations, being connected to a larger movement of change around the world. In this way, we create Hubs of Hope where justice can thrive. This is an opportunity never seen before in human history. Now we have the technology, systems, and frameworks to organize and mobilize for the sake of the common good. The question is do we have the imagination, trust, and desire to do so?
I’m convinced the answer is yes. What’s not yet clear is how. MY experience and story were a bit coincidental and accidental. What we need is a more joined-up effort and a clear way to get your church involved directly with the work of the United Nations. So, let’s set out to create it. For the very future of the world may depend on our willingness to work together differently in ministry for the sake of the common good.