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interview by C. Stephen Evans and Gail Gunst Heffner

The Word on the Street

Eugene Rivers on faith-based urban ministry, the black church, and the "sexual holocaust" in Africa.

In 1984 Eugene Rivers founded the Azusa Christian Community, a charismatic intentional community. In Dorchester, in Boston's inner city, he challenged black professionals to live in a neighborhood they could easily have shunned, all the while bemoaning the plight of the "underclass." Articulated in a "Ten Point Plan" that has served as a model for urban churches, Rivers' Spirit-filled holistic ministry has received national attention: a cover story in Newsweek magazine, a profile in The New Yorker, and much more. He visited Grand Rapids earlier this year to speak in Calvin College's distinguished January Series, after which he joined Calvin's Steve Evans and Gail Heffner for a conversation.

C. Stephen Evans: You've been a strong advocate for African American young people for a long time. Where does your passion come from?
My passion emanates from my Christian faith, my sense of the importance of a morally consistent Christian witness that advocates and defends the sacredness of human life and a real commitment to preaching and bearing witness, prophetically and pastorally, to the gospel for the winning of the lost.

My passion emanates also from my Pentecostal background. I am from the high-octane wing of a low church. My spiritual father, Benjamin Smith, from Philadelphia, was a powerful holiness Pentecostal minister, and I'm an ordained elder in the Church of God in Christ. What we need now is a postmodern renewal movement within the Pentecostal movement, to give it more intellectual and social grounding.

The notion of personal and public holiness is particularly important to me in the face of a declining secular civil rights industry. Throughout our society, there has never been a greater need for a biblical faith that is morally consistent, programmatic, and pragmatic. This is what we have to give our kids. I love my kids. I'm a big family guy, and I am dedicated to family ministry.

Gail Gunst Heffner: How have the challenges of urban ministry changed within the last decade?
We have witnessed over the last two decades or more the decline of any sense of norms and values. There has been a pornographic reduction of male-female relationships, accompanied by the acceptance of hip hop culture. We have witnessed the death of faith and hope, the erosion of any conception of the sacredness of human life. The children we work with today are almost two generations re moved from the pastoral, moral vision that informed their grandparents, the habit of prayer that was the basis of the civil rights movement. The sewage of the culture industry only further undermines any rational conception of human life. And all this is most brutally expressed in irrational violence that gets worse with each succeeding generation.

CSE: Your ministry is often cited as an example of the effectiveness of faith-based organizations. What was the origin of your Ten Point Coalition?
The concept of the Ten Point Coalition emerged out of a series of conversations I had with a young crack-cocaine dealer in Boston between 1988 and 1991. These were very intense conversations, and out of them came the first draft of the Ten Point Plan, an outline of practical strategies for urban ministry, which I initially tried to sell to black preachers. And the preachers rejected it.

GGH: Why?
I said to these preachers, Here's a plan that will make you guys famous. You can be the stars and do the press conferences, and I'll do the work. If we agree that you're the leaders, I'll be the soldier. They blew it off because they didn't see the point of it. That was in 1991. In 1992 when the Morningstar Baptist Church was attacked by gang members who stabbed a young person and shot up the church, then there was belated recognition that there was a problem.

GGH: And at the same time there was national attention to the L.A. riots.
That's right. All at the same time, Spring of '92. We were then able to recruit some clergy. And the Boston Ten Point Coalition was born in 1992. Now, from that success and the work with the archdiocese of Boston, this ecumenical movement—led initially by black clergy and in partnership with every law enforcement agency in the state, from the federal to the local, including the Boston police—has evolved into a national Ten Point Leadership Foundation that is working to replicate the model in cities across the United States.

It has been featured as a prototype for developing a more comprehensive model of youth ministry to at-risk kids, in addition to evangelism doing the public safety outreach and the policy advocacy. And so, there are nine cities that have versions of the Ten Point Coalition—cities like Gary, Indiana; Indianapolis; East Chicago; Philadelphia; Lawrence, Mass. And so these coalitions are proliferating. U.S. News and World Report last week did a nice story on the Indianapolis Ten Point Coalition.

And so there's a new movement that's emerging from the ground, focused on measurable outcomes and not on personalities and preachers.

CSE: What is the future of the African American church in the city? And in relation to that, what about Islam in the inner city … how are they related?
Excellent question. I'm glad you're asking this. The black churches are undergoing a process of socioeconomic differentiation and class stratification. In other words, black churches will mirror the stratification and the tendency toward the maldistribution of wealth that characterize the larger society, so that upper-middle-class black churches with largely commuter congregations will become increasingly disconnected from the inner-city neighborhoods within which the churches themselves are located. These substantial class divisions in some cases may be deeper and stronger than the differences between races.

At the same time we will see the emergence of new wineskins, new models of ministry. The work I've been involved in with my colleagues has generated a whole new thrust which is insurgent, challenging the political and theological hegemony of an old-school model of ministry in the black church that emphasizes the charismatic personality—the preacher as performance artist, as opposed to a more programmatic vision that revolves around an agenda and the institutionalization over the long term of vision, program, and mission.

You see, traditionally black churches have been very charismatic-centered, so there's been relatively little emphasis put on long-term goals and objectives. You know, you're a good black preacher, you can holler … well, get a good minister of music, create yourself a good concert, sort of like a Vegas show, and you can pack the house.

CSE: Some white churches do that too.
Yes, exactly, right. So, the black church is now in the middle of ferment as it gropes for direction.

Now, Islam … a fascinating question because the big challenge to the black church which they have not confronted in any significant way is the challenge of Islam. The big apologetic challenge to the black church is Islam. And yet the vast majority of black preachers, theologians, seminarians have no training in how to undertake an apologetic offensive at the level of philosophical theology and scriptural theology.

For about 20 years now I have been saying that we in the black church need to take on directly the challenge of Islam and do so in a credible fashion. I wrote an article in Sojourners magazine [January/February 1996] which was an analysis of the Million Man March. And I said then that we had failed to engage the Islamic challenge to the church. Farrakhan was capitalizing on the leadership vacuum created by our failure: Farrakhan and his colleagues were winning by default because here again, we did not have a theological or an apologetic agenda to promote the faith and engage the cultural questions which Islam was addressing for young people.

So, your question is right on target. To meet the challenge of Islam we need to grow a whole new leadership strata of black Christian intellectuals who understand the importance of philosophical theology and apologetics. In the black church we don't have and have never had a coherent, systematic vision of what an apologetic agenda should look like.

CSE: So our task is not only to live out our authentic faith—we also have hard intellectual work to do as well.
There is a major intellectual task that is before the black church which they have not, in principle, understood. And in this regard, there needs to be more dialogue with the most talented wing of the white evangelical community. Because to the evangelicals' credit, they have for the last 50 years or more wrestled with biblical theology in developing effective countermeasures to liberal, higher-critical analysis of Scripture. And in that they were performing an invaluable service that the black church, for the most part, misunderstood intellectually and theologically. I was completely atypical, in studying the work of Van Til and Carl Henry and Bernard Ramm and Arthur Holmes and Alvin Plantinga and you know the rest, back to Gordon Clark and J. Gresham Machen, back to Hodge and Princeton. That tradition provided me with some philosophical and theological resources that very few of my contemporaries in the black church could benefit from—they simply didn't know it, they never encountered it, and if they did encounter it they tended to dismiss it without really engaging it.

So this is a major intellectual task that the black church needs to set for itself in the first two decades of the twenty-first century in partnership with the evangelical and Catholic communities.

GGH: Is true collaboration between the white church and the black church possible?
If genuine collaboration between the races is possible anywhere, the church is the place where such efforts are likely to be most authentic. Now that will be a lot of work, but the reality is that our common Christian faith—in principle and, I think, in practice—provides the only real basis for collaboration and, further, racial reconciliation. Authentic racial reconciliation between blacks and non-blacks is only possible through the body of Christ. I don't see it happening any place else. Now, we will come to this kicking and screaming, reluctantly, in fits and starts. But at the end of the day, God will raise up among his people, individuals who will put integrity and the blood of Christ first.

Especially within the context of the evangelical community, there is a genuine commitment to growing and evolving. There's an openness, a more cosmopolitan air among a younger generation of evangelical scholars and leaders. And as this younger generation increasingly assumes leadership of the major institutions of the evangelical community, we're going to see steps toward racial reconciliation.

You know, you can see this in the pages of BOOKS & CULTURE and CHRISTIANITY TODAY. Thirty years ago you would never have seen some of the stories that you see in these magazines today. So, my sense is that there are real possibilities for collaboration. But they will start within the intellectual wing of the evangelical community and not with the deep-pockets people for the most part.

CSE: What are the risks and the benefits of living where you've chosen to live?
Well, people can shoot into your house, as people have done to our house twice—once accidentally, another occasion intentionally. And our house has been burglarized eight times. So two shootings and eight burglaries in 11 years: that's a challenge. But the Lord's been good. And as a result of our commitment to be faithful to the Lord, there's been a redefinition of law enforcement in Dorchester, a redefinition of the relationship of churches to other institutions in civil society. And that's been fairly significant.

CSE: You've been very outspoken about the need for African nations to mobilize around the issue of AIDS. Why do you think so little is being done and what is the role of the church in this issue?

It is difficult to talk about the AIDS crisis in Africa and in the black community in the United States, because one must confront the issues of promiscuity, sexual fidelity, rape, and accountability. One must confront a series of issues that black people are very sensitive about. And so there was a conspiracy of silence among black leaders in the United States and in Africa regarding aids. People simply did not want to confront the fact that a generation of young people were being infected as a function largely of heterosexual transmission. And that a lot of this was driven by promiscuity—just call it by its name, promiscuity, infidelity, and rape. And no one wanted to talk about that for fear of incurring the wrath of the powers that be politically. But I could not possibly justify to myself or my children silence in the face of the threat of the creation of a biological underclass of children who would be born HIV-infected. Would I want someone to speak out if it were my child?

I was approached in December of 1998 by a Catholic priest who said, If no one speaks out, Africa will fall off the face of the earth. It will become a continent reduced to children, orphans, and elderly people. And that was inconceivable to me. The idea that there'll be 40 million orphans in Africa by 2010 is staggering, almost unimaginable. Now I was not really interested in taking up another public issue. I had plenty of work to do. I was not interested in getting another 15 minutes of fame. I had had one Newsweek cover, thank you very much, and so I wasn't really looking. But I couldn't ignore this catastrophe.

CSE: What can the churches in America do about this?

The churches in the United States are in a position to promote a public discussion around the relationship between behavior and development as a global issue. The under-development of Africa is inextricably connected to behavior. So we need to get beyond the impasse in the policy debates in this country. The conservatives say let's talk about behavior and the liberals say let's talk about development. And the biblical folks should say, let's talk about both.

There needs to be debt forgiveness, so that these governments are freed up and not burdened with debts that they'll never be able to repay. At the same time there needs to be international oversight so that if debts are forgiven, the corruptocrats who have already ruined many of these countries will not be able to get their hands on the money to create new Swiss bank accounts.

And there needs to be a very public discussion around behavior.

CSE: Is there a particular role for the black church in this debate?
The black church has to lead the discussion on promiscuity, fidelity, and abstinence. There needs to be an educational campaign to put abstinence and fidelity on the table. And that has to be publicly articulated and then modeled. Because these kids are having sex and committing suicide. And so the black church leaders, men like Rev. Jesse Jackson, John Perkins, and Bill Pannell, all should be speaking up on this issue. And then challenging the Republicans and the Democrats to come up with a viable foreign policy which factors in the global impact of AIDS.

CSE: One final question. Is there anything that you want to be sure our readers hear that we haven't touched on?
I pray that BOOKS & CULTURE and CHRISTIANITY TODAY will give attention to the sexual holocaust in Africa. It's an opportunity for Christian witness, a biblical vision of human sexuality and behavior and responsibility and accountability that the world desperately needs. And there's no more powerful argument for such a biblical view than the AIDS pandemic in Africa. There's a strategic opportunity intellectually, morally, and in the policy arena to give a powerful Christian witness.

C. Stephen Evans is professor of philosophy at Calvin College. Gail Gunst Heffner is the associate director of Academically-Based Service Learning at Calvin College and a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University in Urban Development.

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