I am currently teaching an elective course titled “Foundations of Social Justice” at Baylor University’s Diana R. Garland School of Social Work. The class is held for three hours each Friday. 

During our time together, we view social justice through the lens of faith, primarily Christianity. We talk about issues such as sexism, racism, ableism and oppression against the queer community. Classroom conversations center on how people of faith have historically responded to these injustices, and how we can respond in the present. It feels as if I walk into class limping and out of it rejuvenated and ready to keep going. 

I spend the rest of the week working under the umbrella of “social justice,” mostly with congregations. This can be hopeful and encouraging work. However, tragic events and systemic injustices occurring at home and around the world are anything but hopeful and encouraging. 

But every week, I am reminded that when the world seems so bleak and dark, there are still twenty-eight students who care deeply about this work. They are committed to bringing justice and equity to this hurting world. 

Their passion often comes from a place of deep hurt and trauma. They care about justice from a faith perspective because, for many years, they were told that faith and justice were opposite endeavors.

Or they were told their gender, sexuality, physical or mental abilities made them less worthy to participate in organized religion. They were told, explicitly or implicitly, the divide between sacred and secular was a mile wide and the way they saw the world was secular, not sacred.  

Often, students tell me this is the first time they have been given space to both believe in Jesus and also to be passionate about justice. It is the first time they have been told they can be queer and also a part of a church. It is the first time their call to ministry is validated rather than questioned because they are a woman. 

I love that my class can be such a place for students. But I also recognize that this is a failure of the church. 

This class has been a sacred place for me because of these students. It is not a replacement for the church, but for some of these students, it has created a sense of belonging, validation and belief they haven’t found in church. 

They have been seen and heard for the first time in their lives. They are reminded there is a place where justice and faith exist together. 

This shouldn’t be the case. The church should be the primary safe place for conversations about justice. The field of social work, a profession often seen as “woke” and “liberal,” began in the church. 

Calls for justice, equality, equity and radical belonging are found throughout scripture. But congregations often skirt the topic instead of providing a safe place to talk about matters of justice. This serves to alienate rather than welcome, which weakens the church. 

The church is missing out on beautifully kind and caring people because of the lines they have drawn. There is hope, however. 

There are churches talking about justice, caring for those experiencing poverty, inclusive of women in pastoral leadership roles and truly welcoming the queer community to full participation in the life of the church. I would love to point you in the direction of those churches. But this doesn’t erase the trauma caused by the churches doing the opposite. 

For their final project, students can write a paper, a series of prayers or poems, or create various art forms. The assignment brings together their work for the semester but it also gives them an outlet to discuss social justice topics that are most important to them. 

Each year, I end up crying as I grade the projects because I get a glimpse into their souls— their trauma, their passions, their family dynamics. One student’s powerful prayer has resonated with me. I am sharing it here with their permission:

“Why do they call me helper and assume I am beneath? Is not the Holy Spirit equal to the rest of the trinity? Why do they say I am from the rib and assume I am dependent on man? Did you not choose the rib that is not below or beneath but equal in the body? Why do they say I am made to compliment man and respond to him? Have you not called me complete? Why do they tell me I mustn’t be on the pulpit? Are we not all children of God with the same Holy Spirit living within?”

These students balance hurt and hope beautifully, which I think you can see this in the prayer. They recognize how they have been oppressed and harmed by the church and systems in our world but have a deep sense of hope that things will get better. 

I wonder how this sacred class of students could be a model for the church—holding the tension between pain and hope. They can teach us a lot if we let them.  

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