“Belief systems are what is held sacred [to each person]. What changes a belief system is an experience with God and a revelation from God for what is true. People try to legislate what people ought to believe and say, ‘This is what you ought to believe.’ Well, no. Everyone has a right to share what they believe and what they don’t believe, what they like and what they don’t like. It’s guaranteed by our Constitution. We do not always like what others have to say, but as a person of faith, we ought to speak the truth in love. In speaking the truth in love, in the secular context or the political context, of course, the prayer is that the other person receives it.”
But I really witness the passion of Bishop McKenzie when we discuss what isn’t considered an emotionally-charged issue. “Poverty is not a hot-button issue; why not? We live in the wealthiest country in the world and yet, people go to bed hungry. If it wasn’t for school lunch programs, there would be people who would not eat at all during the day. Poverty, hunger, people who are marginalized in our community. Who’s asking, will the very young be able to have the care and the nurturing they deserve and will the very old be able to enjoy the sunset years of their lives with integrity and dignity? We don’t talk about that. But as a pastor of the urban poor, we have to address those issues.”
As a member of President Obama’s inaugural Advisory Council of the White House Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Bishop McKenzie has done just that, respecting the line between church and state but encouraging the participation of religious organizations in the political process. She says, “Your faith does not exempt you from having an impact on the broader community,” but on the contrary, requires it. She also notes that oftentimes, national and local governments can make decisions “that impact that budgetary bottom line of the church’s congregation and assuming [the government can cut certain programs and entitlements” thinking that the church is going to pick up the slack, without even inviting the churches to the table.
“My premise [to the government] is invite us to the table, to the discussion. What new [ideas they’re trying to implement, the churches] have been implementing and fighting in these issues for a long time. Why don’t you ask us what we’ve tried, what’s worked, what’s failed? It’s going to take [the government] 2-5 years to get geared up trying what we already tried, just ask us so we can tell you what our experience has been. We’re in the trenches [in our communities]; we’re at ground zero every single day.”
As for the image of Christians in politics today, she warns Christians to “participate without being compromised.” She explains, “There are [high-profile Christians] who have major platforms because the extreme always sells. It sells ads, it sells newspapers, [to show people] ‘the latest thing you need to be scared of.’” But the Bishop says that Christians cannot operate out of phobias and be effective in exemplifying the spirit of Christ in a secular world.
“We’re afraid that this segment of the population or this ethnic group, we’re afraid of the women, so we push them to the side, or we don’t like this segment, so they can’t be in our neighborhoods we don’t want to live with them, we don’t want to worship with them. But we have to go back to the scriptures; we have to take a look at what Jesus did. Jesus brought those people who were on the edges of community, the fringes of society -- they were the recipients of God’s grace.
“The lepers of His time were recipients of God’s grace. The ethnic groups, the Samaritans, who were hated and despised, were called “good,” by Jesus, when he gave the parable of the “Good” Samaritan. The woman at the well with a less-than-stellar resume and lifestyle, she was a recipient of God’s grace. So we have to look at what Jesus did, [despite] lifestyle choices, decisions, sins, whatever, Jesus still reached out and touched those who were maligned by the community and who were not considered socially acceptable and reached toward them. We must do the same.”
When dealing with our political leaders – particularly Christians like President Obama—the Bishop says Christians must adjust their expectations. “[We] have to remember that the President is the President of all the United States and not…the religious leader of the whole world.” Instead, she advocates that Christians both pray and take action. “We need to surround [the President] in prayer, if we think he is off to the left or to the right, then let him know. Write a letter and send it to the White House. Write