There are many beautiful aspects of our larger culture … and then there are broken things. There are also things that are incredibly encouraging and, of course, disconcerting.
One of my concerns in our larger culture—including the church:
d e p t h .
In my first book, Overrated: Are We More in Love With the Idea of Changing the World Than Actually Changing the World?, there’s a chapter titled “Have More Depth Than 140 Characters.”
I am the first to tell you that I don’t know everything about everything. But when it comes to my core pursuits, my passions, the issues that inspire me and drive me to serve, I try to learn as much as I can.
Over the past few years, I have met many people who are not only interested in serving the world in various ways but who are engaged in their convictions and passions. But I am often surprised to find out that they do not know the basic history and background of their chosen interest.
I remember one time in particular, at a conference, when a woman came up to me and told me she was very grateful and appreciative of a talk I had just given. We chitchatted, and eventually I asked her what she did as her vocation.
She said she worked at an NGO, serving the poor in Central America. We were having a polite conversation. She asked for advice, and I tried my best to encourage her in our short conversation. As I shared one of my favorite quotes from Óscar Romero, I asked her if she had read much of his works or about him.
“Aspire not to have more but to be more.” —Óscar Romero
She had this blank look on her face.
“No, I haven’t met him yet, but I’d love to. Can you connect me? How can I contact him?”
An awkward silence ensued.
It dawned on me at that point that she had never heard about Archbishop Romero—who, by the way, was assassinated on March 24, 1980.
“I’m sorry. Please don’t take this the wrong way. I really want to encourage you. You’re doing some great work in your communities, so be encouraged. As you keep doing deep work in your community and because you feel led to serve the larger communities throughout Central America, you need to understand the history of Central America. The equivalent of you not knowing about Óscar Romero in your context is as if you were to say that you care about civil rights in America and not know about Martin Luther King Jr.”
Another awkward silence.
Please don’t judge me. It sounded much more pastoral and kind when I said it. Really! I gave her a huge hug and encouraged her to keep pressing on, going deeper, caring well, leading well, listening well and loving well.
You may or may not know about Óscar Romero, but I hope you learn about him, especially if you ever choose to serve the poor in Latin America. Romero spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations and torture. He was an outspoken advocate for the poor and vulnerable as security crumbled in El Salvador in the late 1970s.
He was celebrating mass at a hospital, lifting a chalice during the sacrament, when he was shot.
The assassination sparked an international uproar, coming one day after he preached a sermon that implored soldiers to act like Christians and stop carrying out the government’s ongoing repression.
Óscar Romero has an important story to be heard. And there are many others, if you take the time to dig in and learn. To better understand issues of poverty, justice and classism in Latin America, how can one not take the time to study and learn from theologians such as Dominican priest Gustavo Gutiérrez and the Jesuit priest Juan Luis Segundo?
1. How can we say we care about abolition and not know the story of William Wilberforce?
2. How can we say we care about the history of slavery and abolitionism in the United States and not know about Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass or Harriet Beecher Stowe or William Lloyd Garrison?
3. How can we say we care about women’s equality in America and not know the likes of Susan B. Anthony (who also taught at a seminary), Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Sojourner Truth?
4. How can we say we care about the civil rights movement and racial justice and not know the story of Emmett Till?
5. How can we say we care about Asian American context or ministry and not know the story of Vincent Chin?
Point being, you can’t know everything about everything, but when you say that you care about something in particular, and feel called about it, this is where I say you have to dig deep, be deep. Take time to understand the issues, facts, complexities and nuances.
Without knowing even the basic background of what you care about, you can hurt the people you are trying to help. This is an issue of respect.
All issues have their form in a community of history, context and culture. If we miss these things, we simply are not doing our jobs well. We’re not caring well, listening well, and not setting up ourselves well for mutual relationship.
Never stop learning. Study the Bible. Read the news. Devour books. Engage people. Ask questions. Be a critical thinker and active practitioner.