remembering Sister Margaret Gaines, Part 2: Pastoring a Peace Church (from Pentecostals & nonviolence)

In 2008, I wrote this chapter for a book called Pentecostals & Nonviolence: Reclaiming a Heritage. I talked about Sister Margaret at length in it. I was just going to post the part of the chapter that talks about her explicitly, but the upon re-reading....she's really the through line for all of it, my primary influence in how I understand the vocation of Christian peacemaking (among many other things). So I'm posting it in its entirety, even a little bit self-conscious that my writing was not so refined back in 2008 :) 

Pastoring a Peace Church

By Jonathan Martin

I will never forget the Saturday afternoon last fall when I heard horrible screaming coming from our front yard.  I walked out to see Dennis and Elizabeth Donahue, a leadership couple in our church, in a tense confrontation with a man and woman in our driveway.  A founding partner of a Charlotte real estate business, Dennis is known for his jovial demeanor and disarming wit, so he was about the last person I would have expected to see in a heated showdown outside my front door.  The last person except for Elizabeth, who spent years as the public relations director at Sea World—the picture of cordiality and restraint.  On a grass roots level, Dennis and Elizabeth have spearheaded the effort for several years to help a friend in our church community named Diane.  A neighbor of the Donahues, Diane lived in poverty and an abusive relationship with her boyfriend for much of her life.  Now well into her 50’s, she was kicked out by her landlord (really more a slumlord), Dennis and Elizabeth felt God calling them to help get her into an apartment across the street from my house.  To this day, there is a group within our church that works together to make sure all of her physical needs are provided for.  When they helped get her out of the abuse, they met the wrath of her ex-boyfriend, himself with a violent temper and a host of addictions.  That day, him and his mother had followed Dennis and Elizabeth from Diane’s apartment until they got them to pull over in front of our house.  As I stepped out on the porch, I heard the man, Randy, hurling every filthy epithet imaginable to Dennis and Elizabeth.  As he directed crude, sexually explicit insults at Elizabeth, I watched a flushed Dennis (who, like me, is about 6’5”) about to lose his cool.  In a moment of fury, he actually threw down his glasses and started to walk past me, saying “I don’t care if you are here Pastor…”  I simply put my hand on his chest and said “We aren’t going to do that, Dennis.”  Though every impulse in him was screaming to fight for his wife, he didn’t resort to violence.  After some calming words from us (and some even raunchier responses from Randy), he finally sped off, all the while shouting “I know where you live Donahue…and I’ll be back!!!” 

The Donahues were shook up from the experience.  They had been brave enough to bring peace to a woman in need, and both human and demonic principalities and powers had been threatened by their presence.  The powers came back roaring—and they were resisted.  They were not resisted with violence or force.  But they did come eyeball to eyeball with a Christian couple who were not going to stand idly by while their sister in Christ was abused, willing to stand between the oppressor and the oppressed without fear.  Such is the toughness that is demanded by those courageous enough to endure the gaze of violence in Jesus’ name.

Ironically, those who embrace the call to Christian peacemaking are often stigmatized as being “passive” or unwilling to confront unjust principalities and powers as they are revealed. But our congregation has learned this is far from the truth.  This is especially strange given the reality that those most committed to Christ’s peace are often more likely, not less, to face down the powers of darkness. 

 

The Donahues’ story is just one example in our community of a people attempting to bring the peace of Christ in Charlotte, NC.  As a product and now a preacher of “the Christ-haunted” American South, I am learning along with my congregation something of how challenging it is to witness for the peaceable kingdom.[1]   In the south, we have always been good at naming our enemies.  It somehow doesn’t seem responsible much less realistic to talk about making peace when the world seems too be full of enemies of the cross.  At its worst, talk of peacemaking may degenerate into bland accounts of tolerance and acceptance.  Christian peacemakers seem to be in denial, unwilling or unable to take seriously either the reality or the challenge of hostile times.  We may be seen as wishful thinking hippies who lack the courage to acknowledge the violent milieu in which we live.  Given the near giddiness within our church culture towards apocalyptic signs, even worse we might be seen as impediments to fulfilling prophecy, those who would try to turn back the clock on events that must occur in order for Christ to return.  In the face of cataclysmic events to come and in light of our own inner violence, is there any real reason to be hopeful towards kingdom peace in apocalyptic times? 

Indeed it would seem that critics of our mission are not entirely wrong, if Christian peacemaking were defined as simply playing down our differences and looking on the sunny side of life.  I am neither particularly inclined to be optimistic about human progress in matters of war and peace nor am I inclined to suggest that the church does not have real enemies in the world.  As the saying goes, it is not paranoia when they really are out to get you.  Thankfully, a Pentecostal vision for peacemaking is by no means contingent on naïve optimism nor pretending that there is no such thing as enemies of the cross.  On the contrary, we are given the resources and the language with which to recognize our enemies.  Yet the only reason we have for naming our enemies is to identify who it is that Jesus has called us to bless.   We are not optimistic about human nature, the myth of progress, the economy, or the future of American politics.  And there is nothing remotely sentimental about looking deeply into the eyes of those who would do us harm and, as Jesus did with Judas, speak the word “friend” to our enemies. 

Even so, to speak with pastoral boldness a word of kingdom peace in a violent world is to invite suspicion and even pity from sincere people of God who assume that we have just not adequately understood the charts and graphs supplied by popular end-times enthusiasts.  Dispensational theology assumes very particular outcomes, and gives us the comfort of knowing what’s ahead (however dark or inevitable the future might be).  Given such inevitabilities, why fight the future—especially if it is God’s future?  A steady diet of such teaching has not only bred a passivity among Pentecostal Christians towards issues of peace, but even a hostility towards those who would hope not accept it.  In the face of such prophetic certainty, to take anything less than a defensive posture towards our enemies seems not only irresponsible, but even treasonous. 

My story

            Yet I am by no means unsympathetic to those in my pastoral care who are fraught with tension and ambiguities towards the Christian vocation of peacemaking.  As a fifth generation Pentecostal, I am all too aware of how much I embody those tensions myself.  Shaped as I am by a high appraisal of testimony within my tradition, I know of no other way to share my pastoral strategy for peacemaking apart from my story. 

            Growing up Pentecostal in the South, I was entirely unaware of the roots of the movement as a peace church.  The Church of God, Cleveland, TN was birthed in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee by tough people in tough times.  It struck me as almost comic in reading Charles Conn’s Like a Mighty Army, amidst a fairly straightforward account of the early history of the Church of God to come across nicknames like “old rough and ready J.F. Buckalew”.  It is difficult to imagine a Presbyterian pastor named “old rough and ready.”  To say that they were tough is not to imply that they were violent.  The toughest Pentecostal pioneers I was privileged enough to be around in their later years were the most profoundly gentle men and women I have ever known.  Their years of hard living were etched into the lines on their faces, which made the tenderness of their eyes both more haunting and more lovely. 

            I was raised by the Bible stories they told and the Bible stories they lived.  There was something roguish about these men who had known what it was to fight and scrap but had been more shaped by the terror of God.  They were products of violence to be certain, but it was the violence of the terror and lightning of Sinai that had baptized them in tenderness.  They weren’t people who were spoiling for a fight.  That’s not to say they were always people who would have run from one, either.  One of our best-loved pioneers in my region famously was shot at while living in his parsonage.  He loaded up his shotgun…and fired back. 

My grandfather on my Mother’s side was a local church clerk for most of his adult life.  One night he and another brother in the church were counting the money after church.  The other man had a series of escalating confrontations with their pastor that finally erupted that night.  The pastor walked in the room, and the man told him he was a “yellow-bellied coward.”  The pastor left the little office, went to his parsonage next door, and walked right back.  This time, he was brandishing a pistol by his side.  He asked, “Would you like to come outside and call me that again?” The man didn’t take the pastor up on his offer, so thankfully his resolve wasn’t tested. Many of these tales strike me even today as wonderful raw material for gothic Southern short stories in the spirit of Flannery O’Connor. 

Conversely, it wasn’t until I was an adult that my other grandfather, a hard, tough man who served as a police officer before a dramatic conversion at the nearby 15th Street Church of God, was then a conscientious objector during World War II.  He surrendered his badge when he accepted the call to preach, and he never took them up again.  He died when I was only three.  I heard this part of his story at thirty. 

            Now as a Pentecostal pastor, I am aware my life is a product of all the ambiguities and tensions that characterize the movement in general and this region in particular.   While the overwhelming legacy of the men and women who have come before me is that of peace, I am also aware of the ways I embody at times conflicting narratives.  I suspect my struggle to appropriate my roots is not an uncommon one.  Not unlike many other Pentecostals in the South, I still find myself trying to sort out my heritage from intertwined strands of Southern fundamentalism embedded in my story. One way to illustrate both the plight and the prescription could be framed in context of the narrative of Joseph, Rachel and Leah.[2]  In the Genesis story, Jacob falls in love with Laban’s youngest daughter Rachel while in Haran.  He strikes a deal with Laban to work for seven years in order to marry Rachel.  At the end of the time, Laban makes a feast where he was to give his daughter to Jacob.  Laban instead tricked Jacob and gave him Leah.  That night, Jacob has sex with Leah, only to discover in the morning that it was not Rachel, and that Laban had dealt treacherously with him.  Finally, he has to complete seven more years of service to Laban before he was able to marry his first love Rachel.  For Pentecostals, the romance with Wesleyan spirituality, with its characteristic concerns for mercy and justice in explicitly Christological terms, is natural and comes first.  By an accident of circumstance and social location, those of us in the North American tradition found ourselves in the tent with Leah.  It has taken us more than seven years to discover that we have the wrong partner, but there is still hope that we can be surprised (and a little frustrated) by the strangeness of the arrangement and recapture our rightful partner.  For me, discovering the roots of Pentecostalism as a peace church has been part and parcel of “finding Rachel.” 

Sometimes I feel like I’m still working to find her.  Loving my tradition and yet unsure of how to appropriate it, I read Steven J. Land’s classic Pentecostal Spirituality: A Passion for the Kingdom in my early 20’s and it was as if I had found some exotic new continent.  I recognized much of what I saw in his constructive revision but some of it was entirely new to me.  I remember particularly being struck by his claim that “Pentecostal liberation brings great joy because peace, not violent coercive manipulation, is the means and the goal of the fruit and gift of the Spirit, respectively.  The early Pentecostal pacifism, in a nuclear age of extensive poverty, is the best strategy for the church today.”[3]  Reading John Howard Yoder’s Politics of Jesus was equally devastating, especially since by that time I was able to recognize that Yoder’s Anabaptist roots were more directly parallel to the concerns of early Pentecostals than that of the magisterial reformation.  And of course my roots made me distrustful of any philosophical arguments that weren’t fully grounded in Scripture, and no one was as capable of painting an explicitly text-shaped portrait of the peaceable kingdom as Yoder. 

Along came Margaret Gaines

            But ultimately, what shaped my life most determinatively with regard to these issues was neither a better historical understanding of the early history of the Pentecostal movement nor the powerful Christological vision of peace of Yoder.  It was the life of my spiritual grandmother, Margaret Gaines.  Now in her late 70’s, Margaret was raised in the Church of God in Pell City, Alabama steeped both in the stories of the American South and the Pentecostal movement.  When she was a 19 year-old student at then Lee College in Cleveland, TN, she accepted the call to become a full-time Christian missionary in a chapel service.  Margaret would never marry, giving her life entirely over toward the call.  As she has often remarked to us, “How can I give my life to a man when I had already given it completely to Jesus?  It wouldn’t be fair to the poor man or to Jesus.”  Without support of Church of God World Missions, who felt it was too dangerous for a young single woman to travel the world, Margaret moved to Tunisia for 9 years. 

But it was her next assignment that would determine the rest of her adult life and ministry, when she agreed to go to a small Palestinian village called Aboud on the occupied west bank of Israel.  Called the city of flowers because of its charming landscape, the mountainous village is known for its olive trees.  Known as one of the most beautiful of the Palestinian villages, Aboud is a peaceful village where it is easy to forget the years of poverty and outright oppression of its people since the Ottoman empire.[4] 

            Margaret’s life was greatly shaped by the hospitality and generosity of the Arab people, who received her as a gift to their community.  She established a church and a Christian elementary school that continues to this day, though in recent years serious heart ailments have forced Margaret back to her home in Pell City.  Currently, five Muslim villages surrounding Aboud send their children to the school.  With few resources, Margaret developed the curriculum and created almost all of the visual aids herself when she founded the school in 1970. Many of the Muslims there send their children to the school, knowing they will be taught about Jesus as part of their educational program.  A leading Muslim cleric in Aboud commented that “Sister Margaret shaped and changed the entire character of this village.”  A delegation of Muslim leaders told her on her last visit that they wanted to build a library in Aboud in her honor, as a monument to the love she brought there. 

            Margaret tells a wonderful story about how she was in the village market one day when everybody was out, and a man accosted her.  Taking out his apparent frustration with western interference, he began cursing her.  He cursed the grave of her father, the grave of her mother, the grave of her grandparents, her God and the God of her parents--everything he could think of to curse.  She felt the eyes of the entire village watching.  As he hurled abuse on her, she quickly prayed for wisdom.  When he was finally done, Margaret responded “I am so sorry I hurt you.   I never had any intention of hurting you.  God loves you and I love you.  He loves this village and he wants to bless you.  When you get over being angry, will you remember I’m still your friend?”  Perplexed, he turned and walked away.  In words that have forever marked me, Margaret told me that “Satan doesn’t know how to respond to the gentleness of God’s Spirit.”  Discouraged, she went back to her room to pray.  “Oh God what was the meaning of this? Everybody in the village that could walk was out on the streets.  What was this all about?”  She heard God say, “That was your pulpit.  Those people will never come to the church.  But you preached my gospel by demonstrating my Spirit.” 

Margaret recalls that there were many such situations that “were unpleasant to the human heart…But if we can be God’s person of peace in any given situation and a witness—a living witness—to the unseen Lord…live out His word and live out his teaching in everyday life as he expects, then over time it makes a total difference.”  Margaret broke down in tears before our congregation as she said “Oh if every village had a living breathing Spirit of Christ walking in their midst, they would have a lot more peace.   You are not going to Palestine perhaps.  But you have this one little corner of the world.”  She taught us that when we run into human cruelty and rage, “the sweetness of the Spirit will eventually dissolve the acidity of the spirit that is coming against you—and He will bring peace.”

Small enough to stop the violence

For most of her adult life, Margaret watched her poor but peaceful village live through the tremors of violence around them.  Having lived in Jerusalem during the 6-day war of 1967, Margaret and Arlene Miller were in Aboud as the only Church of God missionaries in the Occupied West Bank when the Gulf War broke out in 1991.  She tells of the inaccessibility of basic needs for Arabs during the war such as gas masks, ample supply of food and water, and resources substantial enough to seal what little resources they had.  While a strict curfew was imposed, Margaret was nearly unable to get a new mother suffering with complications from giving birth to twins through a military post to get to medical care, despite her then 30 years as a missionary in the Bel Zeit district.  Margaret’s life among the Palestinians gave her unique perspective on the cycle of violence there: 

The world knows that Arabs defy tanks, machine guns and rifle fire with the act of throwing stones.  Television cameras have caught this irrational act in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron, Ramallah, Nablus and everywhere in between.  What the media would not film are the retaliatory raids the Jewish settlers would make.  They would come to Aboud about 10 at night and stay until 2 in the morning.  There would be an organized party of many cars, including an ambulance just in case anyone of them was seriously hurt.  They would bring chain saws to cut down the olive trees.  They would line up their cars and turn on their lights and dance the hora in the street, they sang loudly and shouted, ‘Come out, you dogs.  Face us, you cowards.’  Then they would hurl stones and break out windows of every house lining the street.  Also, the bus and exposed cars would get stoned.  My car window was smashed in two separate raids.  To finish their party, the would cut down many olive trees. 

Haunted by these scenes, Margaret has seen the western church continue to neglect the plight of the Arabs.  She became increasingly incredulous at the lack of basic necessities  in Aboud—at times with little access even to clean water.  “Perhaps for the price of all the Scuds and Patriots, every suffering village in the West Bank could have their basic needs met, their hope restored, and opportunities to work,” she mused.[5]  For a village like Aboud, the resources to build a maternity clinic or nursing home would make a tremendous difference. 

            So in 1991, Margaret sent copies of a video and written report of such “confidence building projects” that could be undertaken to bring relief.  “Did those who received copies think or do anything at all?, she asked.[6] 

I do not know.  I do know that children who attended our school grew up with a vision.  They are still young and do not have lots of capital, but they and others are making a difference.  With little or no help from outside, they have set up their own businesses.  They are working, and their goods and services encourage their people and keep many working.  Maybe that is why Arab violence has been practically unknown in Aboud.[7] 

From the leaven of Sister Margaret’s life, the kingdom of God has come to the Arabs.  During Margaret’s time in Aboud, the villagers eventually stopped keeping rocks on the roofs of their houses, the old way of settling differences when conflict would come. 

While Sister Margaret faithfully served her people, she became convinced that the “incredible, meddlesome zealotry of the church unwittingly and constantly adds to the cause of violence in the land.”[8]  Though her own life became a testimony to the powerful vocation of Christian peacemaking simply by sharing her life in this Arab village, she watched the western church become more and more preoccupied with seeing a certain apocalyptic timetable be played out in Israel.  The plight of her people garnered little response from many North American Pentecostals, preoccupied as we were with more pressing matters in the Middle East—like the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem as a prophetic marker of Christ’s return.  Herself anticipating the return of Christ with characteristic Pentecostal passion, Margaret yet fears that:

The church, instead of fulfilling the Lord’s last will and testament (which is to go tell every nation, tongue and people the Good News that God loves them and wants to restore them) is misappropriating their God-given health, knowledge, and wealth to try and force the end before the time.  Jesus indicated that when the church finishes this missionary assignment then end will come.  Maybe the church should get on with the assignment and leave the matters of the Temple to the Messiah of Israel, the singular son of Abraham and son of David (Matt.1.1), who is the rightful heir to the promises, even our own Lord Jesus Christ. For do we even realize what effect the end-time zealotry of the church is having on current events, even on the level of violence? [9]

Hoping for the end of the world, Christians in the west became less concerned with peace and more consumed with being on the right side of Armageddon, where we will have ringside seats.   Never a political activist, Margaret nonetheless became increasingly incredulous as she saw the one-sided nature of Western media coverage of her people.  Observing the reactions of American news to the outbreak of violence precipitated by Ariel Sharon’s intrusion on the Temple Mount, she wrote:

The numerous scenes of violence in Israel and the West Bank…shocked every American.  Any kind of war insults this nation’s comfortable peace.  All anyone knows how to say is ‘Stop the violence.’  The people who say they want the violence to stop just want the disturbance to go away. The stone throwers are seen as inhuman, ruthless, out-of-control thugs who need to settle down so peace talks can resume…No one seems to care that the revolt is nothing les than the death struggle of a despairing people.  The whole convulsing calamity has brought me to respond with the question, ‘Is there anyone small enough to stop the violence?”  Many of the ‘big,’ most powerful men of recent decades have tried to find a way to stop it.  Actual peace negotiations have been going on longer than most thoughtful men believed would be necessary.  What caused the stalemate?  Who is responsible for the gridlock?  …All I hear are commands and questions.  Nothing is new.  No one reaches down to the core of the issues.  Who can descend into the realities, and what can be done once they reach the bottom?  Certainly the big political, religious and cultural giants are too bloated by their knowledge, achievement and position to fit into the narrow shaft of descent into the depths.  It would take someone small enough to go through the “needle’s eye,” someone who has nothing to lose, someone not afraid to be counted as nothing, taking the risk and assuming the responsibilities of collective errors and admitting them, if not apologizing.  Is there such a one? 

Margaret’s phrase, small enough to stop the violence, arrested me.  For Margaret, the task of Christian peacemaking is bound up in the embrace of seemingly miniscule acts of faithfulness. In her own words, “God says my kingdom won’t come about with a lot of noise…it comes gently like the leaven.”

In 2006, I had the life-altering opportunity to see Aboud for myself—with Margaret.  As we walked through the streets of the village and talked and played with the children at the Aboud school, I was struck by the love and mutual respect between this Church of God lady from Alabama and her Muslim neighbors.  Margaret’s own life is a testimony of one “small enough to stop the violence,” of the possibilities of Christian peacemaking in a region of the world thought to be hopelessly volatile. 

Taking responsibility for God (the problem with “Don’t look at me, just look at Jesus.”)

Perhaps the greatest challenge in teaching congregations the Christian vocation of peacemaking is our unwillingness to become “small enough.”  It is not that our congregations do not believe Jesus when he says he blesses the peacemakers, so much as it difficult to imagine that kingdom leaven could possibly make a difference in the world. 

That’s why it becomes necessary as pastors to bring before our congregations lives that exemplify the “smallness” necessary to bear witness to the peace of the cross.  In Pentecostal tradition, we do not formally name “saints.”  But we certainly name them informally—not as objects of prayer or worship, but as exemplars whose practices we emulate.  Repeatedly emphasizing her own weaknesses in her autobiography Of Like Passions, Margaret fears that “In my experience, I have found too much made of the ‘instruments’ and too little made of the Master.”[10]  We have certainly recognized that the source of Margaret’s unique presence is not of herself but rather the sweetness of Christ.  Yet given my understanding of saints as faithful exemplars of a Spirit-led life, she has certainly been such a “saint” for the Renovatus community.  My congregation knows that my most primal theological education came not from the Church of God Theological Seminary nor Duke University, but from the University of Margaret Gaines.  It was she who taught me that the teachings of Jesus are not glassy-eyed idealism (and certainly not instructions for the distant millennial reign, as many dispensationalists have asserted), but are intended to be lived, and in fact can be lived, in real-life.  She is the person who taught me that peacemakers are still blessed, that there is still a real vocation of ambassadors of reconciliation in the world. 

While she lives far from us, she has been adopted as a grandmother in the Lord for our entire church.  She was the first guest speaker we ever hosted, only 4 months into our existence.  During her last visit a few months ago, I interviewed her on stage as part of a series we did on “The Politics of Jesus” (not based directly on Yoder’s book, but a broad survey of the political implications of following Jesus where we live).  I have understood much of my own pastoral vocation simply to draw attention to the lives that have formed me, especially Margaret’s.  So I share her stories, and I bring her to our people so that they can experience her directly. 

It is crucial to embed these stories into our community well, as discipleship requires imitation—as we are so often prone to forget in a culture obsessed with originality. The idea of imitation is scandalous to us because of our narcissistic focus on individuality. Yet if we are reflective about the shape of our lives, we know that we are always imitating others.  Societies are ordered around imitation.  There is no other way to account for how we dress, what we drive and how we act.  We learn to desire the same objects as our neighbors and thus imitate them to acquire the same objects. It is not a question of whether we will imitate but rather who we will imitate.

So discipleship is not about originality, it is all about imitation.  There is no short cut around the ancient task of disciple-making, whereby one life is shaped and formed by a master who is skilled in the practices of Christian faith.  Thus church becomes a stage for us to display the lives of saints who can make intelligible for us the witness of the apostle Paul, who brazenly challenges the Philippians to “join in imitating me.”  Or as he puts it to the Corinthians, “follow me as I follow Christ.”  These are not the words of an egomaniac, nor should they be unique to the apostolic witness of Paul.  All in the body of Christ must learn the craft of mimicking saints—men and women whose authentic walk with God is worthy of our imitation. We observe their practices and learn to imitate their habits.  It is as we learn to faithfully imitate the lives of faithful men and women that we eventually have the freedom to improvise.[11]  While none of us are original, we are able to find our unique expression within the body of Christ once we have become habituated.

Margaret has lived the kind of life that has, like Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman eventually killed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, dared to“take responsibility for God.”  Commenting on the power of lives like Etty’s to shape our own, Rowan Williams says that belief in God

starts from a sense that we ‘believe in,’ we trust some kinds of people.  We have confidence in the way they live, the way they live is the way I want to live, perhaps can imagine myself living in my better or more mature moments.  The world they inhabit is one I’d like to live in.  Faith has a lot to do with the simple fact that there are trustworthy lives to be seen, that we can see in some believing people a world we’d like to live in. [12]   

What a wonderful description of Margaret’s influence on our community, seeing in her story “ a world we’d like to live in.”  As Paul’s life was to those early churches, Margaret’s example has taught our church that it is impossible to abdicate our responsibility by glibly telling our neighbors “Don’t look at me, just look at Jesus.”  We have used many variations of that phrase before.  It sounds humble, even pious--certainly said with the utmost sincerity.  But Margaret’s life revealed to us the futility of such notions.  How exactly do we get someone to “not look at us, and just look at Jesus”?  Do we draw them a picture to carry in their wallets?  Do we give them a statue (i.e. a little song that says “I don’t care if it rains or freezes/long as I’ve got my plastic Jesus/sitting on the dashboard of my car!”)?  As good as such language sounds to us, it also has the affect of absolving us from any real expectation of living a Christ-like life.  Against such sentimentality, Margaret’s life bears witness to our church that most Pentecostal message-- that the Spirit of God that anointed Jesus of Nazareth as He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil still wants to make Himself known through real bodies. 

On the road to becoming small enough

Inspired by the narrative of Sister Gaines, our young church we have begun to accumulate our own communal stories of peacemaking, stories of sons and daughters willing to be “small enough.”  This year, our church took the leap to adopt one of Charlotte’s more fragile, violent neighborhoods, Reid Park.  As part of a prayer and service initiative called the Justice Project, our community life groups have each adopted two families in the neighborhood.  They serve their adopted families in whatever areas they have need—everything from painting to fixing roofs and leaking faucets to simply going over and spending a Friday night or a meal together.  Additionally, we have larger scale projects (painting days, a mini-extreme home makeovers, free yard sales) where we call on the entire body to participate.  Along with these individual acts of service, we are keeping in view the larger project to bring God’s peace to an entire neighborhood known for its violence.  So we devoted an entire week of 24/7 prayer, where we have a different individual in our church pray every hour of the week at our local prayer center with the focus of “praying down the stats.”  None of the projects in Reid Park have been especially large—we simply do not have the resources for that.  Rather it has been a series of small acts of a small enough people who believe that in these acts the peace of God is announced and established. 

Yet as it is for all Christian peacemakers, compassionate service is sometimes met with resistance.  This brings me back to the scene in our driveway with Dennis and Elizabeth, a couple who was small enough to stop the violence in the life of their friend at their own peril.  Like Margaret in the village, bearing gentle witness to the Spirit of Christ in the face of violent opposition, such conflicts afford crucial opportunities for the gospel to be preached.  Her story gives us the discernment necessary to understand our own confrontations with forces of terror and violence, a narrative resource from which to learn her disciplined tenderness.  Because of Sister Margaret’s faithful witness, we are able to see these conflicts as opportunities to “preach my gospel by demonstrating my Spirit,” in the words God spoke after her confrontation in the village. 

From Margaret’s vision of Pentecostal peacemaking, so resonant for our Christian community, I am watching the stories of saints within our own fellowship begin to take shape.  Their lives, like Margaret’s hold the promise of “taking responsibility for God” in our own city.  I have seen in this congregation people learning to lives worthy of imitation, faithful witnesses whose example demands that we “follow them as they follow Christ.”  As it was for Margaret, our anticipation of Jesus’ return gives both clarity and passion to our call as peacemakers.  Rejecting the Gnostic distortion of apocalyptic expectation into a perverse, other-worldly escapism, we are rediscovering Pentecostal urgency as a mandate to bring the peace of Christ to our community.  Instead of using “the blessed hope” of His appearing as an excuse for laziness, apathy and indifference towards a violent world, North American Pentecostals are awakening to the unique opportunities to bear witness to God’s shalom. 

I am very much aware that there are great differences of opinion in our community over the morality of war, with some strongly committed to absolute nonviolence and others who would defend some variation of just war.  Yet despite these differences, we have attempted to make the conversation less about exceptions and more about norms, challenging each other to work for God’s shalom in our community.  Margaret has taught us well that the stakes of being a peaceable witness to the kingdom of God in our village are indeed high. 

 

 

 

[1] A phrase from Flannery O’Connor, who claimed “It is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God.”

 

[3] Steven J. Land, Pentecostal Spirituality: A Passion for the Kingdom (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), p.207.

[4] Margaret Gaines, Small Enough to Stop the Violence, Unpublished, p.4. 

[5] Ibid., p.48. 

[6] Ibid., p.51. 

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., p.32. 

[9] Ibid., p.33. 

[10] Gaines, Of Like Passions (Cleveland, TN: Pathway Press, 2000), p.13.

[11] A central idea in Sam Wells’s account of ethics.  See Samuel Wells, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2004). 

[12] Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), pp. 21-22.