Sleeping Churches and Social Justice (Pt.1)

Jaime Kowlessar

The famous orator, and poet Robert Frost penned these pertinent words over 75 years ago. He said, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.”

I believe that it is safe to assume that Mr. Frost understands the urgency of now. His poem expresses the natural desire to become complicit, complacent and comfortable with the way things are. Right before Mr. Frost concludes the poem he says that, “he has miles to go before he sleeps”. It is safe to say that the African American church has fallen asleep. Others have even asked, “Is the black church dead?” Has the fervor and zeal for justice been removed from our pulpits and traded for messages that only create apathetic pew potatoes who only come to be entertained by a gospel that encourages them to “reach up and grab it,” “name it and claim it” and wait until their season comes.

If we sleep, then the systems that have been set up to kill and destroy will prevail. We have promises to keep, and miles to go before we sleep. Because if we sleep they will die. Who are they? They are those that have been misused and abused by public policies that no longer call you one-third of a man, but will treat you like you are one-third of a man. They have been victims of not simply Jim Crow apartheid, but to are also victims of Jim Crow’s children and cousins. Janice Crow, Joey Crow, Jason Crow and Jermaine Crow. And yes, it’s Jermaine too because we have some of our own people that are complicit with the dominant group’s penchant for oppression. It’s the Jim Crow legacy to ensure the permanence of oppression even amongst people of color to oppress people of color and refuse to open a door so that somebody else can walk through.

Do you know who “they” are? They are the ones that find themselves in a new age chattel slavery, in the prison cells of big business, in a country that locks up more black and brown people than any other fully developed country. They are those that have been victim to gun violence. Not only in Chicago and Detroit, but in every major city and suburb throughout these Not-so-United States of America. And sadly enough, they have also been victimized by the guns of those who are sworn to serve and protect.

The scriptures admonish us to stay on the frontlines for social justice. Isa. 1:17 says, Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows.[1] God has enlisted us to ensure that those on the margins of society receive a holistic, Christ-centered gospel.

Luke 4:16-19 gives us a window to a special Sabbath worship service wherein Jesus was a participant. “When he came to the village of Nazareth, his boyhood home, he went as usual to the synagogue on the Sabbath and stood up to read the Scriptures.  The scroll of Isaiah the prophet was handed to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where this was written:

 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,

that the blind will see,

that the oppressed will be set free,

and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.” [2]

Jesus begins his campaign by reminding his listeners that He has come to alleviate systematic oppression, and proclaim the jubilee year of the Lord through acts of deliverance.

As Seventh-day Adventists social justice shouldn’t be something that is strange to us. The Adventist church did not grow simply through evangelistic preaching and seminars. A vision was given to Ellen G. White in regards to the work that must be done amongst people of color. The Southern Work gave detailed instruction in this regard. It was during the 1890’s that this awareness came to the forefront. Although there were some black Northerners who attached themselves to the Adventists, there was lots of work to do in the South. According to Samuel London, “In 1894 James Edson White (1849-1928), James and Ellen White’s second son, assembled a missionary team with the purpose of helping improve the plight of blacks residing in the state of Mississippi.”[3] Because black education was frowned upon by southern white conservatives, blacks could not get their fair share of academic training. During the Jim Crow era, blacks in America were not grafted into the mainframe of society. Beatings and lynchings were at an all time high. Those early Adventist reformers were intentional about opening schools of literacy that taught reading, writing and mathematics; tools that African Americans would need in order to thrive in this society that never really welcomed them to begin with. As they were learning to read and write, Adventists also began to teach them through the scriptures. This made other denominations angry, because they were also converting them to Adventism in the process.

Historically, the black Adventist church grew through a grass roots movement that sought to educate and inspire. Through this movement we have seen many drum majors for social justice. Great men like J.K. Humphrey, Matthew Strachan, Charles Joseph, E. E. Cleveland, Charles Dudley and may others who sought to foster faith but also aid in the social uplift of the black community. The black church must continue the work by being the voice for the voiceless. We must also continue to shine the light on systems that seek to keep poor people poor, and the rich, rich.

This calls for us to be a body that is active. It’s a proven fact that majority of the black churches, and regional conferences are in impoverished areas. We must not become a church that only turns the lights on in our buildings once a week, but we should always ensure that the lights are on during the week as well. Therefore it is important that we continue to shine the light on those systems and structures that seek to exploit the poor. This is a major problem not simply within the Adventist church, but Dr. Lester McCorn acknowledges that there is a problem with the entire black church. He says, “Many Black Churches have become indifferent, if not hostile, to the persons who dwell in the very neighborhoods in which their edifices are located. The church should be a necessary ally and agent of liberation for poor, struggling, and fractured families.”[4]



[1] Is. 1:17 NLT.

[2] Lk 4:16–19 NLT

[3] Samuel G. London Jr.. Seventh-day Adventists and the Civil Rights Movement (Kindle Locations 583-584). Kindle Edition.

[4] Lester Agyei McCorn, Standing on Holy Common Ground (MMGI Books Chicago: IL), 2013.


Jaime Kowlessar
Jaime Kowlessar


Jaime Kowlessar is a native of Brooklyn, NY. He holds a Masters of Divinity from Andrews University and recently completed requirements for a Doctor of Ministry at United Theological Seminary as a Gardner Taylor Scholar for Political Activism and Social Justice. He also recently published a book entitled Be Made New. Follow him on Twitter @Muchisgiven.

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