Seeing Jesus in East Harlem (José Humphreys) -- A Review
SEEING JESUS IN EAST HARLEM: What Happens When Church Show Up and Stay Put. By José Humphreys. Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2018. 231 pages.
I am the pastor of a predominantly white suburban church that once lived in Detroit. This church moved to the suburbs, as did other congregations in the city, because most of the members had moved to the suburbs. The congregation tried to stay put, but in the end, it made better sense for the now diminished congregation to let another congregation make use of the historic building. The choice was probably correct, but I am attuned to stories of being present in the community. To be honest, suburban communities need congregations to be show up and stay put as well, so as to demonstrate God's love and grace, as well as challenging the status quo. Forty years after the move, this congregation is trying to stay put in the community we were replanted. I write this as a preface to my review of José Humphreys’ book, Seeing Jesus in East Harlem. One of the things I've learned over time as a white male pastor, is that it is important for me to listen to the stories of those who have traditionally lived on the margins of American society. That is, as part of the majority culture, which often assumes that it is the normative culture, I need to recognize and affirm the voices that emerge from minority cultures, especially as the nation in which I live moves toward a more diverse future. Since José Humphreys speaks to these moves in our society, this is a book for me and others to read carefully.
Humphreys is a pastor serving a congregation in East Harlem that is multi-ethnic and multicultural. He is Black and Puerto Rican and Evangelical. He writes this book from that social location, hoping to inspire and critique the church so that it might pursue God's calling in the world. The message contained in the book is rooted in the story of the congregation he serves in East Harlem—Metro Hope Covenant Church. While he doesn’t reveal the size, he speaks of this seemingly vibrant congregation as being on the small side. The point of the book, it seems to me, is to call us to a form of discipleship where we show up and stay put in our communities. It is a call to see the broader community as a space where God is present and active, as well as a call to engage it fully.
The book is organized around three themes. First is a call to show up, to be present and incarnate the presence of Christ in the community. That is, how do "we individually and corporately [respond] to God's daily invitations and [bring] ourselves in truth and grace." Part of that includes “naming whiteness.” That is, understanding the impact of visions of assimilation into the majority white culture impacts communities of color. For those of us who are white, and who seek to enter communities of color, can we take on the posture of a learner? This will require deep interior work, as one discerns “how one’s own embodied presence in the American experiment here and now is connected to America’s history and story of racial power” (p. 69). This is not an easy road, but Humphrey’s is hopeful that it can occur.
The second theme is that of staying put, which in his case is the community of East Harlem. Thus, after we show up, we stay put, by "dwelling richly with God and others while occupying and holding space together as church communities." Finally, he issues a call to “See.” That is looking for God in the community, looking for the kinds of transformation taking place in the community and the lives of the people encountered in the community, the people whom the church serves with. In other words, where do we see Jesus present.
His vision is a powerful one, that invites us to be a public witness of God’s love and grace in the world. Thus, as he writes near the end of his conclusion:
We are called to be God’s experiment in how people stay together in a divided world. Now more than ever—whether churches are in city, town, or country—we need churches that will dismantle that walls of hostility that keep us apart, uncoiling people from shame and hiding, allowing God’s very good news to unfurl us all into our full humanity as image bearers (p. 7).
This is an important book because it invites us to envision the urban landscape and ponder the ways in which the church is and can be present. While being present is not easy, congregations like Metro Hope offer us a vision of what might be. This isn't a plan for amazing church growth. This is a vision of presence and incarnation, while discerning God’s presence in the community. It's a cliché, but perhaps that old adage about blooming where we're planted has some meaning here.
In the closing paragraphs of the book, Humphreys writes presciently that "while I believe we in North America are experiencing to some degree the end of the American evangelical church as we know it, we now have an opportunity to maintain a different vantage point as a church that shows up, stays put, and sees God's loving work in the world. When one follows the crucified Christ, it's inevitable that the character of love will go beyond sentiment" (pp. 222-223). Yes, this is a call to move beyond a sentimental backward-looking triumphalist form of Christendom where nation and church are merged at the hip toward a church that is truly present, and truly represents the Gospel revealed in Jesus. Here's the kicker—this is generational work. It won't happen overnight. But, as he notes "faith will nourish our imaginations in such a way that we begin to envision things once impossible as now inevitable, happening in ways only God can orchestrate" (p. 223). That last phrase can be read in several ways, one of which is deterministic. I don’t think that is the way in which Humphreys views this calling. It’s not predetermined, but it is an expression of hope in what can be true when we join with God by staying put and showing up.
As for me, I will choose to read this as invitation to participate with God in living out the Good News in the neighborhood. May we see Jesus present not only in East Harlem, but in every space we inhabit. Thus, I highly recommend this book to all who desire to share in the call to break down walls of hostility.