The Inescapable Network of Mutuality

On April 12, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. found himself in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama.  He and his Southern Christian Leadership Coalition had joined other civil rights groups in non-violent protests against racial segregation, racist laws and racial violence in the city.  Government officials convinced a judge to issue a blanket injunction against all types of demonstrations in an attempt to stop their efforts.  Because they refused to obey the order, Dr. King and other leaders were arrested.  

That same day, an open letter from eight prominent clergy was published in a local paper.  In the letter King was condemned as one of the “outsiders” that were causing unnecessary turmoil in their city.  These religious leaders said that Birmingham could handle its issues on its own.  Ironically entitled “A Call to Unity,” the letter was actually a call for the visiting protesters, especially King, to leave.  

Dr. King immediately began to write a response on any piece of paper he could find. These collective scraps would come to be known as his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  Among the many powerful lines in his letter are these words:

It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. 

Over the course of my life, I’ve increasingly realized how true these words are. As a natural introvert, I don’t seek out new relationships with people I don’t know.  But because of the many gracious individuals who invited me into their lives, I discovered that I needed those who were “outsiders” to me.  I am forever grateful for these friends who helped me do away with my “us vs. them” and “in vs. out” mentality.  Can I share my thank-you notes to some of those who helped me understand humanity’s mutuality and shared destiny?

Thank you, Keith Wood and Tom Jessup for inviting me to join the leadership of the predominately black Buckhead Community Fellowship in Atlanta in 2007.  You hoped that I, as one of the pastors, could help create a more diverse congregation by drawing in more people who looked like me. While I’m sorry that during my time there, I drove the remaining six white people out, I’m so grateful that I was given the privilege and challenge of doing church life where I was the minority.  I’m thankful that this time with you exposed some prejudice within me that I had yet to deal with. And I am honored beyond words that many in our congregation grew to accept and trust me as a brother.  

Thank you, Joe and Mary Green, for making me an adopted adult son in your home, so that I could get to know and love your daughter Sherry, her wife and her daughter.  I had been wrestling for some time with what I had been taught in my Adventist upbringing and what I was coming to understand about the troubling experiences of individuals who identify as LGBTQ, especially those born and raised in families of devout faith. Seeing Sherry’s ordinary yet magnificent family and your pride in them settled the issue in my mind.  Because you, Joe and Mary, opened the door to your family, I have been welcomed with open arms into so many more families. And the LGBTQ relatives in my own family now know my door will always be open to them, and that they will always have a seat at my table and a guest room waiting for them.  

Thank you, Dr. Johnny Ramirez-Johnson, anthropology professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, fellow pastor at Glendale City Church and dear friend, for helping me better understand the frustrations of being a scholar of color but only celebrated for being energetic and entertaining.  While beloved by your students, you were rarely appreciated for your intellectual brilliance and prodigious scholarship.  Because of your gracious confrontation of my similar stereotyping behavior, I have learned how to better love you and how to love and respect others in your field who share your experience.   

Thank you, Mary Khayat, Anoosh KeshishzadeDr. Armine Zambre, Father Vazken Movsesian and so many Americans of Armenian descent for embracing me as a friend since I moved to Glendale nine years ago. Before arriving, I had almost no knowledge of Armenia, the diaspora or its history and had no idea what it would mean to live in a city with almost 100,000 people of Armenian heritage—whether they were born in the US, Lebanon, Iran, Russia or Armenia.  Because each of you have taken the time to sit with me–over a cup of American or Armenian coffee, or in your home eating your “simple” refreshments, which in my home, would be equivalent to the amount of food we serve for Thanksgiving Dinner—because you shared the joys, sorrows, triumphs and tragedies and allowed me to ask a lot of questions, I now know that my identity and my destiny will be forever connected to each one of you.  That it would be extremely important for me in 2019 to finally see the House and Senate pass resolutions that assigned the term “genocide” to the atrocities that began in 1915, speaks to how important our friendship has become over the years.  

And thank you, Martin Luther King, for modeling a way of life that awakened our nation to the reality of our mutuality and interconnectedness.  May I continue to believe in and work for your dream for our world.  

This article is adapted from a presentation made at the City of Glendale’s Martin Luther King Togetherhood Breakfast, January 16, 2020, at Dignity Health Glendale Memorial Hospital. The article was published in the February 2020 edition of Intersections, the magazine of Glendale City Church.

Divine Imagination Inhabiting Mere Humanity

The longer I’ve lived, I’ve learned that my drive to do more complex work tasks (organizing a new ministry, strategizing our community outreach, or writing a sermon) is regularly disrupted by three things: remembering other simple work tasks on my list that I can do in five minutes; allowing urgent but unimportant items to take precedence; and being overwhelmed by the fear that I won’t accomplish the complex task at the level of quality I expect of myself.  Working together, these formidable foes convince me that my best response to handling the complex is to put it off until later.  

Some of you identify so well with what I just described.  You’re grateful to find another member of your tribe.  Others among you are frustrated to learn this about me.  You’re saying, “Todd, why can’t you be disciplined and do the hard stuff first, like I do?  It’s simple: mind over matter.”  Trust me, I am extremely sorry to disappoint you.  My desire to perform well has almost as much to do with wanting you to be pleased with my work as it does with my own expectations.  After almost eight years of being pastor at Glendale City Church, I guess it’s time to come clean with you: my name is Todd Leonard, and I’m a chronic procrastinator.  

I probably should have told you sooner. 

I say all of this to say that I believe that my procrastination can serve, to a degree, as a metaphor for how we respond to God’s call to join in Her mission.  As you’ve heard from me often over the years we’ve been together in community, I’m convicted that God is presently working to create a reality in our world right now that matches the vision of new heavens and earth that She sees in Her Divine imagination.  And our Heavenly Mother actually needs us to work with Her in order for that to happen.  

Throughout humanity’s existence, we’ve been given glimpses into the Divine imagination.  Whether passed down orally at the dinner table or tribal bonfire; whether written down on gilded pages of scripture, in a personal journal or in the local newspaper; our ancestors have and our descendants will continue to share these revelations of what a loving world looks like.  And when, during our own lifetimes, we receive our own peeks into another world, our sleepy souls are jolted awake as we begin envisioning the world the way God does.  It becomes impossible to view this life the same way once we’ve seen where God is taking us.  And with rare exception, these awakened souls, including you and I, begin working to create something more loving, more heavenly, in their—in our—corner of the world. 

But this present-future-eternal life that this imaginative Spirit has led us into is strange stuff.  It’s not linear and it’s not measurable.  And it’s not leading directly to an obvious destination with a guaranteed arrival time.  It’s mysterious.  It’s constantly evolving and shifting.  In other words, it’s complex.  And because it’s complex, we can feel overwhelmed by its complexity.  So, it’s no wonder that we get sidetracked by quick-fix solutions that don’t actually solve anything.  And it’s not surprising that many give up and blame their circumstances, other people and even God Herself for their lack of success.  And who can fault those among us who believe that accomplishing the Divine Imagination is beyond the capabilities of mere mortals, and our only hope is in a future fantasy land divorced from this world’s limitations?  

But some of us know that there really isn’t meaning to life unless we seek to bring into being a little bit more of the Divine Imagination.  Somewhere, some way, somehow, we know that there is no greater calling in life than to undertake the challenge of increasing and expanding the loving imagination of God.  No matter the difficulty.  No matter the cost.  

And right now, we live in a moment of time when we can partner on a grand scale to bring greater love, through actions of justice and reform, to so many people.  And I don’t want us to miss out on it.  

So let’s get specific about this part of the Divine Imagination.  What percentage of the readers of this magazine, would you say, would express their support of the following statements?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.  

Declaration of Independence, Paragraph 2, July 4, 1776

 I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.  I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”  

“I Have a Dream,” Martin Luther King, Jr., August 28, 1963

In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  

–Galatians 3.26-28, NRSV

I think every reader of this magazine would be in full support of these statements. Why?  Because the individuals who wrote these statements were revealing part of the Divine Imagination for a loving world.  If there was a heavenly Declaration or Constitution, these statements would be included in them, right?  All people should have full access to independence, self-sufficiency, self-actualization and justice, because every human being is equally loved by God and an equal revelation of God.   

But the dream of justice and equality wasn’t fulfilled in the Christian church after Paul wrote his letter to Galatia.  It wasn’t “mission accomplished” in America on July 4, 1776.  It wasn’t fully realized on Juneteenth 1865.  And King’s speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial didn’t finish the job.  Each of these moments represented either the initiation or culmination of hard work by many who believed in the Divine Imagination.  But these steps forward were also followed by retreating steps due to distraction, disruption and corruption.  The difficult part of trying to fulfill the Divine Imagination is that it usually means people have to invest in very hard work for little personal reward.  It probably means they will have to admit they were terribly misguided about something.  And it may very well require a significant sacrifice on their part to make it a reality.  Thus: the checkered, one-step-forward, two-steps-back histories of the Christian church and the American experiment on racial justice and equality.  

So here we are, living in the surreal days of August 2020.  In addition to trying to stay alive physically, mentally and economically during a pandemic, we’ve been thrust into a moment where we’ve been reminded about God’s imagination for a world where people of color experience the same justice and equity that the rest of us do.  Each one of us knows that this is what God wants.  And each of us knows that on policing, incarceration, education, nutrition, employment, and statistics in every other category used to define human happiness, people of color are not protected as well, treated the same nor granted the same access as are their white siblings.  Therefore, it is incumbent on the followers of Jesus to rededicate ourselves to the Divine Imagination of liberty and justice for all and get to work bringing it much closer to reality…now.  

Since George Floyd’s murder by Officer Derek Chauvin, I’ve heard many reasons why people can’t get on board with God’s racial equality dream, version 2020: Black Lives Matter (BLM) leaders embrace aspects of Communism; protestors are a bunch of rioting anarchists, vandalizing buildings and injuring police officers; the movement is a political operation of the Democratic Party; or, the BLM movement believes all police officers are evil.  While each of these characteristics may be true for certain people within the movement working to bring about greater racial justice, none describe the majority of those involved.  

Most people, of any color, who are invested in this work are invested in it because it’s part of the Divine Imagination of a more loving world.  It’s people who want the best for people of color, who want the best for white people, who want the best for police officers and want the best for our world.  But it’s still human and messy.  And if you’re only willing to be part of something that is pure and above reproach, please contact me and I’ll help you find a quality in-patient mental health institution that can help free you of that delusion. Martin Luther King was presumed to be a Communist.  Followers of Malcolm X, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale were believed to be on a quest to burn our nation to the ground if they weren’t stopped.  Police officers were called pigs.  And yet, all races of Americans look back at the civil rights movement of the 1960’s as an indisputable good for our nation; that more of the Divine Imagination came into being because of the work of these leaders and followers.  But it didn’t feel like it while we were going through it.  The Divine imagination is pure and above reproach.  The human implementation is imperfect and uneven. 

I’ve joined on with our local YWCA’s Coalition for an Anti-Racist Glendale.  It’s made up of residents and leaders in our city who want to work with our city government to develop best practices on how we keep our city safe and our residents protected; how we ensure that people of color have equal access to their rights and privileges as Glendale residents; and how we face our city’s history of intentionally excluding people of color from residency and how it’s impact is still felt today.  It’s a coalition that’s made up of a lot of good people, who don’t agree on everything, but who have caught a glimpse of the Divine Imagination of love expressed through bringing justice and equality to all.  Our work is messy and is going to take a long time.  But that’s because it’s complex.  And it’s complex because it’s right.  And it’s right because it originated in the imagination of God.  

Please don’t miss out on this God-given moment.  Don’t allow yourself to be side-tracked, interrupted or discouraged from working on the dream.  It’s very complex work.  But complexity is the stuff of new heavens and new earth.  

Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.  –John Lewis, 2018

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2020 edition of Intersections, the magazine of Glendale City Church.

Drop the Mic: Reincarnating the Adventist Faith

1 (3)Seven-part Sermon Series at Glendale City Church

Five-part Article Series in Spectrum Magazine Online

In the winter of 2017, I took a three-month sabbatical to rest, recharge, celebrate my family and reflect on where I am in my spiritual and pastoral journey after 17 years of ministry.

Out of that time came this series of articles and presentations that, out of love for my Adventist faith heritage, present my convictions on where our expression of the Christian gospel needs to move to regain relevancy and impact for the sake of all that mattered to Jesus and for the sake of the people in my city who need healing, restoration and divine-human community.

Links to Series Articles and Presentations

  • Part One: The Toto Pulled Back the Curtain…
  • Part Two: I’m a Good Man, Just a Very Bad Wizard
  • Part Three: Bringing Sabbath Back
    • SPECTRUM, May 26, 2017
    • GLENDALE CITY CHURCH, May 27, 2017
    • SUMMARY.
      • Moving Sabbath from Propositional Truth to Loving Action requires our efforts to bring Sabbath to people where they are exhausted, such as:
        • Releasing them from poverty
        • Helping battered spouses escape their cyclical abuse and establish independent lives
        • Breaking addictions to chemicals, food, or dysfunctional behaviors
      • Bringing these type of Sabbaths opens up a seventh-day celebration of God’s Salvation that continues to operate through God’s people
  • Part Four: Carrying on the High Priestly Ministry of Jesus
    • SPECTRUM, June 5, 2017
    • GLENDALE CITY CHURCH, June 3, 2017
    • SUMMARY: People can catch a glimpse of the advocacy and intercessory work of Jesus in heavenly realms by seeing us become advocates for those who are condemned by society and intercede for those who are being persecuted or denied access to human rights.  Examples would be:
      • Vouching for ex-felons who have a hard time finding work after prison
      • Advocating for full inclusion of LGBTQ individuals into the life of congregations
      • Creating peaceful interactions and dialogue between racial minorities and local police to bring healing and community strength
  • Part Five: A New Earth
    • SPECTRUM, June 14, 2017.  This is the concluding article in the Spectrum series
    • GLENDALE CITY CHURCH, June 10, 2017.  No video or audio available.  There were technical difficulties that corrupted both recordings.  My apologies
    • SUMMARY: Talking about the promise of a new heavens and new earth only becomes believable when we bring pieces of heaven down into our world today.  Our Adventist pioneers did this by:
      • Developing an extensive health ministry
      • Developing an innovative and holistic educational system
      • Working to eliminate the scourge of alcoholism
      • Joining the American abolitionist movement
  • Part Six: The Gift of Prophecy, Part One
    • GLENDALE CITY CHURCH. June 17, 2017
    • INTRODUCTION: I invited the members of Glendale City Church to vote on which historic Adventist doctrine they would like me to “reincarnate” out of truth-telling into loving action.  In a close vote, they selected the Gift of Prophecy.  In my preparation, I realized that I would need two weeks to cover what I believed was crucial to reincarnating this core belief of the Adventist faith.
    • SUMMARY: Prophecy is a gift that operates in different spheres.  One way that Adventists have under-utilized the gift of prophecy is its use in the congregational setting and in one-to-one settings.  Followers of God desperately need timely counsel, encouragement, correction and instruction.  Paul’s writings, especially in 1 Corinthians 14 and Ephesians 4, call us to pursue the gift of speaking God’s truth in love.
  • Part Seven: The Gift of Prophecy, Part Two
    • GLENDALE CITY CHURCH, June 24, 2017
    • SUMMARY: As annoying and frustrating as it is to every organizational level of a religious or political system, all human constructs require that there be people who challenge the status quo of these institutions.  Biblical prophets, Ellen White, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others have borne this responsibility to sound the wake-up call to religious and political leaders to engage in reformation and revitalization or face the consequences of revolution.

Beyond Words: Loving Others in Times of Crisis

image1Three-part Series, April/May 2017

Click on the links below to view or listen.

Part One: Blank Inside: When We Don’t Know What to Say

Part Two: Hallmark of a True Friend: What It Looks Like to Give Your Very Best

Part Three: Postscript: Some Final Do’s and Don’ts of Compassionate Presence

The Work of the People

636159427628392485-270708234_DiversityA Two-Part Series on the Power of the Church Community

January 9: Part One

January 16: Part Two