A White Guy for Civil Rights

My talk at the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Acts faith celebration at historic Tanner Chapel in downtown Phoenix.

Gary here.

Do I have to tell you? I’m a white guy.

I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, where today the population is 90% African-American. But we lived in white Lakewood, and we moved here to Arizona when I was in second grade. I attended Maryland Elementary and Washington High School, virtually all white institutions.

My family never talked seriously about race issues. I had no clue that, at that time, the Tempe public pool was open to Blacks and Mexicans on Fridays. They cleaned it Friday night and opened it to the white community on the weekend.

In the 1960s I attended high school and two small colleges, one in Kansas and the other in Southern California, and I’m ashamed to say that the Civil Rights Movement blew right by me. I mean, for me it was just one more dark headline in the upheavals of that decade.

Things began to change for me when I heard Dr. John Perkins, an African-American pastor and activist from Jackson, Mississippi. He spoke here in Phoenix about poverty and its systemic causes.

It wasn’t long after this that Evan Mecham was elected governor of Arizona.

He immediately rescinded an executive order by Bruce Babbitt, the previous governor, to create a Martin Luther King Jr. state holiday.

As a consequence, nearly twenty-five years after the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, we had our own civil rights movement here in Arizona, to get the MLK Holiday back on the calendar.

That’s when I heard about a man by the name of Dr. Warren Stewart who led the successful effort to restore the holiday. I’m blessed and honored that he’s become my dear friend!

Over the last couple decades of my life, I’ve had the rich experience of becoming good friends with Asian Americans, Latinos, African-Americans, Jews and very white Gentiles. These friendships have changed my perspectives. They’ve changed me.

When I was lead pastor at City of Grace, where I served for twenty-five years, I had many people of color speak to our congregation, including an African-American every MLK weekend. I’d tell them, “Share your life. Share your heart. Share your pain. Talk about racism and justice. Don’t hold back.”

Another dear friend, Tony Reed, an African-American and a consummately successful business consultant, was chairman of our board of elders.

I have to mention one other person who has valued me, affirmed me, and spoken deeply into my life: Jannah Scott. At her invitation, urging, and recommendation, I became the Chairman of Governor Napolitano’s Council on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

My extended family exemplifies the dramatic and traumatic social changes of the last 50 years. I have all white Gentile cousins from an all-white Gentile family. Four of my cousins now have children with spouses who are Jewish, Sri Lankan, Central American and African-American. One of the children has Down’s Syndrome, another is autistic, and still another is hearing impaired. And my daughter-in-law’s brother, her only sibling, died of AIDS.

My family? We are the world!

I believe that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.

I believe that God so loves the world that everyone matters to him, so everyone should matter to us.

Dr. King believed this. Dr. King was supremely inclusive, but there is no denying he and others were champions of civil rights because their convictions were deeply rooted in the Bible. Sadly, it’s not commonly recognized that the Civil Rights Movement in the United States has been essentially Christian.

Yes, it’s just as sad that many Christians have opposed the Movement, just as many Christians had, for centuries, allowed and embraced slavery because of commonly accepted teachings in the Bible. Others, however, from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Dr. King, have seen a higher way in the Scriptures, a way of freedom and equality.

It’s why the Apostle Paul wrote these transcendent words,

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. [Who’s your daddy? Therefore] …. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Paul wrote this too, in his letter to the Ephesians,

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away [separated from one another] have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility [not the dividing wall of difference, but he dividing wall of hostility over our differences].

…. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.

We’ve come a long way. We have a long way to go. The upside of the Civil Rights Act is that equality is now the law. The downside is that laws don’t change people. Only God can make that happen.

Our dream today, our prayer is that Americans will not only celebrate and respect civil rights laws in America, but that God will write his laws of justice and mercy in every heart.

America was born in a revolution over just laws. It’s been our obsession ever since. But people of faith are praying for a spiritual revolution, personal transformation, and a love for what the Apostle called “the whole counsel of God.”

“Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD.”

Royal Flush: Playing the Hand that Trumps the Times

Presented to Christian Economic Forum
By Joseph A. Tosini and Robert L. Briggs

In a rousing game of five-card stud, imagine a player picking up his cards to find a 10 and all face cards. All red. All hearts. A royal flush. The highest hand in poker. He knows his cards will beat anything his fellow players could place on the table. So what does he do? He bets. Everything. All in. He can’t lose.

“ never cease remembering with soberness and joy the cost of that freedom ”

Now picture the top truths of the Christian faith. The entire Bible is filled with truths, but which are the ones that take precedence? We have the 10 Commandments. The Great Commission. The Sermon on the Mount. Among the sea of instruction found from Genesis to Revelation, did Jesus establish priorities, pre-eminent truths which are most critical to understand? This paper proposes the pre-eminent truths, the cards in the “Royal Flush” hand of the Christian faith. Our “hand” begins in the gospel of John, where the gospel writer depicts the drama unfolding during Jesus’ final hours before the Cross. We begin at the Last Supper, where Jesus issued His final words to his band of brothers, soon to become the apostles of the first church. Here Jesus is prepping the disciples for his departure, sharing in the celebratory meal that serves as a reminder of being freed from the bondage of slavery. God’s people were to never cease remembering with soberness and joy the cost of that freedom, experienced through the sacrifice of a spotless lamb. The Old Testament lamb couldn’t speak. But if it could have, that woolly animal would have told us that he is just the shadow of the Lamb of God who would speak, and through His words and deeds demonstrate His love and provide a glimpse of His mysterious divine nature. But at the Cross, the shadow took on human shape.

Jesus knows He is headed to the Cross. He knows He is passing the divine mantle to the Holy Spirit to lead His followers into all truth. In light of the enormity of this coming cataclysmic event, which would separate history into the two separate epochs of BC and AD, is it reasonable to conclude that Jesus would use His final moments to underscore the most critical truths that should guide the decision-making of the church? We think so. Jesus was aware that the stakes riding on the hand that He would deal the church were so very high: the salvation of all people of all human history–past, present and future–and the healing of the nations. We believe the five cards comprising the hand that will win it all are Unity, Humility, Friendship, Holy Spirit Movements, and Kingdom Economics.

Let’s Start with the Ace of Hearts: Unity

Like a conductor instructing his orchestra before the curtain rises, Jesus at The Last Supper implored His followers to remember what He had taught them. He began His review by pleading with them to stay together, to remain as one, to remain in unity. This was His model for kingdom advancement. Not so they could enjoy life more but so that “the world may know” that He is who He claimed to be.

If this “oneness” is the critical success factor, then we must ask the question: How credible is the message of the church today? At last count, some 41,000 denominations are sprinkled across the globe. From the largest, the Roman Catholic Church numbering some 1.2 billion people, to the smallest numbering only in the hundreds, the story told by Christ followers is one of fragmentation and division. Some of the breaches in the body of Christ have been over substantive separations based on major differences. The first was in 1050 AD when the Orthodox Church centered in Constantinople and the Catholic Church centered in Rome separated. The second was 500 years later when Luther’s 95 Theses led to the Reformation, which opened the door to what has now become a plethora of denominations. But let’s face it: some of the further fragmentation has looked more like petty shoving matches over doctrinal or even practical preferences, many of which we will have no way of proving this side of heaven. Yet, we separate.

The King of Hearts: Humility

Within the fragmented church, there are pockets of productivity. Some modern Protestant movements have shown signs of vigor. But upon closer examination, even some of these seem to have been at least influenced, if not overtaken, by a culture that features events led by popular superstars, rather than activity that consistently deepens and enriches faith and practice. While this event orientation can be momentarily entertaining and even produce some near term benefits, the model has not produced the hoped for outcomes in terms of spiritual maturity and thriving communities. Frankly, the model looks much more like the pattern of product and event marketing featured by the world’s most successful brands.

“ expressed through utter humility ”

In contrast to this personality-promoting methodology, let’s consider another face card—the King of Hearts–that we might want to find and keep: Humility. Would Jesus allow himself to be promoted on the marquee, as the brand that leads to success? Or would He position Himself with the “least of these,” the ones least able to pay an event ticket price? The people—and the devil himself, by the way–tried to enthrone Him as king, but He relentlessly turned this role down. Instead, he spent a few of His final moments bending down to wash His followers’ feet, demonstrating the power of serving. He intentionally bundled up all that leadership authority, and rather than recounting His exploits in His final hours, He washed their feet. This was no technique to achieve a goal but an authentic expression of the very nature of God. This is the nature, expressed through utter humility, that is the goal of salvation and that unifies the three persons of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Queen of Hearts: Friendship

Jesus used a powerful word when He referred to those closest around Him. He didn’t refer to them as “associates,” like Wal-Mart workers. Or as “subjects,” like He could have if He had followed the practices of the reigning Roman rulers of the day. Instead, He chose to use the term “friend.” He walked together with them. Opened His heart and life to them. Broke bread, shared stories, enjoyed journeys from town to town. He didn’t establish a strict hierarchy, delineated by titles and promotions. They were, at the core, friends. And some were women, by the way, quite a counter-cultural statement of gender equivalency.

Among these “friends,” He certainly recognized their individual differences, their giftings, the unique contributions they would make. Friendship doesn’t mean they all would play identical roles in the critical work of establishing the church of the first century. But it did mean that there was a shared understanding that they all carried the same value. What should this mean for us today? Are we simply co-laborers in this kingdom, like associates at Wal-Mart who meet together to review the week’s schedule? Or are our lives aligned and our hearts connected as friends?

The Jack of Hearts: Holy Spirit Movements

“ impact in the world that is noticeable ”

Gifted leaders are clever. Clever enough to create enthusiasm around certain teachings that gather crowds and maintain momentum. But Jesus pointed to One who would follow Him into the arena after He departed the earth: the Holy Spirit. While the Holy Spirit would be busy comforting the broken-hearted and convicting the sinner, He would also be charged with leading the church into all truth, with working through the Jesus community to continue doing what Jesus did, only more. Periodically though history, we can see evidence that the Holy Spirit has focused His activity in the world to the point where we notice a resurgence of energy and confidence in the church, with an accompanying impact in the world that is noticeable. We call such occurrences “revivals,” or “awakenings,” or “movements.” Some clever leaders are capable of emulating such activities, creating the appearance of such a “movement.” But these tend to fade, with little lasting impact. Pope Benedict XVI addressed the subject of movements in church history, saying, “Movements are a gesture of God’s benevolence. They are fresh, authentic and capable of accomplishing God’s desire.” He warned, however, that they need “apostolic leadership” or they will “die under the onerous management of vision-less leaders that resist the pain or risk to establish protocol.”

The 10 of Hearts: Kingdom Economics

“ contributions in the United States to charitable causes in 2012 topped $316 billion ”

Jesus didn’t have a Harvard MBA. But He gave us good instruction about how to work together, including how to pay the bills. While it doesn’t get much attention, modern ministry has a reasonably well-defined business model that undergirds it. Does it align with the model Jesus envisioned? While church leaders want to claim immunity from market forces, the truth is that they are beholden to some extent to the sources of funding. They need to eat. They need a place to live. They have hopes and dreams, just like their followers, of sending their kids to college, of having a secure retirement, of accessing quality health care. So they feel pressure to put on a show that someone will pay for. Granted, some work hard to resist this and remain faithful to their core beliefs and values. But the pressure is still there. Total contributions in the United States to charitable causes in 2012 topped $316 billion, with nearly a third of that funding “religion.” What if we could ensure this flow of funds aligned with the Royal Flush truths. Might we get more accomplished for the sake of the kingdom?

Can We Fix This?

Sometimes the solutions to our challenges are more straightforward than we think. Let’s consider this Royal Flush of Christianity, the truths that trump the others.

Unity. Jesus nearly pleaded with His followers to stay together, to remain as “one.” Why? So that the world would know that He is the Christ. His prayer for them and all who would believe their message was for unity of heart, mind and spirit. This is the message that resonates through chapters 13-17 of John’s gospel. He also made it clear that simply believing these truths would be a good start, but the practice of them is what would stimulate the world to believe in Him (John 13:17).

So what might it look like if today’s church leaders laid down their divisive egos and histories and declared to a watching world that there is more that binds them together than what separates them? That the declarations of the Apostles Creed—one God, the Father and Creator; Jesus as fully human and fully divine, descended from heaven through a mysterious virgin birth; the Holy Spirit, continuing to give us guidance and comfort today. Every confessing church body believes these core truths. The few that don’t have self-selected to exit the community of Christian orthodoxy. What would it look like for the entire confessing community to gather together in one place to join the angels in heaven in declaring that God is Holy, that Jesus is the Christ, that the Holy Spirit is our guide and comforter?

Humility. Jesus demonstrated that same night of The Last Supper what it means to be great and to be a servant. Rather than scolding His followers for arguing about whose gifts outshone the others, He modeled servanthood by bending down and scraping the caked-on grime from their feet. Just like a household servant would typically do. He did not allow His name to be promoted, or His brand to be built by advertisement. He didn’t do anything to advance Himself. He just kept serving. And then serving some more. He made it clear in word and deed that His kingdom had nothing to do with this world.

Friendship. Perhaps we have allowed the hierarchies that reflect worldly value systems to infect our church culture. What if we recognize that every member of the body of Christ carries equal value, although some will carry out different assignments? What if we let down our guards that protect us from each other and ensure that no one gets close enough to see the frailty and failure that is part of our story, and warmly connect as a community of friends?

Holy Spirit Movements. We don’t need to substitute man-made methodologies for genuine Holy Spirit inspired and guided “movements.” We don’t need to duplicate what works in the world. What if we give room for the Holy Spirit Himself to move through His people and make something happen that the world will notice? We can be assured that He will do this so the world will know that God the Father sent Jesus the Son.

Kingdom Economics. God consistently points to a method for supporting financially the work of the kingdom. It’s not through effective product marketing, or through building a killer brand. It’s through the generous giving from a faithful community of those who are entrusted with stewarding resources. Generosity is good, but not good enough if not blended with wisdom. Well-intended but poorly informed generosity could lead to supporting the wrong things. Kingdom economics calls for a ministry-funding model that blends generosity with wisdom. This is the alliance that leads to good stewardship. The church needs givers. But it needs wise givers who understand their stewardship responsibilities more.

Establishing a Model

“ The millennials expect more. They are leaving the church, and they are not coming back ”

Would it be possible to build a community around the Royal Flush truths of the Christian faith: Unity, Humility, Friendship, Holy Spirit Movements, and Kingdom Economics? If so, what would it look like? How would its leaders function? What kind of people would participate? With a Church moving toward a fuller expression of the Royal Flush truths of the Christian faith, perhaps God would reverse current trends in the U.S. that are now carrying us toward further antagonism toward the gospel and disregard for the very truths that would set American captives free.

“ Something we’re doing isn’t working, and we need to figure it out quickly ”

Perhaps it is because of our lack of alignment with these Royal Flush truths that the world tends to watch us with a degree of disdain, rolling its proverbial eyes at Christians who fall short of appropriate standards. The younger the onlooker, the less likely they are to retain enough respect to even consider the claims of Christ, much less latch on to the church as we know it today. The millennials expect more. They are leaving the church, and they are not coming back. Some 30 percent of American adults ages 18-28 indicate they are skeptical of the Bible, while only 10 percent regularly engage with the Bible. The full adult population’s rates are disturbing—19 percent skeptical and 19 percent engaged—but the perspectives of the millennial generation should serve as a startling wake-up call to the church. Something we’re doing isn’t working, and we need to figure it out quickly.

“ The high stakes game is on ”

We are prepared to put these Royal Flush truths to the test in the Southwest U.S. city of Phoenix, Arizona. Already, Catholic and Protestant leaders are meeting together, tasting the benefits of friendship and envisioning significant demonstrations of unity. No one will stand as the sole personality leading the work; instead the leaders will stand together as a team, each contributing from their own gifting. The Pope himself has already blessed the work with a letter encouraging collaboration among confessional bodies in the area. Our hope is that we have heard the whispers of the Holy Spirit, compelling the church in this U.S. city to courageously come together in a fresh, even revolutionary, way. The high stakes game is on, and the church in Phoenix is preparing to play its hand. Perhaps success there can show the way for a fresh expression of modern Christianity, a path of spiritual power and impact, both invigorating the insiders who are already onboard and challenging the outsiders to take another look at Jesus, as the main attraction at the center of a vigorous church community.



American Bible Society. State of the Bible in the United States. Barna Group. 2014.

Indiana University, Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. Giving USA 2013. Giving USA Foundation.

Ratzinger, Joseph. New Outpourings of the Spirit. Ignatius Press. 2007.

Sharing Shalom

By Jane Wabnik


We could spend days discussing what it means to people. There are so many examples:

  • Freedom from fear of abuse, sleeping well, knowing that one’s body and those of children in one’s care, will awaken smiling at a new day
  • Freedom from genocides (murders stemming from prejudices based in hatred and territorialism)
  • Freedom to live in one’s home, building contentment, having employment, food on the table, access to education
  • Freedom to worship as one wishes
  • Freedom from war, whether in other nations or in our own neighborhoods

In Judaism, Shalom is the highest attribute for the world in which we live. It permeates every level of existence. The usual opposite of Shalom in classical Hebrew is not milhamah (war), but mahloket, which means division, often leading to hostility between individuals, groups, or nations. Our job is to learn to live in Shalom with social, ethnic, and religious differences.

Regardless of one’s religion or philosophy of belief, in some way we are demonstrating faith. We are here to connect for the common good, to reach across boundaries, to share goals, to contribute to our future and the future of those yet to come – even if we will not be here to see it. We are planting a tree of life for today, and hopefully, in the future that tree will be sturdier because of what we do to nurture it.

In the Jewish community on Shabbat mornings, we recite a psalm and carry it within us throughout our daily lives:

You have my attention: which is a tenderness, beyond what I may say. And I have your constancy to something beyond myself.

The force of your commitment changes – we live in the sweep of it, taking courage, one for the other.1

By building our courage to improve the lives of people around us, we are sharing Shalom and giving people hope for the future. The sage Hillel said, “What is hateful to you do not do unto your neighbor. That is the entire Torah. All the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.” This is the essence of Shalom, respecting one’s neighbor, treating with dignity every living person.

But the question is, “How do we achieve this when there is deprivation, abuse, distrust, unwillingness to share, fragmentation even within families, scattering of what we call support systems?” Rabbi Elana Kanter of The New Shul tells us that if we are to try to heal the vast array of rifts in our families, in our communities, and in the world, we must think deeply on something that seems simple: our lives are interwoven with the lives of every other human being, with all who dwell on Earth.

So we must walk together today in peace, in Shalom, as part of our journey to heal our communities. This, too, is part of a basic tenet of Judaism: that we strive to heal the brokenness of the world, even as we know we cannot complete the task. Yet we are responsible for beginning it, taking the first step. Part of Shalom is justice, and to heal the world, “Justice, justice shall you [we] pursue.”

Where to begin? Shalom Bayit, “household peace,” is a place to start. Peace, throughout our communities, our nations, our world, often stems from a peaceful atmosphere at home. This means much more than the absence of strife. It means open communication and freedom to express oneself respectfully without fear. When we allow envy and contention in our homes, we diminish Shalom inside each of us, which means we have less to give to others and to world around us.

Additionally, ignoring people in our families, our homes, often leads to terrible personal consequences, like drug abuse, for example, which in turn can easily destroy the well-being of others in our homes and circles of relationship.

How else can we develop Shalom? Janusz Korczak was the pseudonym of Dr. Henryk Goldszmit, a Polish pioneer of children’s rights. He was physician, educator who dedicated his life to Jewish and Catholic orphans and lobbied for a Declaration of Children’s Rights long before any such document was created. He saw Shalom residing in children and believed strongly in the need for respect and dignity. He wrote the following:

I offer a plea on behalf of respect for the here and now, for today. How can we assure life in the future, if we have not learned how to live consciously and responsibly in the present? Do not trample, hold in contempt or sell the future into bondage. Do not stifle it, rush or force it. Respect every single moment, as it will pass and never again be repeated.

During World War 2, Janusz Korczak, who was Jewish, was forced with Jewish orphans to relocate to the Warsaw Ghetto. In 1942, when the Nazis ordered all the children to Treblinka, he was offered the chance to escape but refused to abandon the children. Eyewitnesses reported that he led two hundred orphans to the carriages that would take them and him to the gas chambers. Children marched with heads held high, singing and holding the flag that Korczak designed for them. He led the group, holding a child in each hand. He was saluted by ghetto police in recognition of this act. And if you are wondering? Yes, these children knew about the death camps.

Rabbi Mari Chernow of Temple Chai teaches us that our spiritual journey requires reveling in the glory of this magnificent lifetime while at the same time reckoning with its darker side. We must do this every day if we are to continue to pursue of goal of Shalom for the communities we care about, for our state, and for our nation.

When Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Martin Luther King Jr., he said that he was praying with his feet. When Lutheran Martin Buber wrote about his dialogue with God, he did not exclude person to person, community to community, nation to nation dialogues. When we are together with others in a room, even people we don’t know, people who are different, that moment we living Shalom, hopefully to carry it outside of the room and into our daily actions as we work with others.

I’ve written a short poem, which begins with one speaker and quickly moves to another, expresses some of the meaning of Shalom. It’s called “Meeting.”

Hello, old friend,” he seemed to say (a smirk had filled the air).

Will you, perchance, be on your way to see the people dance and cheer as they will crown the cavalier?”

I looked around, I turned to see if others walked this route with me.

Alone, I was, no one was there. I stopp’d, I stood, I turned to stare,

And saw my shadow standing there.

Why no,” I answer’d, feeling affrighted, feeling grayness – seeping, blighted,

Reaching out to grasp with soiled hand restless seekers of a new land.

I looked around, I turned to see that others walked this route with me.

Alone, not I! Someone was there. I stopp’d, I stood, I turned to stare, and saw some people standing there.

Hello, old friend,” they seemed to say (a hope had filled the air).

Will you, perchance, be on your way to help the people work and dream to build a world of high esteem?”

I joined them then, I turned to go, I felt they knew what I should know.

I stopp’d, I stood. I turned to stare, and I saw Dignity standing there.

And so, hope and dignity, Shalom, will be our goal.

Cantor Emerita Sharona Feller of Temple Chai recently shared some of Trisha Arin’s blog about Shalom, part of which reads:

There will be hope and renewal and clarity.
If I walk toward it.
If I let it.
If I allow it.
If I permit it
If I open up to it
If I consent to it.
If I give in to it.
If I walk toward it
The world changes for one day.

To which I add – may we learn to be this way every day.


Jane, an activist in the Jewish community, has become a dear friend. She is deeply involved in community service.


1 Mishkan T’Filah, a Reform Siddur, the 2007 edition, p.225