A Pound of Social Justice


A lot of Christian service groups visit Harambee Ministries, a Christian urban ministry that I direct in Pasadena, California. I love to read them the fifth chapter of the book of Amos. For dramatic effect, I use The Message version of the Bible. It leaves little room for interpretation of the writer’s intent. For example, take Amos 5:21-24 (Message):

“I can’t stand your religious meetings.
I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
your pretentious slogans and goals.
I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes,
your public relations and image making.
I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
When was the last time you sang to me?
Do you know what I want?
I want justice – oceans of it.
I want fairness – rivers of it.
That’s what I want. That’s all I want.”

I read this aloud to visitors, and then I pause. I follow with the story of how Harambee was established, why, and what we do now to love people in our community in the name of Jesus. But the Scripture makes its own point, and I have to be careful to not dilute that point, not to pull the punch, not to water it down. So I wait. Then I move forward with a personal attempt to amplify a centuries-old text. The best I can do is punctuate these Scriptures with a summary statement. On any given occasion I might say:

God is serious about justice.
God is very serious about justice.
Ain’t God worked up about the plight of the poor?
God gets bent out of shape when it comes to justice for the poor.
God is impolite in his passion for the poor.

Any one statement will do, because each is true. And these truths are bad news for Christians. The above verses from Amos contrast the common religious activities of Christians today with God’s desire for justice. The concept of justice is not unpacked in this section. We are left to wonder what “oceans” of justice look like. We can get a clearer sense of what the writer means when we look elsewhere in the fifth chapter (v. 11 Message):

“Because you have run roughshod over the poor
and take the bread right out of their mouths,
You’re never going to move into
the luxury homes you have built.
You’re never going to drink the wine
from the expensive vineyards you’ve planted.”

At the very least, justice means doing the opposite of running roughshod over the poor and taking bread out of their mouths. Before we engage justice-preserving solutions, let’s sit under the spittle of bitter biblical condemnations a little longer, because they reverberate throughout Amos. See chapter 2, verse 7: “They grind the penniless into the dirt, shove the luckless into the ditch.” Or chapter 8, verse 6, “You exploit the poor, using them–and then, when they’re used up, you discard them.”

Amos is not the only place you will find God’s anger over injustice. Pick any biblical prophet. Here’s an interesting one—Ezekiel 16:49: “This is the sin of Sodom. She was arrogant, overfed and unconcerned.” Ezekiel is describing the destruction of Sodom, well known in Genesis 19 as a symbol of judgment on sexual perversion. But the sex sin is dealt with in Ezekiel as a secondary matter. The first thing Ezekiel gets across is the people’s guilt in being arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned. That chills me, because “arrogant, overfed and unconcerned” pretty much describes me. Toward those who are arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned, God is not merely perturbed, annoyed, saddened, perplexed, bewildered, or broken-hearted. He’s enraged, like a vendetta-seeking Hollywood action hero. Back to Amos 9:3-4 (Message):

“If they dive to the bottom of the ocean,
I’ll send Dragon to swallow them up.
If they’re captured alive by their enemies,
I’ll send Sword to kill them.
I’ve made up my mind
to hurt them, not help them.”

What are we supposed to do with that? I ask sincerely, because the direct content of those verses does not fit my image of a loving God. And though I’m puzzled, I’m not fool enough to disregard the warning. The Almighty is cranked up and hopped-up about how the weak are victimized. While we may not know how exactly to respond, try reading these and other biblical judgments and coming away unconvinced about the need to respond.

Thankfully, Amos does not just unload; he tells us what to do. His answer is true and right. But there’s a problem. True and right as his answer may be, it is also fuzzy, lyrical, poetic, and downright enigmatic: “Let justice roll on like a river, and righteousness like a never-ending stream!” (5:24)

It’s a start. But it’s not very helpful in this day and age. I mean, show me “justice rolling on like a river.” Take me to this never-failing stream of righteousness. You might as well give me a pound of social justice.

However elusive, the biblical injunction is nevertheless on us. Given the anger of the Almighty on this topic, we would do well to follow the advice given by the Apostle Paul so succinctly in one of his letters: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12).

I do not have a pound of social justice to give you, but I can share my community’s efforts at enacting godly justice. Harambee, established in 1983, is an urban ministry with the goal of reaching children, youth, and families with the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and his atoning death on the cross, and with the promise of new life as his disciples. As we minister through Harambee, we are painfully aware that we are in a context of poverty, generational sin, historic racism and injustice, pervasiveness cynicism, and despair. We seek to preach the truth of Jesus Christ with words and to demonstrate that truth with our own actions. As we pursue godly justice, as we see justice enacted in our community, we see that justice ministry can be a profound tool for building trust with neighbors who long ago may have given up trusting God, their neighbors, or themselves.

I’ve been formally working for justice since 1990, and what I’m learning is that the best stuff comes from your own personal experience, knocking your own head, and seeing surprising developments after the smoke clears. There’s a lot to learn from plain old experience. That’s why it can be more profitable to sit with an old head, an old schooler, someone who has been around the block, even if that person is older, retiring, not in touch with popular culture, and perhaps not the greatest communicator. The things I hunger for, a book or a formal lecture can’t give me. So I hope to share with you a little bit of what has quenched my thirst and sated my hunger.

Harambee’s founder, Dr. John Perkins, wrote a book in 1982 called With Justice For All. In the first chapter, “Evangelism is not Enough,” Perkins describes how his heart was broken by the rural poverty of Mendenhall, Mississippi. School dropouts, terrible living conditions, drunkenness, absentee mothers and fathers, and teen pregnancy defined the community. He had moved to Mississippi from California to evangelize his own people, after reading in Romans 10:1-2 and recognizing that his people had “a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened.” While living in the community, meeting the people, and getting to know the problems, he realized that “the Gospel, rightly understood, is holistic–it responds to man as a whole person; it doesn’t single out just spiritual or just physical needs and speak only to those.” From that initial understanding, Perkins led an effort to live out the words of Micah 6:8: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord requires of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

The ministry in Mendenhall was centered around a local church. And surrounding the church there was a gymnasium for youth activities, a Christian elementary school, a law office, a health office, and a thrift store and cooperative farm for economic development. They evangelized young people and families in their community. They taught them how to walk as disciples of Jesus who live out their faith in all areas of life, public as well as private.

I read With Justice For All when I was a student at Stanford University. It resonated with my own life experiences, and I felt like I was finally seeing the Bible come to life. I hadn’t seen the Christians around me living the way the early disciples did, and so, like an arrogant, hotheaded, better-than-thou, I purposed in my heart to blow off the Christians in America because they weren’t living out their concern for the poor. When I read the Perkins story, I decided that Perkins was the one Christian leader to whom I would listen. What an extremist!

When I came to faith in Christ, I was ten years old. It was in a Baptist Sunday School class, and the story that Sunday was about the walls of Jericho coming down. I refrained from pulling the hair of the girl next to me just long enough to hear Joshua’s rallying cry: “Shout! For the Lord has given you the city. The city and all that is in it are to be devoted to the Lord” (Josh. 6:16-17). I heard that and wondered, God cares about cities? Right then I made a deal: “God, I will follow you, because one day you are going to do something about East LA.” I was ten years old and bargaining with God and telling him what he was going to do. Right then I said yes to the Christian project, to this Jesus-my-Lord-and-Savior thing, because he was going to do something about East LA.

East LA was a burden for me because I had been born in East LA and loved East LA, but I’d also fled from East LA. My mother died was I was just about to turn seven, and my father was not in the picture. We were poor–I remember getting in trouble for destroying our food stamps. My mother was buried at Resurrection Cemetery, and it was left to my sister Yolanda to my brother, Andrew, my sister, Silvana, and me. The first thing Yoli did was to get us out of the dangerous East LA neighborhood of El Sereno. Getting out, getting far, fleeing–that’s what we did. But though I feared some of the people on the streets of East LA, I also loved the place.

Early childhood psychologists and Jesuit priests share a saying, which goes roughly like this: “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will show you the man.” Something profound about the human psyche is formed by the age of seven, and I had spent the first seven years of my life in East LA. When I learned about the cry of Joshua at Jericho, my childish heart believed that God would do something about East LA. “Something” meant turning people into followers of his Son Jesus, and it also meant changing the community so that it was a less fearful and dangerous place to live. (I told you it was a simple vision.) From that time on I was focused. I had a plan, which was to get a college degree, learn to read the Bible and interpret it by myself, and to live in East LA and be a Christian. I had no idea what I would do to support myself; God would take care of that like he had taken care of the prophets of old.

After I moved out of East LA, the taste of injustice, and the call to do something about it, lingered. It lingered through my teen years and followed me to Biola University and then Stanford. Every step of the way I encountered very few people who were unnerved by the biblical mandate to love the poor and act justly wherever we went.

That’s the reason John Perkins was a godsend to me. On an Intervarsity Christian Fellowship-sponsored trip to Mississippi in the summer of 1989, I served in ministries that he had started and turned over to the people from the community. The next spring, one week away from finishing my last class for my undergraduate degree, I heard Perkins speak on my campus. When I graduated from college, I hustled to work with my hero. I imagined that I would work two years with Perkins, learning everything I could from this black Christian leader, and then take what I had learned to Mexican-dominant East LA. I hadn’t planned to take a detour in the black community on my way back to East LA. But the more I got to know Perkins and the peculiarities of justice seeking among blacks in America, the more I imagined that there were valuable things that Hispanics could learn from our black brothers and sisters, so I jumped in with two feet.

Two years became 18 plus. Everything I thought I would encounter in East LA is here in Northwest Pasadena—Hispanic people, Hispanic challenges, and Hispanic dreams. But God gave me more than I asked. He turned my dream of “helping out” and “making a place less dangerous” into something more specific and effective.

When you think of Harambee, think of the movie The Matrix. Think of the visible, seen world and the unseen, deeper reality.

Our visible reality is a set of outreach and development programs under the umbrella of Harambee Ministries. We have an after-school program where children and teens can have fun, get help with their homework, hear Bible stories, pray with their peers, and engage in extracurricular activities—like vocal music, art, dance, karate, and computers—all in a safe environment. We have a private, Christian elementary school and a preschool. A teenage jobs and college prep program, called Junior Staff, challenges teens to step into their God-given opportunities. Summer programs, internships, and trips to faraway places minister in unique ways to people of the community. We emphasize racial reconciliation—people building deep relationships across ethnic lines because of the saving work of Jesus on the cross.

The unseen reality starts with the detail that the majority of our staff lives in the community that we serve. We are embedded. We are “deep cover.” We are neighbors. We are the community. We believe that living in the community we seek to serve is critical to our efforts to make disciples for Jesus Christ. Also we are committed to living in the community for a long period of time, because the problems we are confronting do not have instant solutions. This dynamic of living in a justice-needy situation for a long time helps us see our work more clearly and therefore to focus our efforts more effectively.

This is important because the justice that people need is a moving target. For me, engaging this moving target involves thinking about justice as both “eternal vigilance” and an onion. Perkins says that justice is eternal vigilance. You will never arrive at justice, or at a point when justice has been completely fulfilled, until the day of the Lord. You will never complete all the tasks laid before you that fit the category of justice. If you take your hand off the plow (yes, I’m a city guy using a farming metaphor), the gains you made in the fight for justice may be reversed while are you off doing something else. Fighting for justice doesn’t fit a timetable—the battles emerge in their own timing, when we do not expect them, when we are not prepared.

To Perkins’s formulation that justice is eternal vigilance, I would add that justice is an onion. You peel back one layer, successfully complete one task of justice, and find that there is more, much more, sometimes devastatingly more, to do. Here’s an example. I know these apple farmers in southeastern Washington State, a Christian couple named Ralph and Cheryl Broetje. Years back, in the 1980s, Cheryl came on an area of their property where migrant laborers were living in horrible conditions. These were the very laborers who made the farm successful. She was burdened by what she saw. The Broetjes’ response was to take their own resources, somewhere in the neighborhood of five million dollars, and clear off a section of their land, build one hundred homes, pave roads around those homes, put in a gas station and a convenience store, open a school and a gym and a church, and otherwise try to meet the needs of the community in their midst. Families rented the homes at very fair affordable prices. How incredible! I haven’t heard of many responses to injustice like this.

Soon the Broetjes encountered another challenge: Many of the teen children were not in school because they had to take care of their smaller siblings, as both parents were out working, usually in the apple farm. So there was a need for day care and for making sure youth were getting a proper education. That led the Broetjes to get involved in family and community life and in longstanding issues like alcoholism, gangs, and domestic violence. The Broetjes couldn’t just abandon the entire endeavor, because they had become personally involved in the lives of the people they worked with and sought to serve. Today the Vista Hermosa community is growing and thriving, with great challenges, because an entire body of people has joined the Broetjes to seek justice for their neighbors.

An experience like that will make you or break you, but the thing it won’t do is leave you as you are. Often North American Christians say that it’s not as challenging being a Christian in our context as it is elsewhere, because we live in a Christian nation and are prosperous. We don’t have the threat of discrimination or persecution hanging over us as do many of our fellow believers around the globe. Well, if we commit ourselves to justice as the prophet Micah says, if we keep peeling back the layers of the onion, and if we don’t shy away when we encounter deeper challenges, I don’t think we’ll say that anymore.

We’ve seen a lot at Harambee over the years, and because we have seen so much, we stress development of individuals, usually poor individuals, over activities to change society. Here’s why. I’ve seen initiatives for justice come and go. One season it’s a campaign for fair housing. Another time it’s for increased funding for inner-city schools. There may be a fight against gangs and crime. A major grant to improve health services rolls through town. The list is endless, and all these initiatives are important. I do not say that we don’t engage in social change, only that it carries a secondary emphasis. It is secondary because the development of a needy individual does not follow the timetable of a cause or a campaign.

For example, imagine a ten-year-old boy who does not know his father, is being raised by a single mother, does poorly in school, and has a lot of friends in a gang. The boy gets involved in a mentoring initiative to keep kids out of gangs. The program is active for two years and does a great job, but then the program is defunded. The boy had two great years of intervention, but he still needs help, because now he is twelve. His need did not end just because the program ended. Then a fair housing initiative goes through town, some advances are made, and his family is able to move into more secure, affordable housing, but the boy still has no father. Perhaps he hasn’t gotten any better at school. The success of the mentoring initiative and the success of the housing initiative still do not meet all of this boy’s needs.

Programs will never replace people who love a person over the long term. Programs, no matter how well-planned or well-funded, can’t do what a committed person can do—a principle easily overlooked, even by those of us who preach it.

At Harambee we invest in the lives of individuals, and in others who are personally invested in individuals. After 18 plus years of ministering at the corner of Howard and Navarro, I’ve learned that living in a stable, relatively good family is a person’s best chance at experiencing justice. The best way for a child to get out of poverty is for his single parent to get married. We know that from social science and from evaluating the results of welfare reform. I’ve seen it in my own community. One set of brothers was doing decently at school and managing to stay out of trouble. Then their single mother got married and their achievement levels shot up.

After investing yourself in justice for others, you may wonder at what point you can stand back and say, “I did my part; it’s up to the Lord now.” I want to push you. Theologically, if you are from a more Reformed tradition that emphasizes God’s sovereignty in all things, it’s all up to the Lord, so whether we do our part of not, the Lord will have his way. I’m not sure Amos would go with you on that. Somewhere someone has to do something. Yes, the Lord will provide. But that provision is tangible. What the child doesn’t receive at home is going to have to be instilled or replaced, somehow, by someone.

I know this because I grew up in double jeopardy, with neither father nor mother. Years later I’m a college graduate who has won awards and was once approached by the White House about taking a position there. I’m probably digging a hole for myself on Judgment Day because of my pride, my hubris, but let me say that a lot of people would like to see a lost inner-city kid turn out like Rudy Carrasco. I think about my life a lot. How did this all happen? I know that the Lord literally replaced the things I didn’t have. At key points in my life, he filled the gaps with his people. I needed a father and a mother during my childhood and teen years. I got to college and wished for a father to navigate me through turbulent waters. On my wedding day my heart cried out for my father and mother. When my first child was about to be born, I spent the entire ninth month of my wife’s pregnancy in deep existential angst, wishing for my father to comfort me and tell me I would be okay, that I wouldn’t screw up my kid like, well, like he had by not being there for me.

Each step of the way, the Lord provided one of his people—extended family, friends, teachers, Bible study leaders, mentors, bosses—to help me. Christians filled with the Holy Spirit were there to guide me on the path to wholeness. None of us is completely whole until the day we are transformed and in the presence of Christ, but still, I feel pretty whole. God has poured great things into my life through other people who were there.

That’s what is on my heart when I think about justice, when I think about the emerging church being committed to justice. It gives me joy—yes, the word is joy—when I think about how so many of my peers are committed to justice for the poor around the globe. It’s a big, big deal that it is one of the core values of my generation of North American Christians. I want what happened in my life to happen all over again in the lives of countless little Rudys floating—lost, bewildered, hanging on—in America. And I want my friends and those who listen to me to remember that justice goes way past causes like the environment, the economy, education, and foreign policy. When the protest is over, when the program has concluded for the day, in the stillness of the private life, the person in need of justice still needs justice, in the form of love and friendship. Perhaps justice, in the end, is giving a person everything that God wants for him or her to have, not just material or social good but the quiet assurance that, “Before you were born, I knew you—and loved you. I still do.”


This article by Rodolpho Carrasco originally appeared as a chapter in The Emergent Manifesto of Hope, published by Baker Books in April 2007.