After a promising start as a ministerial student at Caribbean Nazarene Bible College, Oliver R. Phillips (ORP) lost his way and found himself living on the streets of Washington, D.C. Homeless and lacking hope, he came to The Potter's House, a ministry of Community of Hope, then directed by Tom Nees. In time, Oliver pulled his life together, went back into the ministry, and continued theological studies at Howard University, eventually completing his doctorate. Oliver left the streets, but the streets have never left him. He brings an energy and passion to social ministry that is single-minded, informed, and infectious. As the director of Mission Strategy USA/Canada, Oliver has not only guided the greater church in more effective ways to minister to those in need, but has also helped develop more effective outreach strategies to reach all persons of color for Christ. Oliver was a keynote speaker at the recent Mid-Quadrennial Conference on Mission and Evangelism (M7). Staff from M7 spoke with Oliver and asked him a few questions about compassion and social justice, which was the focus of his message.
M7: How important are compassion and social justice to the work of the church?
ORP: The undisputable task of the church is to be light and salt to the world. It's hard to comprehend how this could be accomplished without the two-pronged ministry of compassion and social justice. Many Nazarenes who lead ministries of compassion will tell you that evangelism is often an unsolicited outgrowth of these two prongs. In the inaugural pronouncement of Jesus on that historic day in Galilee, one is left with no ambiguity with regards to the holistic compassion and radical justice that Jesus came to declare, embrace, and implement.
M7: The term "social justice" suggests there's something not right about society that needs correcting. What would some of those things be in Canada and the U.S.?
ORP: I doubt seriously that we could talk about social justice without some reference to social injustice. The sacred writings, particularly the major prophets, confronted a society gone awry-where money ran the society instead of God, accumulation of wealth became the objective of the economic system by exploiting the poor and the working class alike. Politicians oppressed the people in order to strengthen the few, and religion degenerated into a concern with rules rather than justice.
Today, in the context in which the church ministers, it should be abundantly clear that church work-presence, prayer, practice, and proclamation-may be strategic and essential, but is not "sufficient" as a contributor to the transformation of society as God requires of us.
Look around us! Read the poverty indices and the census analyses! Visit our penal institutions and hospitals! All indications would suggest that there are far too many individuals in this affluent society who have been left out on the margins. The very spectacle of a city landscape dotted with thousands of homeless citizens speaks to a system that has failed to adequately care for those who are marginalized by spiraling housing costs and low wages. I believe that corrupt systems, whether economic or politically based, tend to hurt the least powerful the most.
M7: Do local churches have the resources to deal with the needs of people that are economically disadvantaged?
ORP: Yes. A couple of years ago, when Nazarene congregations were surveyed we found that 61 percent of our congregations were involved in some sort of ministry to the poor and marginalized. I believe that the story has not been told often enough the extent to which Nazarenes are committed to a compassionate lifestyle.
By working together, our congregations have been able to pool resources in unprecedented ways. The response to the victims of Katrina is a testament and reflective of a compassionate people. Nazarenes gave in excess of $4.4(U.S.) million to the recovery efforts and $18.5(U.S.) million in services to the relief reconstruction.
M7: The Church of the Nazarene in the U.S. and Canada is overwhelmingly white and middle-class. Judging by our leadership ranks, one would conclude that, with some exceptions, we are nearly exclusively white and also middle class. In the interest of social justice and compassion, how can we move toward becoming an inclusive, multicultural fellowship? What are some important and vital steps we can take?
ORP: Moving toward becoming an inclusive, multicultural fellowship should be the desire of all Nazarenes. Society demands it. Scripture mandates it. Neighborhoods inspire it. Changing demographics and continued immigration incursions require us to reevaluate what we have previously done in our efforts to be inclusive and diverse. The gains have been minimal, but encouraging.
I believe that both the leadership and membership of our denomination understand the need to be inclusive. We must be committed to diversity because we can do more together than alone. The presence of other people groups in the leadership and membership of the Church of the Nazarene in the U.S. and Canada exponentially increases our capacity to reach more people with the holiness message. If we are incapable of becoming truly diverse, it calls into question the power of the message we proclaim.
In an unpublished document prepared by Tom Nees, he states, ". . . as corporations make strategic appointments to achieve marketing goals, so executive church leaders must be willing to change and create organizational structures, appointing minorities to visible places of leadership if the normal election processes don't achieve the desired results."