Bits 'n' Pieces: Pastors turn passion for social justice into guide book

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 
photo The Rev. Dr. J. Alfred Smith Sr., left, and his friend and student the Rev. Dr. Brooks Berndt, who leads a Hazel Dell congregation.

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The Rev. Dr. Brooks Berndt wanted to light a fire under his Hazel Dell congregation. They're mostly comfortable, professional-class folks who "gravitate toward charity, service and education and not social action," he wrote.

Problem is, Jesus himself was nothing if not a social activist, and Berndt, 37, is a true believer in following that example.

"Charity can provide a meal, but it cannot take away the social and economic causes of hunger," Berndt wrote. "Social action, however, can. It addresses the underlying problems, while charity addresses the symptoms."

Berndt figured he already had the right group to activate, since the First Congregational United Church of Christ's politics are pretty left-leaning and progressive. But figuring out how to do it remained a spiritual test for Berndt, who wrote frequent, soul-searching letters to the Rev. Dr. J. Alfred Smith Sr.,his dissertation adviser at the Graduation Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif. Smith is famous for preaching about black empowerment and liberation from the pulpit at Oakland's Allen Temple Baptist Church, and for presiding over the Progressive National Baptist Convention. Smith responded to Berndt with erudite encouragement and advice.

Berndt enlisted his whole church in considering the pressing social issues of the day. He launched "burning bush parties" featuring red marshmallows as fun treats for people who were discussing putting their values into action. Eventually the First Congregational Church of Christ started selecting one big issue per year — children's welfare, for example, and marriage equality — and marching, rallying, holding town hall meetings and lobbying legislators.

Berndt said one of the many joys of this effort has been growing closer to his congregation. "First and foremost it's about social justice but it has also been community building," he said. "I have found it very enriching and bonding." Plus there's the welcome enthusiasm of his mentor, Smith, whose letters contained gems like: "In the realm of social justice, many churches have been slumbering like a modern day Rip Van Winkle. Your church is now demonstrating the opposite."

Somewhere along the line, the two pastors realized that their letters would make an instructive book for other churches. "The letters tell a story and they also provide a level of intimacy," Berndt said.

The book is titled "Sounding the Trumpet: How Churches Can Answer God's Call to Justice," and it was published last month by A Pair of Docs Publishing, a Christian publisher in Boiling Springs, N.C.

Co-author Smith was to join Berndt at the First Congregational Church for a "dialogue sermon" on Sunday morning, but illness has forced him to cancel. His son Tony will appear to read his father's words during a reading and book signing at 11:15 a.m. The church is at 1220 N.E. 68th St., in Hazel Dell. Visit vanucc.net to learn more.


Bits 'n' Pieces appears Fridays and Saturdays. If you have a story you'd like to share, email bits@columbian.com.