Michelle Higgins drew national attention when she spoke at InterVarsity’s Urbana Conference on December 28, 2015. InterVarsity publically affirmed the Black Lives Matter movement, which was seen by many as a bold step for the evangelical campus ministry. Michelle’s talk is challenging and empowering, and confronts the racism in our evangelical churches (watch below). We interviewed Michelle on January 8, 2016.
Could you talk about your work as a Worship Leader and as Director of Faith for Justice? How do you understand the intersection of those two?
I grew up in a black church, and most black churches don’t use the term “evangelical.” Later, when my dad accepted a call to be pastor in the PCA church, it was like becoming a missionary. It was the 1990’s when my family moved and became a part of this majority white denomination during a time when race relations were hot in this country. At this time, racial reconciliation did not include any talk of justice for people of color.
My time in the PCA church definitely shaped the way I saw and thought about ministry. It was a sacrifice for us to be there (not the least of which was the loss of worship music which I was so used to in the black church). But my father became ordained in the PCA church, and one of the founders of the church said at his ordination, “I can die now – I have a witness.” It was a beautiful moment.
My family was invited into a reshaping of the system.
Now my dad and I co-labor at South City Church together. My dad is the head pastor and we are the minority face among a people who long to be intercultural. So in many ways, we are still living missionally.
We’ve come to recognize that though diversity takes a long time, racial reconciliation is what you can have along the way. Your discomfort is what will mature you.
Faith for Justice was founded in order to find entry points for my evangelical friends into justice work. After Mike Brown’s death, they seemed so much more hesitant to get involved. At the same time I was watching my Mainline brothers and sisters walk into tear gas, and a Pastor from an AME church have huge welts on her skin from the pellets blasted into the crowd, all the while my evangelical friends were questioning the basis of our activism. A few other evangelicals and I wanted to bring in evangelicals at large, so we started encouraging them: “We love Jesus and Jesus loves justice.”
Of course, Jesus is everywhere in the Gospels crossing lines: literally touching lepers, directly going through Samaria and not avoiding the conflict. Even more so, in the letters of Paul we’re told that we are all grafted in – we are all Gentiles and welcomed into the family of God. Faith for Justice speaks the truth in love. We believe truth telling is love. So we speak to those wanting to learn, and we speak against those places of injustice in the church.
We are simply continuing the Biblical Activism that we have read about. We testify to God’s truth and condemn the lies of fleeing from that truth. We hope that those who know the truth will stop the fear and shaming of others who live into the truth.
There’s this presumption that when we say we are “activists” that means we go sit in the street, and we want you to do that too. But there are other ways to be involved. Do you know anyone who is an activist? You can volunteer to watch their kids or support them so that they can be free to go and participate. Hospitality is a form of activism.
One of the ways I cross boundaries between my work at SCC and Faith for Justice is by bringing my choir to events. There’s never been a battle that’s been fought and won without singing. We sing in tragedy and hope.
You’ve received threats since your talk at Urbana with IVCF, yet you are someone who speaks so boldly of Faith and Hope. How are you living out these virtues in the midst of this fear?
God’s sovereignty is so evident in crafting a story of hope in the history of black America. I feel I am standing on the shoulders of giants in that history.
We are told that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, and the evidence of things not seen.” In this, the faith we have gives substance and strength to us right now, it enables us to hope. And it is evidence that – even as we hope for what we cannot see – the “not yet” of our struggle – God’s renewal, God’s justice, will surely come. Faith cannot be threatened out of you because it is eternal. It has an eschatological purpose in moving us towards God’s coming peace.
So what is my response? Even in this fear I can love my enemies. I am able to say, “Lord and still I hope” because God is not the author of those threats, but he is the author of protection. The history of my people is long – oppression, repression and discrimination – and I am a small shard of God’s reconciliation in that story. So this is not a heavy burden to bear.
This seems like such a timely discussion considering the dominant political narrative in our country right now is one of fear. How does the church live out its call to be people of hope and faith in the midst of the rhetoric we hear – and that many buy into?
When people live in a culture of comfort – money, degrees, etc – we fail to see these things as gifts and instead misconstrue them as points of power. But fear could be directly impacted by a biblical understanding of individual importance and significance. God made me. Everyone is of worth and deserving of an education, work, and healthcare. Whether its the conditions of Mexicans, Native Peoples, or African Americans – we need to know that allowing marginalized people to have access to what their biblical importance affirms does not in any way mean that other people can not attain the same standard. This fear is unfounded.
Relinquishing control of our own story – relinquishing our fears – is the first liberating step we can take. What we lack is a willingness to lose, a willingness to relinquish power. Because giving up power is Anti-American – but it’s the Gospel.
What are some scriptures that God uses to call you to this work?
Isaiah 6 – I love that there are multiple characters here that you don’t see but are incredibly important – the people who are languishing in sin, people who are suffering. The prophet wrestles with his uncleanliness before God, and the gracious Lord cleanses him. Then Isaiah responds: SEND ME. He is purified, and now he wants to go back and serve in a place of uncleanness.
John 17 – In the hours before the flesh is beaten off of his body, our Deity prays for the people his Father has given him, that they may be one. Why is the Lord so concerned about our unity in this moment?
Any scripture about the Trinity – If we ask the question “what is Justice?” we are given a picture of it in the Trinity. These persons are equal in power and significance, equal in honor, and all worthy to be praised, and never fight for power or attention. The dance of the Trinity is a picture of justice. And the Holy Spirit, who is with us now and is the person who runs the church, receives very little credit for his – or Her! – work. Jesus and God the Father have a multitude of songs about them, and recognition given to them, but the Holy Spirit is so secure in its own divinity that it does not raise its voice. And this is a picture of the possibility before us: if we can dance with our transgender friends, our recovering white supremacist friends, those we think are so different from us, and not demand to be the center of the story, we will live out Justice.