“To not live a life of justice is to either ignore or be ignorant of the earthly life of Jesus,” says Earl James, coordinator for multiracial initiatives and social justice with the Reformed Church of America (RCA). “When you read the Gospels and you follow Jesus’s earthly life around, you do not see a separation of word and deed. You see a person who gets upset when people are treated wrongly or separated from the gifts of God they should have coming to them.”
James visited Central College in late February to talk about the values of social justice and freedom from racism that Jesus modeled in the Gospels. While on campus, he gave presentations; met with classes, as well as faculty and staff; gave a talk at the Chapel; and, by his own admission, did a lot of listening. He wanted to hear what the Central community had to say about those two values and then share the work the RCA does to address injustice in today’s society.
“God did not intend for people to live under the constraints they are living under,” James says. “The relationship people have to the resources God has given—that is broken.” He says his work—and the work of all Christians—is to try bringing that relationship back into alignment.
Although James did not begin his career in religion—he worked for 18 years in the Michigan Department of Corrections as a probation agent, halfway house supervisor and prison deputy warden—he has always valued justice and multiracial communities, ever since he was a kid growing up in Tarrytown, N.Y., in the 1950s and 60s. His ideas were shaped by the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War protests and the International Student Movement, which brought teenagers from many different countries to his neighborhood.
After 17 years in corrections, James began to feel a calling to do God’s work in the world. After much soul searching, he went to work at a large urban church in Michigan as the first director of ministries and communications. Five years later, he started the faith-based consulting entity City Vision, where he hoped to serve as executive director until he retired. But then he heard about a new position with the RCA. He did not want the job, but it became clear to him that God might want him to work there. He joined the denomination’s staff in 2007.
With the RCA, James meets with churches and clusters of churches to support social justice and multiracial communities. Every congregation has different circumstances and needs, and they ask James to come help with specific initiatives, like multiracial training, developing leaders of color or supporting church multiplication.
One important aspect of James’s work is helping congregations figure out who is in the community. “A lot of times, we think that the community looks a lot like our congregation looks,” says James. But after doing a demographic study, he and the congregation often learn that’s not the case. The information “helps congregations to starting thinking a little differently about their assumptions about their communities,” he says.
Along with social justice and freedom from racism, community is a significant value for James. Community is the reason social justice is so important, he believes. This holds true even if the members of that community aren’t of the same denomination—or even the same religion. Because the challenges a community faces are the same for everyone, working together for the good of each individual is essential. “If the quality of education is bad for you, it’s going to be bad for me,” James speculates. “If the hospital doesn’t deal with your health issue, it’s not going to deal with my health issue.”
The motivation for James’s social justice work comes largely from the Bible. He can cite countless verses where worldwide harmony and equality—and universal community in God—are preached by Jesus or one of the prophets. One of his favorites is John 17:20-23, when Jesus is about to be arrested, beaten and killed. He chooses that moment to pray that all his followers become one in the way that he and the Father are one.
After reading the verse, one question bothers James, and inspires his work: “When are we going to get on the side of that?”