“God is breaking through” in Charleston’s aftermath, believes seminary alumnus Dwayne Royster
In the aftermath of the recent mass murders around a Bible study table in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia’s (LTSP) alumnus Bishop Dwayne Royster believes the culture of America is in a “kairos moment.”
“A lot of people are upset about all the upheaval that’s going on after Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charleston, but I’m not one of them,” Royster said.
“I believe right now that God is breaking through in the affairs of humanity in a powerful way,” Royster continued. “God is reorienting some stuff around us, and we are being shaken to our core a little bit. God is with us in all of this, the issues surrounding racism and racial justice, justice in terms of the environment, gender justice, LGBTQ justice, and more. It is an exciting time. We all have something to bring to the table. We haven’t yet learned that our diversity is a blessing and not a curse. Once we learn to appreciate what a blessing diversity is, our journey together will be the better for it.”
Royster, a United Church of Christ minister and 2010 LTSP graduate (MAR with an Urban Concentration), is the executive director of POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower, & Rebuild). POWER is an expanding community organizing initiative that includes Philadelphia and its suburbs, and involves 45 congregations.
“We’re using our church traditions to speak on behalf of the people who are most marginalized in society,” Royster explained. Within the past two years low wage employees at the Philadelphia International Airport benefited greatly from a POWER advocacy campaign that led to a referendum recommending improved wages for the workers. The referendum was passed by Philadelphia voters, resulting in incomes raised from $7 an hour, or even less, to $12 an hour.
Royster founded Living Water United Church of Christ near Philadelphia’s Oxford Circle 11 years ago. “We are an open and affirming congregation of working class folks of all kinds with a mission in Christ to help our people live the fullest lives possible,” he said. The congregation sits in a neighborhood that was mostly white in the year 2000, but today consists primarily of people of color — people originally from India, Brazil, African immigrants, African Americans. “Our community looks like a middle class neighborhood,” Royster said. “But many of our residents live lives bordering on poverty. We walk with them, and we work hard to make an understanding of the Christian faith meaningful to them. We are striving hard to be a relevant place. If the neighborhood feels we are relevant, they will be here.”
Living Water has a food program that feeds 125 families each month. And it has a vigorous outreach to children. “We are a teaching church with elders and interns, and we send some of our members to study for certificates at LTSP,” he said.
As if being a parish pastor and head of POWER wasn’t enough, Royster is also assistant presiding bishop for Higher Ground Christian Fellowship International, with member congregations from the East Coast of the US, India, and Southern Africa. Higher Ground participants work diligently on justice issues in their home communities.
In early June, Royster was part of a community organizing delegation that visited the Vatican in anticipation of Pope Francis’s September visit to the United States for the World Meeting of Families 2015.
The visit was suggested and arranged by Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez who was part of an assembly at St. Joseph’s University on the “Economics of Exclusion.” The event involved 300 participants, including Royster, Roman Catholics, Muslims, and Protestants. Rodriguez connected the delegation to a variety of papal representatives helping the Pope plan for his U.S. visit to Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and New York City. The delegation included representatives of PICO, the largest community organizing initiative in the U.S. “We took along a variety of religious leaders, low wage earners, and people from Ferguson,” Royster said.
“We went there to tell the Pope that we love and respect him,” Royster continued. “We know that during his visit to the U.S. he will be talking about issues like justice, economics, immigration reform, and the environment. We wanted to make sure that he addresses the issue of race, to be sure that he understands that racism is really the original sin of our nation.”
Royster said the delegation attended 20 meetings during their four days visit, and noted that he saw areas of the Vatican few people get to see. He never met the Pope formally, sitting at one point “about four rows away from him. What we learned is that the Vatican leadership really does understand fully what America is all about. It was an amazing time.”
Here are other highlights of the interview with Pastor Royster:
- “We have to get beyond the point where we think of racial justice as not being just about rhetoric. We have to be willing to put our bodies on the line.” He said he hopes the seminary and other schools of religious training will do a better job of “training seminarians how to do justice work on the front lines, be willing to form relationships with people who are struggling with income inequality, and listen to their stories.” He said he hopes LTSP will send student interns and field workers to POWER for training. He also hopes that classes on justice work will become as important as courses on pastoral care and counseling.
- “I’m concerned that there is still a view that the Black Church is perceived not to be equal to the white church, that the Black Church’s music is seen as deficient when compared to the music of Bach and Beethoven. The Black Church is not deficient. And no one part of the church is complete by itself.” He urged the seminary to continually examine its inner operations to make sure it is not supporting attitudes of white privilege and supremacy, that it is a truly welcoming place for all people, “that no matter who you are you are home when you are here.” Royster serves on the committee planning the 35th anniversary celebration of the Urban Theological Institute this fall.
- He said he has encountered the impression by some whites “that you (Blacks) first encountered the faith when you came to America.” He noted that an appropriate view of church history acknowledges that the “roots of the faith began in Africa, in Antioch and Ethiopia, and that the Christian Church has been multicultural from its beginning” with European, African, and Asian perspectives.
- Royster fondly remembers classes with a diverse mix of seminarians including white students. “The rooms were not homogeneous,” he said. “We were broadening our horizons, learning about our cultural differences, talking about the roles of clergy and laity, trying to find common ground. The seminary helped me to think a lot about my faith and the Christian Church as a whole. We had real debates about theology and the Bible with the faculty and students. The seminary did a lot to shape me as a public theologian to become who I am today.”
- Royster remembers a childhood where his parents “loved the Lord but not the church.” He learned a lot in his early years going to church with his grandmother, who attended Zion Baptist Church in Philadelphia. There, he heard the captivating preaching of the Rev. Leon Sullivan, who focused on issues of empowerment for disadvantaged people. In part from Sullivan, Royster formed early impressions about the critical importance of social justice. His mother was also influential. She administered the work of East Mt. Airy Neighbors when Royster was growing up near the seminary in Northwest Philadelphia.
“In the work that we do we try to help people become free to be the people God has called them to be,” Royster explained.
Among his concerns is the issue of mass incarceration. One Sunday one of his pastoral associates gave an altar call, asking people to come forward who had connections with people in prison. Eighteen families came forward. “I had no idea,” Royster said, adding that the congregation works hard to support parishioners to get past issues they are ashamed of, so they can talk about them with each other.
“At Living Water Church we provide food for people who are hungry, mental health counseling and counseling for people to get out of debt,” Royster said. “If you don’t have your money together you can’t experience a full life. I’m hoping some day we won’t need to have food programs at Living Water Church. That will mean our people are becoming the whole persons that God desires them to be.”
Watch Bishop Royster’s sermon for the United Church of Christ’s General Assembly on Sunday, June 28, 2015.