Church Vitality in Cuba









It was standing room only at the First Presbyterian Church in Havana, Cuba, on Sunday, March 23. I was lucky enough to be in the congregation, which enjoyed lively music and the joy of people from Angola, Cuba, and the US. It was a wonderful Sunday.

Hector Mendez, the pastor of the church, has been at the church for about 20 years. Over that time he has led the congregation to develop ministries that serve people in the neighborhood in a variety of ways. Psychologists run a phone line and receive walk in visits from people suffering depression and loneliness (Friendly Phone). A Tai Chi instructor welcomes and trains older adults who come to the church to maintain health and flexibility.

A 102-yr. old church member shows us her Tai Chi moves

A 102-yr. old church member shows us her Tai Chi moves



















A volunteer operates a lending library that circulates religious literature and film, and also houses after school and summer school programs for youth.

The library at First Pres, Havana. Rita Bennett enjoys a book.

The library at First Pres, Havana. Rita Bennett enjoys a book.












Local organizations, such as the youth choir that we heard perform on one of our last days at the church, use the space for rehearsal and performance.

Hector makes the point that urban ministry is –or should be— contextualized. Too many churches, he told us, don’t pay attention to the world around them; they talk about salvation, but they do not serve the people. Hector’s ministry is living proof that engaging people where they are and bringing the gospel to people who are hungry for it makes for a lively congregation.

I am grateful to have had the chance to visit the church, a trip made possible through the presbytery partnership that has linked my congregation, Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, with the First Presbyterian Church in Havana. I traveled with a group of nine terrific women, and we were all enriched by the service and witness of the Reformed Church in Cuba. Thanks to Hector and others for a wonderful week.


3 Stories About Social Change

chicago 6 flatHow can people fight injustice effectively? In her fine book Family Properties: How the Struggle over Race and Real Estate Transformed Chicago and Urban America (Henry Holt and Company 2009) historian Beryl Satter tells the stories of three efforts to combat unfair housing practices in Chicago in the 1950s-1970s.

The first story Satter tells is the battle that one man fought to try to help families who were victimized by people taking advantage of unjust and predatory real estate practices in Chicago’s black belt. The man was a lawyer named Mark Satter, and he was the author’s father. The account is illuminating, because it helps readers to see how difficult it is for one person to combat systems and networks of injustice.

The story of Martin Luther King’s attempts to fight for fair housing in Chicago is the second story that Satter tells. She analyzes some of the factors that compromised King’s success in the city, and identifies the deep and complex problems that he faced.

The third story that Satter tells is about community organizing efforts in Lawndale and the South Side through an organization that was eventually called the Contract Buyers League. The CBL advocated against contract sellers on behalf of individuals and families. With pro bono legal help it also initiated several significant court cases that sought to change real estate law and broaden civil rights litigation.

How can people fight injustice effectively? Satter narrates three attempts, and her stories illumine the complexity, unpredictability, and uneven trajectory of social change. The book is extremely well researched, well written, and engaging for general readers as well as history buffs. Satter’s personal connection to a major protagonist makes the book compelling.

I plan to use this book in my classes. It aligns well with other readings that I often require. More importantly, it offers comparative narratives of different ways that people and groups attempt to accomplish social change, and I suspect that the comparative dimension of the book will be provocative for my students.

Black Megachurches

Apostolic Church of God, Chicago

Apostolic Church of God, Chicago

When I saw Tamelyn N. Tucker-Worgs’ The Black Mega-Church: Theology, Gender, and the Politics of Public Engagement, on the Baylor Press book table at a recent conference, I knew I needed to read it, and I’m glad I did.

Tucker-Worgs is a political scientist. The book is an analysis of the social engagement of 150 black mega-churches in the US, with particular focus on their theological orientation, engagement with community development corporations, and gendered work and leadership. I found her discussion of theological orientations and community development to be the most helpful.

The theological analysis of the book focuses on five theological orientations that black mega-churches embrace: neo-Pentecostalism, black theology, prophetic theology, non-denominationalism, and prosperity gospel. Tucker-Worgs does a fine job of explaining these orientations and discussing how they shape church life and public engagement. This chapter gives readers a great overview of the theological complexity of black churches in the US.

The section of the book that I found most helpful is the chapter on community development. I do not know as much as I should about congregations and community development, so I learned a lot in reading this well researched, interesting chapter. Tucker-Worgs grounds her discussion historically, which provides useful background, and engages the bureaucratic challenges that churches face when they create community development organizations.

As a Chicagoan and a keen observer of presidential politics, the chapter I found the most interesting was the concluding one, in which Tucker-Worgs discusses black churches and politics. She has an extended – and very interesting! – discussion of the 2008 presidential election, Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama, and the politics of race.

I’m glad to have read this book, and recommend it to anyone interested in black churches, mega-churches, or church and community engagement.

A Beautiful Book

I slowly read Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, a chapter or two at a sitting. This is a beautiful, troubling, compelling book. Although I read it in small sections, because sometimes it was so painful to read I couldn’t keep going, there was never any question whether or not I would finish it. I had to know the ending., found on google images, found on google images

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is grounded in four years of deep reporting that Boo did in Annawadi, a slum on the outskirts of the Mumbai airport. Her account of what she found and whom she met is an ethnographic narrative that allows a reader to glimpse the complexity of everyday life in a global slum. At the same time it is a compelling, dramatic story, and it drew me, as a reader, into its suspense. I found myself completely involved in the stories of Abdul, Manju, Asha, and others, and every time I put down the book, I wondered about what was going to happen to them next.

I think this is an amazing feat: to write a book in such a way that someone like me, a privileged and (relatively) wealthy citizen of the US, would be so compelled by the story of children and their parents whose lives are so markedly different from my own. Boo has put real faces on poverty, despair, resilience, and hope. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is an astonishing book. I highly recommend it.

Why Cities Matter

from google images

photo from google images

Stephen Um and Justin Buzzard, the co-authors of Why Cities Matter: To God, the Culture, and the Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013) love cities, God, Jesus, and the church. Their book is intended to encourage church folk to embrace and respond to the reality that urban populations are growing rapidly; by 2050 it is estimated that the world will be nearly 70% urban, and in more developed regions that percentage will be closer to 85% (p. 26).

Um and Buzzard are well grounded in urban theory and evangelical theology, and both disciplines shape the book. The book begins with reflections on cities and their importance, detours to a biblical discussion about cities and God and faith, and concludes with three practical chapters about ministry in urban settings.

My response to the book is mixed. I dislike, intensely, the biblical chapter. The authors pushed their arguments further than the biblical text will support. They also rely on the trope of the Bible starting in a garden and ending in a city, vesting the shape of the canon with significant theological import. I am uncomfortable with that move. I think the canon, as it stands, is a testament to what were probably some very interesting religious politics 2000 years ago or so, but I sincerely doubt that the Holy Spirit was as much behind its final construction as the authors seem to think.

The Bible has lots to teach us about how we might live in cities and how we might promote human flourishing, but Um and Buzzard have not engaged this with much depth or insight.

On the other hand, I very much appreciate the chapters on contextualization (chapters 4 and 5). I will return to them, and my students will likely benefit from what I have learned from reading them.

Would I recommend Why Cities Matter? On a practical basis, yes. On a theological and biblical basis, no.

Belonging, Culture, and Place

country roadsGiven the realities of segregation, concentrated inequality, and the challenges faced by black people in many of our cities, I have to admit that bell hooks has a point when she asserts that urban living has been bad for black people. On the other hand, I found belonging: a culture of place (Routledge 2009) to be a frustrating book to read. bell hooks is from Kentucky, and a few years ago she moved back again, and is happily at home, in place, in a location in which she feels rooted spiritually and culturally. I think this is great for her, if it makes her happy. Unfortunately, as she writes about it, she creates an oversimplified duality between country and city that I find maddening. Life is not that simple, as she well knows.

Like any book by hooks, this one has some great ideas and discussions. I was moved and educated by her reflections on representations of whiteness in black imaginations and the aesthetics of blackness. The chapter on the glories and wonderfulness of tobacco, however, left me bewildered. Maybe it’s because my mother died from lung cancer and I can’t –and won’t – celebrate tobacco in any form.

Be that as it may, if you are looking for an anti-urban book that has some really interesting conversations, then this one might be for you. It wasn’t for me, except for a few chapters.

Life Abundant

I am on the front end of a sabbatical, and luxuriating in the time to read imagesCAAMZ0SWsome great books. Here’s one that you may already have stumbled upon: Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier by Edward Glaeser, an economist at Harvard (Penguin Books, 2011). This very smart book is written for a popular audience, so it is very accessible. I also found it enjoyable. I’m adding to Christmas lists for a few of my relatives who like this sort of reading. My students may also find themselves reading it.

Glaeser takes his readers on a global tour that analyzes how cities grow, thrive, succeed, and decline. He insists that cities work because they bring people together, and that the capacity to promote human flourishing is what makes cities great.

Glaeser recognizes and describes the anti-urban slant of many governmental policies and their consequences. He’s no fan of regulation, concessions to NIMBY-ism, historic preservation, or federal laws that promote automobile use and highway building and sprawl. He is in favor of carbon taxes and open immigration policies and making huge investments in education. He also likes school vouchers. I don’t agree with him about everything, but nonetheless this book is a terrific read. If you love city life, and want to think more intentionally about how to help cities thrive, this book will give you lots to ponder.