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21 He said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? 22 For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.
I went looking for the light. Sabbatical was a search for what God was doing in God’s church that revealed the future of God’s church. It wasn’t as much about church growth but where God was growing and expanding the definition of what it meant to be the church. Where was God manifesting Godself in places and spaces that the traditional church growth scholars weren’t looking? Where was the lamp, where was the light?
The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries (TFAM) was birthed under Bishop Yvette Flunder in 2000 and Real Inspirations Ministries (RIM) Church of Atlanta, founded in 2008. This is where I looked. Rev. Sonya Williams pastors real Inspiration Ministries. I previously had a relationship with Rev. Williams as we worked together on LGBTQ issues since my time in Atlanta. The first documentary I produced, She is the Pastor, featured Rev. Williams and four other women pastors in Atlanta.
There was light coming from TFAM and RIM that I couldn’t ignore. I was drawn to spend my year with RIM and TFAM. The project was not a traditional book project but rather a trans-media project. The work was about light and the use of light was key to the work. Photography literally means writing with light. Photography, through portraits, a feature-length documentary, and a bible study were the three components of the body of work.
The goal of the work was to use light, to shine a light, on the hidden things God is doing outside Mainline churches. God is doing something in radically inclusive churches like RIM. Three of the twelve traits of racially inclusive churches, as defined by Bishop Flunder, are:
As I sat nearby this year with my cameras, I saw the harm that had been done by mainline churches to my LGBTQ siblings. The thirteen interviews for the documentary became sessions of intense vulnerability and transparency. The portrait sessions saw looks of being alone in the church because you couldn’t bring your whole self to church. The portraits bring the eyes of those God called me to, to life; along with the ministry they’re doing on the margins. Ministry on the margins is not a place of exile. It is a place of unconditional love. My LGBTQ siblings found love on the margins. They found church. They found God and reintroduced me to the God I thought I knew.
I went in as a documentarian and came out a convert. I was converted to the reality that God is shining in TFAM. God is doing incredible work in TFAM congregations. I saw God like I never saw God before. RIM and TFAM welcomed me, loved me and gave me free rein with my cameras, shooting on Sundays, church meetings, conferences, doing interviews and capturing moments behind the scenes. They trusted that I would see God at work and be faithful in showing others what I saw.
I heard stories that I thought I knew. I sat and listened for hours. It was truly the first time I sat and just listened to my LGBTQ siblings tell their stories, which I needed to hear. Stories I have been entrusted to share. I was touched in every interview as I sat behind my cameras crying. My siblings told of their pain, their healing, restoration and liberation. I heard stories of freedom. I saw where Jesus and justice lived, moved and acted.
To be at the TFAM Annual Leadership Convention in Arizona was to see leaders of the largest church planting movement in the African American Church in recent history. I am a church growth specialist but I wasn’t there to teach. I was there to learn. I became the student and not the teacher. I learned how God used those on the margins to redefine the center.
Looking through the viewfinder of my camera made me focus. I saw what I could not see before and with this work, I pray that others will notice too. I pray they will see the light I saw as I used light to shed light. I share stories to tell the story of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This sabbatical gave me new eyes to see, a heart to love and hope for the future of God’s church. The future of the church is on the margins. It is on the margins that God does new things. I invite you to the margins.
The photo exhibition is open through December 15th in the Harrington Center Lobby outside the chapel. For additional information on the Future of the Black church click here: www.futureofblackchurch.org
By: Ralph Basui Watkins, MFA, DMin, PhD
Peachtree Professor of Evangelism and Church Growth