Living Word offers Grace and Truth, and Mercy, and community

by Melanie Jongsma

LANSING, Ill. (February 7, 2020) – More than 100 members and friends of Living Word Church filled Theater #3 at Lansing Cinema 8 on Tuesday, January 28, for the 7:00pm showing of Just Mercy. The 2019 movie stars Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx in the true story of Bryan Stevenson and Walter McMillian and their appeal of McMillian’s murder conviction. The film is based on Stevenson’s 2015 memoir of the same name.

Living Word rented the theater so their multi-cultural church family could view the movie together. “We believe the themes of justice and mercy are central to our faith,” explained the event description on the church’s Facebook page, “and want the Living Word Church community to share the experience of this redemptive story.”

The event was the idea of the church’s Grace and Truth ministry, which is a discussion group that offers “a safe place to talk, pray, and seek a biblical response to issues of racism and injustice.” This year the group has 18 members representing a variety of ethnicities, cultures, and accents.

Michelle Smith and Jeni Fischer are co-leaders of Grace and Truth, and their first thought was for Just Mercy to be one of their group activities. When another group member suggested opening it up to the whole church, they made arrangements to rent the theater.

They started by booking Cinema 8’s 50-seat theater, but interest soon outgrew that. So on the Tuesday night of the event, church members and friends paid $5.00 for a ticket and $6.00 for a popcorn/soft drink deal and filed into a 140-seat venue.

Smith and Fischer knew there wouldn’t be much time for discussion following the 2-hour-17-minute film, but they asked a few Grace and Truth members to be prepared to give a two-minute testimony about what impacted them. As the credits rolled and the lights began coming up, Living Word’s Pastor Dave Prince started the discussion by asking audience members to call out some one-word reactions to what they had seen. After a variety of words were shared, Prince explained, “When you see something like this and you take it in, it’s normal to have a lot of reactions…. And I think it’s important just to process through it, because all of us see it from different places and different experiences. It’s very healthy to try to put a word on it or to be able to talk about it.”

Prince then invited the selected Grace and Truth members to each come up and share their thoughts:

Twelve-year-old Armaan Sen was impressed with the movie and amazed that the injustices depicted were so recent. “This was only 30 years ago,” he said. “That’s not even that long ago. And it’s still going on today—in schools, workplaces. We need to step up and speak for those who are being bullied just because of their skin color.” (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)
“I’m super glad that I’m a part of a church that celebrates diversity and that we have a group like Grace and Truth,” began Sabrina Flemming. “I’m super happy that we can all just be in this space together.” But then tears welled up as she thought about the unfairness of having to warn her children, “‘You’re gonna have to be extra careful, because of the color of your skin.’ It’s just not fair. Justice exists, but not as much as it should.” Recomposing herself, she finished with, “I want to be like Brian Stevenson and change the world, but I can’t do it alone. So I just encourage you guys to not be afraid to act when you see something happening.” (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)
“I’m emotional, I’m upset, I’m enraged, I feel compassion—all those things,” said Luke Hescott, still processing the movie. “I feel like as believers we have to have an identity, and justice has to be a huge part of that.” (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)
Pamela Pals shared a story about a robbery she and her husband experienced a few years ago. “The policeman came to the door and said, ‘Would you please, please, please not press charges. This is a good boy from a really rough area—he’s never been in trouble before, but if you press charges he’s going to go down a road that will lead to nothing good. By not pressing charges, you’ll give a young boy a chance in life.’ Well, you can want justice—’I want my stuff, and that kid shouldn’t have done that!’—but privilege is something we have to understand. I’ve grown up with privilege. Sometimes we have to realize what privilege we have in life. There’s a time to understand what privilege really is, and a time to show grace, and a time to stand alongside a young boy who doesn’t have a dad or a young girl whose mom works all day.” (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)
“As old as I am, I can still learn,” said Craig Paul before closing the evening in a prayer that included this request: “Father God, we do ask that you would fill us with the fruit of your Spirit—love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness…. May your peace flow out of us.” (Photo: Melanie Jongsma)

As co-leaders of Grace and Truth, Smith and Fischer were encouraged by the movie night. It was encouraging to fill a movie theater, and it was encouraging for their group members to have a chance to speak, and it was encouraging to feel the support in the room as people wrestled with their own emotions while giving space to others.

“If you don’t have a space that you feel is safe,” said Fischer later, “then you just kick the can down the road and not deal with it.” She says Grace and Truth is all about giving people a place where they can experience healthy cross-cultural conversations, so they are equipped to then create those spaces for other people. “That’s how you get past [racism]—talking to people, spending time with them, proximity.”

While Smith is inspired by the life and work of Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative he founded, she hopes people will realize “you don’t have to be a lawyer from Harvard to help others, or make a difference in someone else’s life. And you don’t have to be black or brown to take the lead in speaking on issues of racism.”

Both Smith and Fischer realize that both grace and truth are necessary for building community within diversity. A commitment to truth allows people to ask honest questions, express raw feelings, and admit mistakes. And the commitment to grace reminds people to continually extend forgiveness—to themselves and others. Those truthful, grace-filled conversations are happening at Living Word Church more intentionally as the congregation’s diversity increasingly reflects that of the broader Lansing community. Rather than ignoring their demographic changes, the church is exploring, embracing, and celebrating them.

“So next time we do something like this [movie night discussion],” hopes Fischer, “we’ll get an even bigger crowd”—a crowd that includes a diversity of races, ages, beliefs, and backgrounds, a crowd from Living Word as well as greater Lansing.

Living Word Church is located at 2248 186th Street in Lansing, Illinois. Sunday services are at 10:00am.

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