Leaders Speak: A Talk with Onleilove Alston
FaithStreet sat down with Onleilove Alston, a recent graduate of Union Theological Seminary, regular contributor to Sojourner Magazine and member of Metro Hope Community Church here in New York. We discuss whether Jesus would be a Democrat or a Republican, how Black Liberation Theology inspired Onleilove to pursue ministry, how to find a church in New York City and Christian Intentional Communities.
FS: Where did you grow up and where do you live now?
OA: I was born and raised in East NY, Brooklyn and I now live in a Christian Intentional Community in Central Harlem.
FS: Can you tell us more about what a Christian Intentional Community is?
OA: A Christian Intentional Community is basically sharing an apartment or house with other Christians and the levels of commitment vary from community to community. The most famous Christian community may be the Catholic Worker or the Simple Way in Philly. In my community we kind of have a loose commitment to meeting and praying together and having Christian roommates. Some communities do service to the neighborhood that they’re in, some have a common purse where they share their income. We don’t have a common purse, so it varies from community to community.
** FS: That’s really cool. I bet that’s something that a lot of people weren’t aware existed. So, where do you go to church; what’s your home church?**
OA: I go to Metro Hope Community Church which meets in the National Black Theater in East Harlem. Pastor Jose Humphreys is the senior pastor and Myra Humphreys is the assistant pastor.
FS: Well how did you find Metro Hope Community Church? FaithStreet is trying to help connect people in New York City with churches, and I’m sure people would be interested to know how you connected with your church.
OA: Well Metro Hope is an Evangelical Covenant Church, which comes out of the Lutheran Revivalist tradition, but in many ways it functions as a non-denominational church and we also have some “emergent” elements to our worship. The way I found my church is that I had just left another church in the city and I was looking for a church that wasn’t only multicultural but also took racial reconciliation seriously and also took social justice seriously. Because many churches in the city may be mixed racially, but the leadership may not be mixed and they may not have a dedication to dealing with racial issues. They may just say “we just all want to worship together as different races.” So, one day I was walking along 125th street and I guess I was shopping or doing something and an older white gentleman named Tom handed me a postcard and a bottle of water about the church and so I was, to be honest—I was in my first year of seminary—and I was a little bit crotchety about my last church experience—to be honest is wasn’t my most graceful moment—and so when Tom handed me the card and it said “multi-cultural church” I asked “well is the leadership multicultural?” And Tom said well the Pastor is Puerto Rican from East Harlem, and I was like “oh ok.” So I visited and it happened that someone that I know from my Christian sorority was there with many students from NYAC, because Pastor Humphreys and his wife taught at NYAC.
**FS: So what was it about Metro Hope that you liked and that made you want to commit to the church? **
OL: Well I really enjoyed the artistic elements of the service. Not only is it held in a historic civil right theater, but we really take the arts seriously. We have art worship days where different artists get to come and be a part of worship. We also have open mic nights through the church, and I also enjoy that theology is taken seriously, that dedication to following Christ is taken seriously, but in our church we also have many “seekers.” Seekers are people who may not be Christian, but who are investigating. And so you can have a seminarian sitting next to a Buddhist person who is a seeker, but still Jesus Christ is lifted up in a way that doesn’t make people feel like they’re outside of the Christian Community.
**FS: That’s a great story. I also know that you are a contributing writer for Jim Wallis’ website “God’s Politics” which is part of the Sojourner’s network. God’s Politics comes from a very critical and thoughtful perspective, but—as you’ll probably agree—most of the contributors bring a “liberal” perspective to their writing. So I have a hypothetical for you: If Jesus Christ was alive here on earth today, where do you think he would fit into the political spectrum. Republican, Democrat, neither? What do you think? **
OL: I also write for Sojourner’s magazine and I think Soujourner’s has a wide array of contributors, but I think many consider themselves to be “progressive evangelicals” and so many come from conservative backgrounds. I am a registered Democrat, but I don’t think that Christ would be a part of any political party. I do think that he would have an opinion on policies that would affect the poor. Even though I’m a part of a political party, I don’t think that any Christian should have their primary allegiance be to a political party, but instead Christians should be discerning through educating themselves on politics, through prayer, through reading the bible, etc. But Christ is not tied to any political party, and I think that politics can become idolatry when you start tacking god onto your political beliefs, and I hope to stay away from that.
**FS: You also work for the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, which does great work in communities in New York. Can you talk about what encourages you about this city and about your work and your ministry, about what keeps you going everyday in a field which I’m sure has its ups and downs from day-to-day? **
OL: One of the main scriptures that I hold onto is Isaiah 61, especially verses 1-4. The year prior to coming to seminary I discovered that scripture and I would read it every day, I would attach it to my emails, and obviously most people know that Christ quoted it as good news to the poor, but when you read verses 3 &4 it also says that the poor will rebuild the cities and restore the devastation after hearing the good news, and of course it’s talking about literally what the Hebrew people were going through, but I think that any oppressed group of people can take it as inspiration. And so when I get discouraged I try to go back to that scripture and remember that the Gospel is good news, but that we don’t have to depend on ourselves because we can depend on God to implement the good news. If we take on the burden of being the good news, which we’re not supposed to be, then that’s when we get drained, and many ministers and social workers are drained. Also having a community keeps me going. I can ask my roommates for prayer any time. Having pastors who were social workers is a great resource, but also I have friends across the country and we send each other prayer requests and I try not to only focus on the bad, but I try to celebrate the way God is moving in the city.
FS: If someone is moving to the city, maybe it’s their first week here and they are looking to get involved in a Christian community, what would you tell them? How should they go about trying to find a Christian community?
OL: First, I think it is really important to know what you believe and to make sure that it lines up with God’s word. Even for myself I’ve found that not every church that I’ve been involved with has maybe had the beliefs that most lined up with the bible, and especially in New York we have a smorgasbord of churches and religion and if you go to a church not knowing what to believe it’s possible to end up in an unhealthy faith environment. So I think that the internet is a great tool to use, but always look for the church’s “statement of faith” and see if that statement of faith aligns with what you believe. I won’t say what you should believe, because that is between you and God, but I think that checking the statement of faith and asking respectful questions of the church leadership are two really important things to do. As far as resources, New York Faith & Justice, which is an organization dedicated to following Christ, uniting the church, and ending poverty, holds events with all types of church leaders and Christians in New York City. Those events are great places to meet people and network. New York City Community of Communities is another gathering of Christian Intentional Communities all over the city—even Long Island—and they meet quarterly and they have a facebook page and that’s a great way to ask people what church they belong to. You don’t have to be a part of a Christian Intentional Community or want to be a part of one to ask questions or go to one of the events. You can just say “I’m looking for a church.” Also, the Love Express is a free Christian Newspaper—I call it the Christian Village Voice—it’s given out at various churches but it is a good resource for information about churches. Not to endorse certain churches, but sometimes going to a really big church is a great way to start, because they are often affiliated with other smaller churches in the city and they can refer you. Some of the most well know ones are Redeemer, Times Square Church, and of course my church Metro Hope.