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Messy Ministry in Real Life

By May 16, 2003 No Comments

You all need to know that on Monday evening, 15 April 2002, the President of your Seminary was arrested by the New Brunswick City Police on the charge that I did “purposely obstruct, impair, or prevent the administration of law or a governmental function, by means of physical interference or obstacle.”  I am required to appear in Municipal Court to answer this charge.  It is my intention to plead not guilty.

The story of the event is as colorful as anything you can imagine.  I had been working in my office and at about 9:40 p.m. started for home.  Outside, I met my wife, Mary, who was just coming into the building to use the fax machine, so I accompanied her on her errand.  Now, you need to know that I was wearing two of the most awful pieces of clothing that I own–a pair of tired green sport shorts that are old and too big even for me, and a ratty old green tee shirt.  As we were leaving Zwemer Hall, one of our students gave me a light-hearted ribbing about my shorts.  Since he was wearing shorts as well, I returned the compliment.  In so doing, it occurred to me that he was out of class already, and that caused me to look at the clock.  It was 9:55 p.m. at that moment. 

As Mary and I walked home, we could see flashing lights from two police squad cars which were pulled up near the entrance to the Library.  I went to see what was going on, and if there was anything I needed to do about it.  The police had four (or five) young black males “spread eagled” against a police car.  One policeman was holding a flashlight and appeared to have no gun.  I thought I would ask him what was going on and if there was any imminent danger to the students who would shortly be flooding the parking lot as they came out of class.  I identified myself as the president of the Seminary and asked what was going on.  He told me to get back out of their way.  I tried again to explain my presence and my concern.  He said, “We don’t have to tell you anything; we don’t have to tell anyone anything.”  He insisted that it was none of my business and to get “out of his way.”   

I was not in his way.  I explained again who I was and asked again what was happening on a campus for which I had responsibility.  Again, he said it was none of my business and that the police had no reason to pay any attention to me.  When I attempted to explain my concerns again, and to reiterate my need to know, he said he would have to arrest me for obstruction.  He then very efficiently put handcuffs on me and made me sit on the curb until the police put me and the young men in squad cars and transported us to the police station.   

I wish I had been arrested for participating in some high moral cause. There was none.  I was bearing no one’s burden, witnessing in no direct way to the Lordship of Jesus, making no theological, ecclesiastical, justice, or peace proclamation.  But this event did give me an occasion to experience, first-hand, the operation of the police department in the city that I call home.

There are questionable aspects regarding the validity of my arrest that evening.  A few people have suggested that there is sufficient cause to sue the city and its police department.  But right now we need the good will of the political structures of both the City and the County if we are to obtain the permissions and the funding necessary for the construction of our new apartment complex.  So, barring any revelations of gross mistreatment of the young men arrested with me, it is my plan to appear in court only as a respectful citizen, committed to keeping the command to “repay no one evil for evil.”

This strange incident invites analysis at a number of levels; political, socio-economic, and racial analyses included.  But I am interested, as well, in a theological analysis.  My arrest strikes me as a particularly vivid example of the messiness of real life in which we are called to be faithful servants of Jesus Christ.  As a theological educator, I think especially of the challenges of training men and women for ministry in the messiness of human structures and institutions.  Writer Aidan Kavanaugh once said that seminary students tend to “avoid entanglement in the compromises real politics always entail by becoming one-issue activists. . .”  They also, he said, “come to ministry through the process of internal self-discovery which remains sovereignly ‘pure’ of ecclesiastical entanglements” (On Liturgical Theology, 21).  But both society and church are messy, not pure, not simple.

There is much talk these days in some circles in the Reformed Church about declining numbers.  I would like to hear more about congregations who are able to live their identity in the midst of messy ambiguity.  Some congregations I know display a remarkable ability, using Aidan Kavanaugh’s words again, “to narrate a story and articulate a worldview, to profess a sense of World and Church in ways that make each accessible and compelling. . .”  These congregations are filled with people who will come to visit me in jail without embarrassment.

May all of our work always be done upon the dirty earth of real life.   May we always grasp our work with the genuine expectation that today and tomorrow are going to be more exciting and more delightful than yesterday. May we always call and educate persons, not for a life of one-issue activism devoid of compromise, but for ministry among ambiguities and messiness–ministry that proclaims God’s grace and healing before it speaks of God’s justice or God’s power.

Postscript:  At the conclusion of Mr. Kansfield’s second appearance in the New Brunswick Municipal Court, the case was dismissed when the City Prosecutor affirmed that the arrest had been the result of “a gentlemen’s misunderstanding.” 

Norm Kansfield is president of New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Brunswick, New Jersey.