An Interview with Julian DeShazier
Conducted by Joshua Mckie
Julian DeShazier is Senior Pastor of University Church. He is a Chicago native, and a gradu- ate of Morehouse College and the University of Chicago Divinity School. Pastor Julian is also an award-winning hip hop musician and songwriter, known to many as “J.Kwest.” He has also been featured on FOX, CBS, and NPR. Julian is a regular contributor to Sojourners, On Scrip- ture, and Huffington Post publications. He and his wife, Mallorie, have two fierce daughters, Dania and Genevieve.
Were you always in church?
Well not always–well I started off in church in the way that a kid that has no agency is forced to go to church. But then the moment I got
a chance to make my own decision I got into the nation of Islam–so black Muslims– for
a second, and then back to the church. But when I came back to the church around 16 or 17 it was for real this time. And that’s been the journey ever since. I’m still trying to figure out what this whole thing means for me.
With traditional communities everyone has a politics and obviously yours is more ex- pansive. You then probably have a diversity of opinions within your own spaces. How do you deal with different visions of what the world should be. Politics, pluralism, political correctness, however you want to phrase that–how do you do it?
Well yeah I think you’re talking about plural- ism. The fact that different worldviews can in fact co-exist and do not need to be dealt with or negotiated, but can find space to live and breathe together. They need to live together and that’s my job, not to figure out which is closer to mine or bring different views over to my side. The idea that some people at our church see the Trinity as this hierarchical structured thing and there are some people who see Jesus as some cool guy from Nazareth. They both have something to say to each other and if they can find the courage and humility to listen to one another then I think it will pique not only their intellects but their spirits to be able to grow in that/And whatever “salvation” exists for either of them they will find.
But what about the views fundamentally opposed to one another or those you would detest or even those that detest other people. How do you deal with that?
I do think it’s my job as a spiritual leader to still create a safe space and for people to voice difference but to still feel safe. So for example our church is open and affirming and so gay leadership, folks being ordained, weddings, all of that. There are some people–and here’s the pluralism piece– who have said “I don’t agree with open and affirming but I like this place” so they stay–and that’s fine. And then there have been some people who are not been open and affirming and have said “ and they’re going to hell.” And I remember this family where the father said, “I can’t have my son growing up around no ‘y’know what’s.” And I said “Well based on that this probably isn’t your church. Because this is a place where we are going to affirm peoples’ humanity and it sounds like you’re struggling to do that. Now I’d love for you to be here but I need this to be a space where people who have this part of their sexuality as part of their identity can feel safe. And what you just said sounded very not safe and violent.” And so for me a pluralistic space is one in which different and sometimes competing views can exist but don’t have to be in violence and conflict with each other but exist simply within tension. That’s the kind of environment I’m trying to create and you’re absolutely right where and there are sometimes with “liberals/progressives” can become very hostile to those who are pro-life. There’s a hostility on either side that is not right. that we don’t need, that is not of God, that is not of Jesus, that we’re not gonna play out in our lives.
What’s the role of Christianity/The Church in public society today and what should it be?
It should be a moral voice. One of many moral voices, but a moral voice. As we’re having conversations around politics and economics and how we’re going to shape our world and these big decisions, can we count on those politicians, those economists, those academics to be raising moral questions as a part of their formation of these theories and values? Hopefully, and with the best ones we do, hear those questions. I think these folks that we consider “superior politicians”, the folks that are significant within the public memory, are those who do the moral work as well. But for most of them we know that doesn’t happen and so we do need an institution that we can count on to be doing some of the moral work and to be keeping the moral conversation and dialogue alive. If we’re having a conversation about immigrants there are a lot of different ways to talk about the economics of immigration within the country and the politics of foreign and domestic policy and keeping the country safe. But then there’s this conversation about humans and being able to have home and some sense of home. And how important that is to the formation of identities for people to become whole human beings by having some sense of home and if they can’t have that where home was because of gangs, war, or the wind blows the house down–whatever reason while this country can provide a sense of home to people pretty easily. I think it becomes up to the church to raise those questions in a different type of way. In terms of the public church, whenever we’ve seen the public church become its most impactful-during the day of Martin Luther King,Oscar Romero, and others-you’re seeing folks that are raising these questions that have very little to do with a Theology,Christology, or questions like that. Ones that say “well whatever you believe about Jesus we know that Jesus loved the poor” and that becomes a moral question “more” than a theological question. They raise moral questions for the nation to consider regardless of faith.
How do you deal with responses within the tradition that side against the poor or against the reading of scripture that is “inclusive and loving”?
Well they would see their reading as loving and inclusive. It’s just where the boundaries of the walls are. Ours are just a little bit wider while theirs is tighter. Everyone doing this work thinks they are doing the righteous work. So when you run into folks that have really defined it differently from how I or how our church and tradition define it it’s about naming that first of all.There are some ways in which you can work together and build community. I’ve worked with churches that could not be more different from us on things like open and affirming but when it came to sanctuary and immigration we came and said “Let’s work together–let’s figure this out.” And so you draw this line where we say we understand we’re never going to do work around sexuality over here–even though for me I say why not as long as we’re not being violent I think we need to understand our differences. I think for generations I think we’ve been dealing with difference by saying that it doesn’t exist. We’re all the same and so we should love each other. That’s B.S. We’re not the same and we need to know each other’s’ difference and embrace each others’ difference and not feel the need to defend our- selves or feel the need to beat up or be violent against someone’s difference from us. We haven’t been having that conversation enough but we’ve been having that conversation on a week to week basis at University Church and there are plenty of places that are beginning to talk about how our differences can bring us together rather than this blanket sameness. The sameness that isn’t true and also is spiritually ineffective, politically ineffective and just ineffective. To say, “ Well we’re all one people.” No we’re not. We can be if we can unite around common ideas and goals but right now we’re not one. We’re a one cut up in as many pieces as you can possibly cut it up into.
Is the end goal to become one?
I think that’s a part of it. I think if we take Jesus seriously when he says to his disciples saying we need to find a way to do this work together. That to me is oneness. Oneness is not sameness. They become one while keep- ing their distinctiveness. What oneness should not do is to collapse into a singularity like in those black and white movies about the future where everybody wears a silver suit and white boots and a white helmet. It’s a fallacy to think that the way we overcome difference is either to not acknowledge it or to begin to eliminate it. I don’t think either of those is the case and the singularity doesn’t really bring out the distinctiveness and the beauty of our distinctiveness.
In getting to a world in which people en- gage with questions like this what behaviour should they model? What should their val- ues be going into conversation and any tips for acheiving this world?
It begins with humility– about your own self and your own Truth– and what you know to be true and real about the world and to be able to risk that in conversation to hear somebody else’s truth in a way that might end up changing your own. So there’s a humility which implies a kind of vulnerability that you have to comfortable with. That, “I might be changed by this conversation” that “I’m making myself vulnerable to that.” So humility/risk/vulnerability and then curiosity. Curiosity is saying, “Tell me why you don’t think Jesus is The Saviour. I’ve heard you say that before and when you said that it connected with nothing inside of me. It was odd to me. Can you tell me more about that?” Just a basic curiosity-a non-defensive curiosity in our of being with people and engaging people will grow us. I think we need that curiosity to share stories and experiences that help us to under- stand each other a little bit more.