a time for burning

a time for burning

at the refuge’s february film & discussion night this past friday we watched a time for burning, a documentary shot in 1967 depicting conversations around a white lutheran’s pastor desire to organize a social gathering with a local african-american lutheran church in omaha, nebraska.    here’s all he wanted to do:  offer a reconciliatory gesture toward his african-american fellow lutherans at the church down the street by having 10 white families have dinner with 10 african-american families to get to know each other.  the film is a very raw 58 minute look into these conversations from both sides, and i have to say, it has lingered in a pretty powerful way.  in fact, i believe it is a must-see for everyone who is passionate about change in the kingdom and has a desire to fight against the church’s tendency toward exclusivity.

here’s what’s scary:  3 years ago, i observed–literally–the same conversations when it came to talking about intentionally making our old church safe and accessible for the marginalized, hurting, and oppressed.   i stood on the tables advocating that “if we make it safe for the most desperate, we make it safe for everyone” while if we only make it safe for the neat and tidies, it will never be safe for the broken, hurting, and marginalized.  some very key leaders expressed that they were sick of hearing the words “desperate, broken & messy”  and wanted more of “the Word” and traditional small group ministry to make the average christian (as in:  look good, have a steady income & know how to tithe) feel more comfortable.    no need to get into all of that in this moment, but i will say that during the entire film i was chuckling at how almost 40 years later the conversations were nearly identical.

the theme of this movie goes far past a black-white integration issue.  you could plug in any underrepresented group of people into the same conversation, anyone marginalized, oppressed, segregated, ostracized, thought of as “less than” by those in power.    people of different color, sex, socio-economics, life experience, faith experience,  lack of faith experience, sexual orientation, you name it.   it is about people on the “in” not willing to allow people on the “out” into their lives, experience, churches.

here are some of my favorite quotes of the movie, lots of good food for thought when it comes to social justice & missional communities:

“Christ never hesitated to take a position on a moral issue no matter who opposed him.” – from ernie chambers, the african-american barber activist in 1967 (who later became a nebraska senator).

“we’re fighting ignorance in the place there should be the most enlightenment–the church” – an african american student

“we haven’t got the guts to take the first step” – an elder who sided with the white pastor

“we don’t know them as human beings. if we did, that would change everything.” – an elder who admitted that he had never had contact with an african-american in his life.

“people will leave…what if they leave?”  – an elder opposed to pastor youngdahl’s idea

“pastor, i want them to have everything i have. i want God to bless them as much as he blesses me.  but, i just can’t be in the same room with them. it bothers me.”  – a white parishoner of augustana lutheran church.

“the gospel is not about an air-conditioned building and stained-glass, it is a place where men reach for justice, love, and understanding.”  – bill youngdahl, the white pastor who lost his job over this simple request.  i have an overwhelming amount of respect for him and his heart to try to do the right thing.

lots to think about. worth seeing. makes for a great conversation.

ps: just today an interesting tidbit about how discrimination is alive and well in the year 2008, especially in our side of the US toward hispanics.  my husband’s parents immigrated here from el salvador when jose was 4.   my father-in-law called our cell phone company a few weeks ago to point out a mistake in billing.  he speaks english but prefers to use the spanish-speaking line.  they wouldn’t budge on reversing the charges even though it was the company’s mistake.  my husband called, spoke in english, it was a piece of cake to change and he was treated with respect.  then, ironically, they didn’t fix it so my father-in-law called back.  he encountered the same thing–they said he was completely responsible for their $200 mistake.  my husband called again and in a matter of minutes the problem was resolved.   it makes me so mad.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • The video sounds really good, Kathy. Thanks for the recommendation.

    I also married a Hispanic man, both of his parents are from Mexico. When we were first dating and married and I was introducing him to co-workers, people always…I mean always… asked me if he was Asian. (He’s an engineer in the tech industry). Even though he looks very Hispanc, people’s natural inclination was to believe he was a different ethnicity because of his position and “status” in life.

    On another note, I had jury duty a few weeks ago. The defendant was Hispanic. I was appalled by the assumptions people had about the character of the person just because he couldn’t speak English.

    It seems that we naturally compartmentalize and justify ourselves in doing so because we don’t force ourselves out of those comfort zones. What an amazing thing that pastor did to force that issue in an environment that obviously wasn’t open. It was the right thing to do. It’s a good reminder for all of us.

  • yeah… it’s messed up. I would say my church is actively racist against Hispanic people, and the sad part is that they think its OK. My wife and I have worked to fix this in our church but it’s a really deeply held problem for a lot of people. They understand racism is bad, and they accept the African-American people living in our community, but they feel justified in the exclusion of Hispanic people; they see it as different. It breaks my hearts when they talk about “Mexicans” like their lepers or something.

    I’m definitely going to check out a time for burning. I wonder if it’s in our church library… haha…

    another great movie that hits on some of the same issues (in the context of a pizza place instead of the church) is an old spike lee film called “Do the Right Thing” it’s a classic!

    p.s. thanks for the last post! I’m truly honored!

  • hey kathy,
    a timely post for me. i grew up in the south, louisiana, and heard and saw racism up close. i remember race riots when integration was enforced. i knew families that would threaten their children that they would leave them on the n**ger side of town. Racism, in all of it’s forms, is very ugly.

    So last week I jumped on the chance to hear preacher and activist, John Perkins, at a small leaders meeting here in Portland. He is quickly becoming a new hero of mine. His commitment to reconciliation and community justice is inspiring and provocative. If you’re not familiar with him, google his name. (Just add Mississippi to it since there’s so many JP’s in ‘America.)

    There is, I am discovering, a wound of racism in my heart. I intend to write about this soon, not sure when, but soon.

    I’ll keep my eye out for the film. Powerful stuff. We need more Bill Youngdahl’s in the world (funny how his name is so close to my friend, Bill Dahl of Purpose Diving Life!!!)

  • Kathy, so glad to know about this movie…it just got put to the top of my netflix queue. 🙂

    I have no doubt that I will cry my way through it. I have such a heart for African-American people in this country. I won’t go into details here, but this is an issue that has been burning in my heart for years. The irony of it is that I live in the “whitest” state: Vermont. Thankfully it’s slowly changing as our doors are being flung wide open right now to welcome refugees from every country imaginable.

    Anyway, just wanted to say thanks for letting us know about this great resource. Your comments about it pertaining to the exclusivity seen and felt in many churches really strikes a chord within me. Thanks.

  • amy – then you totally know the feeling. i so agree that it is about moving out of our comfort zones. it so much easier to stay safe & comfortable. i am pretty sure the gospel wasn’t too safe & comfortable!

    j.ted – i saw do the right thing a long time ago before i would have made any connections about it. i am going to put it on my queue. thanks for the rec.
    ps: lots of people have loved springtime for a church so thanks for sharing.

    pam – i haven’t heard about john perkins, will check it out. thanks! i wish i would have been at convergence, btw.

    tracy – i look forward to hearing your thoughts on it, lmk.

  • Kathy,
    I watched this film last night and have briefly posted about it on my blog (http://tinyurl.com/2vyxod).

    I just wanted to thank you for telling us about this film. It was really powerful, and as I suspected I would, I cried my way through it. My husband and I were both on staff at a local church as “full-time pastors” for a number of years and were part of so many pastor/elder board meetings where discussions just like these took place (different topics, same outcome!). Watching this movie brought those meetings back to me, along with remembering how helpless we often felt in trying to “get through” to people who at that time did not have ears to hear. I understood the pastor’s resignation all too well (we resigned many years ago, but for different reasons best saved for another post on another day!).

    Anyway, don’t want to babble on too long, but just wanted to tell you how deeply this little flick impacted me. I’ve been making my way through all your posts, slowly but surely. So glad I “found” you!

  • Got a link from someone else about you mentioning the movie, and then I’ve been reading about the awesome conference you’ve been speaking at so that means I’m supposed to add you to my reader!

    The film is really good. My wife and I watched it two years ago, and we noticed a lot of parallels to today.


  • Kathy- thank you for sharing this film. I hope it becomes must-see viewing for churches all over the USA. You are right on about how the Gospel is not tidy and neat and made to keep us in our own lil comfort zones. I so love the way you write and how much a messy free spirit you are so much like mike yaconelli one of my heroes!!

  • elle – i am so glad you and your husband took the time to venture into a time to burning. yeah, it was something else, wasn’t it? flashbacks for you, too, eh? so much to talk about, our post-viewing conversation could have lasted far longer than we were able to stay. look forward to continue to connect out here in blog land, vermont-to-colorado….

    nathan, thanks for stopping by. new conspirators was great, by the way. who did you know who went?

    robert, i love mike yaconelli. i think about the way he describes his church all the time, it’s so refuge!
    thanks for stopping by!

    tia – nice to hear from you again. let me know your thoughts after you see it.


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