Change doesn’t always come from here.
Slain New York City police officer Rafael Ramos had one of those dangerous jobs that made showing up every day a quiet act of heroism. But as the testimonies that came spilling out after his December 2014 shooting death make clear, he was a hero for another reason, too: Ramos was a man of faith with the rare courage to live out his convictions for the world to see.
In an increasingly secular age, people are encouraged to worship in their own way, as long as they do it in private. Talk of faith in the public square raises suspicion and sometimes hostility, but this apprehension overlooks the many important contributions of faith to public life and culture.
Where would the world be if the faithful kept their faith inside the sanctuary walls? Without a belief that God created all people equal, William Wilberforce would never have campaigned for decades to end the British slave trade. Without a firm conviction that God is just and abhors violence, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would not have had the courage to lead the non-violent movement for African-American civil rights. Without faith in the love and mercy of God, Mother Teresa of Calcutta would not have shown the world the preciousness of the poor and dying. In other words, we would have done without some of the most prophetic moral voices of history.[READ: Breaking the Silence]
These public manifestations of justice, courage, perseverance, and kindness – often controversial in their place and time – cannot and should not be separated from the private faith that spawned them. Rather, they exemplify why more people, not fewer, need to live out their faith publicly in service to their culture and community.
The call for Christians to “get out of the pew” is hardly new. In the first decades after Christ, St. Paul wrote to Philemon, the leader of a church that met in his home, to encourage him to accept a former slave and ex-prisoner back into his household on grounds of spiritual equality and brotherhood. If followed, Paul’s advice would breach social conventions and raise eyebrows. It was this trend toward radical egalitarianism, rather than hypocrisy or judgementalism, that made early Christianity so threatening – and so appealing – to the broader culture around it. And it has continued through the centuries. Churches have long been built alongside public hospitals, orphanages and centers of learning created for the benefit of the entire community, but especially for the poor and marginalized.
Christian communities that venture outside their church doors all week long best exemplify the teaching of Jesus. He didn’t instruct his followers to merely perform a weekly exercise in piety, but rather to continue doing what they saw him model: Heal the sick, feed the hungry, set captives free, love the lost, and, in short, help restore each person and all of creation to its God-ordained state of flourishing.[READ: Open Season on Cops]
Ramos was a wonderful example of the positive impacts of faith quietly and consistently lived out in the community. At the time of his murder, in fact, Ramos was “just hours away from becoming a lay chaplain and graduating from a community-crisis chaplaincy program.”
According to the Rev. Marcos Miranda, president of the New York State Chaplain Task Force, Ramos said “even with the NYPD, he felt he was doing God’s work. … He felt he was protecting and serving the community and that was sort of a ministry for him.”[READ: About a Boy]
Ramos’s faith community, Christ Tabernacle Church in Queens, reinforced this vision. This church has a close relationship with Prison Fellowship, the organization I lead. Prison Fellowship has trained members and staff of Christ Tabernacle to serve inside the Riker’s Island prison, so that those incarcerated there have a better chance of coming home as restored members of the community.
With the level of heartache, injustice and brokenness we see around us, now is not the time for people of faith to hide under the pews. More than ever, we need to be on the streets, in classrooms, in hospitals, prisons, and legislatures, working for the transformation and restoration of our communities, whatever our vocation. It’s what Ramos did with his dying breath, and it’s a calling we can all respond to.