Christians Playing it Too Safe? Chicago Megachurch Pastor Says Leaders Paralyzed by Fear, Unwilling to Stick Necks Out for Marginalized

Wilfredo De Jesus, pastor of a Chicago megachurch that oversees more than 130 ministries to the poor and disenfranchised, believes Christians in the U.S. have been playing it safe for far too long. He says many are unwilling to stick their necks out for the marginalized who are suffering in the cracks created by society's broken systems and abusive structures.

De Jesus, pastor New Live Covenant Church, the largest Assemblies of God congregation in the U.S., says it is fear of being ridiculed or ostracized that has paralyzed some leaders and kept them confined to their churches, limiting their engagement with a world in desperate need for people willing to help bridge those gaps.

"A gap is a place of weakness, vulnerability, and danger — a place of real threats," explains De Jesus in his new book, In the Gap. He explains in the book that while gaps can be as broad as illiteracy and human trafficking, they can be as personal as an unfaithful spouse or an abusive family member.

De Jesus, senior pastor to more than 18,000 NLCC members worldwide, believes that, just like God called on Nehemiah, Esther, Noah and others in ancient times to stand before Him in the gap as intercessors, "God is still looking for men and women to stand in the gap in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our cities and towns, in our nation, and in every corner of the world."

De Jesus was named in 2013 as one of Time magazine's "100 Most Influential People in the World" and is former vice president for Social Justice for the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, which represents more than 40,118 Evangelical congregations.

In a phone interview with The Christian Post, De Jesus (often referred to as Pastor Choco) discussed his reasons for writing In the Gap, what he believes are some of the defining issues of the present time, why he is a firm supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, and why he thinks the Republican Party has "lost its way." The interview has been edited for clarity.

2 photos(Photo: New Life Covenant Church)Wilfredo "Choco" de Jesus, pastor of New Life Covenant Church in Chicago, Illinois.

CP: What is it that you wanted to accomplish with writing In the Gap? 

De Jesus: The whole premise of the book was that gaps have always existed in our society, but today they're wider and with more destructive force. I'm hoping to get out of the book, that people will engage in those gaps from different levels in our society. Education, government, poverty, social justice. It is not only a Christian book. It's a book that will provoke people to find a gap wherever they're at, in their villages or in their community, and then do something about. That's the idea of the book, to engage it. Then, also to reveal the broken system we have in our society. It's only going to get wider and more destructive if the Body of Christ, first of all, and then humanity if they don't get involved in certain issues we're facing as a nation.

CP: There are a lot of "gap" situations we can point to right now all over the world. Overseas, there are conflicts in the Ukraine. In various countries in the Middle East, there are cases of Christian persecution. What would you say is perhaps the most significant or defining "gap" issue of our current times?

De Jesus: Here in the United States, or around the world?

CP: Whatever comes to your mind naturally.

De Jesus: What comes to mind is the situation that we're facing in our society is that 80 percent of humanity lives on $10 a day. When you think about one billion children don't read or write on this planet, that is just a troublesome stat. When you look every 40 seconds, someone around the world is committing suicide. These are some of the gaps that have been presented that have to be engaged. When you look at the United States, if we bring it home, the average homeless person in America is not 32 years old, it's 9 years old. That's the average homeless person in the U.S., and that's just unacceptable, to have eight-year-olds and nine-year-olds and 10-year-olds sleeping in the streets of our cities.

CP: Do you think Christians are involved enough to help with the issues you just mentioned, like homelessness and poverty?

De Jesus: I think we believers and Christians for the last 40 years probably have played it safe. We have seen these things, we've heard about them and probably have not moved to engage it because of the risk factor. So that is, when you talk about the Body of Christ not responding to the needs, I think that's…at the core of it is fear, fear of the unknown, fear of being ridiculed, fear of being ostracized.

Just imagine, every gap person in society, every gap person starting from Jesus Christ, always was ostracized or killed because [they] became a gap person. There's a risk factor when you decide to stand for what you believe. You talk about John the Baptist, who got killed. You think about Dr. King, Martin Luther King, Jr. got killed. You think about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German scholar who got killed in 1945 trying the help the Jews, he was hung. So anytime you decide to take a stand in a gap for those that are most vulnerable, you'll always be open to ridicule and even threats.

CP: In your book, you give nine examples of Biblical figures who stood in the gap in times of need. If you could take on of those figures and transport them to our current time, which one would you choose and why?

De Jesus: I would have to choose Nehemia. The reason why [is] because Nehemiah neither was a king, was not a priest, wasn't a prophet. Nehemiah was a layperson, and this is the season of lay people in our society. Nehemiah heard about the walls of Jerusalem. He was 766 miles away living in Susa, [with] a great job, a great retirement plan. And yet what he heard disturbed him to the point that he cried. When a moral condition has been revealed to you, you have to act because with revelation comes responsibility. We have to act and so Nehemiah would be the person I would highlight [because] of just his tenacity and his strength to sacrifice, travel all those miles, ask for help from the king to restore the walls.

In the story of Nehemiah, the walls were destroyed. The temple was built by Zerubbabel. The walls were destroyed, that means that the temple is exposed, the people are vulnerable … The word of God is exposed and vulnerable, we have to protect it as Christians, we have to stand. Nehemiah, he engages the people in that town to stand up. … He motivated the people to get involved. The other gap person I think without even saying, would have to be David. David, when he came before Goliath, he filled a gap that was needed.

CP: You're saying Christians in the U.S. are kind of complacent or fearful of stepping out, so what do you think would have to happen for U.S. Evangelical Christians to take the kind of initiatives you're encouraging?

De Jesus: I think every pastor, every leader has to see what we're seeing firsthand, because once you see it you're moved to do something. Like the 63,000 children at our borders. Like the homeless issue. If we just do it in the four walls of our churches, we're not gonna see the broken systems, broken structures. So what would need to happen, our pastors and leaders of our churches across this country, need to go outside and engage. Then, only then would we be able to fill those gaps.

(Photo: Reuters/Jose de Jesus Cortes)Unaccompanied minors ride atop the wagon of a freight train, known as La Bestia (The Beast) in Ixtepec, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca on June 18, 2014.

CP: Touching on immigration a bit, I know you've been very involved in that and the most recent issue that has been highlighted is unaccompanied immigrant children entering the U.S. illegally and their treatment. What are you involved in right now, and what is your heart on the issue?

De Jesus: My heart with comprehensive immigration reform is this. I've travelled 16 cities fighting for immigration reform. I'm Puerto Rican, I could take the side of, 'Hey, this is not my issue.' But the reality is, this is a moral issue, this a moral decadence that's happened in our society. When you think about the unaccompanied minors, and they travel from 1,460 miles from Guatemala through Mexico, to the borders of the United States. Why? Why would a 10-year-old risk their life on a train, and to get through and be raped and be robbed through Mexico and get to our borders? Unless what they're going through in their homes in their particular countries, it's even as risked. Then they come to our borders, and then we treat them as if they were animals.

I went to Texas to a prison where there were almost 400 undocumented women who were waiting for deportation. I went there with my wife, and I apologized on behalf of the country and how we were treating them. Over 87 percent of the women were Evangelicals. They're not murderers, they're not rapists, they're not drug dealers. Yet, we incarcerate them. It's really discouraging. So as an Evangelical, I have to stand in the gap for them. They're being told to sit down and to be quiet. I have to speak up.

CP: I'm going to read you the most-agreed with comment left by one of our readers on a Christian Post article about you being named among the TIME 100 list: "Social Justice mixed with Christianity that is two different sides of religion today. Christianity is NOT about social justice it is about bringing people to GOD. Social justice is a political agenda that has no business in the church." What's your response to Christians coming from that angle, who don't see it as you see it?

De Jesus: It's just unfortunate. When you think about social justice, unfortunately you've got people who have created it on a political, that I may agree with. However, throughout the Bible you'll see justice and social justice being taken… Jesus with the adulterous woman, he brought justice to the situation. They wanted to killer, and yet he stood in the gap for her. So when you've got Christians saying that these are two opposite things or they should not be mixed together. That one is political and one is Christian, I would disagree with that comment because I'm about not just the thousands that are in my church, I'm about taking care of the people that are outside of my church. The Gospel has to be reached to those people. So in my community, I don't just represent the 17,000. I represent the 72,000 that live in my community, and that they're being treated harshly. God has given us Christians a platform, and that platform cannot only be used on Sundays, it has to be used…

(Photo: Reuters/Jim Young)A teenager picks through paving stones painted with the names of kids killed by violence as they repair a memorial for the victims of violence in Chicago, Illinois, on Aug. 3, 2011.

Yesterday, I'm marching in the streets of Chicago against violence. Two hundred and forty people have died just alone in the city of Chicago; 11 in my community. And I'm marching through the community. It was just hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people marching with us, and children. The church is the tip of the spear. The Bible says that the church is the head, not the tail. So if you don't engage the justice part, then we're just taking up corners in our cities, and not really caring for the wellbeing of the entire community, not just the 60 or the 100 or the thousands that come to our churches. I see myself as a pastor not just for those who come on Sunday, but to stand for the kid who does not come to my church, and fight for him. That's justice.

CP: I read an article where you said something to the effect of that the only way the Republican Party can woo Evangelical Latinos, which is a major block now, is through immigration reform.

De Jesus: What I suggested, or what I said was we Christians, that we should neither represent the donkey nor the elephant. We represent the lion from the tribe of Judah. However, the Republican Party is not a Christian party, or the Democratic Party. What I suggested was they lost the election because the Republican Party did not address immigration.

When (Sen. John) McCain was running against Barack (Obama), it was McCain at first when he was a senator, that he presented a bill for immigration reform. But then he becomes a presidential candidate and then he slips on us on this issue. So I suggested and said the Republican Party lost the election on this issue of immigration because they put our people to the side.

CP: What are some of the issues for Latino Evangelicals when it comes to lack of trust or confidence in the Republican Party, especially now with it trying to rebrand itself in a way?

De Jesus: I think the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, both groups have really deceived...they have a trust problem. These politicians, they have a trust problem. For the Republican Party to win the trust of Evangelicals… We're just no longer just pro-choice and pro-choice and the sanctity of marriage — which I do believe in the sanctity of marriage and I'm pro-life as an Evangelical. However, when you've got 65 million Latinos who are Americans and we're saying, 'Hey, we're neither the Republican or the Democratic. We're for life, we're for about fighting for justice for everybody.' When you have a party like the Republicans at one time, you know we had our views closer to them than the Democrats. Back in the day, maybe 30, 40 years ago, there was a group as a Republicans you thought, 'Hey, this was the Christian group, this was the conservative...' They've lost their ways, the Republican Party. They've got to do a lot to win the trust, not only of just Hispanics, but the entire nation.

CP: Any final thoughts?

De Jesus: I would encourage every leader and every pastor to empower the laypeople. It would be the laypeople that will galvanize in our streets and bring the message of hope. We can't do it alone. So we have to give power away and we have to trust the lay people, like Nehemiah.