An hour or so before the Justice Conference was set to kick off its first main session, I stepped outside of the Orpheum Theatre to soak in one last bit of warm Los Angeles sun and "fresh" air. The red badge dangling from my neck caught the attention of a nearby elderly Hispanic man with smudges on his face, who inquired, "You a tourist?"
I've called the L.A.-area my home for the past 9 years, but I suddenly became acutely aware of how out-of-place I must have looked to this man. Inside the theatre, I was just one of the many hipster-looking young adults who gathered together because we knew that calling Jesus our Savior also meant some sort of tie with justice. Outside of the theatre, I was a tourist - a foreigner - disconnected with the downtown L.A. surroundings and its impoverished residents.
While the Orpheum Theatre was noted by the Justice Conference's website as "one of L.A.'s most venerable landmarks," the truth was that we were located less than two blocks away from Skid Row, an area synonymous with poverty and homelessness. While stories of international injustice boomed from 12-foot high speakers, we were sitting just steps away from factories in the Fashion District with "sweatshop-like" labor conditions.
I'd like to think that this was intentionally done by the Justice Conference - that as attendees walked between the theatre, hotel, and restaurants, their eyes would be open to the many examples of injustice in their immediate surroundings. That as we heard speakers share about God's heart for his people, we too would have this same heart, and reach out in tangible ways. That we would understand how the Bread of Life went hand in hand with people's need for daily bread.
From what little I was able to observe, I don't think this happened. The homeless weren't invited to share an Umami Burger or slice of Two Boots pizza. The Justice Conference came and went, and none of the local residents' lives were changed. And I am just as guilty of this non-participation.
There's many good things that can be said about the musicians, artists, and speakers who were showcased at the Justice Conference. Each one was clearly passionate about their respective fields/focuses and reflected the many ways God's justice can be manifested.
One particular speaker whose sharing was especially moving to me was Nicole Baker Fulghamn of The Expectations Project. Fulghamn's personal experience showed how low quality education not only failed to adequately prepare people for higher education or work, but could possibly even prevent them from reaching their God-given purpose. Now, I strongly believe that God can use anyone - including a shepherd slow in speech and of tongue to free thousands from slavery. But this doesn't mean that we ignore preparing and equipping and affirming people to hear God's calling. Thanks to Fulghamn, my heart is more open to the impact and importance of education.
But like the end of countless retreats and conferences we modern-day Christians are so used to, the question continues: "Where do we go from here, and what do we do?"
Bernice King and the legacy of her father, the wonderful and prophetic Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., are a reminder of a powerful time in our history, where the Gospel challenged people to lay down their lives, work, and possessions, in order to see justice enacted. What will be the next movement that shakes our understanding of the world? What is our collective "dream?"
These are not questions that one conference - even one as exciting and well-put-together by humanitarian organization World Relief - can answer. As mentioned by multiple speakers, there are plenty of deeply embedded systemic problems in all of the issues that were raised in the course of two days.
My prayer is that those who attended the Justice Conference will understand a love so deep and powerful that we are compelled to love others and engage in justice. May we be ever-seeking and ever-acting in ushering God's kingdom and will here on earth, as it is in heaven. May we take what we learned and put it into action.
May we no longer be brushed off as tourists.