Nazarene grassroots momentum building around abolition movement

Gina Grate Pottenger
Tuesday, February 11, 2014
You know that saying, “The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing”?
Considering the biblical analogy of the Church to the human body, that might adequately describe where the Nazarene denomination has been until now in the area of human trafficking, or global slavery.
While scattered local churches have begun individual ministries in the area of modern slavery, the general church may not be aware of them. That’s why a handful of people with a concern on the issue are beginning to talk about developing a denomination-wide approach to joining the growing abolition movement around the world.
It’s hard to pinpoint where and how things have started for the Church of the Nazarene. But several involved point to the social justice conference held at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, Tennessee, in September 2013 as the moment when a kind of grassroots momentum around abolition began to build.
ImageThe social justice conference was interdenominational, but about 30 Nazarenes in attendance with an urgent concern about modern slavery met one day to talk about how the denomination could get involved in redemptive work in an organized and cohesive way.
The group included Carla Sunberg, past president of Wesleyan Holiness Women Clergy and now the president of Nazarene Theological Seminary; Jamie Gates, director for Point Loma Nazarene University’s Center for Justice and Reconciliation; and Rondy Smith, an associate pastor of the Hermitage Church of the Nazarene in Tennessee, who is developing a shelter for survivors of sexual slavery, among many others.
Some had already met at General Assembly 2013 last June to begin learning about individual congregations and people who were taking action in their local communities or through other organizations.
The group asked themselves what would happen if they “linked arms” and began working together, and as a result, a denominational response “was more formally birthed at the social justice conference.”
So far, this informal coalition of Nazarene leaders is partnering with the Wesleyan Holiness Consortium’s already existing Freedom Network in an effort to catalyze the work.
“Nazarenes are sitting at the leadership table of the growth of the Wesleyan Holiness Freedom Network,” Gates said. “But there are plenty of Christian groups who have been at this a while.”
The Salvation Army, Free Methodists, Wesleyans and others who are a part of the Wesleyan Holiness Consortium (a network of denominations that share Wesleyan-Holiness theology) have plunged into the abolition movement in recent years, and have been developing solid strategies and best practices, as well as strong awareness campaigns with various materials that can be utilized by local congregations.
Partnership is critical when tackling something as sprawling and monstrous as global slavery.
“First of all this is a massive problem and for any one of us to try and tackle it on our own seems a little crazy,” Sunberg said. “When we come to the table, every one of us brings our own unique abilities. We were all are born out of this same holiness movement and therefore desire to be engaged. We’re discovering we can be a much stronger voice into these issues when we’re united.“
ImageAs the group met, concrete actions began to materialize, beginning with the writing of a theological statement white paper, which is now posted as a downloadable item on the Wesleyan Holiness Freedom Network’s website. It states how Wesleyan-Holiness theology and tradition makes it an ideal movement to help drive modern abolition efforts.
The group’s second point of action is to urge local churches to participate in Freedom Sunday on March 9. Driven by the Free Methodist denomination for the past five years, Freedom Sunday is an emphasis on the first Sunday of Lent, time set aside to mourn slavery and oppression and to build awareness about human trafficking. Half of the Free Methodist churches in the U.S. participated in Freedom Sunday last year, according to Kevin Austin, who organizes Freedom Sunday each year.
Nazarene Compassionate Ministries (NCM) established a web page at with resources for Nazarene churches that want to participate in Freedom Sunday. The site includes a bulletin insert, Scripture readings, a sermon outline and other materials. There are also ideas and materials available on the Free Methodists’ Set Free Movement website at
As a result of these ongoing discussions, NCM International asked Laura Hahn, its marketing associate, to represent the organization in future meetings on abolition, and Nell Sweeden, NCM's education coordinator, to research the issue and how NCM International is positioned to become engaged. Jay Height, coordinator for NCM USA/Canada, appointed Gates to resource NCM in North America in developing a direction in anti-trafficking work.
Last month, the denomination’s Research Center headed up a major survey to local pastors across the U.S. and Canada to find out which churches are involved in anti-trafficking ministries and determine the type of work they are doing. The results of the survey will be revealed at the ANSR conference March 20 to 22, which is being held in Kansas City, Missouri, U.S. The theme of this year’s conference is “Beauty for Ashes: Action Research for Mobilizing the Church against Human Trafficking” – the denomination’s first official major gathering around abolition as an issue. ANSR is an annual conference for people involved in sociology and research in the Church of the Nazarene, but the conference attracts numerous pastors, district superintendents and lay leaders in the denomination.
ImageMeanwhile, the initial group of Nazarenes that gathered last fall agreed to meet again at the Justice Conference in Los Angeles on February 20 to develop and refine further plans.
“This will be a place to bounce around ideas, a clearing house of best practices,” Gates said.
From there, awareness in the Church at large, and getting everyone on the same page, seems to be a logical next step, said Rondy Smith.
“Our next objective is to educate the church and call the church to action,” she said. “When I think about how ignorant I was about these issues just three years ago… Most of the church is still ignorant to these issues. We’ve got to educate the church in awareness of this issue and what it is and then inspire and challenge the church to rise up and be involved. We are the answer these people are looking for.”
Gates said the key is to proceed with caution. Churches that try to act too swiftly, without full understanding, can do more harm than good.
“There’s a steep learning curve. We should take our time to learn deeply what the issues are, where the church has a role, in what ways the church should or should not get involved, building relationships and partnerships with law enforcement to nonprofits …. There’s a lot of work to be done before churches just jump in,” he said. “This is one of the areas where helping can hurt if you’re not wise. We’ve gotta grow into this but grow with wisdom. We’ve got quite a bit of wisdom to draw on.”