Engage magazine interviewed Jamie Casler, director of the Center for Social Justice at Trevecca Nazarene University, who discussed with Engage about the biblical foundations for social justice and how God's people can live this out.
Academic Department: Students can major or minor in social justice studies
Community Outreach: The center serves as the liaison between Trevecca and the Nashville community to provide students, groups and clubs with opportunities for community service/ministry.
Neighborhood Empowerment Program: The Neighborhood Empowerment Program serves to connect students from all academic disciplines to apply their academic training toward the empowerment of a non-profit or ministry that services the poor and needy in the Nashville community.
Trevecca Community Farm: The Trevecca community farm and community gardens provide students with the opportunity to learn how to grow healthy foods for the purpose of feeding the poor locally.
(Source: Adapted from the Center for Social Justice's website.)
Born and raised in Caliornia, Rebekah Peoples is a student in Trevecca Nazarene University’s Social Justice degree program, and feels called to long-term mission work with children in Haiti.
She works full time for The Hands and Feet Project, based in Nashville, Tennessee. The nonprofit, which was started by the Christian rock band Audio Adrenaline, operates Christian orphanages in Haiti.
Just before Peoples left for her fourth short-term mission trip to Haiti in February, Engage talked with Peoples about her call, her work in Haiti and her views on social justice and God’s mission in the world.
Engage: How did you first become aware that God was calling you to social justice and mission work internationally?
Peoples: When I took my first trip out of the country, I went to Jamaica and we were in Kingston, Jamaica. Kingston has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. While we were there we worked at some children’s homes.
I remember having a conversation with this little girl, she was 12 years old. She said, “Hi, I’m Cassana. I’m 12 years old; my favorite color is purple and I love to play netball.” I remember it like it was yesterday.
So, I said, “Hi Cassana. I’m Rebekah. I’m 21; my favorite color is blue, and I like to snowboard.”
She goes, “Can I tell you something? Sometimes I’m afraid.”
I said, “What are you afraid of, Cassana?” She said, “Gunshot. Sometimes I’m so afraid that I hurt myself.”
She showed me her arms; she had been cutting. I was just sick. I had to do everything within my power to not cry because I didn’t want her to see the emotion I was experiencing at that time.
She just looks at me and goes, “But Jesus doesn’t want me to be afraid, does He?”
I said, “No, Cassana.” She stood up and she stomped on the ground and says, “Good! The devil’s not going to win!”
This simple conversation that I had with this 12-year-old girl empowered her to make a decision to dramatically change her life and no longer live in fear.
At that moment, I knew. And now it’s like an addiction. It’s all I want to do. I want to serve these children who are vulnerable and helpless, but they are so willing to accept this hope that we offer.
Engage: How did the organization Hands and Feet narrow your focus to Haiti?
Peoples:I was listening to Air One, the Christian radio station online. The featured ministry was Hands and Feet. I sent them an email and said I feel like I need to go to Haiti; tell me what I need to do.
I got a group of eight people together and we went down [to Haiti] in February 2009, and while we were there I was just really convicted about making sure to be consistent in missions, because from July 2007 to 2009 I had been out of the country [on four mission trips]. I had built relationships with these people, but with no plans of returning to these places. So I was really convicted about the lack of consistency … especially when you’re working with children. These are orphans, so all they know is inconsistency and people leaving all the time.
Five of the original eight made a commitment to go back once a year as long as we could. This (February 2012) will be our fourth trip as a group trip.
I came back in August (2011) to finish school and I was asked to come on staff full-time [at Hands and Feet] while I’m in Nashville. My younger brother is now one of our full-time missionaries in Haiti.
Engage: What led you to enroll in Trevecca’s recently launched social justice degree program?
Peoples: When I took my first mission trip to Jamaica in 2007, I knew I was called to serve in some capacity with children internationally. I began praying about it. I was trying to create this degree that would allow me to study philosophy and religion but with sociology and anthropology. I looked at Trevecca; that day they were featuring it on the website – a new program on social justice.
The best way I can think to explain it… it’s theology and social work combined. It’s fabulous because it’s things I’m interested in: A lot of the biblical basis for why we should care for people and be advocates for people and their needs – why does the Lord call us to do this and why is it our responsibility? It’s learning how to serve and learning why we’re called to serve.
Engage: How do you define social justice?
Peoples: Social justice to me is going out and being an advocate to right social injustices. So we’re equipping people to be in right relationship, not only with themselves – so they can have self-esteem … a little pride to be able to pull themselves out of situations they find themselves… and right relationship with the Lord and others; and then to be good stewards of what they’ve been given, so right relation with creation.
Engage: It seems like young people are increasingly drawn toward social justice as their ministry calling. Have you noticed that?
Peoples: I absolutely agree. I don’t know what it is about this generation. I actually went to The Passion Conference a couple of weeks ago in Atlanta and there were thousands of college-age people there and the entire focus was on slavery and that’s what everybody was passionate about. They were crying over these things and crying out to the lord … I don’t think the need has increased but I think we’re just made more aware now. With technology and things we hear more and more of these stories, not only internationally, but within the United States, and people dying of AIDS in other countries, and devastating earthquakes.
It makes me excited that there are so many people with the same heartbeat that I have. I have no idea what caused it, it could be just more awareness of the needs in the world.
Engage: What advice would you give to others who feel a similar calling on their lives?
Peoples: If you feel called to do something and it’s scary, just start walking through the doors that open. It’s beautiful. Ministry is hard, period. But it’s so fulfilling and it’s such a blessing the way God blesses us when we listen to him. People kept telling me I was crazy. They said, “You can’t go to Haiti.” As soon as we went I felt God saying, “This is it; this is what I’m calling you to.”
* Answers were edited for length and clarity.
Talk about it
How would you define "social justice"?
Would you define it differently from "compassionate ministry"?
What scriptures shape your understanding of social justice and/or compassionate ministry?
Is social justice a specific calling God gives to certain people, or a general calling to all His people?
What scriptures do you know that single out orphans and widows for special service by the Church?
Is social justice the government's role or the Church's role, or both or neither? Why?
Is involving youth in social justice ministries a way to connect new generations to missions and ministry?
Is social justice something more appropriate for youth or for all ages to be involved with?