I am a relative newcomer to the city of Houston. In the 22 months I have lived in Houston, I have been pleasantly surprised. Prior to my arrival, I feared extreme humidity and traffic congestion. Now I find myself an enthusiastic citizen and defender of this wonderfully diverse—and global—city.
Each morning as I travel to my office, I listen to the local NPR affiliate. Your name appears with great regularity. To your credit, it almost always is to highlight yet another step forward for our fair city. I was grateful to hear of your plans for extensive bike lanes throughout Houston; I love the expanded public transportation via light rail, and I am a fan of the connecting bayou parks and trails. I appreciate your efforts to make Houston into an immensely urban and liveable as our city experiences unprecedented population growth.
With such a cosmopolitan approach, it was not surprising when you advocated the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. HERO was (and is) in many ways the definition of life in the most ethnically diverse city in the United States—an attempt to ensure liberty and freedom for all who live here. To be sure, your personal story informed your position within your politics. But, to be candid, who can honestly claim to not do the same? Each of us has our own perspectives we bring to the table.
Which brings me to my own story and perspective: I am a Christian pastor. I love my congregation, and we are working faithfully to make our corner of Houston look more like Heaven than Hell. We are mentoring at-risk children; we operate a food pantry; we provide financial assistance to many in need; we founded an adoption agency; we care for foster parents; we have a ministry to special needs children; we have a minstry for individuals who have walked through divorce; we have created a coalition of non-profits working for the betterment of Houston; and we are working with other churches to start similarly city-minded churches. Simply put, we believe that political policy can only accomplish so much. We believe that ground-level change requires us to engage our city on the streets and in homes.
When we engage, we do so with a particular perspective. We engage in the name of Jesus. I am not aware of your spiritual story, so I apologize if my comments appear to be patronizing. Trust me, that is not my intent. I simply want you to understand our motivation. We believe Jesus to be God in flesh. His life was perfect; he lived the life I never would have the power to live. Additionally, his death was atoning; we believe that while we ought to have been judged for sin, Jesus took that judgment for us. We believe his resurrection is powerful; Easter is our reminder that God gives us the power of His Spirit in each of us to hope in a life eternal and to live with the same grace and love Jesus showed us.
Yes, grace and love are the heart of what we are about. We proclaim those things freely, because Jesus showed us grace and love. Each week when I climb the steps of our congregation’s platform, I am preparing to proclaim the love and grace shown us in Jesus—and how we might show the same to our city and the world.
You may not know this, but I regularly pray for you. I pray that you would have wisdom and insight. I also pray that this grace and love of Jesus would impact you.
I share this with you, because I want you to understand that we want this city to be remade and redeemed—probably in many of the same ways you want, as well. And when I preach, I am preaching the redemption of Jesus over our lives and our city—a redemption that will look like Heaven. We call this the Kingdom of God.
I understand that right now such words might seem incredulous. The relationship between your administration and many pastors within the city has become antagonistic. There is little mention of love, grace, or the Kingdom. And, of course, HERO has been at the center of it all. Many pastors are crying foul as your office has subpoenaed sermons. You have, by your own account (via twitter), declared that if those pastors used their sermons for political purposes they are “fair game.”
This is a cycle of predictable, worn-out, culture wars. Battle lines are clearly drawn. And a fight is coming.
Or is there?
Mayor, there is one person who can change this entire scenario.
That person, as you may have guessed, is you.
You could, as soon as today, decide to not include sermons within your subpoena. To be sure, I can understand why you might have chosen to do so, even if I am not completely convinced of its wisdom or constitutionality. But, if you indeed desire to see Houston become a city of diverse opinion flourishing together, then you must recognize that you ought not to alienate such a large constituency. If peace is to come to our city, it must be with you leading the way. You are, after all, the city’s leader.
What might happen if you removed the controversial call for sermon material? (By the way, you are welcome to read any of my sermons at any time. They are all posted on our church’s website for public consumption. I work hard each week to explain the appeal and beauty of Jesus in the 21st century.) And what might happen if you instead searched for a coalition of pastors within the city who—although they might disagree with your view of human sexuality—might be willing to help you craft a vision of the city where the irreligious and the very religious might be able to find a way forward?
Peaceful change in the city will only be possible when perceived enemies sit across from one another and understand what they each want. Such conversations are always more difficult than court battles—but they are also much more fruitful. Divisive political victories may bring celebrations, but they almost always yield deeper divides, as well. A leader such as yourself knows this to be true.
Mayor, if I may offer some respectful suggestions:
- Remove the sermons of the five pastors from your subpoena as a measure of good faith and out of respect for religious freedom.
- Choose to build a platform for conversation.
- Find evangelical pastors who will seek the good of the city without compromising an inch on their faith in the grace of Jesus.
- Build from there. Even if it takes longer than anticipated.
- Or, perhaps, consider some other way forward you deem more effective—but avoid creating animosity between yourself and the “sleeping giant” of evangelical Christians in our city. Let’s make our city great by avoiding the tired-out wars of culture.
Thank you for taking the time to read my letter. I hope you and your team will find another way to think about this topic. Progress is not always won through the wielding of power; if you must exercise power, you may not have as much as you perceive. This is why I hope you will consider the more daring, subversive, and positive method of compromise and conversation.
I pray the Lord’s blessing on you.
Reverend Steven Bezner, PhD