It was 1999, and Michael McBride was a youth pastor in San Jose, California, when he experienced a violent encounter that continues to shape his ministry today.
A rising star in the Bay Area, McBride describes himself at the time as “on track to become the next Noel Jones or T.D. Jakes, traveling the country preaching.”
But when he was physically and sexually assaulted by two San Jose police officers, McBride’s life and ministry trajectory were radically disrupted.
“When the cops assaulted me,” he recalls, “it damaged me, and it destroyed part of my naivete.”
His perspective was further shaped when he began hearing similar stories from teens in his youth group. When McBride asked them why they had never shared these experiences, they said they didn’t believe that part of their lives was something the church would ever respond to.
Their words shook McBride, and he felt the Lord ask him, “What is it about the way you are building your ministry that these people will trust you with the salvation of their souls, but not the safety of their bodies?”
At the same time, because of his experience, McBride was being asked by the ACLU, NAACP and other activist groups to speak on the issue of police brutality at rallies aimed at changing public policy.
“When I heard how they were talking, I realized I was talking about it very differently. I wanted to talk about Scripture, about the dignity of creation,” he notes. “I wanted to extract language from my Pentecostal holiness tradition that could help marry my experience with the power of the Holy Spirit to—as Jesus said—proclaim liberty to the captive, bind up the brokenhearted, to set the captive free.”
This led McBride to begin constructing a theological and ministry paradigm—something he calls “theopraxis”—that integrates sound doctrine with a prophetic commitment to justice.
Soon after, McBride left his youth ministry position to earn a master’s degree at Duke Divinity School, with an emphasis in ethics and public policy. It was there that he studied the historical roots of the black church’s involvement in pursuing racial justice.
“I began to see that this is part of what it means to be a Pentecostal,” he says. “I didn’t have that information until I was able to sit and do some deep reflection in seminary.”
Raised in the Churches of Our Lord Jesus Christ, while in seminary McBride pursued ordination with the Church of God in Christ and then returned to the Bay Area in 2005 to lead The Way Christian Center in West Berkeley (thewayberkeley.com).
The Way is a historic congregation planted by McBride’s grandmother in 1969. (He notes that African-American churches were often planted by women, even though women could not serve as pastors.) McBride is the fourth pastor in the 50-plus-year history of the congregation with roots in the apostolic, Church of God in Christ and nondenominational Pentecostal families.
The more McBride began to learn about the community surrounding the church, the more he realized his pastoral ministry had to address the societal problems he was seeing on a daily basis.
“People would leave my church and immediately go into a world that was literally erasing the imago dei [image of God] in their lives,” he says. “I realized I had to do more than provide a chaplaincy role for my congregation. I had to empower them with the skills and confidence to see the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.”
Although Berkeley has a reputation for being a bastion of wealth, education and liberal tolerance, the neighborhood where McBride serves has massive racial disparities in income, life expectancy, housing security and educational achievement—all realities that he could not ignore.
“No pastor can claim to be a shepherd to his sheep and watch the sheep be slaughtered and claim, ‘That’s not in my job description,’” he says. “You’re not a shepherd. You’re a hireling.”
McBride saw an opportunity to make a difference specifically in the area of gun violence, and he believed the church had a unique role in fulfilling Jesus’ charge to be peacemakers.
“There’s a failure in the church around peacemaking,” McBride contends. “What does it mean that the children of God are not effective peacemakers—meaning that we cannot resolve our differences without resorting to violence?”
The more he studied the epidemic, he realized less than one percent of a city’s population can drive as much as 60 percent of the gun-related shootings and homicides. He then began to explore what would happen if this tiny sector of society could be reached with a gospel-informed message of peacemaking and be given alternatives to resolving conflict through violence.
In the course of his efforts, in 2012 McBride became the director of the LIVE FREE Campaign (livefreeusa.org), which empowers congregations to take action on a local level to creatively combat gun violence. He notes that gun violence takes three primary forms—neighbor-to-neighbor shootings, domestic violence and suicide—and the statistics transcend racial stereotypes.
“Domestic violence incidents are the leading causes of women dying by firearms,” he explains. “And we know that suicide by guns is one of the leading causes of death for white males in this country.”
McBride notes that his approach is apolitical and resonates with those on both the ideological left and right. He points to poll data released in June 2021 from Lake Research Partners that reveals bipartisan support for federal funding for state and local governments to implement community-based intervention services aimed at reducing gun violence.
“Leaders in our communities are not asking for a political solution,” he contends. “They’re asking for a programmatic intervention that ties people who have trauma and pain to healing.”
The programs McBride champions bring together law enforcement, policymakers and community-based organizations such as churches. When violent incidents flare up, those involved are directed by authorities to counseling, trauma care and spiritual help that addresses both accountability for offenders and healing for victims.
“We target individuals—the less than one percent that drive this—partner with law enforcement,” he explains, “and tell them, ‘We love you, but you much change your behavior. If you choose to do so, we will offer you a path out with counseling, help getting a job, and so on.’”
While historically, dealing with gun violence has exclusively been the responsibility of law enforcement and the judicial system, McBride argues that the problem must ultimately be addressed by everyone in the community.
“We train congregation members on how to scale up peacemaking interventions for neighbor-to-neighbor violence, intimate partner violence and self-harming violence,” he notes. “We use theology, public health programs and design implementations to target individuals who are at the highest risk of shooting or being shot and offer them a concrete alternative to the behaviors they fall into that lead them into a path of violence.”
Of course, the question people often ask about such an unconventional approach is whether it works.
“In the city of Oakland, we had averaged 110 gun-related homicides per year for 30 years and an officer-involved shooting ever 10 days,” McBride notes. Innovative public health and community-centered gun violence prevention programs have contributed to 50% reductions of gun-related homicides in Oakland and many other cities across the country in which they have been implemented.
McBride acknowledges that there are political implications to the programs he advocates, including allocating tax dollars to alleviating these ills. However, he is convinced that investment on the front end will diminish costs on the back end and is also one of the ways of addressing the crisis of mass incarceration.
Although churches and government agencies have partnered for decades on education, health care, homelessness and drug rehabilitation, some may question that the church should be involved in such efforts. For McBride, there’s no way to separate the preaching of the gospel from the work of community transformation. They are inherently compatible.
“How can we in every part of our lives be instruments that pull down strongholds of racism, discrimination, poverty, exclusion?” McBride asks. “Every single follower of Jesus has an obligation to do that, whether you’re a pastor, businessperson, teacher, politician or worship leader. This is a moment where either the witness of the church will continue to suffer public discredit, or we will begin to win and recover public credibility.”
This article was extracted from Issue 7 (Fall 2021) of the AVAIL Journal. Claim your free annual subscription here.
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