I'm no conference junkie. In fact, I generally loathe the idea of sitting around talking when I could be out doing. Especially when the topic at hand so deeply concerns the glory of God and the economic, political, social, and spiritual flourishing of the people and communities whom He so loves.
I went to a conference last year that promised followers of Jesus would be at the forefront of peace. To my great sadness, the conference mostly comprised an elder board of white men in academic or institutional positions of leadership. Even the women presenters were mostly known for their writing, less for their living.
But my hope in attending The Justice Conference is that the thoughtful curation of presenters, exhibitors, and learners beside me in attendance will make for a more holistic, God-honoring experience than some of the cult-of-personality festivals available to us elsewhere.
With that in mind, here are four kinds of people I hope to meet at The Justice Conference. Are you one of them?
I live openly as a follower of Jesus and an American in Iraq. I spend my time darting in and out of various groups, including the ruling religious class of Sunni muftis and Shia mullahs, government functionaries and local politicians, Arab tribal sheikhs and Kurdish chieftains, and everyday people whose primary concern has to do with caring for their family and living at peace with their neighbors.
If we are honest, we would probably confess that our perception of Muslims (and Iraqis in particular) over the last few decades is of a fairly simple, even backward people. But nothing could be further from the truth. Most of the Muslims I know (including many Iraqis) are deeply steeped in theology, ethics, and philosophy and they speak poetically about all of life's issues in a thought-provoking way.
To live among these communities as I do requires a certain level of mental rigor, something that I need nurtured in me by teachers who plumbs the depths of philosophy and language in pursuit of frameworks on which to build our families and communities. Whether you are a professor with an impressive title or a high school teacher who longs deeply for your students to take their education seriously, I hope to have a long cup of coffee with you, and I hope you will help me sharpen my mind to better honor God.
I come from a long line of preachers and pastors. Attending to the needs of others through presence and prose is at the heart of everything I care about. But I am neither the leader nor the "bleeder" that I want to be.
As you can imagine, life in Iraq can take its toll on a community of outsiders like my team. Together we've been through death threats, bombings, imprisonments, extreme marital duress, and fear that we are destroying our children in the process. We sometimes question whether or not our work here is worth it. On our darkest days, my kids, my wife, and my team need a bold yet bowed-down leader. Instead, they get me.
The spiritual shepherds I most respect have a sacred blend of empathy–feeling and "bleeding" on behalf of another–and vision–seeing around corners, calling those they lead to cast off sin and maximize their joy in absorbing pain in the Way of Christ on behalf of others.
If you are a spiritual shepherd, I hope to spend time with you sharing our hopes and our struggles. I hope to pray with you. And I hope you will help me lead more steadily and bleed more readily on behalf of the people God has entrusted to my care.
The best moments at any conference don't usually happen in the main hall. They are typically a conversation over coffee near the book table that starts a friendship that lasts forever; a collaboration that comes into view while milling around after a breakout session; or a life-altering vision that is refined through seemingly every conversation, as though God Himself were listening in and guiding you to change the course of your life. Conferences that provide space for reflection and learning, rather than dictating frenetic activity, are those that return the most good to its members.
In attending The Justice Conference, it is my assumption that every one I bump into is there to learn something. And learners make for the best of friends.
People on stage who know it all–or those not on stage who like to drop names so that they appear to know it all–impress me very little. I don't have time for experts who have it all figured out.
But if you are humble enough to believe I might have something to offer you, and still bold enough to believe that you might have something to offer me, I believe we can go a long way together and I really hope to spend time with you!
For all the respect that I have for academics, spiritual shepherds, and learners whose primary vocations do not directly involve community development, poverty alleviation, conflict resolution, or inter-religious relations, my heart is probably most with those who labor on the front-lines.
In attending The Justice Conference, it is my strong hope that I will be emboldened by the stories and the prophetic witness I encounter in the lives of those who have briefly taken leave of their work on the streets of the inner city, in the chaos of war among their enemies, in the slums of the forgotten, and in the temples and mosques of those who believe differently. I sometimes fall into the trap of believing that no one in the world is going through the things I'm going through in Iraq. I sometimes tell myself a story that says I am alone and no one understands the unique historical, cultural, and religious milieu in which I live.
When you see my big bald head at The Justice Conference this year, I hope you will start a conversation and share your story from the front-lines of justice and love. I deeply need it, and you might just need mine.
If you find yourself somewhere on this list: academic, spiritual shepherd, learner, or on-the-ground front-liner, I'd love to hear from you—which category are you (and why)? Did I miss a category?
Email me or leave a comment below!