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Retired pastor continues social justice ministry work

Retired pastor continues social justice ministry work

December 18th, 2017 by Bob Watson in News

Rev. John Bennett poses Tuesday at 1st Christian Church.

Photo by Mark Wilson /News Tribune.

The Rev. John Bennett may be retired — but he's not slowing down his efforts to help people get a better shake in life.

And it all began, he said, with a kick in the shins while he was studying for the ministry at The College of the Bible — now Lexington Theological Seminary — in Kentucky.

"One hot August evening in 1964 — as often happened," he recalled, "a young lad about 5 years old, by the name of Quincy Washington, came up to me and asked for money, as he often did.

"I usually gave him money — a nickel or a dime or whatever. But I was broke that time. I showed him my empty pockets.

"Whereupon, he kicked me in the shins."

It was painful, Bennett said, and "in one instance, I wanted to kick him back.

"In the other, it just dawned on me that he had a right to kick out at me — the first white guy he saw, part of a society that was robbing him of the future."

Bennett had been raised by religious parents in Flat River (now part of Park Hills), so he was no stranger to Christian values.

However, that kick in the shins was his "conversion to social justice as a core value of my Christian faith," he explained.

He doesn't know what happened to Washington — who now would be in his late-50s.

After graduating from seminary, Bennett served several Christian Church, Disciples of Christ congregations across the Midwest.

He ended his career with a 13-year run as director of the denomination's Missouri School of Religion, which operated at the now-former Rickman Conference Center at the south edge of Jefferson City.

Bennett retired from active ministry at the end of 2005 and, he said, "I've had more time for social justice causes in retirement than I had before."

He's active in the Missouri and Jefferson City Faith Voices groups.

Because of health issues, Bennett uses a walker now, but that didn't stop him from participating an a recent demonstration against Congress' proposed tax law changes at U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer's Missouri Boulevard office.

Bennett was also part of the "Medicaid 23" group arrested on May 6, 2014, after forcing state senators to stop their debate because the protesters, in the Senate Chamber's upper gallery, were singing and praying so loudly it was hard for the lawmakers to hear each other on the Senate floor.

The demonstration was an effort to urge lawmakers to expand Medicaid assistance to more poor Missourians, after the group had been rebuffed for several years.

"We had worked for a total of four years — writing letters, having rallies, speaking at rallies, visiting with legislators in their offices, sending emails, letters," he said.

Eventually, they were charged with trespassing and obstructing government operations, both misdemeanors. However, they were convicted last year by a Cole County jury only of trespassing.

Ultimately, 16 — including Bennett — were pardoned by then-Gov. Jay Nixon.

"I'd been working on the Medicaid issue since 2005, when Gov. (Matt) Blunt cut the Medicaid rolls," Bennett recalled. "I was the director at the Missouri School of Religion and was asked to be a speaker at a Capitol rally.

"And I remember predicting that the lack of Medicaid would be disruptive to rural hospitals, and I was right. Some rural hospitals have closed for want of Medicaid expansion."

Bennett acknowledged, but disagrees with, the idea ministers should be involved only in religious teachings, not politics.

"We are compelled — in my reading of the gospel and of the prophetic literature, certainly — to be involved in the warp and woof of society," he explained, "seeking to effect the change that God calls for.

"Jesus' ministry was a political act, in that he addressed and was concerned about the total life of individual persons — not only touching their souls but healing their bodies."

Bennett said it's an especially important message at this time of year, as Christians prepare to celebrate the anniversary of Jesus' birth.

However, the message isn't just for Christians, he said.

"I think the major religions of the world, in terms of social justice and peace, are of one voice," he said. "All faiths are committed to the causes of social justice and peace."

Throughout his career, Bennett said, his special focus on "social ministry" didn't always get a warm reception from his parishioners.

"There were a lot of people in (those) congregations who were not especially happy with that," he recalled. "Some tolerated it, but others spoke in opposition.

"I just think God calls me to be who I am. I confess that I've made mistakes along the way, and I regret any pain that I have needlessly caused people.

"But I do not regret speaking out for the cause of justice."

He expects to continue the fight for as long as he can.

"My guideposts as I move forward in my life and ministry are (from the book of) Micah, Chapter 6, verse 8," he said. "'Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God,' which is to walk in solidarity with all who hurt."

He's been influenced by Walter Brueggemann, a noted biblical scholar, who encourages Christians to pull out all the stops to improve God's world, because "the dominant values of our culture — materialism/consumerism, nationalism/militarism and classism/racism run counter to the reconciling Gospel of our Lord."

Bennett also is guided by words from Dylan Thomas, a poet who wrote: "Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of light."

He added: "My family and friends would say, 'He was a gentle and passionate man, on fire for social justice, rooted in his deep faith.'"