One America Voices: Joel Rainey

Joel Rainey

Shepherdstown, West Virginia

Lead Pastor, Covenant Baptist Church

Pastor Rainey is a member of One America’s Leadership Circle and a leader in One America West Virginia, a coalition working across religious, racial, political and geographic divides to combat the opioid epidemic.

1. Your previous work as a missionary took you to 5 different continents. Tell us about that.

A: Those experiences gave me a much broader view of things than I had ever had before. I grew up an evangelical Christian–trusting in Jesus as a young boy, and as such believed very strongly that God loves the world. But it was this work that allowed me to get to know that world, and that was an important thing for me, because you can’t love who you don’t know! My work in Baltimore widened my perspective on everything from crime to drugs and gangs to poverty to justice. My work in north Africa and the Middle East taught me much about how various religious adherents often misunderstand and assume the worst about each other–a dynamic I have also unfortunately witnessed in my own country. My work in Asia taught me how much can be accomplished when we link passionate people with needs that match their skills. I’ve watched American and Southeast Asian educators for example, learn much from each other that has benefitted children on both continents. Overall, the people I intended from the outset to “help” have in all likelihood taught me more than they will ever realize. I’ll always be grateful for that.

2. How do you connect the concept of building community with your faith?

A: One of my favorite scripture passages is Jeremiah 29, because of the parallel I think is present there between that day and our own. In that passage, God’s people were being prepared by the prophet for a time of enslavement–when they would occupy a land filled with people who were not like them and did not believe as they did. In that environment, God gave them the following command: “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7)

Today, many evangelical Christians recognize that we are in the minority. About 3 in 10 people in the United States identify as evangelical, which means most of our fellow citizens don’t believe as we do, and many even look at us quite strange. In that environment, it’s easy to become isolationist and adversarial in our posture toward wider culture. I think we have unfortunately seen that sentiment grow in the past people of years when I watch some of our more well-known evangelical leaders align themselves politically with those who think isolation and “us vs. them” is the appropriate course. So I keep reminding the folks in my congregation of God’s command to Israel by Jeremiah. This is the time and place in which He has determined that we live. Let’s live in a way seeks the welfare of all. In our area, opioids are killing evangelicals, Muslims, Jews, atheists, Democrats, Republicans, the rich, the poor, all ethnic groups–it’s a plague that has touched us all. Why wouldn’t we fight it together?

And why wouldn’t people of faith lead the way whose very heritage includes a time when–as slaves–they were instructed to seek the welfare of the city? I believe genuine evangelical Christianity should be primarily concerned with this–the building of community that gives the world we live in a small glimpse of the world we believe is coming.

3. You recently were featured in the Washington Post in an opinion piece called “Conversations About Our Broken System Aren’t Enough,” which you co-wrote with Rabbi Aaron Alexander. Can you tell us about your work together?

A: Aaron and I live in radically different environments and our religious beliefs, while sharing a common history, are also radically different. But we both know that neither of us is an “enemy,” and that the real enemy we have both fought for so long is addiction. One of the Scriptures we share in common with our Jewish friends is Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth) 4:12; “And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him–a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” Working together on this issue gives each of us a stronger advantage over the death and decay that opioid addiction has brought to each of our areas.  We wrote the op-ed (along with fellow colleague Lauren Holtzblatt) in the hopes of promoting this kind of bridge building elsewhere. Isolation, mistrust, and polarization of each other have all enabled some of the most severe issues our common humanity faces.

I’m also excited for our congregations to get to know each other.  Within Christianity when it comes to theological differences, I’ve often used the phrase “we don’t have to be twins to be brothers.”  With regard to our work with other faith communities, I’ve told our people, “we don’t have to be brothers to be part of the same human family.”  This will start with our two student groups (high school and college age) touring the U.S. Holocaust Museum together.  I believe Aaron and I can lead our folks to a place of greater understanding that will help them work together toward the kind of human flourishing we both desire to see.

To learn more about the One America Movement, Click here.

To support our work to against polarization and division Click here.

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