How churches and civic leaders can work together during the pandemic

An interview with Rolland Slade, a pastor in California

October 13, 2020

Rolland Slade, the senior pastor of Meridian Baptist Church in El Cajon, California, was elected as the first black chair of the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee in June. And he and his church are excellent examples of what it looks like to be a witness for Christ in their community. During the pandemic, they have modeled respectful civic engagement and continued creative ministry. Below, Slade answers a few questions about how his church worked with city leaders to serve their community in a remarkable way. 

You and your church came up with a wonderful way to care for the community? How did you develop this idea? 

We have been hosting a fellowship meal for years on Wednesday evenings as part of our ministry midweek programming. A few years back, the mayor of El Cajon, Mark Lewis (the current mayor is Bill Wells, who is a friend), challenged us to make it more inclusive. So we opened it up to the general community. Previously, it was more of a dinner for members of the church and their families or friends. When we opened it up to the community, we discovered that a good number of the people who were living in homelessness began coming to eat. Several of our members intentionally built relationships with them and learned their stories. From that, we began to hear about people who were falling on hard times and needed shelter.

I also have been serving on the Regional Task Force on the Homeless in San Diego for a number of years. While on the board of directors, I heard and read about tiny homes and villages of homes being set up in other communities around the country. Then I saw an article in our local newspaper about Amikas and their Emergency Sleeping Cabins. They had built a number of them in another community, but they were for display only. We had some land at the church, and I contacted Amikas to discuss building a “display” cabin on our church property. 

As I said in the Baptist Press article last year, “we were using the property to grow tumble weeds.” Building the display cabin would give cities in the east region of San Diego County an opportunity to come by and see what they looked like. Now almost a year later, we are working with the city of El Cajon to build a small village of six cabins.

How will it serve the members of your community?

For the village, we have adopted Amikas’ vision of “San Diego County as a place where every woman and child has a safe place to live.” Amikas’ mission is to prevent women and children, especially veteran women, from being homeless.

What pushback did you encounter, and how did you handle it? 

There was initial pushback. People have seen through the media how some of the encampments in Portland, Seattle, and Oakland have been disastrous. Initially, people thought that what we were proposing to build would be a “come one, come all” type of village. We have taken the time to talk with people and let them know that we are working at developing this project for a specific group of people, for a specific period of time. The goal is to do this right, to cross every “t” and dot every “i.” We want the project to be successful, but we also want it to honor who we serve, God.

Can you tell us about your conversations with your local leaders? 

Local leaders pushed back as well. So, I took the time to call them. I have been serving at Meridian for 16 years. During that time, I have built relationships with the city leaders. They know me as a leader, as a pastor, and importantly, as a friend. We have had conversations through the years. I have been there with them in good times and in times of crisis, so we know each other. I reached out to them via cell phone, not calling their offices and leaving a message. They have my cell numbers, and I have theirs. We don’t abuse the privilege of having each other’s personal numbers.

So, I called them and asked them what their concerns were. They shared their concerns, and I listened. When they finished, I reminded them that they knew who I was and what Meridian has done in the community. The congregation was established in 1957, so we are not “newbies” coming into the community. We have an established history of service and care for the community. I explained that we have a genuine problem with people living in homelessness in the city. Of course they knew that, yet I reminded them that not everyone was on the streets because of drugs, alcohol, or addiction. Some were there because of a crisis in their life or a circumstance that spun out of control. I shared that we wanted to help and that this project was going to be a “Starfish” type project. We may not be able to save everyone, but it will make a difference in the lives of those we are able to help.

I firmly believe that God places us in a community not just to cultivate people in the pews or seats of the worship center, but to be “salt and light” in that community.

Additionally, if we can help six, eight, or 10 people, and another church can help another six, eight, or 10, and another, etc., then we could easily eliminate people living in homelessness in the city. And wouldn’t that be fabulous! They also were of the mindset that we were creating a “come one, come all” type project. Again, I reminded them that we wanted to do this right. We are in this for the long haul of providing a piece of the solution to homelessness.

How would you coach ministry leaders and pastors to talk to their local leaders?

Talk to their local leaders before a crisis. Be there before something happens, and establish a relationship. Recognize them as leaders, and ask them how can you help? Ask how you can pray for them? Ask where they need volunteers? Then follow up with them. Pastors know how lonely leadership can be, so do elected officials. Reach out to them; meet with them just for coffee and have a conversation. Get to know them and love on them as leaders.

How have you been encouraged by your partnership with the local government?

I have been encouraged by our partnership with local government through watching God’s hand on their lives. I have seen people whom I met when they were just beginning their careers rise up to be the people in charge. For example, it’s like the police lieutenant or captain you first meet, get to know, pray for and with, and then watch get promoted to police chief. Or, it’s like the elementary school principal who’s school your congregation blessed one Christmas rising up to become superintendent. I firmly believe that God places us in a community not just to cultivate people in the pews or seats of the worship center, but to be “salt and light” in that community. I have seen the investment of time in people’s lives (discipleship) come back to bless the congregation.

And why is this important for the church’s witness to a watching world? 

This is so important to the watching world because people today—skeptical, self-centered, and hurting—want to know what is in it for you. By blessing the community, specifically its leadership, we are demonstrating the love of God that is so desperately needed right now. It is not about the church being the real deal; people want to know that God is real. We have the opportunity every day to show the world that we are God’s.

How are you counseling other pastors in your area who are frustrated with the COVID-19 regulations?

I am counseling them to not be frustrated by the regulations and to listen, gather information, and make the decisions that are in the best interest of the people God has given them charge over. I’m reminding them that they are under-shepherds, placed by God to care for his people. What they can do is step into their roles with the understanding of what a shepherd has to do to take care of the sheep.

And how have you been helped by SBC organizations as you think through these issues?

The SBC has helped me to understand my role and how to navigate through systems that typically are ministry or clergy friendly. The ERLC, in particular, has been helpful in keeping us informed of issues that relate to our biblical worldview and has assisted us in better understanding the legislative process. That has been specifically helpful in comprehending the local process (city council review, planning commission, city administrative staff, public hearings and approval timeline).

For more with Rolland Slade, listen to this Capitol Conversations podcast

Lindsay Nicolet

Lindsay Nicolet serves as the editorial director for the ERLC. She oversees the day-to-day management of all content and resources from the Nashville office. Lindsay completed her Master of Divinity at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. She is married to Justin and they have a daughter and a son. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24