Lance Schmitz, 30
Minister of Social Justice, Oklahoma City First Church of the Nazarene
[transcript of phone interview]
Sojourners: May I ask your age?
Schmitz: I just turned 30—I’m pretty surprised that I made it. I’m 30.
Sojourners: How would you describe your job / leadership role?
Schmitz: My job at work, I guess my job at the church, is to try and help people just imagine a different way of living life, trying to create a more just, more sustainable, a more peaceful life for all people.
Sojourners: What motivated you to get involved?
Schmitz: A lot of life experience stuff, but I figure it ties a lot of it back to my belief in the innate dignity of all humanity and my hope for the common good—that we can all be co-conspirators in bringing the common good about for all people.
Sojourners: As you think about your work and your participation in the body of Christ, what’s your biggest passion?
Schmitz: My biggest passion as far as my projects, I’d say, the two big things for me right now (and it’s been for quite some time), is workers’ rights, the right to organize, wage issues, trying to maintain the birth of the middle class, but also just trying to help people, you know, workers’ issues, outsourcing, all that stuff that’s tied up in there.
The other one is food security and food insecurity. I think it’s a tragedy that we live in one of the richest places on earth and we still have people dying of hunger. But also there’s plenty of food for people around the world, we just can’t get it to them because of legislative reasons, tax reasons, tariff reasons, and all those things. Food security and workers’ rights are my two big passions.
Sojourners: When you talk about those, are they applicable in your home town or are you thinking internationally?
Schmitz: Both. Here in Oklahoma City we used to be a really strong labor community and then the outsourcing of jobs, some of the citizens that have made it to the corporate level but also as far as legislative levels—worker’s rights, you know, they’ve fallen apart here. We have “right to work,” which is a pretty terrible moniker for what it really ends up being. Oklahoma legislators worked really hard to kill the working class and outsource jobs.
Then food security and the international thing, which is really much at play here in Oklahoma City because we lead the nation in obesity and in hunger—figure that one out! We are not good with food and we’re here in the breadbasket…We’re historically a farming state but through strange ways we’ve thought about subsidies—good and bad—and all those sorts of issues, we don’t produce the food that we can use to feed ourselves here. But also we just keep so much in the United States, and again due to our legislative ideas, we’re not feeding the nations. Which is something I think is very key to the Biblical witness, and that’s something we should be doing.
Sojourners: How is it going communicating this with your church?
Schmitz: My local parish? Well, the people in my faith community here are very much involved with food issues. They are part of the works of mercy of delivering food and ensuring that food panties are taken care of and things like that. We give food out from the church, but also I’m having larger conversations about why you should buy local, and having panel discussions periodically on the environment and those sorts of things.
And I try to always kind of move those into the choices about your kitchen, because that’s one of the few places in life where you have a lot of control over it—what food you eat, where you buy, and those sorts of things. So a lot of it is just trying to educate people on the importance of food, and talking about genetically-modified organisms and the dangerous aspects of those things. A lot of it is education and then there’s also direct service.
And with the issues of workers’ rights, putting those conversations at the forefront of peoples’ lives—better wages and why they’ll benefit everyone, and why the right to organize is something we should still fight for, because it’s being stripped away through action and inaction on both sides. So I try to put those conversations out in front of people and try to keep having them with folks and get them involved in issues of workers’ rights. I’m very much a part of a labor union religious group here in Oklahoma City and we try to work together to create a more just society for everybody in Oklahoma City, but also throughout the world.
Sojourners: Have you had good receptivity to drawing that connection between charity and justice?
Schmitz: We actually recently put together a panel session at our church on “what is social justice?” and a lot of people said that “Before, we thought it was just some sort of liberal plot, but now we understand that it’s very much a part of our faith tradition.” I use the analogy of combining two sides of the same coin; they can’t exist without one another, and charity without an eye towards justice is just sentimentality. And so they’ve been quite receptive to it—I was pleasantly surprised. Pleasantly surprised that people are very receptive to it, and they thought it was a conversation that they were excited about, and they were excited to find that it’s a part of the denominational heritage. Some of them were apprised of it, but most of them were not aware that it was a part of our denominational heritage.
Sojourners: We often hear that young Christians’, particularly evangelicals’, perceptions of Christianity are changing, and their concerns are broadening to encompass more social justice issues. Do you see this happening in your own experience?
Schmitz: Yes, and. I think it’s very true that a lot of younger people—the church has been answering questions that they’re not asking. So we’re at a real pivotal moment right now where there’s a group of people that are interested in these things, that want to hear the church addressing these things, and we stand at a place where we could lose a generation of people and severely damage the efforts of the church because we’re answering questions that no one’s asking anymore.
I think we stand at a real pivotal point in history that we could really make this motion, having people become involved in these things. So I think a lot of young people are very involved in it and I think there’s another group [who] have just been so burned by the political process or religious experience that they’re kind of apathetic. So they just go because they’ve always gone to church and participated in religious efforts, or they’ve stopped and are just kind of there floating around.
Sojourners: How has your family background impacted your vocational journey?
Schmitz: My history [is that] I’m the first person in my family to not grow up in poverty. My family grew up farmers in Oklahoma. Everybody’s poor, so nobody knows they’re poor, because they survived and went through life together. I think that was very integral—I can say “I understand, these are my people, because this is where I come from.” There was no choice where we all of a sudden became middle-class, but I grew up never having to want for food, never having to worry about if the electricity is going to be turned off, never having to worry about if the gas or if the car is going to be there. It always was.
But you know those stories [are] in the background. My grandmother grew up in a sod house; my grandfather was abandoned by his mother and lived in a boxcar. Those stories are a definitely a part of who I am, so I identify in a sense—solidarity with the poor and the oppressed, and in a different way than I think some people could do, just because of my history, my family background. It has placed me in a place where I especially identify with these situations and these circumstances.
Sojourners: What’s it like to have a dog named after [theologian] John Yoder?
Schmitz: It’s wonderful, even though she’s not peaceful. She’s not peaceful at all, tragically. She’s got a lot more bark than she does teeth. She’s not a peaceful Mennonite dog. Although my friends that grew up Amish and are now Mennonites, they just think it’s the cutest thing in the world, that we have a dog named after John Howard Yoder. They’re just wonderful people.
Sojourners: I guess the eloquence is the connecting factor there, if not the pacifism. Last question: what gives you hope?
Schmitz: Many things. Children always give me hope.
And, here in Oklahoma City where the peace and justice community is quite small, that we get along—we get along very well. People from all different religious backgrounds, even if they [don’t] have a religious background, all different sort of commitments to anything else, we just get along well. Here in Oklahoma City, these people from disparate backgrounds come together on issues of common concern, and we work together to try to create the common good.
There’s one thing I always go back to—the idea of the common good. What are we doing to work for the common good of everybody? Here in Oklahoma City, that’s the thing that gives me the most hope. People that are so different—income level, race, sexual orientation, religious background—we come together over these issues of common concern and we can work together well. Even though we may disagree about something else, we can get over ourselves and work together. For me, that’s just a beautiful example of the biblical witness of working together for peace.
We have a lot of fun. That’s for sure. Here in Oklahoma City, people don’t expect the Jewish rabbis and Muslim imams, the Roman Catholic priests, getting together to do things, but we do, we get along very well. It’s just the idea that we know we’re in it for something a lot bigger than just us.
Sojourners: Thanks so much!