This is going to be one of those stories where the names and locations are kept anonymous to protect privacy. When it comes to racial and religious reconciliation, all too often the most heartfelt stories are also the most confidential. It is a story that needs to be told, though. I will do my best to share the light and protect all parties.
My travels take me all across the US rural Southeast–to small towns and hollers, cities and hamlets, mountaintops, farms and empty lots. For some reason, my work has not yet taken me to the beach, but I have been to just about every other geographic feature in this region. I digress.
This story takes place in one of those small towns.
Like so many locations in the rural Southeast, this town has had a long and difficult history along racial and religious lines. Many people are eager to move beyond the past they have
inherited, even if they are not altogether sure how to do that. However, there is much work to be done and many levels of consciousness where this work still needs to happen.
This is a town with a ministerial association. For those not familiar with the term, this is a group where local ministers from various churches come together for dialogue and shared projects. It was not that long ago that mutual condemnation and shunning were the typical manner that churches from different denominations treated each other, so these ministerial alliances have been a huge force in moving beyond that. Pastors get together to break bread, organize events and discern ways to serve the community together.
It can take a tremendous bravery for folks to be willing to give this a try, especially when the history has been particularly difficult. After generations of misunderstandings and mistreatment–with much of it still a very living memory–folks cross religious, racial and ethnic lines to take the first steps toward fellowship with one another in faith. It takes real vulnerability, because doing this will often bring all those unhealed wounds and misunderstandings right to the surface. It takes faith to even try and an outpouring of grace to succeed, and that is exactly why the church can sometimes be the best way to bring a fractured community together.
Among their activities, this ministerial alliance in question has organized a community-wide Martin Luther King Jr. worship service. It has been going on for over 10 years with tentative but strong involvement from local churches, black, white and Hispanic. In fact, every church in town would participate. It was a growing and well-regarded annual occasion.
All that came to a halt when a very unfortunate incident happened.
After an MLK Jr. worship service a few years ago, the assembled people shared food and fellowship. One of the African-American churches had led the assembly in music that day. During this fellowship, a white person was overheard complaining: “I wish those people wouldn’t sing so loud!” Word of this got back to the respective churches, and the African-American church that had sung that day became very upset. They subsequently withdrew from the ministerial alliance and from all such events in town.
It may be difficult to understand the kind of harm such a statement can carry if you do not share the same history of segregation, injustice and persecution. This is why it is so important for communities to listen to each other and respect each others’ feelings. Was this an offhanded comment of a single individual? It is easy to fear that perhaps this individual was speaking aloud the hidden thoughts of the larger community. It is easy to understand why a community that had experienced a long history of negativity toward them would not want to re-engage with this kind of negativity again, especially if the veil of politeness was masking a hidden racism that manifested as jokes told behind their backs.
Reconciliation can be a very fragile thing. People are silently wondering–can we trust you? Are we really going to put the past behind us and take real steps forward, or are we just going to keep reliving the past? This is true whether the reconciliation is religious, racial, ethnic or along other lines.
In another anonymous town in another anonymous location, I have seen a Catholic and Pentecostal church develop a robust and warm friendship. They were a model relationship and had many layers of connection over the course of a few years. Nevertheless, this partnership came to a screeching halt when old theological fears flared up and one community became worried about the influence and legitimacy of the other. In still other places, I have seen Hispanics and Muslims go from regular, friendly faces in the community to barely tolerated outsiders as larger cultural trends in American politics have a very real local impact on very real individuals. Islamophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric, so often bandied about in the media and on talk radio, often turns into real bruises on real people in towns all across this country. Unity can be so fragile.
Going back to the first small town, all the hard work of building harmony together was suddenly eroded after one unfortunate incidence. This African-American church would no longer participate in activities with the other churches. The ministerial alliance continued with their services, but it was not quite the same. It was like a member of the family was no longer there. It was impossible to say the whole community was coming together when it was not.
Some of the pastors attempted to bridge the divide in the years since then, but the offended church was not interested in rejoining.
Just a couple weeks ago, a group of white women from the community decided to go to this African-American church to attend their worship service. As is customary, there was a time for visitors to stand up, introduce themselves and talk about why they decided to attend worship.
They made an announcement. They said they heard there was a terrible insult. They said they were sorry and apologized. They invited this church to come back, saying, “We need you.” They invited them to attend the MLK Jr. Day worship scheduled for the following week and join in the service.
The women were not sure what impact this might have had. On the day of the MLK Jr. service, it looked at first like there was no sign of this African-American church returning and participating in the service. However, one woman saw the pastor and some congregations members sitting in the back. After the service, the women approached them and thanked them for coming. The pastor said he appreciated the invitation. He let them know there was not enough time for the whole choir to prepare, but they would do so another time in the future.
It is easy to feel the first steps toward healing have happened. I was not privy to all the discussion in this community. I do not know what made this church take this step. Perhaps it was a combination of the healing effect of time plus the sum total of other attempts at reconciliation. Nevertheless, this encounter seemed to break the ice.
The power of a public apology is so powerful. These women were able to do what their pastors alone were not. They went out of their way to invite this church back, and their words and actions made it clear–the individual who made that comment does not speak for the whole community.
A public apology is one of the most rarely used tools at our disposal in our culture. We do it even more rarely for actions committed by others in the past. But these women recognized that even though they did not commit this insult, by being part of the community they have a responsibility to make it right.
I am reminded of the actions of Pope Francis. He goes out of his way on regular occasions to apologize for the actions of some Catholics–or the Catholic Church as a whole–in the past. You can just Google search “Pope Francis apologizes” and you will find a quite a bit of material.
Most recently, Pope Francis apologized for the ways Catholics have treated other Christians throughout history. No, Pope Francis did not personally commit those grievous acts of violence against non-Catholics in previous centuries. But as pope, he along with all faithful Catholics carry the mantle of an inherited tradition. That means inheriting the good as well as the bad. It means a Catholic cannot be proud to stand on the shoulders of the robust intellectual and artistic tradition and the works of mercy of the saints without also living in the tragic legacy of unhealed wounds and tainted riches that have come from dubious sources.
Americans have a difficult time with this. We are quick to be proud of the traditions of our families, our nation and our churches. We are proud to stand on the shoulders of the noble people who have come before us. However, we distance ourselves from anything negative that comes along with that. Apologies and reparations are widely unpopular in modern U.S. culture.
Whether we personally have committed negative acts directly or not, we as a community always bear responsibility for making it right. It may seem unfair to inherit someone else’s mess, but if we are quick to accept the good from our ancestors that means we also have to take ownership of the bad, too. It is a package deal.
There is always a danger in a story like this in portraying the white women as the heroes, which can run the risk of perpetuating a subtle racism rather than overcoming it. However, I think that is a risk worth taking, as long as we proceed with care and sensitivity. Not taking that risk and just doing nothing would be far worse.
Besides, I don’t see this story as one-sided. Both sides of this fracture have taken steps in bravery and vulnerability to work towards reconciliation. I admire people who are willing to do this very difficult but necessary work. Otherwise, the pain just gets passed down from generation to generation and it never goes away until someone engages with it. Just like Jesus healed through touch, we must also be willing to touch our wounds and the wounds of others for healing to happen. We must proceed gently. If we err, let’s make sure we always err on the side of apologizing too much and giving each other too many chances, rather than too few. Seventy times seven chances, actually.
Setbacks can bring despair, especially after the hard work of years can seem to evaporate in an instant. But setbacks are to be expected, as the path to reconciliation is rarely a straight line. Each setback affords us the opportunity to renew our commitment to each other. A setback can be a fracture or an opportunity for grace.
I suggest we keep this anonymous small town in our thoughts and prayers. They have certainly inspired me. Let us hope that God continues to bless this work of reconciliation done in Christ’s name!
by Frank Lesko
October 27, 2016
~ Kate Matthews
Unexpected God, your advent alarms us.
Wake us from drowsy worship, from the sleep that neglects love,
and the sedative of misdirected frenzy. Awaken us now to your
coming, and bend our angers into your peace. Amen.
Isaiah 2:1-5: The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!
It isn’t hard to imagine how the people of Israel felt, after centuries of destruction and exile by one empire after another, as they listened to this dream, this vision by the prophet Isaiah of healing and peace. They might have looked around, at their once-beautiful city, Jerusalem, burned and battered by powers that appeared unstoppable, but the people of God knew there was one power stronger than any empire or any destructive force. This week’s passage is Isaiah’s recitation of God’s promise of a future very different from what was just then visible.
We hear this text not only in a time mired in conflict, discouragement and war but in a new season at the beginning of a new church year: Advent, the time of waiting, and so much more. While the world around us ends the year hoping for one more burst of consumer spending and waiting for annual reports on profits, the church has already stepped into a new time, daring to “hope and wait” for something much better than the news is reporting. We begin this new time remembering who is really in charge of everything, and setting our hearts on being part of that plan. As beautiful as these verses are, they paint a very clear picture: God is the One who brings this dream to reality, but there’s work for us to do, too, in re-shaping the instruments of war, violence, hatred and destruction into instruments of peace and provision for all.
(The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in July after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio)
For further reflection…
Jo Hudson, Gathering Pastor of Extravagance UCC, 21st century
“There is a world of hurt out there that needs the word of hope in here.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century
“The only normalcy that we will settle for is the normalcy that recognizes the dignity and worth of all God’s children.”
Fred Rogers, 20th century
“When I say it’s you I like, I’m talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.”
Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes: Sunday Pages 1985-1995
“Dad, how do soldiers killing each other solve the world’s problems?”
John Lennon, 20th century
“All we are saying, is give peace a chance.”
Go HERE to get your copy inviting you to GIVE BACK this Christmas Season by helping low-income families at Hoover Community School and some fun at the same time!
Hoover Community School’s
Holiday Toy & Gift Drive
Here at First Church
Cost of Admission = One (or more)
unwrapped toys or gifts:
NEW, unwrapped TOYS/GIFTS for ages 5 to 14
WARM CLOTHES ~ hats, gloves, scarves, jackets
Monetary gifts are also welcome
Experience the Madrigal Singers
Enjoy the music of Andrew Jamieson
And sing along carols
Or just sit back and enjoy visiting with friends
This article from ProgressiveChristianity.org addresses the tension between ‘bricks and mortar’ and ‘mission and ministry’.
We’ve already taken the first steps of this process—not necessarily because we wanted to…it was less a choice than a necessity. But here we are. Without a permanent home. We now ‘live’ in a beautiful leased space that fits our current needs perfectly. We’re financially solvent and have the ability to use our resources to help others. We’re beginning to learn how to share our space with the larger community. What do YOU see as our next steps on this, our unexpected, journey?
Read what author, Tom Ehrich, has to say…
The tension between “bricks and mortar” and “mission and ministry” …
…is never easy to navigate. Facilities seem so real and practical, while mission and ministry tend to be ambiguous and unmeasurable.
The tension gets especially complicated when facilities are enshrined as “historic.” Some constituents derive personal status from things historic, whether or not it is deserved, and the old implies a certain continuity that many desire.
The tension between buildings and servanthood often boils over when constituents are hoping that their facilities can do their mission and ministry so that they themselves don’t have to do it. Renting space to a 12-Step group is labeled a big plus in mission, and all anyone has to do is cash AA’s rent check.
If facilities actually could do ministry, they would do far more than congregational leaders typically allow. In addition to renting space to 12-step groups – yes, AA et al always pay rent – they would provide shelters for women being abused by drunk men. They would offer respite to children whose home lives are out of control. They would offer recovery ministries, to bolster the 11th Step: “We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God.”
In addition to giving away canned goods to needy clients once a week or once a month, they would serve hot lunches to the homeless every day. Kitchens that sit quiet all week would bustle with the noise of food being prepared for Meals on Wheels taken out seven days a week.
Classrooms that are used two hours a week on Sunday would be additionally purposed as weekday preschools for at-risk children and as adult day care and caregiver respite. Halls and parlors would be additionally purposed as small-business incubators. Meeting rooms would be additionally purposed as free medical and dental clinics.
If major fund-raising were possible, churches would take some of their acreage and construct affordable housing for seniors. Church members would embrace their new neighbors and thereby address an “epidemic of loneliness,” as The Times called it, among seniors.
Newly paved parking lots would fill with cars seven days a week, not just Sunday morning. Handsome lawns would be turned into athletic facilities to support youth programs. Also into community gardens where apartment dwellers could join the “farm-to-table” movement.
Facilities don’t do ministry, of course. People do ministry.
Bricks and mortar just sit there, week after week, unless an entrepreneurial leader stirs the congregation to active engagement with needs outside their doors. The difference is the entrepreneurial leader and those people who are willing to follow, not the facilities themselves. If the leader won’t challenge people to engage in active, outward-facing ministry, it doesn’t matter what happens to the facilities. If people won’t rise to the challenge, tidying up the space and fixing gaps like inadequate offices and a below-code kitchen won’t accomplish much.
Inward-facing must give way to outward-facing. Self-serving must give way to other-serving.
For many, of course, inward-facing is all they want. They want to worship occasionally, give enough to keep the doors open, and derive some satisfaction from strained-glass windows, a fine pipe organ, well-polished wood, and historic provenance. They don’t want this flow disrupted. The problem, we now realize, is that inward-facing is self-defeating. Unless the congregation is serving the larger community and giving itself away boldly in mission and ministry, it will cease to matter to anyone beyond the dwindling few.
Many church members ask, How can we improve our facilities to make them serve our needs better? The far better question to ask is, What does our larger community need from us? What mission and ministry are we called to carry out? What do we need for that enterprise?
The answer might include some enhancement of bricks and mortar. But that is never the place to start. If facilities drive the church, its future is dim.
by Tom Ehrich on November 4, 2016
About the Author:
Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and
Episcopal priest based in New York.
He is the publisher of A Fresh Day online magazine,
author of On a Journey
and two national newspaper columns.
O God, in Christ you give us hope for a new heaven
and a new earth. Grant us wisdom to interpret the signs
of our times, courage to stand in the time of trial,
and faith to witness to your truth and love. Amen.
~ Reflection by Kate Matthews
When we witness the deterioration of so many of our cities–the loss of population, the rise in crime, and the decay of our infrastructure and institutions, perhaps we can begin to imagine how the people of Jerusalem felt around 475 B.C.E., two generations after they returned from exile and tried to rebuild their devastated city. They remembered the former glory of Jerusalem and its Temple, and the rebuilt version didn’t quite measure up to the glory of Solomon’s Temple. Imagine the prophet Isaiah, walking through the rubble of the city. (The evening news from Aleppo provides vivid images to help our imaginations, alas.) Much of the city was still in ruin, including homes and markets, and many people continued to suffer the effects of oppression and dislocation. Hunger, thirst, illness and early death, sorrow and grief, economic injustice and political turmoil were the realities of the day.
The first generation had returned excited and full of joy about coming home to their own land, their own great city: Jerusalem. And yet, by the time the prophet we call “Third Isaiah” wrote these beautiful words, the people still hungered for a word of hope. In this setting, Isaiah speaks of a vision from God, who, in the midst of human suffering and despite the long wait, is about to do a new and great and surprising thing: “to create new heavens and a new earth….be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating: for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy and its people as a delight” (65:17-18). Isaiah’s poetic, hopeful text about God’s transformation of the present circumstance into a new creation echoes the Genesis creation story, this time with the “curses” undone, with no more weeping and wailing from those who suffer, no more premature deaths of our children, no more injustice of workers not being able to afford to live in the homes they labor over and in…all of this suffering will end because of the caring presence of an attentive, responsive God who will bring transformation not in some apocalyptic sense but in a concrete, this-world experience of all things made right. Creation will be so full of peace that even “natural” predators will live gently, side by side. This is the dream, and the promise, of God. How we all long for it today.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (email@example.com)
retired in July after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel
at the national offices
of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
For further reflection:
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 20th century
“Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
“Sorrow looks back, Worry looks around, Faith looks up.”
Marian Wright Edelman, 21st century
“Whoever said anybody has a right to give up?”
Barbara Kingsolver, 21st century
“The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.”
Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21
I will extol you, my God and Ruler,
and bless your name forever and ever.
Every day I will bless you,
and praise your name forever and ever.
Great is God, and greatly to be praised;
God’s greatness is unsearchable.
One generation shall laud your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts.
On the glorious splendor of your majesty,
and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
In every way God is just,
and kind in every action.
God is near to all who call,
to all who call on God in truth.
God fulfills the desire of all who fear God;
God also hears their cry, and saves them.
God watches over all who love God,
but will destroy all the wicked.
My mouth will speak the praise of God,
and all flesh will bless God’s holy name forever and ever.
God Is Near to All
Reflection by Kate Matthews
Psalm 145 is one of the last psalms, but it goes back to the very beginning of it all, to God as Creator and Source of overflowing blessings. In this season of thanksgiving and generosity, there is no better text than this song of abundance, of praise for all of God’s creation and for God’s tender care for that creation, including each of us. Long ago, in a land and culture with far less in terms of material possessions but perhaps far more in terms of spiritual wisdom, Israel’s song of “exuberant trust” praises the way God has set things up, Walter Brueggemann writes, the way God established “a coherent, viable, life-giving, life-permitted order–a place for life.”
A place for life. Is the church “a place for life”? Are our cities and neighborhoods and the world “a place for life”? What’s keeping us back from making it so? What has damaged God’s plan, and subverted God’s intent for the world? We might begin, as the psalmist often does, with the earth itself and the beauty and abundance of the creation on which we depend. The growing awareness of the earth’s distress isn’t about God’s actions but ours, and how we care for the earth is related to how we view the origin and purpose of everything. If we think the point is to amass more than our share of “the goods,” then stewardship of the earth is no more necessary than giving away our money. Or at least it hasn’t been, until now, when our very survival is at stake. The point of the psalmist, about our dependence on what we’ve received, is even stronger. We didn’t create all this, but, ironically, we do have the power to destroy it. The question then is whether we are willing to hear the Stillspeaking God calling us to care lovingly for the abundance we’ve received, and to share it with one another. How will we respond in this season of grace?
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews
retired in July from serving as
Dean of the Amistad Chapel
at the national offices
of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio
For further reflection:
Susan Sarandon, 21st century
“So I would hope they would develop some kind of habit that involves understanding that their life is so full they can afford to give in all kinds of ways to other people. I consider that to be baseline spirituality.”
Anabel Proffitt, 21st century
“May you stay in that place of wonder and wisdom that lies between the uncertainty of the world and the dependable grace of our God.”
Barbara Bush, 21st century
“Giving frees us from the familiar territory of our own needs by opening our mind to the unexplained worlds occupied by the needs of others.”
J.K. Rowling, 21st century
“Abundance is the quality of life you live and quality of life you give to others.”
Redwood City, CA
(Shared driveway with Smart & Final ~
We are at the far end of the second parking lot)
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