Dear Church: It’s Time to Get Out of the Boat

The theologian Karl Barth was known to have said that preachers should write their sermons with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. If he were alive today, he might have amended that statement to say that we should preach with the Bible in one hand and our Facebook news feed in the other. I have to tell you, there were two topics in particular that came up in my Facebook feed this week that we need to discuss here this morning. And while it might not seem so at first, they are actually related to each other.

The first was an article about church decline. I’ve seen dozens of similar articles shared by clergy colleagues, stating facts and figures about Christianity’s demise in the West: noting a decline in church attendance and a decline in young clergy and the impending leadership vacuum it will create. All the statistics that we faithful people who come to church every week don’t want to hear. These articles all speculate as to the reasons why people aren’t finding church to be relevant anymore: we’ve watered down the gospel to create mass appeal, the enlightenment, the industrial revolution, capitalism and individualism, the internet, televangelists and millionaire celebrity pastors, church scandals, an increasingly secular culture… Perhaps all of these reasons are true, to a degree. The sum of it all, though, is what we need to pay attention to: that in rapidly increasing numbers, more and more people find church, Christianity, a life of faith, simply irrelevant.

The second was what happened in Charlottesville this weekend. In case you aren’t aware, a debate over removing the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from a city park in Charlottesville led to white nationalists planning a rally they dubbed “Unite the Right.” There was also a call for 1,000 clergy and faith leaders to come to Charlottesville in prayer and community to counter-protest, and many Episcopal priests and bishops, as well as bishops and ministers from other Christian denominations, some of whom are personal friends, were among those gathered in counter-protest.

Starting Friday night, radical white supremacist protesters against the removal of the Confederate statue descended on Charlottesville. In a scene all too familiar to many who were part of the Civil Rights era, they marched through Charlottesville with torches in hand, shouting hateful racist slogans and terrorizing the counter-protestors. One colleague of mine posted a picture that he called “an enduring image” as to why he was there. It was taken inside the church where he and hundreds more faithful counter-protestors were gathered and showed a young girl, probably eight or nine years old, being held and comforted by the pastor of the church, with a terrified look on her face because white terrorists with torches in hand had encircled the church outside and were not letting them leave. The one difference was that now, there were no white hoods to mask their faces. Thankfully, the protest eventually was disbanded and they made it out alive.

The planned protest was for Saturday at noon, but it was cancelled before it even started. Saturday afternoon, in an act of domestic terrorism, a radical white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters, killing one person and injuring at least 19 more. Virginia declared a state of emergency, police were ordered to clear the area, and people were told to go home.

I’m so upset at this headline that I’m still struggling to find the words for it. I’m baffled, confused, and sickened. How was this allowed to happen? How can white supremacy—neo-Nazism—have such an organized stronghold, such legitimacy, in this country that literally fought against Nazis in a World War? Why are we calling this “white advocacy” and the “alt-right,” using words normally associated with political issues, to tame down a non-political movement that has proven itself to be nothing short of domestic terrorism? How can there be such strong bleed-over between radical Christian fundamentalists and radical white supremacists, while the church stays relatively silent and allows them to corrupt the gospel? Read more

Loving Across Difference, Living Without Fear

Not long ago, in conversation with a clergywoman I’d recently met, I mentioned that my husband is Muslim. “Cool,” she said, adding shyly, “Is that hard?” I laughed. “It sure is; but only because marriage is always hard. We’re not special.”

When Haamid and I started dating, it rarely occurred to me that being an interreligious couple might be an issue for other Christians. I grew up in a progressive Episcopal Church and a liberal town. My stepfather and stepsiblings are all Jewish, so I’d seen in my own family that love could not only transcend religious difference but be enriched by it. My brother married an African-American Buddhist; my sister, a Roman Catholic of Mexican heritage; and my oldest brother and his wife, a French national, are both atheists. (We joke that family holidays are like gatherings of the United Nations.) The San Francisco parish that sponsored my ordination, an overwhelmingly LGBTQ congregation deeply committed to social justice, had an expansive understanding of Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as ourselves. Also, did I mention that Haamid is kind of a great guy? No one in my Diocese or family hesitated to give us their blessing.

This is not to say that we had our heads in the sand. Haamid emigrated from Pakistan in the mid-90s. When he first landed in a Midwestern college town, he encountered both racial and religious discrimination. Unfamiliar with common bathrooms, he was frequently pranked when trying to shower alone or clean himself after using the toilet. It pains me to hear stories about that time. He sought refuge and greater opportunity in large cities, first on the East Coast and then the West. But as he built his home here, eventually becoming a citizen, he became keenly aware of white, Christian privilege.

I grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a city with a long history of combating systemic racism, but I had not encountered much religious diversity as a child. I was a senior in High School when the twin towers fell. Though that probably wasn’t the first day I’d heard the word “Islam,” it was the first time I remember. (On the other side of the country, Haamid was among countless Muslims legally living and working in the United States who suddenly had to be fingerprinted every year.) I went on to study Islam and Arabic in college, discovering a rich history and a beautiful faith, just as my country was declaring war on Iraq. This education sensitized me to the Islamophobia rampant in our media and wider culture. Read more

book of common prayer

One Book, Many Cultures

book of common prayerHidden away on our bookshelves is a little black book dating from the 1930s. When I hold it, my hand feels the imprints of my grandfather’s fingers on the cover. My thumb rests effortlessly at the end of the title: “Common Prayer – Hymns A & M.” Eight years ago, I brought this book with me from England to America to remind me of my grandparents. It never occurred to me that it would be a way of connecting with a congregation here, but that is exactly what has happened at my new parish.

Anglicans around the world would understand the shorthand in that title. “Common Prayer” refers to the 1662 revision of The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England, while “A & M” means “Ancient and Modern.” The Book of Common Prayer was an attempt by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer to bring unity to the English church following the Reformation by mandating one form of worship for everyone. Hymns Ancient and Modern was an attempt to consolidate the most popular Anglican hymns of the late 1800s into a single volume. It was this little black book that British missionaries took with them as they went out around the world to spread the good news – and to reinforce the power structures of the British Empire.

I am keenly aware that what joins me as a white priest to my mainly black congregation is the colonial past, which includes the shared heritage of The Book of Common Prayer and the hymnal that went with it. My parish is around forty percent West African and thirty percent Caribbean, while the remaining thirty percent is made up of North Americans (both white and African-American) with a splattering of Europeans. There is also an emerging Central American congregation that worships separately in Spanish, led by another priest.

Ministering into this tension that is the shared heritage of the Anglican Communion means being aware of the privileges that I have as the priest and as a white person, and at the same time acknowledging the shared experience of being an immigrant. Almost everyone in the English-speaking congregation comes from a country that is a former British colony or still belongs to the British Commonwealth. A number of the Caribbean parishioners have told me that they remember being sent “the latest young priest from England” when they were growing up, and so there is something familiar about having a young, white English person pastoring their congregation. Although they have shared this a positive memory, I cannot ignore that our present reality together comes with a colonial power dynamic based in both culture and race.

Almost all of the members were also raised as Anglicans. Like me, they came to the Episcopal Church because it is part of the Anglican Communion. Read more

Race and Gender: What Being a Woman Preacher has to do with Racial (In)Justice

The author

The author

I am a woman.

I am a woman who preaches.

Though we are not many, one of the greatest gifts of knowing other women called to preach is when we are able to sit together, share a meal or a drink, and talk about the complex and difficult realities of being a woman in a world/field/church wherein men have ruled for centuries.

When I’m alone, it’s too easy to question the anger that surfaces when men consistently cut me off or (consciously or otherwise) insist their voices have a louder hearing. When it’s just me in the room, I too quickly reject the painful emotions of not feeling heard or seen, or I suppress the frustration of having to jump through yet another hoop in order to secure a seat at the table. But when I’m with my sisters, when I’m surrounded by other women whose reality mirrors mine, I am free. I can shed the felt need to hold it together or represent all women or not show too much emotion, and I can simply feel all that I feel and name all that I experience and find it/myself validated.

There is nothing like it.

The reason I desperately need community with fellow women preachers is because they see through a similar lens. They encounter similar experiences. They hear what I hear, and none of us has to convince the other that any of it is real. This is not the case outside such a circle. As a woman who preaches, I hear and see and experience life in a particular way. I notice and observe certain realities—both subtle and overt—that others don’t. This is not a critique; it is simply true.

We are called “speakers” instead of “preachers.” Our “sermons” are sometimes labeled “lessons” or “presentations.” We are allowed to speak, but only if a man remains on the platform with us. We’re asked to sit as we teach in order to show deference to male authority. We are given the title “coordinator” when men performing the same tasks are referred to as “pastor.” We are allowed to teach on certain topics but not others, irrespective of our training and education.

And on, and on, and on. Read more

What White Christians can Learn from Get Out

the author

The author

I’ve watched white churches attempt to confront racism in ways their members can digest, whether it be with campaigns or curriculums. So I’d like to add a suggestion. Predominantly white churches who want to confront their racism should watch Get Out.

In Jordan Peele’s horror/thriller, a young black photographer named Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) goes to meet the family of his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams from Girls) for the first time. The audience travels with Chris and Rose to the secluded and expansive home of the rest of the Armitages: Rose’s neurosurgeon father, Dean (Bradley Whitford); Rose’s psychiatrist mother, Missy (Catherine Keener); and Rose’s mixed-martial arts enthusiast brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones).

The Armitages appear to be the average “liberal” white family, but there is an eerie mixture of condescension and forced politeness molded into their kindness that makes Chris uncomfortable from the moment he arrives. When Chris meets the Black housekeeper Georgina (Betty Gabriel) and Black groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson), who are subservient in a way reminiscent of slavery, it’s clear something isn’t right.

Chris eventually finds pictures of Rose with numerous Black men and a picture of Rose with a less hypnotized, more modernly dressed version of Georgina. The photos lead to the big reveal of the terrifying truth about Rose and her family. Rose lures Black men (and Georgina) to her family’s home so her mother can hypnotize them, and her father and brother can then transplant the brains of white people into the bodies of their new Black hosts. The process started with Rose’s grandparents, whose brains were transplanted into the bodies of Walter and Georgina. The brain transplants leave their victims in the “sunken place”: a place in their consciousness where they are passive observers of everything they say or do.

Peele’s “Get Out” is a love letter to the Black community, validating our anxiety about the racism of all liberal white people—an anxiety that is no exception for Black people who work with or worship with liberal white people in predominantly white churches. White church folks invested in anti-racism work understand that unpacking their racism (and the work that comes with it) rests solely on them and not on Black folks.

 

If you’re a white liberal churchgoer watching “Get Out,” here are some takeaways from Get Out that you don’t want to miss: Read more

I Could Not Know

This is the testimony of a white woman, written primarily for other white people.

I did not know, I could not see. I had no idea. Now, years later, I’m frustrated that my not knowing, my not seeing, was hurting people. I’m finding ways to live with discovering the harm I’m causing without reducing myself to paralyzing shame. I’m slowly in a process of unlearning defensiveness. To do this, I need to know where I’ve come from and how different parts of my life and the system interact.

The place where I was first taught that white bodies mattered the most was in church. Before I could read, all the pictures of God and Jesus were white. All of the children sitting on the laps of the deity in the painting were white. All of the children in my Children’s Bible illustrations were white. This, despite the fact that Jesus was a brown Middle Eastern Jew, as the children in his company would have been, as well as his disciples.

This is what I mean when I say that I was taught to ignore some bodies and to value others from an early age through pictures. And I had no idea. Now, I wonder how black, brown, and indigenous children walking into our churches understand their place (or lack thereof) in the kingdom of God, when everyone pictured in it is usually white.

My school books were the same way: mostly white characters, mostly male characters. Some people are the main characters in stories (white males), while others are either nonexistent or there to support the main character.

The adults in my life, without intention, taught me to have stereotypes: People who don’t speak English are stupid, “colored people’s time” is about people being late because they are lazy, people who are unemployed just don’t want to get jobs. No one admitted that they were subtly teaching these things through offhand comments while reading the paper or watching the news. People said, “We’re nice to everyone and value them equally.” I could not see that simply saying and believing we can be nice causes harm, because the world does not treat people equally. This is not only about me being nice to people of different races; I also need to understand that the world does not treat them as equal and work toward changing that.

Thanks to Brene Brown, I am aware that my shame over being a racist will only paralyze me. Thinking of myself as a terrible person, or hearing that I’m a terrible person when someone calls me a racist or tells me to behave differently to cause less harm, does not help anyone. It only gets me stuck, and only serves to protect my ability to do harm, instead of helping me learn to do less harm.

So how do we not get wrapped up in the guilt and shame of understanding that to be white is to be participating in a racist system? Read more

White Girl Watching Lemonade

Diana Carroll

The author

A few weeks ago, I finally watched Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade from start to finish.

I was aware of the album when it first came out last year. I remember seeing the video for the song “Formation” and reading an article or two about the controversy that it sparked. I even watched the Saturday Night Live parody about white people freaking out at discovering that “Beyoncé is black!” But I don’t really follow pop artists, or celebrities in general, and I’ve never been into music videos, so Lemonade quickly faded into the background as other stories took its place. Except this one image that stayed in my head: Beyoncé dressed as a southern belle with both middle fingers up at the camera. That was pretty hard to forget.

Early one Sunday morning in January, while lying in bed trying to convince myself to get up, I found myself listening to a piece on NPR about the spirituality of Lemonade. That got my attention. The speaker was Dr. Yolanda Pierce, a Professor of African-American Religion and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary. She was describing the significance of Lemonade as an expression of the spiritual lives of black women, who do not always find themselves reflected in their own religious traditions. I was intrigued by her statement that listening to, and especially watching, a popular R&B album had been a religious experience for her: “I walked away from this album with the profound sense that I’d been to church.”

Then the Grammys happened, and one of Beyoncé’s pregnancy announcement photos appeared in my local newspaper, and I decided it was high time for me to watch Lemonade for myself and find out what all the fuss was about. Read more

Bienvenidos mat

¡Bienvenidos! Welcome!

Bienvenidos matSunday morning after worship, I sat with Lidia*, trying desperately to hold back my tears as she occasionally wiped hers away, hiding them from her children. Lidia and her family are an integral part of our community of faith. They became members after Lidia and the previous pastor met in classes while they were both pregnant. As they got to know each other, the family started worshiping with our community of faith. In turn, our community of faith started including more Spanish in our worship service.

Lidia and her family are among the many migrant and immigrant residents of our rural Midwestern town who have come from Mexico to work on the local farms. Last year, our community of faith had been excited and energized by the relationships we’d been developing with the farmworkers and their families. The banner outside our church building, made for our annual picnic welcoming our friends back from their homes in Mexico, reads, “¡Bienvenidos! Welcome!” Each year, an extended family spends five to six months in our town, working for a local organic farm during their main growing season. And each year for the last few years, we have welcomed them with a picnic filled with food, games, and maps that allow all of us to point to the places we each come from.

We also pushed our School District Community Education Program to offer free English as a Second Language classes in the community. At the end of the harvest, we send the family back to Mexico with cookies, well-wishes, and cries of “¡Hasta la primavera! ¡Nos vemos en junio!”

Our members take seriously the love of God they encounter in communion—a love that means each person has a place at the table and each person should be fed and nourished. I wish the story could end there, with us all sharing in joyful welcome of each other at God’s Table, but when we form meaningful relationships with people, we also get to know the problems they face in a new way. This is especially true for problems that are rooted in systemic sins. Read more

#BlackGirlMagic-alMinister

Kaji S. Douša

“Just make it magical,” I said.

I looked at the makeshift learning space: a hallway, really. This was where our church would be asking our children to go in-depth about Jesus for the next year and a half, while we completed our all-encompassing construction project.

Everything had to be added to the space; it came with nothing. But, quite quickly, it began to host the ragtag miscellany that inhabits all spaces that are not carefully controlled. It became a storage room, a hallway, and a place to learn about Jesus. Some of this could change—we could be more disciplined about where we put things—but some was simply the reality of where we were. Yet if the children were asked to do this, then the least we could do would be to make the place… magical. So we designed something exciting and beautiful that might have been too difficult to pull off in a larger space. Magic could make this work.

If only we had a wand to make everything else magic. Read more

Go Back To Your Country

just-race-dec-2016It was on the way to pick up the kids from school.

I slowed to a stop at the crosswalk that connects a paved walking trail with a rails-to-trails path on a fairly busy street in Bloomington. I had seen the bicyclist slow down to wait to cross, but even though I was in a hurry, I waved him on anyway. My eyes flicked up to my rearview mirror, and I noticed the car behind me abruptly stop, like the driver hadn’t been paying attention. Maybe he didn’t expect me to stop for the lone person waiting to cross the street. Maybe he was on his phone. Maybe he was in a hurry to pick up his kids.

When I drove further down the road, the lanes opened up, and I got in the left-turn lane. That’s when I noticed the same car behind me come up and zip around even before the lanes split off. As I turned to watch him drive by, he slowed down a little with his driver’s window down and screamed out:

Bitch, learn how to drive or go back to your country.

Then he sped through the intersection. I missed my chance to turn left as I watched him drive away, my knuckles turning white from gripping the steering wheel. I couldn’t help but immediately default to thinking: Was I not supposed to stop for the bicyclist? Did I do something wrong? Am I a bad driver? Read more