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A Protest Chaplain’s Story

It was muggy and warm and not really comfortable in Atlanta that day. A minister friend and I put on our clergy collars, parked at the local church, and walked to the George Floyd protest. The national guard had blocked pedestrian walkways, forcing us to walk an additional mile just to join the others that had gathered. Armed soldiers were everywhere. Police were in full riot gear. It seemed as if the city “too busy to hate” was a warzone.

Protesters in Atlanta, GA gather in support of the Movement for Black Lives.

I did not fully know what I was getting into, but I was somewhat prepared. My friend and I had discussed what we were bringing, what we felt comfortable doing, and how we were going to do it. We stayed in contact with each other throughout and made sure we each knew what the other would and would not do.

But I had never been at a potentially violent protest before. I had participated in the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., sure. I had been threatened with dismissal as a student (a couple of times, actually). I had even worked to get a local Confederate monument removed. I have never been one to shy away from challenging authority. But this was new.

My friend and I had been in a group of hot sweaty people who were yelling at police for only a few minutes when someone shouted “Allies to the front!” My fellow protest chaplain and I looked at each other, shrugged, and moved to the front of the line. A primary role for a protest chaplain is de-escalation. When allies are called to the front, the goal is to shield our siblings of color with our bodies. And a small white clergywoman in a collared shirt standing in front of a police line in full riot gear is a visceral image. We stood there at the front while our Black brothers and sisters chanted and talked and stood vigilant. Organizers handed out cold water and hand sanitizer and checked-in with people.

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How to Dress for a Protest

This past Saturday, our Iowa winter weather pushed above forty degrees. The sun was warm, the air was humid, and the sidewalks were filled with puddles. It was a perfect day for our community’s Women’s March. It was a terrible day for figuring out what to wear.

I knew that I wanted to wear my clergy collar. I knew that I didn’t have any shoes that were both waterproof and comfortable for walking. I knew that I would regret looking too casual. I knew that I would regret looking too fancy.

I pulled on some black leggings and my gray jersey-knit clergy dress (with collar). I layered a half-zip fleece and a black puffy vest. I zipped up my brown boots (the flat ones) and challenged myself not to step in too many puddles. I slung my green cross-body backpack over my shoulder and filled it with meager essentials – wallet, cell phone, water bottle, a granola bar, some lip balm.

Finally. Dressed and ready.

Except for one thing. A hat.

The week prior to the march, I had purchased a skein of the bounciest, softest, squishiest pink alpaca yarn – the sort of yarn that I can only afford to buy one skein at a time. I loaded it onto my knitting needles and, a year out of fashion, knit myself a pink hat, square at the top so that subtle kitten ears would emerge when I pulled it onto my head. I’d finished the hat on Friday night and deemed it the softest, warmest, most comfortable had I’d ever knit.

I grabbed it on my way out the door. But instead of putting it on, I shoved it into my backpack, woefully indecisive about whether to wear it. Woefully indecisive about whether I should have made it in the first place. Woefully indecisive about whether I should be wearing my collar to the day’s march and rally. Woefully indecisive about whether I should be heading out the door at all, especially with my four-year-old son in tow, who had resolutely informed me that: He. Was. Going. With. Me.

He and I walked, hand in hand, along the bike trail toward Mary Christopher park, the kickoff spot for the the Decorah, Iowa edition of the Women’s March. As we walked, I tried to explain to him, in four-year-old terms, that this march was a way to say that everybody is special, and everybody deserves love and homes and food and doctors and jobs, no matter who they are. I tried to explain that we were marching because we believe that God loves everybody – everybody!

As a person of faith, I am convinced – convicted, even! – that God’s love and mercy are for everyone. I believe that God’s grace is the great equalizer. I believe that we receive God’s gifts of forgiveness and wholeness and hope in order that we can offer those gifts into the world. I believe that following Jesus means that we have an inescapable call to serve one another and to show self-giving compassion for all people and all creation.

It should have been easy for me to march. It should have been easy to wear my faith on my sleeve.

But the closer we got to the gathering crowd, the more insecure I felt. I was conflicted about bearing my faith into the public sphere. I worried about what I was wearing. I felt anxious about who would see me, what people would think. I was wearing an incredibly comfortable outfit, and still I felt so very uncomfortable. Read more

Sinking: A Sermon on Genesis 37, Matthew 14, and Charlottesville

As the children leave, I ask of you a moment of personal privilege. I am grateful for the trust you give to your pastors and for the gospel which has been entrusted to all of us as people of faith. I also want to remind you that a pastor’s role in preaching, like the shepherd’s staff, is twofold. Sometimes sermons draw you near and bring comfort. Sometimes they prod and agitate. This sermon falls in the latter category. It is intentionally provocative. It may make you uncomfortable or even angry. I’m not flippant about that; all I ask is that you hear me out, and I promise to afford you the same courtesy should you want to remain in conversation. I believe our relationship as a family of faith can hold that tension. 

Keep your eyes open and pray with me: Lord, may your light shine. Lord, may your steadfast love endure forever. Lord, may justice flow down like water, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Amen.

Small historical markers track the movement of the Athabasca Glacier in Alberta, Canada.

The snout of the Athabasca Glacier in the Canadian Rocky Mountains is just a few hundred yards away from Icefields Parkway, a stunning, scenic route between Banff and Jasper National Parks in the province of Alberta. When our family stopped to see the glacier just a few weeks ago, I underestimated the reflection of the sun off the ice and sustained a wicked sunburn. So I brought back from Canada souvenir tan lines which prove my lack of good judgment. But what has stuck with me even more than the sunburn is the memory of small historical markers along the walking trail leading to the glacier’s edge. I might have missed the first one on the far side of the parking lot just off the highway, except that my four-year-old was climbing on it. No more than 2 feet high, and definitely off the beaten path, the stone marker blended into the background. It simply said, “The glacier was here in 1843.” As we hiked toward the glacier’s edge on a trail of rock and rubble left behind by the glacier itself as it has receded, I noticed more of these markers—off to the side, unobtrusive, and yet still quietly telling the sad truth that the glacier is receding at an alarming and accelerating rate.

“The glacier was here in 1908” read the marker at the foot of the path. A ways later, “The glacier was here in 1925.” Then “The glacier was here in 1935.” We walked on, sometimes slipping and stumbling on the rocks left in the glacier’s wake. “The glacier was here in 1942.” We helped the children on the steepest parts of the climb. “The glacier was here in 1982.” By the time we reached the marker showing where the glacier was in 1992, the message these markers conveyed was growing painfully clear. At the 1992 marker, we were only about halfway from the parking lot to the glacier’s current position. You’re probably already doing the math. In the last 25 years, the glacier has moved roughly the same distance it had moved in the previous 149 years.

I could go on about shrinking glaciers and the truth they tell us about the damage we are doing to the environment God has entrusted to our care, but that is a sermon for another day. Read more

Young Clergy Women on Marching

On Saturday, January 21, young clergy women participated in the Women’s March on Washington, DC, and in sister marches all over the world. We’ve gathered some of their reflections on these events.

On the visibility of being clergy

  • I intentionally wore my collar to serve as a public witness as a faith leader: I had a conversation with a woman my age who has an advanced degree in Hebrew literature and Scripture, but did not go on to be a rabbi because she didn’t have female role models. She expressed gratitude that I was showing young women today that they, too, may be called to lead faith communities.
  • A reporter interviewed me and another clergywoman, and was surprised to hear that we were pastors. “Wait, you’re Christian, but you’re at this march?” I explained that I was marching because of my faith, not in spite of it: part of my baptismal call is to follow the example of Jesus, serve others, and strive for justice and peace for all.
  • I wore a collar to show that young women clergy exist, and that Christians stand for love and justice. My husband observed that when photographers saw a young woman in a collar, they ran over to snap a picture. It was interesting to notice how young women clergy were “desirable optics” for a reporter’s narrative. I’m still trying to sort out how I feel about that.
  • I had planned to wear my collar, but I start a new job next week at a non-profit that is primarily donor funded, and is supported broadly by churches and synagogues across theological and political spectrums. While I wanted deeply to participate, I also didn’t want my collar to get me on the front page of something and alienate church folks in a new city before I get to know them.
  • I marched beside my mother, also a clergy woman. I wore my collar because the reason why I march is my faith and my role as a faith leader: I was marching for congregation members who are queer and don’t feel comfortable being out at church; for undocumented parishioners who have sought help but come up against roadblocks; for the woman who had an abortion when she learned her much-wanted baby would not live and was in pain.
  • I marched with a group of fellow clergy women wearing matching jackets that said “Nasty Clergy Women.” The comments ranged from “Pray for me sisters!” to “I’m not religious, but that I could get on board with!”

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#Baltimore: Reflections from a White, Feminist, Queer Freedom Fighter

Protesters in Baltimore

Protesters in Baltimore

I didn’t give it a second thought. Of course I would join my co-pastors and other folks from the Slate Project* in marching for justice for Freddie Gray. It was Saturday April 25th. People had been peacefully marching in protest throughout Baltimore all week. I was glad to have this opportunity to join them, to finally show up and move my feet and stand in solidarity with a movement that I believe in.

Social justice activism has been an important part of my faith since I was first introduced to liberation theology in college. In seminary, when I studied the social gospel and the civil rights movement, my theology became even more firmly rooted in the notion that Jesus came to set all people free from all forms of oppression. This is what I preach from the pulpit. This is what I teach in my parishes. But the experience of picking up a sign and marching with hundreds of other people to embody this gospel message would be a way to show what I believe with my life.

I considered my role in this movement to be an “ally.” I have been involved in the movement for equal civil rights for the LGBTQ community, but I am a part of that community. I am not a member of the black community. The experience of marching in Baltimore felt different and posed different challenges. Marching together with many different groups – each with its own agenda, ideology, and purpose in being there – was complicated. Sure, everyone would say, “At the end of the day we are all here for the same reason,” and then something about justice for Freddie Gray and an end to the systematic oppression of black people (if not in so many words). It felt good to be united together under those goals. But as we moved together down the streets of Baltimore, there were times I could not bring myself to join the voice of the crowd. “All night, all day, we will fight for Freddie Gray!” I thought to myself, “Will I? Will I fight for Freddie Gray?” “All night, all day, we will nonviolently resist for Freddie Gray!” just does not have the same ring to it. I began to wonder about how it would actually play out, to have all these different groups coming together. Could we unite around a common mission? Could we put aside our differences and stand together as one, while still authentically being who we were and not giving up our identities?

I wondered about my role in this struggle. On Monday night, as reports came in that police were facing off with protesters at Penn & North, I had several thoughts. “I should go,” I thought. “I should see if any of my pastor friends want to go and try to diffuse the escalation.” But I wondered if my presence—a young, white woman in a collar—would actually have that effect. The clergy who showed up and stood between the police and protesters were African American men. They were able to walk into that space and immediately receive the needed respect, authority, and assumption of shared experience to be accepted by the protestors, most of whom were also African American men, and by the predominantly male police force.

It became painfully obvious that I did not have already established relationships with the people or the clergy in the African American communities that were on the ground in this movement. I went to meetings. In some, I was overwhelmed by the atmosphere of sexism, particularly in the attitudes of the male clergy. I showed up to partner in the fight against oppression based on race. I did not expect those leading the fight to turn around and then discriminate against another group of people based on gender.

Later in the week, I went to meetings held by the newly formed Baltimore United and led by folks from Fellowship of Reconciliation. These meetings were smaller and much more diverse. The folks running these meetings did not hold up one or two particular leaders. They did not name men as the only “warriors” fit to be on the “front lines.” These meetings were run by men, women, queer, cis, young and old. At these meetings, it was clear we were all in this together. These were my people.

At one of these meetings, the Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, a fellow with the Fellowship of Reconciliation, said that they don’t need white folks to show up and be allies. Allies can duck in and out of the movement, because this is not their struggle. He said, “We don’t need allies. We need freedom fighters.” That is when I decided to stop considering myself an ally. This fight must be my fight. These children must be our children. This struggle must be our struggle. We must be one people, fighting for all our freedom.

We do not have the luxury to focus on one kind of oppression at a time. Sexism; heterosexism; racism; ageism; discrimination based on socioeconomic status, education, background, or criminal history – they are all interrelated. God calls us all to work for the liberation of all God’s people. Each of us has a role to play. I know that because of who I am, there are roles I can play in this movement and roles I cannot play. This is true for all of us. And this is the beauty of the diversity that God has created. We are not meant to play all the same roles; we are not meant to do all the same things. We are meant to discover our callings in relationship with one another and then help each other become the people God has created us to be.

We also must celebrate and lift up each role and not overly exalt any one person or group, nor denigrate any one person or group. This movement in Baltimore is made up of networks of hundreds of leaders and many, many people, who all are doing important and necessary work. We must discern together what our roles are and then play them boldly and with courage. For as we already know, God can and will use us all to transform the world.