January 10, 2017

Thermometer or thermostat

Image by Paul Stocksdale

Visiting Church of the Brethren districts, I have been struck by the ways we strive to reflect the Revelation 7:9 vision of all tribes coming together to worship. It can be complicated to blend different styles of worship and slow down for translation, but it is always a beautiful glimpse into God’s vision for us. Beyond the compelling aesthetic imagery of Revelation, God’s vision is one rooted in a reality where we are all brothers and sisters—family— to each other, a community bonded by love and respect.

As early as the 1800s, while the national economy was dependent on the moral compromises of slavery, our denomination spoke out against racism, segregation, and oppression based on race. From district queries to Annual Conference statements, we have asserted a scriptural reading that people of other races are equals before God and are to be welcomed and supported in our midst. Yet recent events have incited an increase in racialized violence and hate crimes, including arson and graffiti tagging of African-American churches.

Guided by the 2007 “Separate No More” paper that calls for us to be in dialogue to hear one another’s stories and experiences, I began to check in with the leaders in our denomination who are part of the umbrella of Intercultural Ministries. I wanted to hear about the impact of the election season and the weeks following on their communities, especially people whose identities were targeted by the campaign rhetoric.

As of writing this article, I have had more than 25 telephone conversations, ranging from 25 minutes to over 2 hours, with a group that includes the Intercultural Ministries Advisory Committee; leaders of congregations that identify as multicultural, African American, and Latino; multi-racial families who attend predominantly white congregations, including white members of these families; leaders of color who have been active in district and denominational life; pastors of color who serve in white congregations; and white pastors whose youth groups reflect the growing ethnic diversity of our neighborhoods.

These calls have included conversations about concerns for individual church members, the impact on church maintenance and growth, questions about whether the church can provide sanctuary for those threatened with deportation, and, of course, prayers both while on the phone and continuing now.

The concerns that I am hearing include:

Vulnerability: People who have identity points that have been part of the political rhetoric are feeling vulnerable for the ways policy, politics, and social discourse have shifted. They are concerned about how this unfolds in the upcoming years for individuals, communities, and congregations. There are specific concerns such as those related to deportation of immigrants, anti-Semitism, police violence (i.e., stop-and-frisk, driving while black, police shootings), the school-to-prison pipeline, etc. Underlying most of these concerns and vulnerabilities is the fear of the rising racism in our country and culture.

Witnessing and experiencing increased racism: This includes individuals being called derogatory names (which sometimes do not even reflect their own identities, such as a citizen being mistaken for an immigrant, and Christians from other parts of the world being mistaken for Muslims); witnessing groups/mobs chanting “build the wall” and “throw them out”; racist graffiti and increased Confederate flags in our communities; the awareness that hate groups including the nebulous “alt right” are growing; online conversations/interactions that have racist overtones; news reports of students being attacked in school/ youth settings, which are scaring our Church of the Brethren youth who fear that they will be next or that it could happen at their schools.

Prayers for leaders: Many have spoken of the importance of praying for our leaders—denominational, national, local community, and of course, presidential. At least one conversation included explicit references to the way God was able to change the heart of Pharaoh. In this, I have been amazed at both the depth of compassion and trust that God has the power to make all things possible, and that God’s will—though we do not understand it in the moment—continues to unfold. In these conversations, it also is clear that while “God is God” the identity of many in the intercultural church is not aligned with that of formal, national leadership. Rather there is greater empathy and spiritual alignment (for a lack of a better term) with the ways in which early Christians were persecuted, and seen as outsiders within the context of the Roman Empire, and the times when the “chosen people” were enslaved or wandering as foreigners in a foreign land. I am hearing a faith journey in which Christianity is distinct from political power, not just distanced in a hands-washed kind of way but rather engaged through the lens of persecution.

What happens next? There is a great sense that we do not know what will happen next—and while that is always true it seems to be particularly important now. Most immediately, there is the concern of deportation. For some congregations this literally means devastation. As one pastor said, “We will not have any complete families left.” These leaders and congregations want to know what options there are for churches to provide sanctuary and if our wider denomination would be part of that conversation. There are very real questions about how this would impact the lives of specific congregations. Many of our immigrant pastors are documented, but they are worried about their congregations and communities. Also, it is important to note that many are wondering if/when “bad things” start happening will we as a denomination recognize it, be able to speak up, or even advocate on behalf of our members?

We have seen this before—will we live through this again? Some people in the Church of the Brethren have lived under dictatorships and in authoritarian states in other countries and are holding that lens to our current situation in the United States. They are remembering what congregations and church leaders did to advocate and protect their communities in other nations. A number are remembering that is part of why they are in the US now. They are remembering others who fled their own nations during difficult political times. Among those who are African American or have African Americans in their families, there is a strong sense of a return to a time when to be black was to be vulnerable, hated, and/or oppressed. The rise of new hate groups and a resurgence of the KKK has them very worried about what comes next. Public rallies and the online presence of these groups is a regular reminder that the violence and vulnerability experienced by African Americans in the past could also return in some form.

Pastoral care: Our pastors are thinking a lot about the type of care they need to provide for their congregations and communities at this time. However, I also am hearing hope that the wider denomination will be part of the community that supports their congregations in this time. Also, there is a longing to hear from the denomination. During these calls, I was asked if I was bringing prayers and greetings and a message on behalf of the whole denomination that would be inspiring/comforting to their members and could be shared at worship or during Bible studies.

Having conversations with white people: People who are white and deeply engaged with multicultural congregations or families have a sense that they should have done more to have honest conversations about race and racism and what was happening in the election season. Some are now trying to engage and have these conversations after the fact. Others are still afraid of these conversations. A few think that it is someone else’s job to have these conversations and to keep white people informed about the dangers of race and racism. There is a feeling of profound disconnect with how good, Christian people can be blind to the racism and racialized violence that is being fostered and encouraged in our society right now.

We have struggled with racialized violence and discrimination in our country in the past, and we have models of earlier Christian leaders to inspire us during this time. I have been returning to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail“—a letter that feels particularly relevant because it is addressed to white Christians who are struggling to do what is right during a divisive and difficult time. King wrote,

“There was a time when the church was powerful— in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”

In many ways, I feel that this report is doing “thermometer” work—trying to describe many conversations across several weeks. I hope that it leaves you with a feel for what I heard. Yet, I do not think I fully conveyed how joyful and happy people were to hear from me. They told me how much it meant to know that someone else in their denomination was aware of their situation, sensitive to their concerns, and reaching out to them. As hard as these conversations were, there were moments of laughter and an acceptance that we are in God’s plan, but also a determination that we need to be doing “something”—although there is not yet clarity on what that something is.

That leads to the thermostat metaphor in King’s letter. There is a strong desire for the church to act. For some that means finding their own voice. For others it is a desire to see the wider denominational leadership act so that they can join with a larger movement. I look forward to seeing how we build on our values—from the early Brethren statements on slavery, to the 1963 call to action in “The Time Is Now to Heal Our Racial Brokenness,” to the call for continued education about the intricacies of intercultural competency and racial awareness in “Separate No More.”

We have an opportunity to build on this legacy in a way that honors our history and the unique ways that the Church of the Brethren continues the work of Jesus . . . peacefully, simply, and together.

Gimbiya Kettering is director of intercultural ministries for the Church of the Brethren.