Dear Hyde Park Family,
One of the first churches I served after graduating from seminary was a small, rural congregation in the deep South. I was young and eager to please, and still somewhat oblivious to the realities of ministry in the real world. Within the first few months of my arrival, we scheduled a congregation-wide clean-up day for the church. Parishioners gathered to pick up branches, rake pine needles, and trim overgrown bushes.
Toward the end of the work day, I placed the last of the debris into the pick-up truck of one of the church members, whom I’ll call Ben, so that we could haul it off to the burn pile for incineration. Ben’s stern, commanding personality effused authority as a leader in the church. With the truck loaded, he stepped into the driver’s seat in the front cab, as I opened the passenger’s side to sit next to him.
“No,” Ben said, in a mumbling drawl. “Minorities sit in the back.”
I looked at him as he turned the key in the ignition. He looked the other way out the window. I didn’t know him well enough to know if he was joking. If he was, then he had an odd way of teasing someone he barely knew. If he wasn’t, then he had an odd way of broaching a sensitive subject with the person serving as his pastor. Either way, the last thing this young, eager-to-please preacher wanted to do was fan a firestorm with such a powerful person in the church, even if he was joking.
So, for better or worse, I climbed into the bed of the truck with the branches.
To be honest, it was a stunning and somewhat painful moment. But in retrospect, I feel quite fortunate that episodes like this have been very rare in my life. I recognize that many people have had to overcome barriers far greater than mine: African-Americans throughout history, Japanese-Americans in the 1940s, American Muslims since September 11. Women have suffered from inequality in the workplace, gays and lesbians have struggled for equal rights and some white males have suffered reverse discrimination.
Clearly, we still have a long way to go.
Last Friday, my daughters and I watched the new film Hidden Figures, about the team of African-American female mathematicians who worked for NASA and played a pivotal role in sending our first astronauts into space. Through tenacity and a defiant insistence on their own dignity and self-worth, they overcame segregated bathrooms, restricted access to libraries, designated coffee dispensers, limited upward mobility in their careers and much more. In the end, they not only helped a man defy gravity and hurtle safely toward space, they overcame the downward pull of cultural forces that prevented their own full soar into freedom.
Maybe that’s a good metaphor for God’s call on the church.
As part of my spiritual preparation for this Monday’s observance of MLK day, I re-read Dr. King’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written on April 16, 1963. We most often regard King for his fearless struggle against civic and government institutions, but we should remember that he also levied harsh indictments against the church. His letter expressed his disappointment that the church was falling short of its divine potential to be a “colony of heaven” and a “thermostat” of society:
There was a time when the church was very powerful-in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed 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. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.” But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example, they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent-and often even vocal-sanction of things as they are.
Last Sunday in worship, we reaffirmed our baptismal vows, which call us to “resist evil, injustice and oppression, in whatever forms they present themselves.” This Sunday, on MLK weekend, we will continue our series by exploring how each worship element unites our praise of God and orients us toward renewed service to God and others in the world. In other words, we are called to help others defy the downward pull of a wayward culture upon them so that they too can soar into freedom.
I know it’s not easy. In the end, while Ben and I had a good relationship, I never did confront him about what he told me that day, and even now I wonder if I handled that situation as well as I could. But such uncertainty is eclipsed by the clear and certain conviction with which Paul writes these words to the Galatians, words that seem like an awfully good reminder to all of us today:
There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
Grace and Peace,
The Rev. Magrey deVega
Senior Pastor, Hyde Park United Methodist