Is This What Happened When Churches Moved from Houses to Buildings?

At Old South, we are continuing our online existence.  Worship, meetings, gatherings, even pastoral care are all now remote, and mostly on Zoom.  Despite no community transmission of Covid in these parts, we’ve been reluctant to move to in-person gatherings.  Old South is made up primarily of people over 70 (and many well over 70), and our old building has horrible air circulation.  Old South is also a strongly musically inclined congregation.  With no choir, and hymns sung only behind face masks, the prospect of in-person worship feels just too sad and difficult. 

Our online church existence has gone reasonably well.  We even have a few people who would not normally be able to join us (people who have moved away, or are connected to members, but live out of state) who attend regularly.  Still, we have a small group of people who are not joining us.  Some have never owned a computer and won’t do so now, and they are not interested in joining us by phone, which they could.  For a few others, even if they have a computer at home, they are just not interested in joining us.  They might manage email just fine, but they are not interested in trying anything more than that.  And let me add here, this isn’t just about the elderly.  Some of our most recalcitrant are under 65.

I’ve been wondering a lot about those who have been “left behind” or have chosen to stay behind, as we have moved more and more of our communal lives online.  Is there any connection to what happened in the early church, when the faithful started to move away from house churches and into churches as separate buildings?

Until very recently, I had never thought about this change in Christian life and practice, that happened so very long ago.  But now I wonder, and wonder especially about those who were left out, or stayed out, in the shift from gathering in a house to gathering in a building.  Were there members of house churches who refused to go along with this new-fangled concept of meeting in a dedicated building used only for church gatherings?  Did that period of the early church have within its membership those who disapproved of the “new technology” of the day, who looked upon a separate building as perhaps extravagant and unnecessary, or too impersonal and too given to excessive expressions of hierarchal authority?  And, what about the wealthy women who sometimes were the benefactors of house churches?  Did they perceive that a move to buildings would undermine their significance in and to the church?

I wonder.

And, I wonder about what lengths people went to to try to convince those “left behind” to try this new thing:  Hey, I’ll be walking right by your place on the way to worship on Sunday, maybe I’ll knock on your door and we can go to worship together?  Or maybe there were visits from folks who tried to describe all the greatness of this new thing, all the benefits of meeting in a church “building” as opposed to someone’s house.  There’s so much space! It’s so much easier to bring friends!  Or to tell people where we worship!

If such a thing happened, were the church building proselytizers successful?  Did they change anyone’s mind?  If they did, I’d love to know how.

If those people were anything like my people, I bet they weren’t very successful.  It can be impossible to get some church people to change—no matter the reason or the situation.  In the great shift that is now taking place, we may like to believe that our move to virtual church is just a temporary consequence of the global crisis we are living through.  But, it’s hard to imagine that such a long stretch of this new thing hasn’t changed us, in serious and substantial ways.  And, what about those who are “left behind”?  Will they simply be left behind, or will their incessant clinging to what we once were harm the community’s ability to follow the path that is now laid out before us?  I wonder.

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The Toll

On a Saturday early in September, I got the call that the church matriarch was gravely ill.  On Sunday, I went to the hospital to see her and to be with her family.  On Monday, I was on the phone with one of her daughters, who shared with me that her mother had died overnight.

The feelings flooded in—sadness; grief; shock; gratitude that I had known her for so long; frustration, that she had died during this difficult time.  

And, truth be told, resentment.

That weekend was supposed to be a weekend off for me, and my first Sunday off in almost a year.  The vacations that I had planned for this summer were cancelled.  I managed a few days away, with my husband and son, in August, but that was during the week.  It was nice to get away, but it was hardly a vacation.

Because of how we are organizing worship during this COVID time, it is difficult  to hand over worship to someone else especially a lay leader.  Getting so many on Zoom has been wonderful, and surprising.   Trying to move one or two beyond attending Zoom worship and into the management of a Zoom worship service, well that’s another story entirely.  Since opportunities to go somewhere ended up going nowhere, I’ve continued to work and lead worship.  After all,  at the start of all of this, it seemed that our online worship experience would last only a couple of months, a few at most.

Of course, the reality of the pandemic has been different.  It has gone on much longer than we thought.  And, although I live in an area with no community transmission, Old South is an older congregation and we have decided that we must be cautious.  Online worship has been going on since mid-March.

Now that I’ve recently observed the anniversary of my last “real” vacation (a full week out of the country last September), I’m starting to realize the toll the pandemic has taken.  Already lacking in the patience department, I feel that I’m even less patient, so much quicker to anger.  I feel edgy and restless. 

And, more than that, I’m starting to wonder about the toll on my worship leadership, and on our community as a whole.  Worship leadership has always been, for me, a communal experience.  There’s something about being in a room with “one’s people” and being able to interact with the congregation, to be able to look into people’s eyes during sacraments and during sermons, to ask questions, to invite responses, to enjoy the spontaneous moments of laughter or the collective silence of a group of people all feeling the wonder of the presence of the Spirit.

Now, worship leadership involves standing in my living room, behind a table I’ve made into an altar, with my husband on the couch managing the “show.”  I’m not in front of the monitor, so I can’t even see the faces of those who are in attendance.  Do they laugh at my jokes?  Do they look bored when I come to the big point?  Do they look confused when I try to describe a significant theological concept?  Do they appear to get what I’m trying to say?  Do they experience any sense of the holy?

The Toll.  The whole thing is taking a toll—on me, on the church, on our pastor/congregation relationship. 

I can appreciate that during this time that I (and we) have learned important things, that we are capable of more than we thought.  I can also appreciate that our struggles, and certainly my struggles, are small compared to what others are experiencing.

Still, there’s a toll.  There’s a downside.  The extent of the toll and the severity of the downside are, of course, not fully known.  But, I wonder.  A lot.  Will the good things outweigh the bad things?  Or will it be the other way around?  Will we find our way through this tumultuous experience, or will we discover that it’s just too much to bear?   And, for me, will I find a new way to experience Sabbath, so that I never again feel resentment when the phone rings and someone shares with me the sad news of a death?  Time to flex, yet again, those muscles of creativity.

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For Louise

Like many churches, Old South had a matriarch.  I use the past tense here, as our matriarch passed away a few days ago.  It’s a very sad time for Old South.  In the midst of the many challenges we face, the passing of our matriarch, Louise, is a huge loss.

When I was growing up, in a large suburban Congregational church outside of Boston, I knew  a lot of matriarchs.  The church had a sort of cluster of them.  In a church of so many, each area of church life had its own matriarch—the choir, the church office, Christian Education, etc.

I didn’t especially like the matriarchs, although I learned how to navigate their domains—at least for a few of them.  The matriarchs often wielded their power like a cudgel.  Step on their toes, and whack!  You might lose an appendage, or your self-respect.

The matriarchs were a fearsome group, and for the most part, they didn’t like each other, although most of them knew enough to stick to their own area and to be wary of straying into another woman’s domain.  The matriarchs of my childhood inspired me to think long and hard about that initial awareness of my call to ordained ministry, and to resist at first.  Who would want to deal with people like that on a regular basis?

When I took the call as Pastor and Teacher at Old South, it was immediately clear that Old South had just one matriarch.  Yet she was like no matriarch I had known in my younger years.  Louise was a woman of immense dignity and faith.  She was a woman of grace, and courage, love and laughter.  And, she made the world’s best lemon squares.

Over the years, Louise and I spent a great deal of time together.  Perhaps the most powerful of my memories are those that involved discussions we had when Louise was unhappy about a decision that I and/or the church’s governing body had made.  When I explained the decision-making process, Louise always listened with an open mind, and an open heart.  She didn’t always change her mind, but she sometimes did—or at least, she would give the new thing a try.  Worship on Zoom was one of those things.  She didn’t like it, but she didn’t resist it or complain about it, at least not much. 

She may have balked at the title of “matriarch,” but I think she knew that, like or not, that’s who she was.  And, while the role had power, it also had a great deal of responsibility.  She understood that relationship between power and responsibility like no woman I had ever known before.

Over the course of my long relationship with Old South, we have lost many important people.  The loss of Louise is not more important than the other losses, but it is different.  The loss of the matriarch, the one to whom so many turned (whether they realized it or not) to get a sense of the mood and direction of the church community, is a loss that will not only be deeply felt, but will reverberate through so many aspects of our life and ministry together.  In these challenging days, it will likely feel as if we’ve lost our earthly, human anchor.

In all of her grace and wisdom through her long life, Louise offered many lessons: perseverance in the midst of challenge and loss; finding meaning and purpose in good days and not so good days; and, laughing heartily on a regular basis.  Louise gave freely of herself and her gifts.  She formed deep relationships in her commitment to community.  She was loved, and she offered love to others.

I feel blessed to have known Louise, and to have been a part of the church she loved so much.  For her grace and her strength, her love of church and church community, I am deeply grateful. Rest in peace, my dear friend. 

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The Looming Season

There always seems to be a certain moment, sometime in August, when the end of summer comes into focus.  I’m not sure what exactly happens, but it always feels like there’s a clear turn in the sense of the season.  Maybe it’s the moment when I go to set the table for dinner and realize that we won’t be eating outside for much longer:  7:00 is noticeably dimmer than it was just last week.  And, once the dimness sets in, it’s also a bit chillier.  Living on a lake, we notice the changes in the other creatures who live near us, especially among the loons.  Usually loons are seen in pairs around the lake.  Late in summer, though, they start to gather in larger groups, as if they are conferencing together about their winter plans.  We’ve started to see those larger groups gathering.  And, then there are the beginnings of color in some of the leaves on the trees, and the summer plants begin to look haggard and worn.

It’s time to start thinking about and planning for fall.  And, I’ll admit that this year, fall seems more daunting.  Adjusting to our new reality in the spring was not hugely difficult, and Old South has managed reasonably well through this protracted pandemic.  It’s quite another thing altogether, though, to start what amounts to a new year in the midst of a great number of questions and an awful lot of uncertainty.  And, to try to absorb all of the new information regarding the tenacious grasp the virus seems to have on our communal life, that the hoped for “fade” hasn’t happened at all, that we must continue to be always vigilant, distant and covered. It’s a heavy burden to bear, when usually there is anticipation of a fall of re-connecting, for worship and for singing.

In Maine, where we have experienced a rather remarkable low-grade impact of the virus with relatively low numbers and most of the state having escaped “community transmission,” and where mask-wearing seems to have caught on fairly well, we still find plenty of cautionary tales that send a shiver down the spine of any leader of a group of mostly older, and more vulnerable, people.  The local paper recently ran a story about a wedding reception in northern Maine earlier this month, where 32 of 65 attendees tested positive and fell ill of COVID (plus quite a few who had contact with the 32).  One woman who did not attend the wedding, but had contact with someone who did, died a couple of days ago.

Thinking about and planning for the fall, in terms of worship and programming, feels not only very different, but more intense and more challenging.  The realities of the pandemic have opened up opportunities for trying new things, but how long can we be church in the midst of the significant challenges we face?

I was talking to one parishioner recently who lives alone, and feels keenly the loss of human contact.  Sure, it’s nice to see everyone on Sunday mornings for our worship on Zoom.  It’s good to watch the organ clips at the start and end of the service, that the organist records in advance.  But, there is no substitute for the loss of contact—the handshake, an arm around a shoulder, a caring touch offered casually when we gathered each Sunday before social distancing requirements. 

To begin the fall season knowing that a solution to the issues we face will not arrive until after Christmas, and perhaps well after Christmas, is overwhelming.  Trying to organize worship and programming so that we still feel as connected as possible, despite the distance, is a difficult task.  The novelty of Zoom has worn off, and we have settled into a new way of being.  Still, much of what feels most meaningful for a small church—the intimacy and familiarity of our friendships—is decidedly missing. 

It feels like my task is to provide as much normalcy as possible, that we gather to worship and praise, to be God’s church, while I also endeavor to distract everyone from those things that have been lost.  This isn’t how we want, or need, church to be.  But, we cannot wish away the reality of pandemic and we surely cannot ignore the risks, for the risks are real and serious.

A new season looms, and with it, a deepening sense of the yearning for what is not only not available to us, but forbidden.  Can we find ways of acknowledging that yearning without despairing?  Can we don an attitude of persistent patience while we wander around the wilderness of COVID-19?  Will we rise to the challenge of all of those words that we have so casually bandied about for so long—hope, joy, love, and light?  Will we clothe ourselves in what is needed to build up during this challenging time?

I certainly hope so.  And, pray that we will not only “hang in there” (a phrase I hear a lot), but that we will find ourselves actually closer to the One we seek, and will find in this time, blessing and grace.

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Me and My Misanthropy?

In preparation for a weeklong clergy writing conference last year, participants were asked to submit a short essay on something that was on their minds at the moment.  Don’t spend too much time on it, we were instructed.  Write and submit.  For reasons that I don’t remember, I wrote about the dread that I feel during every presidential election cycle, when politically like-minded friends sometimes treat me with a veiled scorn because I’m married to someone from the “other side.”

My essay included a very brief reflection on the common ground that my spouse and I discovered long ago, that boils down to something that we refer to as our “shared misanthropy.”  My suspicious nature concerning humanity has led me to believe that government is the best we can do to live together in, more or less, harmony.  My husband’s suspicions have led him to believe that the smallest possible government would be more ideal.   

When it was time to discuss my essay during the workshop, the first issue I was confronted with was the alarm my new colleagues felt in reading my reference to “misanthropy.”  How could a Christian pastor possibly think such a thing? In the discussion that followed, I told them that the word was really a joke that my husband and I had used for so long, I had forgotten the real meaning of it.  Of course, I reassured them, I didn’t loathe my fellow human beings. 

Now, though, I’m starting to reconsider:  maybe I do harbor a sort of loathing of my fellow human beings.

There’s a lot not to like:

  • From the Washington Post: “He held a BLM sign in what he called ‘America’s most racist town.’ The result? A viral video of abuse.” [link]
  • From the New York Times: “Fighting Over Masks in Public Is the New American Pastime” [link]
  • From “Voices of the Pandemic” in the Washington Post: a story of a store clerk who has experienced all sorts of terrible things.  She’s been yelled at, spat at, screamed at, mocked, ignored, and disregarded—from people who refuse to wear a face mask.[link]
  • Try a YouTube search of “face mask confrontation.” The results are alarming. And depressing.

It’s not that anything that’s going on is especially new.  The unpleasant aspects of human behavior and interaction have long been on display.

What seems a bit different now is that it feels like abuse and scorn have simply become a part of our everyday existence, rather than coming to the surface for special occasions.   Although I realize we are talking about a small number of people, there’s a level of meanness that is still disconcerting.  Or maybe I just haven’t noticed until now.

Has the cruelty always been there, but less known because such encounters were not so easily taped and shared?  Or, has the meanness actually become more of a problem? 

Whether or not malice is more of a problem now, the fact that many people in cruel and violent viral videos seem not to care that their actions are being taped argues that people are comfortable with a great deal of meanness in their responses to other human beings—maybe only in small numbers, but still . . . . More than a few of these videos is unsettling.

So, I find myself wondering about my own capacity for misanthropy, recognizing that while it may be a good idea to admit to such a thing, if that’s how I feel, more loathing is not a helpful, nor productive, way of interacting with the world. Not now. Not ever.

Will the meanness on display push me further into despair, or will I take the opportunity to fight the cruelty with a more conscientious and determined approach to how I live my life?

I will do my best to take up the latter, and resolve to put in check my suspicions, and try more kindness. And watch fewer YouTube videos.

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Be the Church: Protect the Environment

A Meditative Slideshow on Psalm 8, using “Out of the Mouths of Babes” by Silvia Purdie [http://www.conversations.net.nz/] and photos by Susan, Joseph, Margaret and John Reisert

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The Church in These Days—Hungering and Heartbreak

On July 8, the New York Times published a story entitled, “Churches Were Eager to Reopen.  Now They Are a Major Source of Coronavirus Cases.”  The article offered a litany of churches that reopened in various ways, some trying to follow social distancing and face covering guidelines, like United Methodist churches in Louisiana.  Despite the efforts, people still tested positive for COVID-19.  Other churches have been more defiant in the face of rules and restrictions.  For one Baptist church in West Virginia that did not require face masks, people started falling ill shortly after in-person worship services resumed in late May.  At least fifty-one cases are linked to that church, along with three deaths.

Reading the stories of the defiant, it’s easy to shake one’s head and to offer a wag of the finger, at least in one’s mind.  How stupid.  How irresponsible.

Allow the stories to settle in for a bit, though, and it doesn’t take long to start feeling the heartbreak.  Sure, the decision to ignore the warnings and the information regarding the particularly problematic conditions of indoor church worship (stagnant air, along with people talking and singing loudly, sending off countless invisible respiratory droplets, carrying the virus) can easily be condemned and ridiculed.

But . . .

In the midst of these stories, in those that tried to maintain pandemic protocols as well as those who defied the “new normal,” a significant truth becomes clear:  that church is important and meaningful to people.  Church is not solely about a theological system of belief or a place to contemplate one’s relationship with God.  Church provides community and extended family.  Church offers a place—a place where one feels connection, with others, with God, and with oneself.  It’s understandable, then, to feel empathy for the poor pastor who feels the need for connection among a church’s parishioners and allows it to happen, whether or not they try to insist on distancing and mask-wearing.

The simple fact is that for many people, being a part of a church is a part of who they are, part of their identity, part of how they interact in the world.  The President has declared that churches should be allowed to open, that they are “essential.”  Churches are essential, but I have a strong sense that the President doesn’t actually know what he’s talking about here.  The President doesn’t seem to have a clue about the sort of connection that church folk find compelling.  Instead, he’d rather heap churches into the culture war camp, and let us all engage in morally repugnant combat. 

Church leaders ought to resist.  Yet, at the same time, we feel and know the deep longing that so many people are experiencing.  For those who regularly attend worship, it’s not easy living one’s life, especially in a time of such uncertainty, without that place that provides an anchor in the midst of the storm, a refuge in a time of trouble.  Most churches can fairly easily move their worship services online, allowing for distant, contactless gathering. It helps, but it’s not the same. 

As a pastor, I’ve watched the routines and habits of church life over a long career.  Among the most routine of our habits is the simple touch, or hug.  Wander around a sanctuary before or after a worship service, and one of the most pervasive qualities is that of touch.  Someone reaches out to hug another, or puts a hand on another hand, or rests a comforting palm upon a shoulder.  Before the pandemic, hardly anyone talked about this common characteristic of a congregation.  It was just there, completely taken for granted.

And, now it is gone, at least for a while. 

While Old South has been able to maintain an online existence through these months, and remains committed to keeping our people safe (the average age of the congregation is in the 70s), I know that the lack of physical presence is difficult and alienating.  If I had a bunch of people clamoring for a return to in-person services, I might buckle as other pastors have under the weight of longing. 

When we finally find ourselves on the other side of this pandemic, able to gather, to sing, to worship without physical distance and face masks, I suspect it will take a long time before we start taking for granted the element of touch. As much as we might miss certain elements of worship, or the opportunity to sing, we likely miss touch most of all, as a point of personal connection, but also because it’s something that we do as modeled by Jesus himself. For all sorts of reasons, Jesus reached out and touched people. That’s what we did, and, someday, we will again.

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Apples, Oranges, and the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation

Several years ago, emails from the “Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation” started appearing in my inbox.  I had no idea why.  I had not asked for them.  But, there they were.  At first, I ignored them, or deleted them without opening them.  One day, I went looking for the “unsubscribe” button. On the way down the page, I noticed the contents of the the email and found it all rather unsettling.  The group claims to be non-partisan, but the content seemed decidedly lacking in non-partisan-ness.  It was full of right-wing, Trump loving content.  So, I decided not to unsubscribe.  Better to keep an eye on what they were up to.

I don’t actually open their emails very often, but something inspired me today to take a look.  At the top of the email was a story about Maine and our seemingly very bad, and unfair, Democratic Governor, Janet Mills, who is clearly out to get Christian churches: 

Maine Governor Janet Mills has prohibited religious gatherings, even in parking lots, while allowing entities such as liquor stores, big box stores, warehouse clubs, and marijuana dispensaries to operate.  A church building can be used to hold meetings to feed, shelter, and provide social services to an unlimited number of people, but religious services are severely limited in the same building where non-religious services can be held. She has said that when she is satisfied with the “metrics” the churches will have to apply for permission and then display an official badge of approval on their door.

Faith Report Alert from the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, July 8, 2020

Aside from the fact that this is now old, outdated news (outdoor religious gatherings are now not only not prohibited, they are encouraged by the Governor’s office in Maine, so long as proper physical distancing is practiced), this slant on news regarding churches during the pandemic, with outrage at the threat to their liberties, is often tied to other establishments, especially retail stores and the dreaded categories of liquor stores and marijuana dispensaries.  While retail stores and morally questionable enterprises have been allowed to reopen, churches face seemingly outrageous restrictions.  Clearly, so says the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation and other similar organizations, the state is discriminating against faithful, upright Christians.  And, the rhetoric is heightened to get the rage going.  How dare state leaders trample on religious liberties!

The comparisons, though, are not “apples to apples.”  Instead, we have apples and oranges willfully forced together, in order to feed the fury.  Retail establishments and churches are very different. How people interact with them is not the same. Entering a retail establishment, whether to buy groceries, toilet paper or liquor, usually involves a short period of time.  In addition, visiting such establishments involves movement—walking into the store, finding what’s needed, going to the register, paying and then leaving. Short visits to indoor spaces, like stores, along with movement are things that minimize the risk of exposure to COVID-19, although they certainly do not eliminate risk.  Buying groceries, or shopping at a “big box” store also involves a great deal of space, and adequate air ventilation—also important elements to minimizing risk.

Churches are not like retail establishments.  “Going to church” is not at all like going to buy groceries, or liquor.  Attending a worship service involves sitting or standing in one place for a sustained period of time, with little to no movement, in an environment that often does not have adequate air ventilation.  As we continue to learn more about how COVID-19 works, particularly in the lingering nature of respiratory droplets hovering in the air indoors, a church worship service seems to be one of the riskiest places to spend time. It’s entirely a different thing that going to a store. Just today, the New York Times reported that churches are indeed responsible for an alarming number of COVID cases (read article here).

Apples. Oranges. Churches. Stores. Not the same.

In addition, it’s misleading to claim that church buildings “can be used to hold meetings to feed, shelter, and provide social services to an unlimited number of people,” as if churches have not had to make serious changes in how they serve communities, implementing physical distancing, mask-wearing, and intensive cleaning procedures. Churches have made considerable changes to mission and outreach. To suggest that the state is somehow sabotaging church worship, while also taking advantage of a church’s call to serve the vulnerable, is simply shameful.

As the efforts in Maine to “flatten the curve” have brought meaningful results, Maine’s Governor ought to be thanked and supported.  We should all be tremendously grateful to the Governor, and our intrepid Maine CDC Director, Nirav Shah, for our communal reduction of risk, and low numbers of infections in most of Maine’s counties. It hasn’t all been perfect, but Maine clearly has a lot of good people who are working very hard to serve the common good.

It’s disheartening, in this time of pandemic, to see what the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation (and other groups like it) is doing: expressing outrage where there really shouldn’t be any outrage; fanning the flames of distrust and discord; distorting and manipulating information in order to cultivate suspicion; and warping state guidance into conspiracies against certain kinds of Christians. In these challenging days, as people of faith find themselves cut off from many of the things that make church so meaningful and vital, the Foundation could be engaged in much more productive, prayerful work, building up the Body of Christ, rather than tearing it to pieces.

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Lingering Lessons

When I was a first year student at Harvard Divinity School, I lived in Divinity Hall on Divinity Avenue in Cambridge, MA. I lived in a room on the second floor, next to the Divinity Hall Chapel, where Ralph Waldo Emerson gave his famous address to the graduating class of 1838, railing against the defects in historical Christianity. The speech was denounced by many, on various sides of the issue.

During my year living in Divinity Hall, we also lived in the midst of moments of heated debate, along with a great deal of the more mundane aspects of a group of people living together and sharing a large, common kitchen in the basement. Divinity Hall was, by far, the most diverse community I have ever been part of for a sustained period of time. By age, race, national origin, politics, sexual orientation, and religion, we were all over the place. I remember when I moved into Divinity Hall, in the fall of 1989, I was welcomed joyously to “Jesus Boulevard” by the woman across the hall. At a school so well-known for its liberal tendencies, I wasn’t expecting to meet such an enthusiastic Pentecostalist. But, there she was and she wasn’t the only one.

My roommate was from China, and arrived barely in time to start fall classes—as it was a mere couple of months after Tiananman Square. I became good friends with a gay man down the hall. His room looked out over the volleyball court used by students from the biology labs, whose buildings formed the remainder of a quadrangle. Jim and I liked to sit in his window on nice, fall days and enjoy the scenery offered to us. I was also good friends with a guy upstairs who yearned for a return of the 1970s, so much so that he often wore leisure suits to weekend parties. And, then there was the Monday night supper club, where about a dozen of us divided into pairs and cooked dinner for each other every week. That group included my roommate, a Buddhist monk from Vietnam, a couple of women from Africa, and a sixty-something year old nun.

Divinity Hall was a fascinating place. It was also, at times, a difficult place. The most enduring lessons I learned while living there involved race. One of the first lessons was hearing about how difficult it was for black men to shop in Harvard Square. These men shared stories about always being followed by security or store staff, especially at The Coop, the venerable Harvard Square department/book store. Finding this a little hard to believe, I started to go out of my way to wander through The Coop on a regular basis and to look for black men who were shopping. Every single time, I noticed a security guard close by, keeping an eye on black shoppers. How had I not noticed that before?

The year I lived in Divinity Hall was also the year of the terrible incident when a white man named Charles Stuart shot and killed his pregnant white wife in the Mission Hill neighborhood of Boston, and blamed it on a black man. It seemed that all of Boston believed the story, and the city erupted in a fury to catch the despicable man who would commit such a heinous crime. The black students who lived in Divinity Hall, though, knew full well that Charles Stuart had lied. And, when it turned out that the one who committed the heinous act was Charles Stuart himself, it felt like all of those black students looked at all of the white students with a mix of rage, anger and pity. How could we not see something that was so crystal clear to them?

I’ve also been thinking about some of the other lessons regarding race that I learned during my years as a student at HDS. One of the most memorable lessons happened in my last year. There was a day planned for a student walk out of classes throughout the University, to protest the low number of black professors among the ranks of teachers at Harvard. On that particular day, I had a once-a-week seminar with the Dean of the Div School. I was uncomfortable about not attending that class, so I went. The Dean took the opportunity to share his frustrations with what seemed to him a meaningless demonstration. Sure, it would feel righteous to those who walked out of class, or did not attend at all, and gathered with others waving signs and chanting for justice. But, what about committing themselves to understanding the complexities of the issues and engaging in the long, difficult work of change? The Dean talked passionately about how hard it was to lure minority faculty members to the Cambridge/Boston area. Who wanted to live in and raise their families in such a racist place (and who can blame them, considering incidents like the Charles Stuart debacle)? The Dean also criticized students who would make such demands, but did nothing to increase the number of minority students seeking advanced degrees, who could eventually teach at the university level. How about improving the educational experiences and realities of young black students, so many of them stuck in miserable and failing inner city school systems? If students at one of the most prestigious universities in the country could not appreciate the complexities of the problem, what hope did we have to deal adequately with what it would really take to pursue justice?

I’ve thought a lot about these lessons over the years, and have found lots of opportunities to bristle when someone sends me a message about a protest or demonstration. It’s not that we shouldn’t stand up publicly to decry what’s happening when injustice is so violently clear, but it takes a whole lot more than a protest march to bring meaningful change, to set our path on the road to justice. That we have experienced wave after wave of widespread protest in recent years, and yet racism remains seemingly untouched, offers a serious and sobering admonition that we need to do a whole lot more than demonstrate.

In this moment, as the country once again erupts over racial injustice, it seems clear enough that we haven’t yet figured out how to deal with the complex issue of race, nor are we able even to agree on its lingering influence or what to do about it. There’s a lot of yelling and demanding as well as a lot of denial. There’s not much in the way of conversation and reflection. There’s not much in the way of seeking understanding, taking a moment to really stand in another’s shoes and walk around a bit.

From a Christian perspective, I find myself drawn to those passages from the Gospels where we are told that Jesus feels compassion, a sense of deep feeling when looking upon the people, seeing their brokenness and waywardness. I assume that Christ is moved to compassion now as well, and those of us who follow him ought to engage in that same sort of compassion, that deep feeling that leads to transformation, of ourselves as well as others.

It begins with listening and paying attention. What sorts of things are happening right in front of us, yet we have difficulty in seeing? It begins, too, with an openness to compassion, a desire to allow ourselves to be moved by the experiences of others, especially those whose life experiences are very different from our own. And, it begins with an appreciation for the complex nature of these issues. We may not be able to unravel all of the tangled strands of racism and white privilege, but we must seek to understand and to act accordingly, not simply in righteous protest, but in all of the small moments that make up our lives.

May this time be different.

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O Say Can You See

The national anthem of the United States begins with a call for sight. Strictly speaking, the anthem paints the picture of a torn and battered flag of stars and stripes, waving majestically through a fierce battle. I think the call for sight, though, ought to extend much wider than the flag itself, since the flag doesn’t mean much without a people unified by it, aspiring to fulfill the notion of “land of the free and home of the brave.”

Today, there is much that calls to us, in the United States, to be noticed, to be seen, to be considered. Some of those things are not so challenging for us to lift up: the brave medical and public health personnel who persevere in the face of a terrible virus; the courageous women and men who volunteer to serve in the military; and school teachers who creatively maintain a commitment to learning in these extraordinary times. And, there are plenty of other examples too.

But, there are other, much more challenging, issues that call to us as well. O say, can we see?

Can we see the ugly persistence of racism? Can we appreciate the damage that’s being done, the injustice, the inhumanity? Can we see that we have a serious problem that demands attention?

In the midst of the horrifying issues surrounding the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia, and the rage and fury now unleashed in so many cities across the U.S., I find myself playing over and over again another confrontation, the one in Central Park, between a black man and a white woman. Perhaps because it feels a little more accessible, in that no one was killed, and that it was such a simple encounter that escalated so alarmingly quickly, I find myself hearing over and over again the hateful words of the white woman, and the quiet, calm words of the black man.

It was early in the day, and in a heavily wooded part of Central Park. The man was out looking at birds, and the woman was walking her dog. Despite posted rules, the dog was not leashed. The man asked her to leash the dog. And, that’s when it all got really ugly, really fast. It was especially disconcerting to hear the woman declare her intention of not only calling the police, but to tell the police that an African American man was threatening her. In a simple matter of seconds.

We are being called to see, to listen, to acknowledge, to reflect: we have a serious problem. And, the serious problem is not just located in small pockets that are so easily dismissed, for their location or for those who, stereotypically, live there. The problem is widespread, and runs deeply in our national culture and psyche.

For people of faith, this ought to be a matter of profound concern, and considerable response. As people who believe that we are called to share the love of God, and to see in every human being the image of God, we must open our eyes and our ears to what is happening, and to seek a path of response. This is especially important for those of us who are white.

But, what is the appropriate response? Protest? Demonstration? I’ll admit that I’m not sure, especially given the complications of public gatherings in these days of pandemic. What seems important, though, is that we open our eyes and perhaps even more so, that we open our ears and our minds. We must listen, and learn. We must consider and reflect, and challenge ourselves to step into another’s shoes, and another’s experience.

I’ve been thinking quite a lot, in recent days, of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In that letter, Dr. King wrote about his great disappointment in the white moderate, those committed more to “‘order’ than to justice.”  Dr. King expressed his fervent hope that white moderates “would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”

Dr. King’s letter was written in April 1963, well over fifty years ago. It’s heartbreaking to see that we are still in the quagmire of injustice, where black people are treated with such violent inhumanity and white people are so quick to make false and dangerous accusations.

It’s time for good people of faith to seek the path of justice, and that begins with listening. In this season of Pentecost, of celebrating the gift and presence of the Holy Spirit, we ought to allow the Spirit to bestow upon us the courage and grace we need to learn the lessons we must learn, that positive change may become reality. We are not a land of freedom and a home of brave, and loving, people. But, with hard, holy work, we can be.

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