The Gift of Presence
For nearly two weeks, those of us in the Saint Paul Area Synod have been blessed by the presence of ou[...]
In January, a cohort of lay leaders from across our synod traveled to Atlanta for Martin Luther King Jr weekend, where they would learn about race, privilege, and justice. There, they met with faith and community leaders, worshiped at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and toured different museums and exhibits. In this Lenten blog series, members of the cohort are sharing reflections on what they experienced and learned during this trip, and what questions they continue to grapple with.
I took my place at the lunch counter. No one was there before me so I didn't really know what to expect. I slipped the sound canceling headphones over my ears and placed my hands on the gray hand prints directly in front of me on the counter. The voice in the headphones invited me to close my eyes and experience what it was like for those who participated in lunch counter sit-ins demanding an end to segregation in our country. I closed my eyes and heard the commotion of a diner surround me. A voice growled in one ear telling me to get up and leave. It moved to the other ear and increased in volume and anger. Another voice joined in. And then I felt the first huge whack on the chair I was sitting in as the berating and anger increased around me. All I could do was try and focus on breathing and keep my hands on the counter as tears filled my eyes, my chair was beaten, and anger rose around me. This experience at the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta only lasted a couple of minutes, but felt much longer.
Tears rolled down my face as I realized the pain, suffering, and violence these freedom fighters willingly endured for me. I am a white woman married to a black man, and we are raising two bi-racial boys. The fact that we have the freedom to not think twice about which restaurants we can dine in as a family is due to the suffering these people endured. The fierce hope they had that humanity can do better. The forgiving spirit that led them to not fight back against those who struck them with violent actions and words. This Lenten season, they are the example of the cross on which I am reflecting.
This is also a vivid example of the church in action. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the leaders of the civil rights movement who led people to the foot of the cross quite literally. He inspired people to face death so that others may have life. He preached non-violence, dignity, understanding, and choosing love instead of hate. He extended an invitation into suffering without retaliation for the sake of allowing God to change hearts and minds in order to transform our world.
In a letter addressed to white clergymen in Alabama who felt these sorts of demonstrations were unwise and encouraged those fighting for justice to "observe the principles of law and order and common sense", Dr. King responded with words which I feel are just as relevant to our church today: "If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust." (Letter From Birmingham Jail, 1963)
As a church, we need to be more concerned with justice for the marginalized in our communities than we are with the number of people in our pews on a Sunday morning. We need to be a church in action demanding that we as humanity can do better. As Lutherans, we proclaim that we can live in hope instead of fear. Our focus can shift from inward to outward. We need to be listening to how God is calling us to make sacrifices so others may live in freedom. One person sitting in at a lunch counter didn't cause the transformation in segregation laws. It took thousands of people. Guess who has enough people to transform the world? God…and as his church, we are called to be a part of that!
Does that mean walking out of school months shy of graduation to demand that gun legislation be addressed despite the reality that you might be walking out on your diploma?
Does this mean demanding that you pay higher taxes so that people don't have to start fundraising pages when diagnosed with cancer?
Does this mean as a business owner you take a risk and hire a person with a felony to provide a better opportunity for themselves and their family?
Does this mean you become a foster parent and invite hard issues into your home in order to love a child and help a family heal?
In all honesty, I do not claim to have the answers. All I know is the faith I have that if the people of our church pull together and spend more time imagining ways to enter into suffering in order to fight injustice in our world, God can use opportunity to steer us in the right direction. And yes, this will disturb the safe, protected lives we are trying to create for ourselves. But we as followers of Christ are not called to create protected lives, we are called to give up our lives for the sake of the Gospel. We are in a church community to encourage and support each other in our suffering and to celebrate the trust we have in our God bringing justice for all. It will take every single one of us. Yes, that includes you.
St. John’s, Lakeville