On a Saturday afternoon at the beginning of August, I paced around the narthex of my grey stone home church where friends and colleagues were gathered in their clergy robes and stoles. This was the church were I was baptized at 23, and the first religious community I had ever officially joined. This was the church which sponsored me through the Inquiry and Candidacy process as I discerned a call to ordained ministry in the Presbyterian Church (USA). This was the church where I preached for the first time in America. And this was the church where, after almost 5 years, I was going to be ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament.
On August 9th, 2014, I became a Teaching Elder, with the right and responsibility to perform sacraments, preach the Gospel, and teach others the faith of Christ. That same day, halfway across the country, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenage boy, was shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.
In the weeks that have passed, it has felt as if my ordination and Michael Brown’s death have been interwoven. As I have been confronted with my new change in identity, I have had to grapple with the startling reminder that this country which I love dearly is steeped in the sin of racism. And the most respected and well-remembered individuals who confronted this institutionalized sin were clergy – men like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, Rev. Andrew Yong and Rev Joseph Lowrey (the later two men I have had the privilege to meet). Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched alongside Dr King, supporting Civil Rights and leading by example. Fr. Albert Foley, a Catholic priest in Alabama, worked in Mobile, AL to integrate the city before the integration laws were in place.
In Ferguson, MO, clergy and religious leaders from many traditions have gathered to advocate for peace and justice. Tibetan Buddhist monks traveled all the way from India to bear witness to peace. Leaders from the Nation of Islam have marched in peaceful protests for a just trial. A coalition of clergy and religious leaders (mostly Protestant Christians) have organized to bear public witness, to provide prayer and counseling support to the community – especially to protestors who may experience trauma as a result of witnessing the confrontations between the community and the police. Cities across the country have organized prayer vigils and demonstrations, often led by local religious leaders, to lend spiritual support to the residents of Ferguson.
Suddenly, the three letters which now reside in front of my name mean so much more than I ever imagined.
What does it mean for us – those of us contributing to State of Formation, and those of you reading it – to be the emerging generation of religious and spiritual leaders? How do we galvanize as the Ministers, Rabbis, Imams, Priests, Elders, Chalpains, and holy women and men, to lead our own respective communities in the difficult, painful conversations about race in America? How does this urgent need to engage the topic of privilege and disparity in America affect the “call” (or desire/responsibility/opportunity) to be leaders in our traditions?
The question which begs to be answered is how do we as “professional religionists” – as those who are scholars of religious tradition, history, and practice – and as those who are steeped in our own religious and spiritual communities – how do we look at the tragedy and not shy away from it? We are motivated by different texts, traditions, religious leaders, and (yes) different values. But we who lead religious and spiritual communities must articulate our values of human life and human community, and walk into these difficult conversations. For, if we do not have these conversations – if we do not address the systemic racism in our country – who will?
How are you responding to the shooting of Michael Brown, and the subsequent protests in Ferguson, MO? What conversations are your communities having about racism in America? What values or traditions inform your response?
Photos courtesy of the author.