Social Perspectives: Voices from the Front

The Spiritual Discipline
           of Protest

I learned about civil disobedience from Shiprah and Puah, the two Hebrew midwives who defied Pharoah and refused to kill the Hebrew baby boys – including Moses. I learned about disruptive protest from Jesus, who barged into the temple in a rage, turning over the tables of imperial and economic injustice. So, for me, participating in the protests in St. Louis the past few days has been an act of spiritual discipline.

I have joined three of the official protests since Friday, September 15th, and have attended several planning meetings for clergy and protest organizers. I left the three protests when they were officially disbanded by the organizers partly because my aching knees forced me to, and partly because I wanted no part of the violence that seemed to erupt once the official protest was over. Some of my colleagues have courageously stayed, in order to protect those continuing to express their outrage. But for me, the line between “protection” and encouraging violence is a very thin one, and I want no part of it.

These are some of my learnings and observations from the past 5 days:

  • Holy Disruption, Holy Disobedience, and Holy Disturbance are all spiritual disciplines called for in scripture and modeled by a radical rabbi named Jesus. Holy Destruction is another matter – and such violence undermines the courage and prophetic power of disciplined protest.
  • As a relative newcomer to St. Louis, I am convinced that this city is – and must be – on the front line of confronting systemic racism and white supremacy in our deeply divided nation. The founders of this city arrived with their slaves and so the inequities endemic to this city were there from the beginning. And the old downtown Courthouse still holds the shame of the Dred Scot decision, publicly proclaiming that people of color are not equal to whites. This is our white burden and our calling as people of faith of all colors – to work persistently to repent of the original sin of America and help create a new heaven and the new earth of inclusion, equality, and equity for all.
  • I have been impressed by the intelligence, strategic wisdom, and skill of the official protest organizers – mostly black – some secular and some sacred -passionate, eloquent spokespeople who do not mince words. The white clergy have been asked to provide support and protection and to step back to allow others to lead. This called for humility in spiritual leaders is new and refreshing in my protest experience.
  • For me, the role and power of the police is the most confusing part of this political moment. I have family members who are law enforcement officers – moral, calm, community oriented. And to my eye, the police presence during the official protests was respectful and appropriately peripheral. But the scenes of riot police with pepper spray, trapping both agitators and innocent bystanders in a “kettle” formation, seems both excessive and unnecessary. The criminal justice system in this country, from arrest to incarceration, is both racist and broken – and these reoccurring protests will not – and should not stop – until real change happens.

Many people have asked, “What is the purpose of these protests?  What are the demands that the protestors are asking for?” I have asked the same question. I have finally accepted the answer – which is very simple. What is the demand? STOP THE KILLING!

I hope there will be concrete changes ahead: subpoena power for the recently created Citizens Review Board; implementation of the Ferguson Commission recommendations; independent review for all incidents related to questionable police actions; a cultural transformation within the Metropolitan Police Department.  My tired body may keep me away from some future protests, but my heart will continue to support Holy Disturbance in the Spirit of our Disruptive God.

Rev. Susan Andrews
Interim Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church
September 20, 2017

First Doniphan

Blog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy
Transitional Leader
choward@glpby.org


In the book, Legacy Churches, Stephan Gray and Franklin Dumond address the question, “How do you know when it may be time to close.” They highlight six characteristics:

  • Public Worship Attendance has Drastically Declined
  • Staffing of Essential Ministry is no Longer Adequate or Effective
  • Annual Income is No Longer Adequate to do Local Ministry
  • Age or Tenure of Membership is Unusually High
  • The Church Hasn’t Consistently Grown Over the Last Five Years
  • Survival Has Become the Main Mission

First Presbyterian, Doniphan has signs of all of these. But they also have spunk, resilience, energy, efficiency, hospitality, and love.

You have to drive a long distance to reach our furthest south and west church. Doniphan is located about three and a half hours southwest of St. Louis. The town has an array of churches representing different stripes of denominations. All the more reason why First Doniphan should not be able to survive. Yet, they are alive, and after my visit with them I understand why.

The building is immaculate. It is well maintained and doesn’t show signs of deterioration you would normally see in a struggling church. There were 12 people is worship. In addition to the 8 members, they have faithful visitors who enjoy worship and fellowship with them. Bruce Johnston leads worship. He lives 95 miles away in Arkansas. He is a member of Doniphan, and has been making the 190 mile round trip to serve the people of this congregations for years. Bruce is commissioned to serve communion and approved to moderate session. Also, instead of having a musician, the church uses a programmable piano. A member programs the hymns for the day into the piano, and then it plays on cue. The Sunday I was there, there was a solo by Bruce’s daughter, who lives in New Mexico. As I looked around to locate her, I then realized that she had been recorded, and her voice was playing through the sound system. These folks are up on their technology. They don’t have a telephone, but they have a Facebook page!

I really saw the church in action during the pot luck. The food was delicious! A separate table held the deserts. We ate and fellowshipped. They then cleaned up, all like clockwork. Efficient. Orderly. Plenty of laughter, storytelling, and fun.

This is when I realized this church is going to survive for a long time.

Here is a church with all of the outward signs of a closing ministry. But inside are people who bare the marks of Christian love, and hospitality. It is a reminder that we cannot judge a church by numbers alone. When we take the time to get to know the people, we learn that God is still full of surprises.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Preaching Political

Blog Post by the
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Transitional Leader of the
Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy
choward@glpby.org

 


I sent a letter to the presbytery last week as a response to the Stockley trail in St. Louis. I received more responses to that letter than anything else I’ve written. Most responses were positive and affirming. A few responses took issue at my claims of injustice and racism. I really appreciate all responses as an opportunity for us to dialogue with one another. This is the way our faith and community are shaped and formed. We are a connected church that does our best work respectfully agreeing and disagreeing, and doing it all in love.

But what happens in a church when the congregation disagrees with a political sermon the pastor preaches? How should members of a congregation respond when the pastor takes them on a path they do not want to go?

Last week Daniel Schultz wrote an article entitled Rev. Rob Lee Lost Congregation for His Anti-Racism Speech: Here’s Why He Should Have Packed His Bags First.

Schultz tells the story of Pastor Rob Lee, a descendent of General Robert E. Lee, and how his remarks from the pulpit against racism got him fired from his UCC church. Schultz believes Lee made a critical mistake in how he approached the congregation. “One of the cardinal rules of working in a church is that you never, ever—ever—tell them they’re doing their faith wrong, even if they clearly are, unless you have your bags packed and the car warmed up.” Schultz believes pastors can talk about difficult political issues, but it must be done with the right attitude.

The pastor cannot demand change, but can explore ideas and different directions. The path must be smoothed with affirmation and uplifting. He writes, “But the trick is to do it in a way that leaves followers feeling like they’re being summoned to their better angels, not being faulted for what someone perceives as their worse devils. That’s not coddling racists. It’s a pragmatic recognition that leaders who want to create social change need something other than ‘Speaking The Truth Boldly’ in their toolbox if they want to be successful. For better or worse, pastoral ministry is about creating change through the power of relationships. It is a very long game, and one that can be lost with one wrong step.

Through the building of relationships, we can all move forward together in our walk of faith. It’s easier to listen to someone we love, even when we disagree with what they are saying. But as a preacher, I must admit, it is a difficult line to navigate when talking about emotionally charged issues. I would love to have to explore this issue further with pastors, and members!

Rev. Craig M. Howard

 

 

Change

Blog Post by the
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Transitional Leader of the
Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy
choward@glpby.org


Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Genesis 12:1

The only person who like change is a wet baby!”  Mark Twain

I believe the future of our denomination can be seen in our individual congregations. We have congregations of different sizes, different geographic locations, and different levels of wealth. We have some congregations where you have to wade through the children to get to the pulpit, and other congregations where there are no children present. We have congregations soaked in history and generations of membership, and we have congregations still forming their identity. We have seven congregations that are majority non-white, and several congregations where people of color attend, but they are a small minority.

Yet, there is one consistent feature in all of our congregations, change. And as one congregation recently told me, “We are old and aging, and we do not like change!”

In the book, Strategic Leadership for a Change, Kenneth McFayden uses the scripture text and Mark Twain quote from above. He writes that people do not fear change, they fear loss. Change means letting go of comfort, identity, and familiarity. It means moving beyond “This is how we have always done it.”

There is comfort in repetition. There is power in being the one who knows “how things work around here.” McFayden writes, “Many congregations find themselves in the throes of significant change. The culture is shifting, as are the demographics of communities and denominations. Congregations feel a sense of urgency to grow. What they do not feel is an urgency to change.”

Change means potential loss, and potential conflict. Change is uncomfortable, frustrating, and can even be painful. Change means walking in the fog of liminality, not sure where the ground is; not knowing if we are at the edge of the end or the first step of a new beginning. Change takes courage.

As the presbytery continues to move in the direction that God is calling us to go, we are challenged like Abram to step into the uncomfortable, knowing that God is calling us into new and exciting place. In 2018 we will continue to change-up presbytery gatherings; making them powerful experiences of fellowship, learning, and worship. We will push and challenge our pastors, ruling elders, and leaders to learn, learn, learn! We will continue to tweak our structure so that it will serve us, and not force us to serve it. We will be a presbytery connected to the social issues and changes that are happening throughout our presbytery. And this will only work if we work together.

Let’s come together. Let’s get connected. Let’s become God’s people for such a time as this.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

 

 

 

 

Called to Serve

Blog Post by the
Rev. Dr. Craig Howard
Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy
Transitional Leader
choward@glpby.org


We had a full and exciting Presbytery Gathering this past Thursday. In addition to hearing motions, voting, and taking actions, this meeting featured several “ignite” presentations. An ignite presentation is a five minute or less slide presentation that focuses on an issue or event. Thursday’s reports included:

  • Highlights of the Nicaragua Trip
  • Invitation to participate in the Hunger Action Network kickoff
  • History Team activities
  • Ukirk presented an update and appeal
  • Hands and Feet provided an update
  • COLA provided an update and request for volunteers

In addition, the sermonic moment during worship was divided into three presentations: one from Isaac Wanyoike pastor of the Pendo Fellowship, John Harrison spoke about his work with the prison ministry, and Johanna Wagner shared about Caritas, our New Worshiping Community that focuses on people with cognitive disabilities.

As we listened to the various presentations, we were moved, excited, and filled with compassion. The Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy is doing great work through numerous ministries. Our ministries are broad and cover a very large area of need. Most importantly, this work is not top-down. It is not controlled by the presbytery office and then distributed to the members. All of these ministry efforts are embedded within the local community and they benefit the community.

My goal as your Transitional Presbytery Leader is to decentralize the work of the presbytery. I desire to give the work of the ministry to the people who are most capable, passionate, and driven. This means building a strong volunteer base of people willing to participate with Nicaragua, work with Ukirk, reach out to Pendo, connect with the prison ministry, and help with GA 2018.

In the book, “Adaptive Leadership,” Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky write about giving the work back to those closest to it, and sharing responsibility for the organization’s future. The idea is to remove work from the hands of a few leaders in authority, and instead share it with those who are directly involved with the effort.

We need people to step up and get involved.

I’ve noticed a hesitance and reticence of presbytery involvement. I understand the caution. Perhaps you have been involved in the past and have gotten burned. Or you have heard horror stories and have turned your back on the presbytery and focused on your congregation instead.

I’m asking you to take a look at the presbytery again. There are so many opportunities to serve. We need gifted people with hearts of compassion for justice, and a desire to see God’s work spread throughout our area and the world. We need people who can serve for a few weeks, and people who are willing to serve for a few years. We need people who can stand at a booth, or sit and listen to others. We need specialist in finance and accounting. We need attorneys who want to serve the larger church. We need gifted visionaries who see the world as it could be and ask, “Why not?”

Have you been thinking about getting involved? Do you know someone you can recommend serving? Barbara Willock (bwill2@mindspring.com) serves as chairperson of our Committee on Representation and Nominations, and she would love to hear from you.

May God put a fire in your heart, passion in your spirit, and a desire to serve with sisters and brothers beyond your local congregation.

Rev. Craig M. Howard