Category Archives: Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

No Human Is Illegal

I Kings 19:1-15a
Galatians 3:23-29
No Human Is Illegal
23 June 2019
First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
The Rev. W. Mark Koenig

With thanks to a June 22 post on Presbyterians for Just Immigration that helped jump start this sermon.

If you are like me, you may need some context to understand what is happening in our passage from I Kings. It is story about politics and faith that comes as a part of a longer story about politics and faith.

One point to begin the story of Ahab and Jezebel and Elijah is in Egypt. Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob, had been sold into slavery by his brothers. Then hunger came. As it so often does, hunger people from their homes. In this case, Jacob and his sons.

Because he could interpret dreams, Joseph had risen from his beginnings to a position of authority in the Pharaoh’s court. He had responsibility for storing and managing food. After Joseph messed with his brothers a bit, they reunited, and the family moved to Egypt.

The came to be called the Hebrews, the name for the people came from an Egyptian word meaning “outsider” or “nomad” or “workers of inferior status.” Still, life went well for the people.

Then Joseph died. And a new Pharaoh came to power. He feared the Hebrew people. They had become numerous and he saw them as a threat. He tried several ways to eliminate them. But God heard their cry and sent Moses to deliver the Hebrew people.

They made their way to Canaan, after forty-years of wandering. There they settled. For a time, judges ruled them. But the Hebrew people wanted a king. A king like all the other peoples.

“Bad idea,” said Samuel the prophet. “Really bad idea.” The people pushed. Following prayer, Samuel relented. Guided by God, he anointed Saul as the first king. Saul ruled over all twelve tribes of Israel – one for each of Jacob’s son.

Saul disobeyed commands from God given to him by Samuel. Guided by God, Samuel anointed the shepherd musician David to be King. Conflict follows. Saul dies. David becomes king.

David is recognized as the greatest king of Israel. Of course, he was not a perfect king. He stole Uriah’s wife and arranged to have Uriah killed. Like virtually every other servant of God in or out of the Bible, God did not choose David because he was worthy; God made David worthy because he chose him.

David’s son Solomon follows his father as the king. When Solomon’s son succeeds his father, the kingdom breaks into two parts. Israel in the north with nine tribes. Judah in the south with two. The tribe of Levi had taken on religious duties. Competition and conflict prevailed between the two kingdoms. Each had its own king.

After time, a king named Ahab came to rule in the Northern Kingdom. He married a woman named Jezebel. It seems likely this was an arranged marriage designed to strengthen ties between the kingdom of Israel and Phoenicia – Jezebel’s home country.

Jezebel worshiped a god named Baal. Ahab had a place of worship built for Baal and an altar to Baal erected there.

Not only did Jezebel promote the worship of Baal, she suppressed the worship of Yahweh, the God who appeared to Moses and proclaimed, “I am who I am.” The God who led the Hebrew people to freedom. The God of Jesus.

Jezebel had the prophets of Yahweh killed. Altars to Yahweh were destroyed. When a famine came, Jezebel used royal provisions to feed and support the prophets of Baal.

Elijah, faithful to Yahweh God, noticed a fracture in the community. Worship of Baal was increasing. Called by God, Elijah acted. He challenged the prophets of Baal to determine the true God.

They met on Mt. Carmel. Two altars were made. A bull sacrificed and placed on each. The prophets of Baal called upon Baal to send fire and consume their sacrifice. Nothing happened. Elijah called on Yahweh God. Fire came from heaven to burn up the sacrifice. Elijah ordered the people to seize and kill the prophets of Baal and other false gods. It was done.

Jezebel was a wee bit irked at this. With her husband Ahab, she still controlled the power of the state. She called for Elijah’s death. She told Elijah so. And he fled.

In fear and confusion and despair, Elijah fled. That’s where our reading for this morning picks up. With Jezebel’s death squads looking for him, Elijah ran for his life.

Into the wilderness Elijah went. He hid under a tree and asked God to take his life. But an angel appeared and told Elijah to eat and drink. Elijah found strength to continue his flight.

After forty days and nights, Elijah hid again. In a cave. This time, God visited him. God spoke to him. Not in wind or earthquake or fire. No special effects for God this time. God spoke to Elijah in the voice that pierced through the silence.

Elijah heard God say, “There is work for you to do.” “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.” Yet again, God does not call someone who is worthy. God calls frightened, confused, despairing Elijah and makes him worthy.

As I look at what is happening to immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in our country, I experience some confusion about policies that are being put into place. I fear for my sisters, brothers, and family members who have come to the United States fleeing violence and poverty. I sometimes teeter on despair.

I am confused to see families separated. I understand that if I had been arrested and sent to prison thirty years ago when Sean and Eric were young, they would not have gone with me. But they had their mother and their church community and their schools. They had roots. They would not have ended up with other children in a cage.

I am confused about why we cannot provide enough attorneys and personnel to process asylum requests efficiently and quickly. People have the right to apply for asylum. It is not automatically guaranteed. But it appears that steps are being taken to make the process more difficult to traverse and to drag it out in terms of time.

I read of overcrowded facilities where children and adults are held. For example, the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General found “standing room only conditions” at the El Paso Del Norte Processing Center, which has a maximum capacity of 125 migrants. On May 7 and 8, logs indicated that there were “approximately 750 and 900 detainees, respectively … We also observed detainees standing on toilets in the cells to make room and gain breathing space.” I learn that many of the detention centers are run for profit. As the Equal Justice Initiative reports, “Private detention companies are paid a set fee per detainee per night, and they negotiate contracts that guarantee a minimum daily headcount. Many run notoriously dangerous facilities with horrific conditions that operate far outside federal oversight.” And I hear that the government, my government, “went to federal court this week to argue that it shouldn’t be required to give detained migrant children toothbrushes, soap, towels, showers or even half a night’s sleep inside Border Patrol detention facilities.” I teeter on despair.

Immigration raids were announced to take place today in cities across the country. The planned raids raised fear in me and many others that “some immigrant children — many of whom are American citizens because they were born in the United States — would have faced the possibility of being forcibly separated from their families when ICE agents arrived to arrest and deport their undocumented parents.” Yesterday afternoon, the New York Times reported that the plans have been delayed. Still the fear remains. Fear that, whether it happens in an organized series of raids or it happens on a case-by-case basis, friends, people for whom I care deeply, and people I do not know may face separation and deportation. And that deportation may lead to death in their home countries.

I am in an Elijah moment facing the issue of immigration. I am confused. I am fearful. I teeter on despair. I wish I could hide hid in a cave. Maybe you do too.

I am in an Elijah moment. And I know that God has work for me to do. God has work for you too. God calls us. Not because we are certain. Not because we are free from fear. Not because we are far from despair. God calls us as we are. And God will grant us clarity and courage and hope and everything to leave the cave and follow where God leads.

What might that look like?

It begins with prayer. God will offer us the opportunity to pray. To pray for people who have fled their homes and those who care for them. To pray for those who work on the border both to provide humanitarian aid and to enforce laws. To pray for leaders in government. To pray that God’s love will be shared.

God will call us to challenge the language that is used in the discussion. We need to proclaim again and again that there is no such thing as an illegal immigrant. No human is illegal.

People can be fat. People can be bald. Peopled can be bearded. Heck, you may even know a fat, bald, bearded person. But people cannot be illegal.

People can do illegal things. A person may get a speeding ticket or two or more. That does not make the person an “illegal driver.” It makes the person a “person who breaks driving laws.” There are laws governing immigration, which people can break. That makes them people who have broken immigration laws or people who have entered the country illegally.

No human is illegal. The phrase originates with Elie Wiesel. Wiesel survived the Holocaust. He knows the absolute horror that can happen when language dehumanizes and demonizes and divide people. Once we accept that some people are “illegal”, there is no end to the abuse those people might be forced to endure and we might tolerate.

The Wakes are a band from Scotland. Their sound is described as traditional Celtic punk rock and funk. They have created a song with the title “No Human Is Illegal.” It is an upbeat melody with a powerful message that brings tears of hope to my eyes every time I hear it. Its lyrics contain a colorful metaphor or two or I would play it for us this morning. But here’s a couple important lines:

          No human is illegal
And everybody has their worth

Everybody has their worth. Those who follow Jesus know that worth comes because everybody is made in God’s image. Everybody is a beloved child of God. Everybody is someone for whom Jesus lived, died, and was raised from the dead.

“The Gospel leads members to extend the fellowship of Christ to all persons. Failure to do so constitutes a rejection of Christ himself and causes a scandal to the Gospel.” That affirmation of the worth of every person comes from a truly radical source. The Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – Book of Order, G-1.0302.

A step out of the cave of fear, confusion, and despair involves a refusal to dehumanize and consistent persistent insistent affirmation of all people. Other steps may follow.

Maybe God will urge us to learn more about issues surrounding migration and human movement. A list of sources of information may be found in Fellmann Hall after service.

Maybe God will ask us to call our government to work with other nations to address the circumstances that cause people to leave their homes and make dangerous journeys to places they perceive as safe. Of course, some people migrate who are criminal; some people migrate to commit crime. There are always such people in any group.

But the vast majority of people migrate for safety or because they cannot sustain themselves in their home places. Joseph’s family journeyed to Egypt because of famine. Mary and Joseph took their baby Jesus to Egypt to escape the soldiers of Herod who sought to kill him. As the Somali-British poet Warsan Shire writes:

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave,
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.

Clearly the immigration system in our country needs corrections. But the solution to immigration lies not in reforming detention centers or keeping families together or speeding up the processing. All those and more need to happen. The poverty and violence that drives people from their homes must be overcome. A postcard to send to Congress and a sample script to call Congress are available in Fellmann Hall. You may fill it in and leave it and I will see it gets mailed or you may take it home and send yourself.

Maybe God will invite us to prepare family care plans for our own families or to share them with friends and community members who are at risk. Examples are available in Fellmann Hall.

Maybe God will nudge us to use a part of the treasure we have received to care for people in need. The Deacons have made a gift to Angry Tias and Abuelas, a group that provides care and advocates for people on the border from Brownsville to McAllen, Texas. Our One Great Hour of Sharing Offering supports the ministry of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance with refugees and immigrants. There are other organizations to which we could give if we choose. Fellman Hall.

God will ask us to take care of ourselves in times of fear, confusion, and despair. Elijah took a nap. The angel gave him something to eat and drink. Anne Lamott reminds us that “Radical self-care is the secret of joy, resistance, freedom. When we care for ourselves as our very own beloved—with naps, healthy food, clean sheets, a lovely cup of tea—we can begin to give in wildly generous ways to the world, from abundance.”

And God will ask us to listen. God is still with us and, if we keep listening, God will remind us that the love that binds us all together is stronger than any fear. Any confusion. Any despair. God’s love is stronger, and it is in that love that we will find our way. May it be so. Amen.

 

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Filed under Antiracism, Current Events, Human Rights, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Stand with immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers

This material is probably most helpful to Presbyterians and people who live in New York City. But as long as it is assembled, it seems worth sharing … if it can help one person in such a time as this.

FOR IMMIGRANTS, REFUGEES, ASYLUM SEEKERS AND THEIR FAMILY AND FRIENDS

Helpful Numbers
Call the ActionNYC hotline at 1-800-354-0365 to receive free and safe immigration legal help.

Report an ICE Raid to the New Sanctuary Coalition. Call 646-395-2925 or send an email to info@newsanctuarynyc.org.

Know Your Rights
Know Your Rights – The Immigrant Defense Project provides two-page flyers in multiple languages that explain what your rights are and what to do in an encounter with ICE.

Know Your Rights Community Toolkit – these toolkits are available from the New York Immigration Coalition in many languages.

Know Your Rights – New Sanctuary Coalition

Immigrants & New York – a coalition of groups has created this infographic resource for immigrants in English, Spanish, and French.

Home Raids Poster – The Immigrant Defense Project provides a poster to hang in the home (and your church) with a reminder of your rights, what to say, and what to document in case of an ICE raid.

Preparations
How to Prepare Yourself for an Immigration Raid – Informed Immigrant

Prepare for an ICE Raid – New Sanctuary Coalition

Discernment and Planning Tools for Those Facing Deportation – this resource can help individuals who face deportation and their families explore options – PC(USA) Office of Immigration Issues

Use an English or Spanish Family Care to help undocumented members individuals prepare a family care plan so that they can ensure that their children will be cared for, their prescriptions can be filled, and they can have some sense of control over their lives in the event that they are detained – PC(USA) Office of Immigrations

Sanctuary
Find Sanctuary in New York – New Sanctuary Coalition

Sanctuary – what do people who may want to enter sanctuary need to think about – PC(USA Office of Immigration Issues

Sanctuary Discernment Guide – the PC(USA) Office of Public Witness offers this guide for congregations considering declaring themselves as a sanctuary congregation.

WHAT CAN WE DO? FOR EVERYONE
Pray.

Build and nurture relationships with immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in your neighborhood.

Contact Senator Gillibrand and Senator Schumer. Contact your Representative (or call 202-225-3121 and ask for your Representative by name to be connected to their office). Share your concerns. Ask what they will to do.

Help Detained Children identifies organizations providing aid to migrants. Donate, volunteer, and support these organizations.

Participate in the July 12th, 2019, Lights for Liberty: A Vigil to End Human Detention Camps – 7:00 PM on Foley Square.

Support the New Sanctuary Coalition’s Live In Faith Everyday Bond Fund that bonds out individuals who are detained so they can fight their cases from their communities instead of behind. It matters to children.

Learn about the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship’s Accompaniment Program in Aqua Prieta.

Give to and volunteer with groups working on immigration issues in New York City:

Use the We Choose Welcome Action Guide from the PC(USA) to welcome refugees.

Join Presbyterians for Just Immigration to receive information updates and action suggestions.

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Filed under Current Events, Human Rights, New York, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Presbytery of New York City

Advocacy Training Day 2019

IMG-9023

The Advocacy Training Weekend, held this year on April 5 through 8 in Washington, DC, consists of three parts. A training day for Presbyterians by the Compassion, Peace, and Justice Ministry Area.  Ecumenical Advocacy Days. And visits to elected representatives to advocate for justice. This year’s advocacy focused on protecting voting rights and working for peace in fragile countries. The weekend is a wonderful time for networking with old colleagues and meeting new friends.

This year had the added treat that my daughter-in-law, Essie Koenig-Reinke, attended.

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Filed under Current Events, Family, Human Rights, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

Of Love and π

Luke 13:31-35
I Corinthians 13
First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
March 17, 2019
The Rev. W. Mark Koenig

What comes to mind when you hear the word pie?

Perhaps your favorite pizza?

For me, the word takes me back to  childhood. My mother made better pies than cakes. We celebrated my birthday with chocolate cream. My brother chose Boston Cream. My sister blueberry. At least one of us made a semi-healthy choice.

Of course, mathematicians may think not of pie but of pi. Pi.  A number that designates the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter.

In Greek, perimetros means circumference. Staying in Greek, Pi is the first letter in perimetros. Because of the influence of Greeks on early European mathematics, pi became the word used to describe this number.[i]

To put pi in numbers, one begins with 3.14. At some point in time, March 14 became known as Pi day. People share bad jokes. Bakeries and restaurants offer deals on pie.

Pi Day came last Thursday. I ate no pie. But I received reminders that Pi is both infinite.

Pi is infinite. It’s decimal representation never ends. It starts 3.14 and then goes on forever. Mathematician Emma Haruka Iwao recently computed over 31 trillion digits of pi. In an interview with the BBC, she said, “There is no end with pi, I would love to try with more digits.”[ii]

Reflecting on the infinite nature of Pi, reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend, Joanne Westin. Her teen-age daughter had died in a drowning accident. We talked of Jennifer and we talked of loss. And Joanne observed that, “Grief is infinite.” After a pause, she added, “And so is love.”

“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”[iii] Love is infinite, because God is love.

I know that. I believe that. I preach that. But I need to hear that this week. This heart-wrenching week.

29542890_10214989437271181_7380570066821968457_nIn Louisville, I worked with the Rev. Robina Winbush, our church’s staff person for ecumenical and interfaith relations. On Tuesday morning, returning from a visit with our church partners in the Middle East, Robina stepped from the plane and into the everlasting, ever-loving arms of God. As she deplaned at JFK, Robina collapsed. Airline personnel and EMTs could not revive her.

Tuesday evening, Mike Miller, the acting chief financial officer for the national church in Louisville, died of a massive heart attack.

53786357_10156864546396063_7080109362454200320_nWednesday evening, my phone buzzed with a text from Rex bearing the heartbreaking news that Byron Vasquez had died. A gentle, good man gone too soon, too young. Byron made a commitment and gave of himself to the United States – where too often the sin and hate of white supremacy “othered” him as it does to brown and black people.  Labelling him as “less than” and telling him to return to his country.

On Friday, New Zealand time, white supremacy struck in New Zealand. A man who posted a statement rooted in white supremacy and white nationalism, opened fire in the Masjid Al Noor and Linwood Masjid Mosque in Christchurch. As the Muslim community gathered to worship. As they prayed. At least 50 people died; many others were wounded. In the words of the New Zealand Herald:

“They are fathers, mothers, grandparents, daughters and sons.
They are refugees, immigrants and New-Zealand born.
They are Kiwis.”[iv]

Around the world, white supremacists distort the message of the Gospel in a effort to justify their heinous and heretical beliefs. The good news of Jesus Christ diametrically opposes any idea of supremacy. The idea that one group of people is supreme in any way violates everything that Jesus taught. It is a sin. Jesus calls us to love. To love God. To love neighbors. To love neighbors who love us. To love neighbors who do not love us. To love neighbors who have many similarities to us. To love neighbors from whom we differ in every imaginable way. Love, not hate, not division, not superiority, not supremacy. Love is the message of the Gospel.

Friday evening, my phone buzzed. Rex and Camilla’s friend Eugene Lloyd had died. Another good man gone.

A heart-wrenching week.

Our passage from Luke shows Jesus lamenting Jerusalem: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!”[v]

Jesus goes on to express a desire to gather the city and its people in a protective embrace of love. “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”[vi] His lament continues as he acknowledges that will not happen. “You were not willing.”[vii]

Of course, we know the rest of the story. Jesus will proceed to Jerusalem. He will endure betrayal and denial. He will experience torture and execution. And three days later God will raise him from the dead. God’s infinite love will have the final word.

Valerie Kaur is a human rights activist and a member of the Sikh faith who knows something about love. She notes that the shooting in New Zealand transports her back to Oak Creek, Wisconsin. In 2012, a white supremacist opened fire at the gurdwara – the Sikh place of worship and gathering. The community was preparing their communal meal known as a langar. Kaur writes: “I see the blood of Sikh uncles & aunties in the prayer hall. What helped me breathe then… and now: love. Love as sustained practical care. Love as courage.”[viii]

At the Masjid Al Noor and Linwood Masjid Mosque, love as both courage and practical care were displayed. The first responders. People on the streets. I saw an interview with a woman who provided care to a wounded man. When told she was a hero, the woman responded. “I am not. I did what needed to be done.” That’s not a bad definition of a hero. It is certainly a definition of love.

Ava Parvin and her husband, Farid, left Bangladesh and settled in New Zealand in 1994. Farid grew ill and had to use a wheelchair. On Friday, as the terrorist aimed at Farid, Ara jumped in front of the bullets. He lived. She died. Love never ends.

Forty years ago, Haji Daoud Nabi fled war in his native Afghanistan and resettled his family in New Zealand. On Friday the 71-year old sat at the back of Al Noor Masjid. And when hate came through the door, Nabi shielded a friend with his body. Haji Nabi died. His friend lives. [ix] Love never ends.

Halfway through the shooting at the Al Noor mosque, Naeem Rashid rushed the shooter. He was killed. But in that instant, with no weapons, just his hands, he tried to stop the horror. [x] And when the shooter arrived at the Linwood Masjid, Abdul Aziz ran at him, throwing a credit card reader and then a gun that had been dropped. As the shooter drove away, Aziz continued to follow the car. Practical. Courageous.[xi] Love never ends.

My phone buzzed again on Thursday. The Session had begun the discussion that would result in the decision to receive an offering to help send Byron Vasquez’s body home. Words from a South African song from the days of apartheid went through my head:

Courage, our friend, you do not walk alone
We will walk with you, and sing your spirit home[xii]

Through our gifts, we will walk with Byron as his body returns to his home. Expressing the love that binds us together in Jesus Christ, we accompany Byron even as he is held in God’s eternal embrace of love.

I asked the Session if could I post about the offering on the church’s Facebook page and on my own Facebook page. I thought a friend or two might contribute.

Several have. Among them Janice Stamper. A Presbyterian minister, she left her church in Alaska to provide care for her aging father in Kentucky. After a lengthy illness, her father died a year ago. We prayed for her and “Ol Pap” as she called him. She sent me a message on Facebook asking how to mail a check. As I teared up, I typed back that this was amazingly kind. Jancie replied, “I sold my father’s truck. I have some money. People helped me bury my father. This is my turn to help someone else.” Love never ends.

In response to one of my first posts about the shooting in Christchurch, a friend wrote: “It’s a wicked world we live in, Mark.”

It’s a wicked world we live in. I have thought about those words ever since. I will probably continue to think about them for a long time to come.

And I don’t agree. I will stand with Louis Armstrong. We live in a wonderful world. God’s creation bears incredible beauty. People can be incredibly kind and loving. We experience tender mercies and moments of grace regularly.

People suffer. People die. People die suddenly and for reasons we may never understand. People die far too young. People die because they have difficulty accessing medical care.

Sin exists in this wonderful world. Evil exists. Wickedness, to use my friend’s word.

People do wicked things. Incredibly wicked things.

Systems and structures are shaped in ways that benefit some people and disadvantage and violate other people.

The world is broken and fearful and frightening.

In this broken, fearful, frightening world where sin, evil, and wickedness are so strong, I have chosen love. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say God’s love has chosen me and in response I choose to love as well as I am able.

“We love because God first loved us.”[xiii] We find those words in the first letter of John. They are the essence of the Biblical narrative. Out of love, God creates. For love, God creates. God makes us to love God and one another and again and again, God invites us to love. And God acts to show us how to love. Jesus lived, died, and has been raised to show God’s love for us and to open us to love.

God embraces us in merciful love that extends to the whole human family. God challenges us to address the issue of “othering” people from whom we differ. Othering is what Byron and so many people experience when they are falsely told they have less value, they do not belong, there is something wrong with them because of where who they are. In the place of such othering, God invites us – demands from us that we see all people as our siblings.

Tommy Sands sings:

Let the circle be wide ‘round the fireside
And we’ll soon make room for you
Let your heart have no fear, there are no strangers here,
Just friends that you never knew[xiv]

Grace Ji-Sun Kim puts it in more theological language: “God sent the Son and the Spirit to descend into humanity’s darkness and despair, bringing the light of love and hope … As God has embraced us in merciful love, we now warmly embrace the wounded and the excluded in world as a testimony to the merciful love of the Triune God.”[xv]

Or as Robina Winbush wrote in a reflection published on Valentine’s Day, “Love is the essence of God in our midst … [in God’s] love we discover that there is no “other” there is only LOVE manifested and waiting to be known.”[xvi]

In this wonderful, wicked world, love has encountered me, love has grasped me, and I have said yes. As well as I am able, I will love. And in love’s name, I will work to end hate, disrupt white supremacy, and create justice, equity, and peace.

For those who make the choice to love, phones will still buzz. People, friends will die. Wickedness will take place.

Heads will spin. Hearts will ache. Pain and wounds will be endured.

We will be hard pressed. But not broken.

For love never ends.

Love never ends.

Thanks be to God,

Love never ends.

After a brief pause, I issued the following invitation:

Loved by God, we can love one another. We can love at any time. We can love at every time. We can love now. I invite you to greet one another in the love of God, the peace of Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

 

[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pi

[ii] https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-47524760

[iii] I Corinthians 13:6-7

[iv] https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12213358

[v] Luke 13:34

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Ibid

[viii] https://auburnseminary.org/voices/auburn-senior-fellows-respond-to-christchurcheart-auburn-senior-fellows/

[ix] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2019/03/15/among-new-zealand-mosque-victims-parents-children-refugees/?utm_term=.7784361577c4

[x] https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/111335681/heroic-worshipper-tackled-gunman-at-linwood-mosque-during-christchurch-terror-attack

[xi] https://www.newsroom.co.nz/2019/03/17/492509/when-gunman-advanced-one-man-ran-at-him

[xii] My first experience of this song is the use of these lines in Eric Bogle’s song, “Singing the Spirit Home.” Here is a video of the song being sung – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JidpXcKZits – in an incredibly brave move, I led the congregation in singing the song today

[xiii] I John 4:19

[xiv] https://www.irish-folk-songs.com/let-the-circle-be-wide-lyrics-and-chords-by-tommy-sands.html

[xv] Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Embracing the Other (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015). P. 169

[xvi] http://blog.oikoumene.org/posts/love-the-very-essence-of-god-in-our-midst

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Filed under Antiracism, Current Events, First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone, Friends, Gun Violence, Human Rights, New York, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Worship

In between

In shock, still processing,
Giving thanks for the life and love and faith and witness of Robina Winbush … for her vision of what the Church could be and her work to help us live into that vision …for her commitment and work for justice.
Grieving with Robina’s family, friends, colleagues in the Office of the General Assembly and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and ecumenical and interfaith partners.
Grateful to have been Robina’s colleague and to have learned from her and to have been guided and shaped by her.
We come from dust; we return to dust.
And in between … Robina Winbush made such a difference.
Thanks be to God.

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After – Albuquerque 1996

1294519_10151934672121063_245716286_oAfter the prayers had been said
and the motions had been made;

after the rulings had been dispensed
and the speeches had been delivered;

after the instructions had been given
and the buttons had been pushed;

after the votes had been tallied
and the results announced;

after the passion
and the decent order;

after . . .
. . . the assembly sat in quiet contemplation,
pondering who had won
and who had lost,
considering what was gained
and what the cost.

My heart sundered the silence,
breaking, softly breaking,
for those, who by official action,
had been denied their full humanity,
and, whose gifts, but that same official action,
had been rejected.

A tear slid down my check,
coming to rest in tangled whiskers.
A single tear
shed for those beloved of God
who the vote would exclude
and for those
who out of fear
or prejudice
or lack of love
or for whatever reason
sought to shut doors –
and build walls –
and keep out –
and settle once and for all;
and in so doing
lost an opportunity
to join in
God’s amazing,
welcoming,
including,
affirming,
door-opening,
wall-smashing,
never-ending
love.

This was written after the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s 208th General Assembly (1996). That assembly met in Albuquerque, New Mexico and took action to recommend a change the church’s constitution that would ban LGBTQ individuals from serving in ordained offices. I attended that assembly as an observer. As the United Methodist Church meets to wrestle with similar questions, I remembered this piece and choose to share it. 

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Extremists – Letter from Birmingham City Jail

At the Presbytery of New York City’s annual commemoration of Mrs. Rosa Parks and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., held on January 21, 2019 at Eastchester Presbyterian Church, I had the privilege of speaking to the Letter from Birmingham City Jail. These are the words I took into the lectern; they are close to what I said.

November 1962. Birmingham, Alabama.

An election changed the city’s form of government from three elected commissioners to a mayor and city council.

April 2, 1963. Birmingham, Alabama.

In Birmingham’s first mayoral election, Albert Boutwell defeated Eugene “Bull” Connor, the city’s Commissioner of Public Safety who had oversight of the fire and police department in a close election. Connor attributed his defeat to the small number of African-American voters who he said voted for his opponent’s more moderate stance.[i] Due to a lawsuit about the change of government, Connor remained as Commissioner of Public Safety until May 1963.

April 3, 1963. Birmingham, Alabama.

Recognizing that a more moderate stance was simply a more refined version of the segregationist policies sustaining the Jim Crow status quo, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, led by the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., began coordinated nonviolent actions against the city’s practices of racial discrimination.[ii] The campaign included sit-ins, marches, boycotts of businesses, and a voter registration drive.[iii]

April 10, 1963. Birmingham, Alabama.

Commissioner Connor obtained an injunction banning nonviolent protests.[iv]

April 12, 1963. Birmingham, Alabama. Good Friday.

After a period of intense discernment, conversation, and prayer, fifty individuals violated the injunction and were arrested. Among them were the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, the Rev. Ralph Abernathy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.[v]

That same day, eight white clergymen from Alabama published “A Call for Unity” that read in part:

[W]e are now confronted by a series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders. We recognize the natural impatience of people who feel that their hopes are slow in being realized. But we are convinced that these demonstrations are unwise and untimely.[vi]

April 12 – 20, 1963. Birmingham City Jail.

The Rev. Dr. King, Jr. was held in the jail. At some point, he saw a newspaper containing “A Call for Unity.” He began to write a response in longhand in the newspaper margins. His wrote on scraps of paper provided by a friendly black trusty. He finished on a pad provided by his attorneys.[vii]

This document which we now know as the Letter from Birmingham City Jail combines social and political analysis with theological insights and a clarion prophetic call to speak to the concerns of the white clergymen and to illustrate that the Birmingham Campaign was just and loving, rooted in faith, wise and timely.

The Rev. Dr. King, Jr. wrote about the interrelatedness the human family. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”[viii]

He stated that “waiting for justice” is rooted in white privilege. “I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was “well timed” according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation … “wait” has almost always meant “never” … I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say “wait.” … when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodyness” — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.”[ix]

He addressed the criticism that the campaign involved breaking laws. “‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘An unjust law is no law at all.’”[x]

He confessed his disappointment with white moderates who encouraged waiting and moving slowly. He directed specific criticisms at the church. “I have heard numerous religious leaders of the South call upon their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers say, follow this decree because integration is morally right … I have watched white churches stand on the sidelines and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”[xi] “Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s often vocal sanction of things as they are.”[xii]

The Letter from Birmingham City Jail notes that we are not destined to choose either to accommodate injustice or to resort to violence. There is a third way. The nonviolent way of Jesus. The letter provides a succinct and profound description of the theology and principles of nonviolent resistance.

The Rev. Dr. King, Jr. wrote out of love inviting his readers to join that “long and bitter — but beautiful — struggle for a new world”.[xiii] Addressed to eight white clergymen, the vision and the criticisms of the letter speak to the white community and the church in all times.

June 20, 2018. St. Louis, Missouri.

The 223rd General Assembly (2018) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to commend the “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” for study as a resource that provides prophetic witness that inspires, challenges, and educates both church and world. The Assembly also voted to begin the process to include the Letter in the Book of Confessions which is part of the constitution of our church.[xiv]

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) affirms multiple creeds and confessions that declare “to its members and to the world who and what it is, what it believes, and what it resolves to do.”[xv] Our creeds and confessions “arose in response to particular circumstances within the history of God’s people. They claim the truth of the Gospel at those points where their authors perceived that truth to be at risk. They are the result of prayer, thought, and experience within a living tradition. They appeal to the universal truth of the Gospel while expressing that truth within the social and cultural assumptions of their time. They affirm a common faith tradition, while also from time to time standing in tension with each other.”[xvi]

Should the Letter from Birmingham City Jail be added to the Book of Confessions, it would help shape and guide our church. The Letter from Birmingham City Jail would be one of the confessions that we agree will instruct and lead us in our ordination vows.[xvii]

January 21, 2019. The Bronx, New York.

How does this happen? What is the process that the 223rd General Assembly initiated?

We are Presbyterians. It starts with a committee.

The Office of the General Assembly appoints a study committee to consider the proposal. It consists of ruling elders and ministers of the Word and Sacrament with representation coming based on synods. That committee is currently being formed. If you would have interest in serving, let me know and I can help you make the appropriate connection.

That committee will report to the next General Assembly which meets in 2020 in Baltimore. That Assembly considers and votes on the committee’s report. If the Assembly votes to include the Letter from Birmingham Jail, it would send a proposed amendment to the presbyteries for a vote. If two-thirds of the presbyteries approve the amendment, then the General Assembly meeting in 2022 in Columbus, Ohio would confirm that action and the letter would be added to the Book of Confessions.

That’s a long process. It’s decent. It’s orderly. And in some ways, it is a form of ecclesiastical waiting.

But church, while we wait for the General Assembly’s action, we do not have to wait to put the words of the Letter from Birmingham Jail into action. The General Assembly has commended the letter to us for study and as a prophetic witness to inspire, challenge, and educate ourselves and the church and the world.

We can use the letter now to become, in a word from the letter, extremists. Extremists like Jesus. And the prophets. And Mrs. Rosa Parks. And the Rev. Dr. King, Jr. And so many others. Extremists for love. Extremists for justice. May it be so. May we be so. Amen.[xviii]

 

[i] https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/boutwell-albert

[ii] https://www.pc-biz.org/#/search/3000321

[iii] https://www.pc-biz.org/#/search/3000321

[iv] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birmingham_campaign#Conflict_escalation

[v] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Letter_from_Birmingham_Jail

[vi] https://www.pc-biz.org/#/search/3000321

[vii] https://www.pc-biz.org/#/search/3000321

[viii] https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Letter_Birmingham_Jail.pdf

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] http://inside.sfuhs.org/dept/history/US_History_reader/Chapter14/MLKriverside.htm

[xiv] https://pcbiz.s3.amazonaws.com/Uploads/e20a08ef-0d69-4099-985b-f3bc5440f560/Plenary_V_GA_2018_Minutes_1.pdf

[xv] Book of Order, F-2.01 The Purpose of Confessional Statements

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Book of Order, W-4.0404c

[xviii] https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Letter_Birmingham_Jail.pdf

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