Tuesday, September 15, 2015

When Words (and Worlds) Collide

First Baptist Church Springfield, KY

My current situation: serving a congregation in New Jersey, 3/4 time as a two year interim pastor, living in my childhood home, and returning to my family and permanent home/farm in Kentucky one week per month, can be confusing. Both places are "home."  But since I have markedly increased the active work on racial issues in both places, the juxtaposition and collision of worlds has grown even more. 

Don't be fooled by easy assumptions! Indeed, my worst nightmares with overt racism are coming true NOT in Kentucky, but in the rural Pinelands of South Jersey where, evidently, the Southern Poverty Law Center's statistics are accurate, as are those of members of our congregation who say they know: hate groups are active, and mind sets are conservative and reactionary. And, when it comes to race, conservative means bigoted. 

There is no large city in South Jersey equivalent to Lexington or Louisville, where folks can find bastions of sanity and progressive, egalitarian values. Long time residents, it would seem, have chosen to co-exist with these racist and dangerously hate-filled individuals without speaking up or challenging them, and so, the mere fact that we, a church, dared put a sign on our own property, with three little words proclaiming a rather modest sentiment: Black Lives Matter, is seen as an affront that must be put under attack immediately. In 2015.I am still in shock over this. Nonetheless, I find that even with each of my two "worlds," I am constantly making adjustments and shifting my ability to listen and learn based upon where I find myself.

Pansy Valdez, right, co-creator of Springfield project

 Here is one example: While in Kentucky, I have started to attend the AME Chapel in Springfield, which is, of course, primarily African American. I first visited to meet Australia Poole, one of the men I interviewed for my book/project, who is a deacon there. Now I enjoy going because the  of the greatpeople, the choir (led by Tyrone, an out gay man in a town that heretofore as far as I could tell, had NO gay people, Black or white) and the Pastor, Michelle Washington, whose preaching I can only describe as fiery! Meanwhile, Pansy Valdez, with whom I am conducting the interviews, has urged me to attend her church (the other Black congregation other than the Black Catholic church), so I went for Sunday school.

The first woman I had interviewed was teaching the class. I was already a bit discomfited at finding that we walked on past a classroom filled with men, and entered an all-female class. But I was delighted to see familiar faces, women I'd met via the project. I was warmly welcomed. The lesson was from Acts 4:31 "And when they had prayed, the place was shaken where they were assembled together; and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spoke the word of God with boldness." Within the first ten minutes, our teacher informed us that she could not help thinking of Kim Davis, "that poor woman in Morehead," who had been speaking and standing up for God's word, and was being persecuted for it right now. 

This was so unexpected for me, so alarmingly unexpected, that I just listened for as long as I could. The entire hour turned into more or less a diatribe against homosexuality. The best thing I can say is that about half of the people (including Pansy) did not take part, and were quiet. But Wanda, the teacher, was one of the strongest and most articulate leaders in the community and she was leading this conversation. My biggest thought, aside from the fact that their literal interpretation of scripture needed some challenging, was that these very same people who were supporting Kim Davis were the people who would be out flying Confederate flags and supporting racist-tinged rants by would-be Presidential candidates. They went on to talk about how people would "roll over in their graves" if the saw what some people are doing today, and how the government is allowing it; how "those" people used to move to the city, but now they are right here; and finally (this is where I also saw a glimmer of hope) they have always been around, there is nothing new under the sun. 

Finally, she asked if anyone else had something to say. I raised my hand, realizing that my hopes and dreams for the project might be going out the Sunday School windows. I  guess I need to say that nowhere in Jesus' teachings did he speak about homosexuality. He loved everyone, even the worst sinners. I understand that you might oppose gay marriage, or maybe you even believe homosexuality is a sin, but I have many friends and family members who are gay, my church is inclusive of gay people, and it is hurtful to hear you talk this way. Jesus loved everyone, regardless. I'm just being bold, as you taught us, and asking you to consider that. Of course, they became defensive and told me that they didn't HATE gay people, they just hated the sin, and that it WAS in the Bible (Sodom & Gomorrah) etc. Still, I hope they heard me. I left a few minutes before 11 to go to Johnson Chapel. Chris, another woman I'd interviewed, followed me into the hall. She had not joined the harangue. She hugged me and told me her sister was gay, and she understood. 

Just a minute later, I reached the steps of the AME Chapel, and ran into Pastor Michelle, who was getting something from her car. "I didn't know you'd be here!" she exclaimed. I asked her how she was: Not good. Oh, do you have a bug? No, the Lord hasn't spoken to me this morning. Oh! I showed her the article in the paper that I was carrying, about our sign, and told her that it had just been vandalized, we had had threats made against us, and then asked for her prayers. But I also told her that I was still shaking because of what I'd heard at the Baptist Church, and she looked alarmed. They are saying that there? She lives in Louisville, and although she has pastored in the small, remote village for many years, I do think the parochial mindset is still distant for her in some ways. 

I was never so delighted as I was to be in that place that morning. Pastor Michelle gave a gorgeous homily. There was a warm and relaxed atmosphere, and a great deal of humour. Tyrone was absent, so the choir had to muddle along without him. Mistakes were made. We had communion. I felt so at home, because the words were so close to those used in my faith of origin, the Episcopal Church. The litany was a special one, called "Commitment to End Racism Sunday." The text for the sermon was: Ecclesiates 1. There is nothing new under the sun. Yes. The very same words I'd just heard uttered with scorn at the Baptist Sunday school. But Pastor Wasington took these words, and preached up a storm, as is her wont, about how all the material things of this earth mean less than nothing if you don't have God, if you don't fix your mind on higher things, if you don't open your fist from grasping and give to others, help others, and ; love others. Same words, used to increase love instead of increasing hate. 

When words and worlds collide. To be continued.

All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full.
Unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
All things are full of labour, man cannot utter it.
The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be.
And that which is done is that which shall be done.
There is nothing new under the sun.