Soul Justice and Social Justice: Where Do We Go From Here?

From a talk by Rev. Joe Daniels of Emory Fellowship, a United Methodist Church in Washington, DC.

The McClendon Scholar in Residence Program concluded its four-part series, Spirit and Action: Learning from Howard Thurman, on May 20 with a talk by Rev. Joe Daniels of Emory Fellowship, a United Methodist congregation in Washington, DC. Rev. Daniels took the title of his talk from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Howard Thurman’s work substantially influenced Dr. King’s thinking.

Daniels emphasized the need for deep spirituality in fighting injustice. Citing a long list of economic and employment statistics that illustrate the divide between rich and poor, between whites and black and brown people, Daniels said, “If there’s not a deep involvement in our lives with those who are cut off, then our faith means nothing.”

Sadducees, Pharisees and Zealots
“I want to be a follower of Jesus,” said Daniels, but not necessarily a “Christian”—that word has been used by too many who don’t seem to follow Jesus. He pointed to Howard Thurman, who asks: Are we Sadducees, Pharisees or Zealots?

  • Sadducees imitate the status quo, becoming like the Romans for security.
  • Pharisees stay on the sidelines, reducing contact with the enemy, keeping their resentment under rigid control.
  • Zealots resist, but with a violence that it the end “doesn’t get us anywhere.”

Instead, said Daniels, “the answer is to go deeper into our faith … through really understanding what salvation is.” Salvation comes from a Greek word meaning “to make complete or whole.” This wholeness isn’t only spiritual: It’s physical, mental, relational, emotional and financial.

Going Deep
Traditionally, the right has focused on what Daniels called soul justice, the left on social justice, but we all need both: “We need to go deep,” he said, holding his hand low across his belly. “So that how we’re living is in line with the God who is living in us.” We need to confront our own racism, sexism, fear, deceit—“to have that purged” in soul work. This is “a daily walk,” he said. Without it, “we cannot begin to go forward in a way that transforms reality.”

We must “read the gospel with those whose backs are against the wall every day.” Daniels urged prayer, silence, meditation, fellowship, scripture reading, and study. “Until we do that, we are part of the problem, not the solution.” We should ask ourselves “Is my life having influence on the lives of others in a God-transforming way?” We must “step outside our privilege” and cross boundaries. We must act “informed by the fact that Jesus served me … and by the God that’s working inside us.”

For information about upcoming McClendon Scholar in Residence Programs, go to your website.

Spiritual Activists: Five Lessons for Today

By Rev. Karen Brau

On Saturday, April 8, Rev. Karen Brau gave the second talk in a four part series, “Spirit and Action: Learning from Howard Thurman.”  The presentation was sponsored by the McClendon Scholar in Residence Program at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church and was held at Luther Place Memorial Church.  Below are notes from that presentation.

Rev. Brau focused on lessons from Howard Thurman’s teaching that she said were directly relevant for those who work for justice today.  She gave specific examples of insights and practices that enable us to draw on the spiritual/mystical tradition that Thurman wrote and talked about.  She discussed Thurman’s emphasis on a direct experience of God and how it can sustain us, quoting Thurman’s example of people who were enslaved and told they were worthless and yet they discovered God on the inside and knew they were of worth.

Rev. Brau explained that when Howard Thurman went to India and met Gandhi, he was asked by Gandhi to sing a spiritual.  Thurman obliged by singing “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” and she used that as an example of how important spirituals are for tapping the religious experience. She then paused her presentation to invite Jeremy Grenhart, director of music at Luther Place, and four students from Howard University to sing several spirituals.

After the musical presentation, she summarized five specific lessons from Howard Thurman for today’s spiritual activists:

1)    Engage Spirituals—Music, especially music that is rooted in deep suffering, can help open us up to an experience of God.  In many ways, “spirituals are miracles” which can transform how we see things. Rev. Brau urged all of us to engage with spirituals on a regular basis and be open to what they can reveal.

2)    Articulate Hells—It is important to tell the truth about the suffering and evil we see around us.  Thurman talks about hell being “fear, deception and hate” and we certainly regularly see examples of all of those.  In particular, our politics seems more and more characterized by these indicators of hell and we need to be aware of and acknowledge that.  Rev. Brau also pointed out that the title of Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermon that he was to preach the Sunday after he was killed was “Why America May Go to Hell.”

3)    Love, Love, Love—There are many way in which Thurman expresses the power of love, and we need to hear his message that love is the greatest expression of the spiritual experience.  We need to focus on this type of love and practice it as regularly and fully as we can.

4)    Engage Inner Life Practice—Rev. Brau talked about various practices Thurman and other mystics have used to develop a rich inner life.  In particular, she talked about the simple power of silent prayer, reflection and meditation.  She gave an example of a “breath prayer” which can be used to calm and focus the spirit and then stopped talking and asked everyone to engage in that prayer for three minutes.  After three minutes of silence, she again spoke to the group and pointed out how regular time nurturing the inner life is so crucial.

5)    Be Mystic Activists—Rev. Brau reminded us of the challenges we face, especially in this political environment, and urged us all to be as active as possible.  She said we need to draw upon our spiritual resources and be bold in responding to the injustices we see around us.  We also need to stay in touch with other “mystic activists” to support and encourage each other.

Rev. Brau closed her presentation by summarizing these five lessons and then once again calling on the musicians who presented two more spirituals.  After the music, there was a time of brief silence and then a discussion between participants and Rev. Brau.

Mysticism, Social Action and Reconciliation

On Saturday, March 18, Rev. Lionel Edmunds gave the first talk in a four-part series, “Spirit and Action: Learning from Howard Thurman,” sponsored by New York Avenue Presbyterian’s McClendon Scholar in Residence program.

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Just move on up, for peace you’ll find,

Into the steeple of beautiful people

Where there’s only one kind.

–  From the spiritual “Move on Up,” by Curtis Mayfield

 Mayfield’s lyrics “capture in song our topic today,” said Rev. Edmunds as he began his talk on the spirituality of Howard Thurman and Thurman’s book, Jesus and the Disinherited. Mayfield, a contemporary of Thurman’s, expresses an African American spirituality: “Our spirit is traveling in an upward way, expressed in music, dance, and also social justice. … Acts of social justice and reconciliation are spiritual acts that move us toward that beautiful steeple of beautiful people.”

For Thurman, social justice and reconciliation came from a “profound spiritual root,” said Edmunds. Thurman’s prophetic witness was an “overflow of mysticism, a response to a personal encounter with God.”

All of God’s Children Got Wings. Mysticism is a fairly recent word in Christianity, Edmunds said, noting that you won’t find the word in the bible. But it has always been a part of the faith. “It’s natural for a bird to fly and it’s natural for a Christian to be a mystic. … ‘I got wings, you got wings, all of God’s children got wings.’ Whether we use them is another thing!”

Edmunds emphasized mysticism’s connection to the world. “Some folks think mysticism means that you got God on your quick dial,” he said, and that it’s about the personal “God told me to tell you.”  But it’s connected to the political, he argued, quoting Isaiah. “In the year king Uzziah died, I saw the Lord” (Isaiah 6:1). Isaiah’s encounter with God was intertwined with what was happening in Israel’s political life.

An Overflow of Spirit. While Thurman didn’t call himself a mystic, saying the word had come into vogue after his own experiences, Edmunds noted that Thurman’s spiritual life fits the classic definition of mysticism offered by Bernard McGinn: “Mysticism is more about presence that it is about ecstatic experiences.” It’s always a process, a way of life.

Edmunds urged contemplation in silence: “At its root, prophetic activity is an overflow of what’s going on in your spirit. … Cultivate a quiet time, get in touch with your spirit, and that’s going to help in you in your activism.”  Edmunds said it takes at least 13 minutes for the body and mind to become quiet — “And you shouldn’t be listening to Morning Joe!” In addition, various tools, what Thurman called “clotheslines,” can help with distracting thoughts. Edmunds held up his own homemade rosary, and noted that words, scripture or lines from songs can be helpful.

Pray Without Ceasing. You don’t need a class, he said. “Just take the bird out of the cage, and it will fly by itself. The Spirit takes natural ascent to be in the presence of God.”  It’s about fostering an awareness that you can carry with you into your day. That’s what Paul meant by “pray without ceasing.”

Mysticism isn’t just individual; it is communal. And communities that have been oppressed “are uniquely positioned” to understand the teachings of Jesus, said Edmunds.

While Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited is often called black theology, “it’s about spiritual theology that transcends black liberation. It’s human liberation,” said Edmunds. “It’s beyond feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, it’s about liberation from anything that tries to deprive me of who I am as a child of God.”

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This was the first talk in a series of four sponsored by the McClendon Scholar in Residence Program. Please join us for future programs!

 April 8, 10 to noon, at Luther Place Memorial Church
Rev. Karen Brau of Luther Place Memorial, Spiritual Activists: Five Lessons for Today
 May 6, 10 to noon, at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church
Rev. Bill Lamar of Metropolitan A.M.E.,  The Spiritual Work of Prophetic People
 May 20, 10 to noon, at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church
Rev. Joe Daniels of Emory United Methodist, Where Do We Go From Here?

Stand Your Ground: Chapter 3 Discussion Guide

Gathering:

As we gather, on your own or with the person next to you, reflect on this block of text and the included questions from the beginning of chapter 3, found on page 9.

“Given the fact that America’s narrative of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism has constructed the white body in extreme opposition to the black body, it is predicable that black bodies are disproportionately assaulted by this culture. What perhaps is not so predictable is the deadly force of this culture in relation to the black body. What has allowed this culture to become to acceptability deadly when it comes to the black body?  Why does this culture seemingly pursue black bodies with murderous intent?”


Small Group Part 1:

  1. Assign a moderator and a recorder for your group.
  2. Introduce yourself and share a 1-2 sentence summary of what you learned last week or learned earlier in our group introduction.

Small Group Part 2:  Discuss the following quotations from chapter 3: (Bold emphasis is Alice’s.)

I. On Manifest Destiny:

A.“Historian Reginald Horseman explains the underlying assumptions of American’s mission of Manifest Destiny this way, “By 1850 the emphasis was on the American Anglo-Saxons as a separate, innately superior people who were destined to bring good government, commercial prosperity, and Christianity to the American continents and to the world. This was a superior race and inferior races were doomed to subordinate status or extinction.  There was in face a relio-science to support the “extinction” presumption of Manifest Destiny.” (102)

B. “For while the phrase “melting pot” would become a metaphor for the expectation that all immigrants would be assimilated and thus transformed into “Americans,” until the early twentieth century, the usage of “melting away” suggested the expectation for the nonwhite bodies. If American was to become an Anglo-Saxon melting pot, then certain people would have to “melt away.” Nott and Glidon continue by saying that although missionaries claim to have bene successful in civilizing them, “it is in vain to talk about civilizing [the American Indian.] You might as well attempt to change the nature of the buffalo.” (103)

C. “As much as this exodus story is a story of moving out of bondage into freedom, it is also a story of invading an occupied land.  The exodus provides a theological paradigm for Manifest Destiny just as much it does for liberation….

The exodus story has traditionally provided the primary scriptural foundation for black people’s understanding of God’s movement in their own history.  This story is central to black faith.  It is the story that stirred the imagination of the enslaved and allowed them to affirmed, even as their enslavers said otherwise, that God did not choose them to chattel but to be free.  However, with the narrative of Manifest Destiny, the theological paradigm of black people as the Israelites is contested….

In the context of the Anglo-Saxon Manifest Destiny, the black body is not the chosen Israelite body.  Rather, it is more like the scorned Canaanite body. This is not the body that God frees.  It is instead a body that God allows to be destroyed.  Again, the God of the exodus becomes a God of Manifest Destiny. Such a God sanctions the “extinction” of a people.  At the least, this God subjects people to conquering violence.”( 105-106)

D. “The narrative of Manifest Destiny inevitably flows from America’s exceptionalist identity. As earlier mentioned, if a race of people believes itself to be chosen by God because it and its way of life is superior to others, then a sense of Manifest Destiny becomes inevitable. It is only right, in other words, to make the world “better” by investing it with a superior way of living, especially if that way is considered a reflection of eternal law. This is what is in the “best interest” of the world. Manifest destiny presumes to be a way to “serve the common good.” In many respects, then, the narrative of Manifest Destiny is the culmination of the numerous discourses and productions of knowledge generated by America’s grand narrative of exceptionalism. It reflects the Anglo-Saxon natural law theo-ideology that sanctions white supremacy. In fact, Manifest Destiny is an expression of that ideology as it assumes both the supremacy of whiteness, the shelter for Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism, and the inferiority of non-whiteness, a threat to Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism. This narrative further exonerates white people from taking moral responsibility for certain immoral, dehumanizing, and even deadly actions they might perpetrate against nonwhite bodies, all in the name of Manifest Destiny. Extermination, for instance, is read as a natural process of extinction, rather than the result of a violent imposition upon a people’s life. True to the constructions of the narrative of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism, the nonwhite body becomes responsible for its own fate, even when it is a deadly fate. In effect, the narrative of Manifest Destiny is that which ultimately legitimates the deadly use of subjugating power. The narrative of Manifest Destiny is a declaration of war.” 107

  1. Speaking more broadly before digging into the quotation: From your time in school, what have been your impressions about Manifest Destiny?  Have you learned about this term/ movement in different ways? How do you interpret land, life and race woven into the narrative of Manifest Destiny?
  2. Reflect on the above quotations. What would you draw out?  What questions do you have?  What surprises you? What do you see anew?  What do you disagree with?
  3. How have you experienced the idea of “white supremacy?”
  4. Do you interpret Manifest Destiny as a declaration of war? Why or why not?

II.Stand Your Ground the Black Body

A. “It is no accident that stand-your-ground culture has been most aggressively if not fatally executed after every period in which certain “rights” are extended to black people, ostensibly bringing them closer to enjoying the “inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This pattern of “white backlash” began with the emancipation. After emancipation, Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, and the heinous “punishment” of lynching was enforced. The “law and order” mandates of the post–civil rights era continued this pattern. White backlash surely is reflected in the virulent stand-your-ground reality that has followed the election of the first black president. In each instance, stand-your-ground culture has asserted itself in an effort to “seize” the rights of whiteness and to return the black body to its chattel space. Essentially, the more the black body is free, the more intense the war against its body. We will now look to see how this is the case.” 117

B. “The moon doesn’t run.

Neither does the sun.

In Chicago

They’ve got covenant

Restricting me—

Hemmed in

On the South Side,

Can’t breath free.” – Langston Hughes’s 1949 poem “Restrictive Convenants” (123)

  1. Reflect on the above quotation. What would you draw out?  What questions do you have?  What surprises you? What do you see anew?  What do you disagree with?
  2. How do you see Manifest Destiny affecting black codes, Jim Crow laws, Lynching, and the War on Drugs?
  3. How would you compare the death of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin? (121)
  4. “Essentially, the more the black body is free, the more intense the war against its body.” How would you apply this quotation to today’s context?

C. “Today, the Manifest Destiny stand-your-ground-culture war is fueled by the presence of a black man living in the White House. There is no greater challenge to America’s grand narrative of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism than a black president. This represents a complete encroachment upon the space reserved for cherished white property. It is no surprise, therefore, that stand-your-ground culture has asserted itself in an aggressive and unrelenting manner. All of the weapons that have been used over time have been brought to bear in the current climate of stand-your-ground culture. The “Stop and Frisk laws,” which are disproportionately applied to black and brown bodies, harken back to the Black Code vagrancy laws. Once again, you can be stopped and arrested for living black. The dismantling of the 1965 Voter’s Rights Act, as well as racialized gerrymandering, is reminiscent of the white backlash that followed Reconstruction, the first time that black people ascended into white political space. And most troubling of all, the Stand Your Ground laws, in conjunction with the Conceal and Carry gun laws, have made legal a murderous act that was extralegal, that is, lynching. Our black children are falling victims to the twenty-first-century version of stand-your-ground-culture lynching.” (130-1)

  1. Reflect on the above quotation. What would you draw out?  What questions do you have?  What surprises you? What do you see anew? What do you disagree with?
  2. Kelly Brown’s Douglas asks us this question to end the chapter. How do you respond? “What is the meaning of God’s help in the context of stand-your-ground culture that would deprive the black body of a home?”
  3. What is the role of the church in this war against the black body? How does the role of the church change depend on who attends the church? Or, does the role of the church change?

Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, Discussion Guide, Chapters 1 and 2

In February, as an intergenerational Sunday School Class, we are reading Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God by Kelly Brown Douglas.  Here is part 1 of our small group discussion guide for Chapter 1 (American’s Exceptionalism) and Chapter 2 (The Black Body: A Guilty Body.)


PART 1:  First off, to get discussion started in your groups, please discuss the following questions:

  • “If Trayvon was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?” –President Barack Obama
  • How did you feel when you read this book or heard others talking about it?
  • If you consider yourself to be white, how often do you think about your own whiteness/ race/ construction of race? If you consider yourself to be a person of color, how often do you think about your skin color/ race/ construction of race? 
  • Where do you most commonly talk with others about the construct of race?
  • What role do you think the church has in the discussion of the construct of race? 

PART 2:  After that discussion, drawing on your faith, your personal experiences and your reading, please respond to these excerpted quotations.

How to you respond to the phrase and idea  America’s narrative of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism?” How do you see the idea of American exceptionalism as part of the religious narrative? How to you respond to the phrase and idea of “whiteness as cherished property?” How would you respond to the phrase “white space?” (p.42-43)

How would you respond to this quotation?

It is important to recall once again that the narrative of Ango-Saxon exceptionalism is a religious narrative……Not only did the early America Anglo-Saxons believer their mission to be on of erecting God’s “city on a hill” but they also come to believe that they essentially have divinity running through their veins….Whiteness in this respect is not simply cherished property, but also sacred property.  It is virtually the gateway to divinity, the key to salvation.  As the evangelical Protestant hymns suggests, salvation requires one to be made “white as snow.” (p.42)

How do you respond this excerpt from the first quotation?

Cheryl Harris puts it this way: “Whiteness and property share a common premise—a conceptual nucleus—of a right to exclude.”  This right to exclude inexorably gives way to other fundamental rights—the right to claim land and the right to stake out space. (p.42-43)

Respond to this quotation from your sheet.  How would you respond as the parent of Dr. Douglas’s son or the best friend, James?

“I remember it like it was yesterday. My son was seven or eight years old. He and his best friend, who was white (I will call him James), were sitting in the backseat of the car as I was driving them home from school. It was during black history month, so they were learning about “famous” black people. That day, Arthur Ashe was the focus of their black history lesson. As my son and James were discussing Ashe, James said, “Good thing we [meaning white people] decided to share our stuff with you guys [meaning black people] or Arthur Ashe would have never been a champion.” Already implanted within James’s young consciousness was the awareness that with his white skin came certain rights that were not given to black people. The only way for black people to attain these things was for white people to decide to share them.”  (p.44)

Respond to these quotations:

“Why are black murder victims put on trial?” (p.48) “Why is it reasonable to believe, even in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that a black murder victim is culpable in his own or her own slaying?  Why is she/ he be viewed as threat even while asking for help?  Why is self-defense so easily granted as the justification for killing an unarmed black person, especially when the killer is white?” Respond to this quotation from L.Z. Grandson “there is a subconscious element of our culture that looks at a black corpse and quiet puts it, instead of the perpetrator, on trial.” (p.49)

Respond to this quotation:

“The sacred connection between the radicalized American nomos and the sacred cosmos is disrupted by the advent of the free black body.  In the end, a free black body poses an ontological danger to an Anglo-Saxon exceptionalist social order.  It also presents an existential danger.” (p.70)

How do you react to this quotation?  How do you respond to the term chattel? What role does the church have in dismantling this idea?

“The black body that was once marked as chattel is now marked as criminal. This construct serves the same purpose as the construct of chattel. It relegates the black body to an “unfree” space. It preserves the free space as a white space. This transformation began shortly after emancipation.” (p.77)

Respond to this experience ending with this quotation. If you were Dr. Douglas, how would you respond? If you were the parent of the little boy, how would you respond? If you were looking on to this scene not knowing either boy, how would you respond?  If this was an interaction between adults and not little children, how do you think things would have changed?

“This little boy was angry. My son had intruded into his space. My son was guilty of being black, in the park, and looking.” (p. 86)


PART 3:  How would you describe the first two chapters of this book and this discussion to someone that is not here today?

Church Getting Political: Seeking Mispat

Seeking Mispat, Sermon for February 5, 2017 on Matthew 5:13-20 and Isaiah 58:1-12

(We don’t normally post sermons, but this one was all written out, and because I tend to drop by voice at points, a few of you asked for a written copy.  Here is to trying something new! Plus, I get to add pictures. -Alice)

Over the last several months, many of us have become fully engaged activists.  In the last month I have stood up at 5 protests.  If I look back at the last two decades, I can count maybe two.

Like many of you, this life of political demonstration is a new normal for me.  When I first met Roger a few years ago right after you decided to call me as your Associate Pastor, Roger told me about the good work this church did standing up during the Iraq war.  Instead of offering to join in, I over-confidently told Roger “I don’t protest.” Then I added something to the effect that “It’s because I’m not very interested in politics— I just want to help where the church can.”   

In my defense, I was breast-feeding mama at the time, and didn’t think I could risk getting arrested.  But the babe is now a little more grown up and things have changed. 

Thinking back to this conversation with Roger a few years ago, I realized two things: First, Roger is very forgiving.  Second, I don’t think I had a very well thought out understanding of the intersection of politics and faith. When Roger asked me about politics, I was thinking of pastors endorsing or defiling political leaders by name from the pulpit. I was thinking of a church becoming totally partisan where the church in my mind becomes the mouth piece of the state — and not preaching the work of God.   That kind of politics in church really does bother me as it does for many of you.  Roger too.

What I didn’t think about is when we see and experience policies that directly hurt God’s people, it is at the very core of our faith to get involved.   It is at the core of who we are as a church.  

As a church, it our job to support each other in all that we are feeling, going through, and all the ways we seek God’s justice in this world. It is our job to say that you are supported. It is our job to say  you are loved  because God has loved each and everyone one of us first.  It is our job to share God’s deep and vulnerable love for all of humanity goes to the core of who God is.

I have become political in the last month because our Christian faith says that is what we are called to do.

Coming out of God’s deep love for us, we hear God’s call to care for the marginalized, the vulnerable, the foreigner. We hear this call ringing loudly throughout the Bible, and in particular in these scripture passages from Matthew and Isaiah. Both passages are addressed to communities of faith struggling to figure out how their faith can be best lived out in the public sphere.

From Matthew — we hear the call on to the whole community to be salt and light.   You are the salt of the earth — not the salt for yourselves, but for the whole earth. You are the light of the world, not for for a closed fellowship — but for everyone. 

What is the point of salt if it does not flavor food?  What is the point of light if it does not shine? What is the point of the church if it does not seek in every way seek to live into the goodness and justice that comes only from God?


From Isaiah we hear those deep penetrating questions addressed to a community living in conflict arising out the experience of deep hardship. 

The problem isn’t that they aren’t showing up for worship or concerned with their piety. The problem is that they are just going through the motions. Isaiah says that they fast but oppress the worker.   They seek out theological study, but they ignore those in most need.  As Scholar Paul Hanson puts it — “Their faith is faith in a subjunctive mood.” Their faith is lived as if.  There faith is lived as if they  were worshiping God.  Their faith is lived as if was to suit their needs — not the needs of the community.

Quoting verse 2:  “Day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, As if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God.” 

Ordinance is important word here.  It comes from the hebrew word mispat.  In some places mispat is translated instead as judgement as in God’s righteous judgement for the nations.  That application may apply.

But I go with the translation of Hanson and other scholars translating mispat for the people as “compassionate justice.”  Compassionate justice goes to God’s very nature. Compassionate justice is God reordering the world.  Isaiah urges the people to seek this mispat — and to become reordered.  To get refocused. 

I’m not saying that we as a church have been going through the motions or that our worship doesn’t reflect our faith.  But I do see that we are in a time of re-awakening for our church here, our Presbyterian denomination, and Christians across this country. 

We are at time when we are being called out of zones of comfort, called out of what we would consider normal, called to apply all the skills we use to regular things of the church  —  to be ready and alive to do God’s justice work out in the world.


But before I go any further — I want to make an important distinction. I believe we seek justice together. We are not justice ourselves.   We are far from it in fact.   In our call to refocus and take up the call of justice, we need to be very well aware of the third part of Micah 6:8 that we have on our banners outside:  that we are to walk humbly with our God.

To walk humbly, it is likely that we need to begin with confession.  About a week and a half ago on the steps of this church I heard lots of faith leaders speak out against then proposed EO.   All of the leaders spoke boldly — but the one that stuck with me was from the Catholic Sister.

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1/25/17:  Faith Leaders on the Steps of NYAPC Protesting the then EO banning refugees from 7 majority Muslim countries.  Organized by Church World Service, Presbyterian Office in Washington and Faith in the Public Life.    One of the ways we can show up for justice is by hosting events!

She challenged us to our need to look deep into our own culpability. Here is how I interpreted her statements:

  • In what ways have we been party to systems of oppression that have inspired violence in Syria? 
  • For how long have we been well aware of the flood of refugees around the world and have looked up but not been fully moved into action?
  • How often have we said we cared — and yet — how often have we in the past engaged in calling, in protests, and in other acts of political engagement standing up for those escaping violence?

As a church, seeking compassionate justice means that we need to wrestle deeply looking within ourselves to those places of comfort where we have each retreated saying that “This isn’t my issueI’m not directly affected.” That place of comfort and ease — blindness and distraction — that is where our confession lies. 


That may be where our action lies as well.  Out of that work of confession, our community based work of atonement is some real honest conversations about where we are at. 

This kind of resistance as God’s work is new or perhaps newish to many of us. We need to acknowledge that this is new territory to many of us. We need to say loudly that there is much that we need to learn— and that we need to learn in places we have not looked before.

We need to remind reach other to pace ourselvesMany of us are following the news so closely that we have jumbled up our insides, forgotten at times to eat or shower, ignored our loved ones, snapped at a friend — and basically haven’t attended well to our mental and spiritual health. 

In these hyper engaged political times, we need to be attentive to ourselves and our community.  We need to dive deeper into spiritual practicesI find the breath prayer so helpful — to breath all of the goodness of God and to breath out everything that brings the world harm. 

We need to talk to each other directly about our new level of anger and frustration — a new level of feeling scared — a new level of courage perhaps. The protests take many of us beyond what we previously thought as comfortable. Those of us who don’t really like using the phone are starting to call our representatives. 

Many of us have started reaching out more intentionally across the boundaries of religion and background to see how we can act in more collaborative and supportive solidarity with one another. 

Here is what you were doing this past week:  The petition against the Executive Order banning refugees from those 7 majority Muslim countries, that Kathy started last week here in church was mailed out this week.  Then, Taylor adapted it to a google form, and all of your pastors including all of your Pastors including Parish Associates signed on.  Yesterday at 7:50 pm, we had signatures of 895 Presbyterians around the country representing churches in DC, Virginia, Maryland,   Alabama, Ohio, Kentucky, North Carolina, Nevada, California – the list goes on.  You are becoming organizers. 

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The paper petitions from members of NYAPC to Presbyterian members in Congress against the EO banning refugees from the 7 majority Muslim countries.  On-line petition version to be sent out soon!

Because of where we are positioned both physically and theologically,  it our calling as this church on New York Avenue to be a leader on how we respond with God’s justice, how we respond with resistance, and to help  discern where we can enter into reconciliation.  We are called to be prophetic, to be risk takers, and to be feisty. 


And when we have doubt (don’t we all have doubt, sometimes?), we can know that those who have sat in the pew here have done it beforeMany of you well know that The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke from the pulpit to warn about the consequences of the war in Vietnam.  The pastors went to Selma to march for civil rights. During the Vietnam war, the church served as a haven for protesters and was the center for publicity and public information for the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington in the spring of 1968.  You marched against the war in Iraq.  Some of you got arrested. 

You now serve the city here through the Radcliffe Room ministry, through tutoring and through mental health ministries. You serve through the “regular” ministries of this church that keep us running, keep us learning, and keep us holding worship as our center.  You serve each other by showing up and being church.

Here is one more: One of you on the sanctuary task force emailed me this story that you learned at a recent interfaith meeting of how we can live into s new calling to be a place of sanctuary in the city.   The article is from the Smithsonian at the Anacostia Community Museum.  It was about Adam Frances Plumber born a slave in 1819.  It talked about Ms. Plumber being an incredible and resilient man suffering under horrors of slavery.   Not excusing slavery at all — this is the worst sustained offense of humanity — there was a glimmer of hope in his story. 

In 1841, Adam Francis Plummer married Emily Saunders who was also called slave. Their wedding was held at one of the two churches that merged as the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC.  “The marriage was considered legal and they were granted a marriage license. Both of these things were unusual because slave marriages generally occurred on plantations and they were not legal in the eyes of the law.”

NYAVE in 1841 did a radical thing standing up for justice.  Twenty years later in 1861, President Lincoln and his family became pew holders here.

Isaiah is very clear — If we choose the fast to loose the bonds of injustice — if we live into a life as a church community standing up for those most in need, then — the words and reality are beautiful:

You shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.  Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

May we seek this future of compassionate justice together.  

PCUSA Invitation to PCUSA Members to Sign on to Petition against EO Barring Refugees and Against Muslims. Please sign if you haven’t yet

Dear fellow Presbyterian Church USA members, ruling elders and teaching elders,

In the midst of so much national turmoil, we have been heartened this week that we have seen so many of you fighting for the cause of justice in our churches on behalf of immigrants and refugees around world.   We write to you today as members of the PCUSA with a request for you to sign onto a petition from members of our denomination to stand up in one voice against the Executive Order suspending refugee resettlement.

It is our conviction that Jesus stood with the most vulnerable in his midst on account of his belief that God is alive in the world seeking to transform the situation. In our present circumstance as Christians it our calling and duty to stand up with the immigrant and the refugee.  We believe the executive action issued this week titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” is unconscionable and goes against all that we stand for as Christians and as citizens of the United States of America.

Kathy Doan, a ruling elder at The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, and Executive Director of the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, wrote the linked petition to our fellow Presbyterians in Congress to oppose the Executive order suspending refugee resettlement program and discriminating against Muslims.  On Sunday morning January 29 many members of The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church signed onto the petition.  It is being mailed on January 31.

However loud our members’ voices may be, as proud members, ruling elders, and teaching elders of the PCUSA, we believe we are the most effective when we speak together united as one body of Christ. We believe that it would be most impactful if members of the PCUSA around the country would also sign on to the petition.

Would you sign onto this petition?  Would you share it with your friends and networks who are part of the PCUSA?

https://docs.google.com/a/nyapc.org/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSdAobkDEbqBClQ3GoMbBrj3VtqKvvxNG6lHYfPV6c4pv7g7Wg/viewform?c=0&w=1.

After you sign onto the petition, will you also contact your Congressional representative?  To be connected to your representative in Congress or the Senate, call this number (202) 224-3121.  You will need to call the line three times to be connected to your representative and two Senators.

Many thanks and blessings,

Roger J. Gench, Senior Pastor

Alice Tewell, Associate Pastor

Kathy Doan, Ruling Elder

Miriam Dewhurst, Clerk of Session

Ann Rose Davie, Parish Associate

Frances Taylor Gench, Parish Associate

Emily Rhodes Hunter, Parish Associate

Linda LeSourd Lader, Parish Associate

Matthew Schlageter, Parish Associate

Taylor Allison, NYAPC Member