We are living in extraordinary times. We are living in extraordinary times and these extraordinary times call for extraordinary ways of living in order that we might make a difference for the good of the whole world. But where do we start? Do we join a local or national non-profit? Do we help our congregations organize anti-racism Task forces, linked into the work of the Anti-racism Task Force of the MNYS? What will we do to make a difference?
It can seem overwhelming and difficult to know where to start, but then again… Goliath was taken down by one well-aimed stone.
It was late at night, and I’d just finished reading a news article about Pastor Robert Graetz, the only white pastor to join the organizing and carrying out of the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott. Graetz had died, the article said, at 92 years old. Yet it was Graetz’s life, and his dedication to following Jesus onto the front lines of the fight for racial equality and justice that caught my attention.
What will we each do to make a difference?
Graetz worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. He was successful enough in his everyday anti-racism efforts, helping to organize transportation to and from work for people of color boycotting busses, that the KKK took notice of Graetz and starting sending him death threats, then fire bombed the house in which he was living with his wife and three children. The FBI urged Pastor Graetz to leave Montgomery, but the Graetz family stayed. They credited their decision to stay in large part to the numerous friends and neighbors - all people of color - who pledged to support and protect them.
As I finished reading this article, the question I found myself asking: what will we each do to make a difference? Where and how do we rise up like Rosa Parks and Robert Graetz to do our part? How can we, like David, answer God’s call in the face of insurmountable odds in order to contribute our one well-aimed stone?
When the underbelly of Racism once again reared it’s vicious and deadly head in the United States this past spring, as evidenced in the murder of George Floyd and recitation of a litany of too many of the lives of people of color lost, the congregation where I serve as pastor - Redeemer Lutheran in New Paltz, NY - began asking ourselves what we could do.
We gathered after online worship for an online Community Meeting and began to air our thoughts and our grief, our ideas and our longings for how we as the people of God might respond through the Church as part of rising up against racism.
One of our focus areas, within our larger mission of “Sharing Christ’s Welcome,” is Justice and Equality. Yet it was still inspiring to see volunteers step forward, and an Anti-Racism Task group form with the goals of educating ourselves and taking action. Quickly opportunities presented themselves to learn and to act: a lecture by Ibram X. Kendi and follow up Redeemer, New Paltz discussion; joining a book study in the wider community that was hosted and led by our Methodist neighbors; an initiative to make Redeemer t-shirts proclaiming our solidarity with our black and brown siblings and also raised money for a local organization fighting racism and working to reform the criminal justice system.
Then God dropped another opportunity in our lap, and one that would stretch us further in our anti-racism efforts. First, I received an invitation from the local police Chief, Rob Lucchesi, to meet with him and other clergy as he tried to gain a better perspective on what he and the police could do to grow in the right direction with their anti-racism efforts through community listening posts. This conversation led to another conversation with Pastor Jennifer Berry, a local colleague, friend, and self-described brown person who had also been talking to the police chief. When she learned they had no police chaplaincy ministry Pastor Berry exclaimed, “how can we expect the police to show up well for what they need to – including anti-racism work - if we’re not even giving them the support they need for their own wellness and well-being?”
So now, by the grace of God and because God is such a well-rounded God, we are rising up against racism and declaring that Black Lives Matter in the New Paltz and Hudson Valley area and working to get four or five of us as clergy in place as part of a chaplaincy ministry for the New Paltz police department.
And Chief Rob Lucchesi joined us at Redeemer, New Paltz one Sunday in September to answer questions gathered by our Anti-racism Task Group about what the police department is doing to steer themselves in the right direction in terms of anti-racism efforts.
Pastorally and personally, I was and still am praying for God to show me what I might do to be useful. Nothing I do seems like it could be enough in the face of this Goliath of racism that needs leveling like that dangerous giant the small child David faced so long ago.
And this rising up against racism work as wanna-be Jesus followers (aka “disciples”) is messy work. Not everyone is on the same page or at the same place at Redeemer Lutheran in New Paltz or in our wider New Paltz community. Of course, everyone says that we are against racism, but through the one on one conversations I am having with folks I have begun to realize (no surprise) that there is a spectrum of understandings and beliefs on this anti-racism work, as on any topic.
So we will need the Refiner’s fire here at Redeemer, New Paltz and in the wider New Paltz and Hudson valley community to engage in the long term prayer and conversation and education and action as a congregational community within a geographic and global community so that we might grow strong not by pretending that we all agree all the time, but instead building the capacity to lovingly dialogue and even disagree with each other while staying grounded in the word and mission of the gospel to which we are called; remembering that agreeing with each other all the time is not what binds us together, but only Christ and Christ alone, who is our Rock and our foundation.
I’ve also been striving to make more time to pastorally show up for persons of color who are part of the Redeemer, New Paltz Community. This has pushed me to listen more deeply, honor stories, invite participation and allow myself to be led as I strive to listen. I’ve been discovering more deeply just how many walls separate so many good people from receiving the love and courageous support of Christ through communities such as the community of Redeemer, New Paltz.
And this is all just the beginning of course! We’re just getting started. And, honestly, it still all feels like it’s not nearly enough, especially when I read about Pastor Graetz and think of Rosa Parks and MLK Jr. and John Lewis and countless others who have risked and given their lives to work against racism.
Yet David takes down Goliath with one well-aimed Stone.
So maybe, rather than comparing myself or ourselves to anyone else, we can just let ourselves be inspired by them, and then look for where God in Christ is leading us. Not worrying about whether what we are doing is enough or as good or worthwhile or newsworthy as what other people or congregations around us are doing, but instead trying to discover and authentically live out the unique calling God in Christ has for each congregational community and each one of us individually.
Then - and surely only by the power and persistency of Christ’s mercy and grace - maybe then the force and trajectory of our collective stones will be enough to finally bring this Goliath of racism tumbling to the ground.