Wait Till My Changes Come
A sermon by the Rev. Kathleen C. Rolenz
January 15, 2006 - Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday
What can we learn from the worship life of the Black Church that helps us understand both its power and its limits, and our own power and limitations? This morning I want to tell you stories from three different African American Churches I have visited that have helped me answer this question.
If it weren’t for the faded, weathered and half-lettered sign out front, I would not have known it was a church. In between St. Augustine and Jacksonville, Florida, we drove by a small gray building and the sign caught my eye. Although I could barely make out the sign, I realized it said “Haitian Baptist Church” 11:00 a.m. The building looked boarded up. A few weeds had sprouted in the walk in the back. There were very few windows and the ones that I did see appeared to be covered with heavy shutters. My friend, always up for a dare, said “you said you wanted to go to church tomorrow morning—let’s go there!” Right, I said—thinking that the church had been long ago abandoned and that I’d get a day off from church.
The next morning, my friend was up, dressed and standing at the door with her Bible in hand. As we approached the church, we were both astonished to see that not only was the parking lot full, but apparently, the service had begun a half hour early! We attempted to sneak into the church unnoticed, but we were the only European-Americans in the building, so we really stood out. We took our seats in the back of the sanctuary and tried to follow along until we realized that the entire service was being conducted in Creole. We had absolutely no idea what anyone was saying. In the middle of the service, a man and a woman approached us, introduced themselves, and insisted that we take a seat up front—in the honored place closer to the preacher. At this point, the band is playing, people are standing up swaying and singing; some are on their knees in prayer, and, being only one of two white people in the church is making me feel very out of place. A man sits down beside us and whispers “I am your translator. I’ll translate the entire service for you.” And—he did. All the Bible passages—all the hymn texts—all the announcements and the entire sermon—translated, on the spot, in English.
After the service, several people came up to talk to us and gave us big hugs. The minister came over to add his welcome as well. He said to me in Creole-accented English: “We’re glad you came and stayed. I must apologize if some of the church members did not welcome you immediately. You see, we never know when the INS (the Immigration and Naturalization services) may show up and so, naturally, we were a little concerned. We are so glad you came.” Indeed, as a final touch, a woman in a large flowing dress and flowery hat pressed a hand-written thank you note in my hand and said “We do hope you’ll come back to visit us again soon.”
It was at that moment, I came to understand what we had done. What started out as a lark—a casual dare the night before—turned into an experience of radical hospitality—of truly welcoming the stranger in their midst—even if that stranger might turn out to be a spy for the INS. I was challenged and changed by my experience at the Haitian Baptist Church not because of the theology that was preached—but of the hospitality that was practiced. Their theology was very a very conservative, Bible-based, literal interpretation of Christianity. At the same time, they went out of their way to make the outsider feel like an insider.
The term “Radical Hospitality” is more than just being nice—it is going out of your way for the person sitting next to you that you don’t know. Radical hospitality means extending yourself beyond your comfort zone—to risk being awkward and falling into silences—of not knowing what to say. I think the challenge for us, as predominantly Euro-American congregations, is that we over-intellectualize the simple act of hospitality. What if I assume someone is new to this congregation and they’re a founding member? What if I get his or her name wrong? What if I begin a conversation and don’t know what to say? I guess what I learned is that if predominantly Creole-speaking, all-black congregation in a tiny town in Florida can make two white girls feel welcome who may have been INS spies, then we certainly can go stretch our comfort zone and get into the practice of every day—every week—finding ways to welcome the unfamiliar into our lives.
Offering and Offertory - Amazing Grace
Collection for the Homeless Stand Down
One of the most powerful acts of radical hospitality is going to happen right here in Cleveland, over the course of two weekends next month. This has been called the Homeless Stand Down, which is a winter restock and service fair for the homeless community in a festive, relaxing environment. The Stand Down is also a way to educate the public about the issues of homelessness. I worked at the Homeless Stand Down last year and I plan to do it again this year. My job? Massage Therapist. I don’t have much training in that area, but they needed someone to offer massages and so I did. And before I know it, men and women of all shapes and sizes are sitting in my chair, telling me something about their life…of how they’re going to look for a job after this fair or how today’s lunch was the first hot meal they’ve had all winter—or, proudly showing me pictures of their children graduating from kindergarten. It was a moving couple of hours I spent there, and I’m here to ask you to support the homeless stand down with your contributions this morning to our Social Action offering.
Once a month we give away our offering for causes or institutions we wish to support. If you wish to write a check or give money to the church—please feel free to do so. Put it in the envelope that’s provided in the pews and if it is a pledge payment, mark your checks as “Pledge 2005-2006.” All other loose change, twenty, fifty and a hundred dollar bills and checks will be given to the Homeless Stand Down to help defray the costs and to support the good work of InterAct Cleveland—our Interfaith partner organization, who sponsors the Homeless Stand Down. Let the morning offering now be generously given and joyously taken .
Part II—Trinity United Church of Christ, Chicago, IL
You don’t as much see the Trinity United Church of Christ, as hear it. As we pulled up into the one parking spot that was left in the lot, we could hear the pulse of the band thrumming through the walls to the outside. The place was alive with sound and conversations and the preparations of the 150 voice choir, all dressed in identical robes, processing into the sanctuary for the start of the service. The feeling of anticipation was palpable—as if the church were going to explode with excitement. Wayne and I took a seat in the balcony, and I swear that with all the moving and dancing and shaking that was going on that the balcony was bouncing as well. We wanted to visit Trinity United Church of Christ because the UCC’s are our congregational cousins and, except for the Christian content, most similar to Unitarian Universalist liturgy. We also wanted to visit Trinity because it was an Afro-centric liberal UCC church. In all of their public materials, they make the purpose of their church clearly known. They describe themselves in this way:
“We are a congregation which is Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian... Our roots in the Black religious experience and tradition are deep, lasting and permanent. We are an African people, and remain "true to our native land," the mother continent, the cradle of civilization. God has superintended our pilgrimage through the days of slavery, the days of segregation, and the long night of racism. It is God who gives us the strength and courage to continuously address injustice as a people, and as a congregation. We constantly affirm our trust in God through cultural expression of a Black worship service and ministries that address the Black Community.”
We too, were greeted warmly by those sitting around us. We were impressed by the 150 member choir who were seated behind the pulpit and created a literal wall of sound. We enjoyed the music, the liturgy and the prayers. Everyone was going along smoothly and then, the mood shifted and became more serious. Oh no, I thought. Now comes the time when I’m supposed to get saved. The minister, The Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. stepped into the pulpit and said:
“ The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that there are more than 405,00 people were living with AIDS, the most advanced form of HIV disease. There are now more people living with AIDS in the U.S. than at any other time in the epidemic. This week, Congress will debate about renewing and funding the Ryan White CARE act. We believe that this act should not only be renewed, but more funds allocated so that the poor, women, minorities can receive the care they need. The ushers are distributing a letter that we urge you to sign right now and return to the ushers. We will send them to our representative for you. Please take the time to read the letter and sign it now, while the choir sings an anthem.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. First, it has not been my experience to hear HIV/AIDS being mentioned or discussed in very many churches. I was thrilled about that. Second, I couldn’t believe that we were being invited to participate in the political process right there—in church—in front of God and everybody! And finally, what about the separation of church and state? Was this legal?
Regarding the last point, it is illegal for church leaders to endorse a particular candidate. However, what churches can do is to encourage their members to support particular issues. We see that done very successfully by conservative and fundamentalist issues on such controversial issues as abortion, gay marriage and intelligent design. If we go farther back even still, to the civil rights era, the pulpit and the pew were the kindling that fueled the fires of the movement. I can’t imagine that people were sitting in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama wondering if they should or shouldn’t participate in the bus boycott, on principle of separation of church and state. For the African American church was the one place where African Americans could organize and strategize to shape the destiny of the civil rights movement. And here I was, sitting in an all-black congregation, with a piece of paper in my hand urging me to reinstate the Ryan White Act, and I hesitated. Church and State. Religion and Politics. Seemed like strange and uncomfortable bedfellows to me.
It does to some of you, I know. When my co-minister and colleague Wayne wrote a letter to the editor earlier this month, speaking against the confirmation of Judge Samuel Allito, we read two letters from individuals who wondered if we were blurring the separation of church and state too much. They wondered what right did we have to add the Unitarian Universalist name to support or reject issues that we care about?
It’s a legitimate and important question—and, it’s one that does not have a simple answer. The short answer is that without a congregational vote, we cannot speak for you as a congregation; we can only speak for ourselves. At the same time, we, meaning we as a congregation, cannot isolate ourselves from the very real issues that arise from our own values. We do a pretty good job of addressing political issues outside the sanctuary on Sunday morning. But I would not dare pass out a letter that I asked all of you to sign, not matter how much I believed you—the congregation—were in agreement with me. At the same time, when religious communities come together as advocates for their own values, societies change. The Civil Rights movement did it. The Fundamentalists are doing it. What about us? Should we do it too?
The choir then started singing “you are the source of my strength—you are the strength of my life—I lift my hands in Total Praise to You…” I borrowed a pen from my neighbor, signed my name, and passed the letter back to the usher.
Part III--Higher Dimensions, Tulsa, OK
Throughout this service we have been talking about “black church” as if it were a denomination in itself. That, of course, is simply not true. The African American style of church has some qualities that might be similar in most churches of different denominations. Usually there is a band with good, percussive, memorable and easy to sing hymns. Often there is a style of preaching—black preaching—that is sensitive to the rhythms of sound—to the rise and fall and repetition of phrases to make black preaching an oral art form. All of these things—the uplifting music, the preaching, makes me look forward to black church. I love singing the hymns and tapping my feet—until—we get to the theology. The theology usually demands I profess Jesus Christ to be my Lord and Savior, confess my sins and be saved. Now I do claim to follow Jesus personally as my own religious path, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to confess a formula—buy into a doctrine—or swear to some kind of creed. The part of much conservative theology that I have difficulty with is that it starts from the wrong premise. It starts with the belief that we are all sinners—fallen away from God—and that by confessing our sins, accepting Jesus and being “saved,” we get to go to heaven and everything is taken care of for us. Now admittedly, I am simplifying a bit what can be a more complex theology than that…but that’s the jist of it.
So, Wayne and I headed off one Sunday morning in October to Higher Dimensions Church in Tulsa, OK. We’ve heard it’s a successful large church in Tulsa and their preacher, Bishop Carlton Pearson, a well-known Pentecostal preacher who, since 1981, built his church up to over 5,000 members several years ago. It was your typical mega-church big box building—a gray building sitting amidst a vast parking lot. The service was supposed to begin in 10 minutes and there were no more than a half dozen cars there. I thought—oh—this is just like our church—no body really shows up until 11:15, so I feel right at home! When we walked in the door, we were greeted like family. Welcome to Higher Dimensions! a woman exclaimed, hugging me. (Hugging!) Then, just a few feet into the foyer, a man came up to us with a program. Welcome to Higher Dimensions! Sure glad you’re here! (Hugged me again). Then, as we took our seat, the usher came forward, shook our hands and gave us a hug. “Hope to see you again.” By this time it was 10:00, and the band began to play. In this mega church that could seat at least a thousand, there were barely six people in worship. Slowly, the crowd began to file in, but by the time Bishop Carlton had stepped into the pulpit—about a half hour into the service—the place had about a hundred people.
Then, he spoke and I knew why the church had fallen from 5,000 members to less than 500. “God is Love…” he began…”and because God is love I do not believe that God would condemn anyone to eternal hell.” And then, he went on, preaching what he calls “The Gospel of Radical Inclusion,”—that essentially no one is ever separate from the love of God and that hell is what we human beings create here on earth. And then, it dawned on me—here was a Pentecostal preaching the Gospel of Universalism! Here in this all-African American formerly fundamentalist church, and I was hearing what our forebears must have preached in the 18, 19 th and 20 th century! Nobody was going to hell? God loves everyone and wants to restore them to God’s grace? That’s a classic Universalist message. What was going on here?
The story of Bishop Pearson’s conversion from hell and damnation Pentecostalism to Universalism is one that can, and probably will at a future date, take up an entire sermon. However, the question that I asked in the description about this service was” “ What can we learn from worship life of the Black Church that helps us understand both its power and its limits, and our own?” What I discovered is that Black church can be as theologically diverse as we pride ourselves on being. Admittedly, Bishop Pearson’s Higher Dimensions Church is an anomaly among Black Pentecostals. His conversion to Universal Salvation—or Universal Inclusion as Pearson calls it, and the consequences for his church, raises questions about where and how our beliefs can find a broad or sympathetic audience in theologically conservative churches. He sounded so—well, Universalist that I wondered if he would consider joining ranks with us—with the UU’s—but if he ever wanted to, I then wondered—how well would he be received in our predominantly white churches? How would a black Christian church style of worship, with a band, with gospel music, with singers, be received here? Could we cross over our cultural worship style as much as he and his church has “crossed over” to us theologically? Would his culture isolate him among the UU’s as much as his theol,ogy has isolated him among the Pentecostals? How much does culture, not color influence our church experience? My hunch is—a lot.
What can we learn from worship life of the Black Church that helps us understand both its power and its limits, and our own?” I believe that African American worship challenges Unitarian Universalism in at least three ways—to consider Radical Hospitality as a weekly spiritual practice; to engage more deeply with the intersection between religion and politics as a positive force for societal change, and finally, to challenge ourselves to be open not only to new theological insights, but new ways of expressing those insights in our worship. (Music starts to play here…softly)
Every Dr. King Sunday we sing Hymn #149—what has commonly been called “The Black National Anthem”—“Lift Every Voice and Sing”. It’s a powerful hymn, with strong, descriptive lines that express both the incredible inspiration that African American culture has received from the suffering of their ancestors, and the incredible confidence, the incredible faith, that patience, courage, and will can sustain us until those changes we all yearn for indeed come. My favorite line from a speech of Dr. King’s is the line that reminds us that the “moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”