Friday, February 27, 2009

Out of Sight, Out of Mind?

This blog entry introduces a new contributor to our conversation: Sandra Chapin, an accomplished writer, poet, lyricist and theologian, who is in the ordination process for becoming an ELCA pastor, and who is also disabled – in fact, she’s a passionate voice for disability rights. Reflecting on the prayer posted previously on this blog, the one from this year’s MLK Jr. Breakfast, Sandra writes:

In January 2006 the Martin Luther King breakfast in Dubuque had as their keynote speaker a woman working with the governor of Iowa for disability rights. A disabled woman. We watched as she maneuvered her wheelchair on to the lift that allowed her access to the stage. It was a visual narrative that underscored the message she gave, that equal rights for the disabled still battles the "out of sight, out of mind" mentality. Others who were at the breakfast that morning may not remember it as I do, three years later. I, also in a wheelchair, gave the opening prayer. And I noted details that others may not have, like the wheelchair lift, an out-of-place add-on to an otherwise elegant affair. Perhaps the noisy, mechanical sound it made, or its unattractive appearance caused some in the audience to look away or pick up their orange juice glasses to be distracted as they waited for her speech to begin. But her speech had begun.

Giving handicapped people equal access to places can result in unattractive mechanical add-ons. Sometimes access is granted using out of the way elevators. Grateful that I am for elevators, I know from experience many of these 'not for general public use' are uncomfortably small and outdated, and I've been stuck in one more than once. I prefer access not so out of the way, not so out of the public eye. Able-bodied people may think it's disrespectful to view the alternate route and adjustments a disabled person may need to take in order to end up at the same place they do. I watched with anticipation when former Vice President Cheney arrived for the inauguration in a wheelchair, but I was disappointed as he was whisked away to some undisclosed elevator only to magically appear later, circumventing stairs all other distinguished guests descended. I wanted a camera crew to accompany him, to note the path that other wheelchair bound people need travel when they visit the Capitol. Perhaps such camera footage was thought of as disrespectful. I should like to think it was at least thought of!

As in the days when people of color were relegated to the back of the bus, the only accessible entrances for wheelchair users to many buildings are still in the back, or off to the side. A trend I've noticed in recent years is locating the wheelchair accessible hotel rooms far from the front desk. Out of sight, out of mind? That's what it feels like. I invite anyone to come with me along the back corridors, through the restaurant kitchens, up the freight elevators to rejoin the group of people gathering for the same event I want to attend. Or watch me as I huff and puff my way up ramps. I won't feel disrespected by anyone taking an interest in the parts of my life that are often overlooked.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Melting Pot

There is a very early use of the “melting pot” image of dealing with diversity in J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur’s Letters from An American Farmer 1782 (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1968). A farmer, writing back to England:

“Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race … whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world .. As I have endeavoured to show you how Europeans become Americans it may not be disagreeable to show you likewise how the various Christian sects are introduced, wear out, and how religious indifference becomes prevalent … Then the Americans become as to religion what they are as to country, allied to all. In them the name of Englishman, Frenchman, and European is lost, and in like manner, the strict modes of Christianity as practiced in Europe are lost also … his children will therefore grow up less zealous and more indifferent in matters of religion than their parents … in a few years this mixed neighborhood will exhibit a strange religious medley, that will be neither pure Catholicism no pure Calvinism. A very perceptible indifference even in the first generation will become apparent.” (pp. 49, 54-56)

In recent years I’ve heard people say, “It’s more like a stew than a melting pot; we retain our distinct flavors” or use the tossed salad image. But now Attorney General Holden calls us to go further, and so do I.

And how much did we ever meld? Perhaps Americans of English and French origins (but raise that issue with Canadians). But what about people from Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America? And those brought here in slave ships? And those natives peoples who had lived on this continent for a thousand years or more? Do we even yet really see one another clearly?

And, at the same time, a very perceptible “indifference” to race (and religion?) in this first generation after the 20th century Civil Rights movement has “become apparent.” Our neighborhoods are more diverse than this 18th century farmer could ever have imagined. But note, he, writing to friends and family back home burdened by religious wars, applauds various “Christian sects” wearing out and religious indifference becoming prevalent. What is our goal? What is the paradox of pluralism? What is our calling in dealing with diversity?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Going Too Far...Or Not Deep Enough?

Alan Lai, Ed.D, from North Vancouver, BC, wrote to remind us that on February 19, 1942, Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Execute Order 9066 to send ethnic groups to internment camps. About 120,000 Americans of Japanese heritage, 3,000 of Italian, and 11,000 of German heritage were interned.

The Canadian government followed the lead of Americans and passed the War Measures Act on Feb. 24, 1942, specifically targeting Japanese Canadians. Ian Mackenzie, the Canadian MP representing British Columbia said then, “It is the government’s plan to get these people out of B.C. as fast as possible. It is my personal intention, as long as I remain in public life, to see they never come back here. Let our slogan be for British Columbia: “No Japs from the Rockies to the seas.”

Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder was severely criticized by many as going too far when he called the U.S. a “nation of cowards” saying it would drive race relations in the wrong direction.

In his speech, Holder urged people of all races to use Black History Month as a chance for honest discussion of racial maters, including issues of health care, education and economic disparities. “Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and I believe continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.”

How far is too far? Racism is not, as many seem to think, a matter of “how far” you go.

After all, “too far” is defined by each person differently. “Too far” may not seem far at all when an American or Canadian of Japanese heritage simply leaves one’s neighborhood suddenly, but it is certainly “too far” if you are the person “moved out,” losing home, business, position and respect.

How far is “too far?” when one makes a joke? When one is objectified and ridiculed by a joke?

Rather than measuring by some ever-changing, imaginary line (the debate about whether one “crosses” a line or not), why not go deeper, to the core of human individual and communal sin. I am (we are) racist, sexist, classist…and more. Recognizing the root of fear of the other, self-protection and self-aggrandizement may help us repent rather than excuse ourselves. Then we can turn to the cross rather than being concerned only if one sees us cross a line.

Yes, times have changed since 1942, and 1968, but systemic sin manages to emerge again and again in subtle as well as blatant, marginalizing as well as malignant ways. And, yes, Sunday morning church is still one of the most segregated times of the week. Remembrance and historic repentance opens us to new possibilities of conversation, conversion, and community, no matter how far we’ve come. It is not too late to view again the significant speech on race by Barack Obama March 18, 2008 on the internet; click here.

We don’t have to stop thinking about these things at the end of Black History month. Let the conversation continue…or in some cases, begin.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Church’s Vocation through the Ministry of the Laity

The people of God are set apart in order to be sent back into the world. What does the gathered people of God need in order to carry out their vocations in society? How will they be the transformed, equipped, empowered people of God serving in the world through their ministries in daily life? How are their skills for ministry and leadership in the congregation being strengthened?

And as we move beyond the church doors, do we know the ministries in daily life to which each other is being called? How will we walk with one another in those varied arenas, any and all of which are places for potential ministry and for working toward a more just and peaceable world? And what about the people whose lives the congregation members touch? What does daily transformation of the body of Christ mean in the lives of those people? How can we really make a difference in the world?

To believe in the communion of saints is to believe that God is the Creator of the whole world, that Christ is and continues to be incarnate in that world, and to claim the Spirit’s power. As leaders walk with the laity, listen to and engage the theological questions people raise from being involved in the world, ministerial leadership becomes more interesting, more vital, more theologically challenging and alive. And ministry is multiplied.

Those who have been called to faith in Jesus Christ have been faithfully ministering in the world in each generation. Full recognition of this ministry and these ministers by the church is the issue. In that regard we have a transformation waiting to happen, an unfinished reformation.

For an article that discusses these issues in full, click on the title of this post. I prepared this article for a Lutheran World Federation conference, “Theology in the Life of Lutheran Churches,” March 25-31 in Augsburg, Germany.

Monday, February 9, 2009

In Debt We Trust

Credit! Credit relates to the word “credo,” to believe. In recent years I have many times said that a central creed of American civil religion has come to be “In debt we trust.” That is not to cast aspersions on those who borrow to go to college, to make it through a health crisis, to buy a home. But the poor suffer most in a society that relies on credit, that believes in debt. And now we know that!

The intricate web of our false god has let everyone down. The poor suffer the most, and would take the least amount of money to help. The wealthy require the most money to bale out, and suffer the least.

Increasingly over the past few years I had begun to wonder if we ought to talk about “American Corporate Religion” instead of American civil religion, for there were those whose aim it seemed was decrease government’s power and replace it with dependence on the free market. And our civil life together was tearing apart. Now, I do think capitalism can serve people well, but when it no longer serves, when it has lost moral grounding, it has tremendous power to increase the gap between rich and poor.

So in what do people believe? I think the central creeds of American civil religion are in doubt, up for grabs. What are they? What were they? What were they not? And what might they be? And what actions must we take to lead us into a new way of believing? (Sometimes faith leads to action and sometimes actions lead us to ways of believing.)

We must start with reshaping some of the systems: inclusive health care; fair, honest and trustworthy lending for home ownership; ways of living--and teaching our youth--that are not credit-card dependent. “In debt we trust” was such a central tenet of the creed of ACR that “Pay Day Loan” establishments dot the corners of neighborhoods where people marginally employed live. And many can never climb out of debt. “In debt we trust” was taught in college corridors by credit card companies taking advantage of youth just learning to manage money on their own. “In debt we trust” corrupted executives who convinced themselves that “good debt” helps people, institutions, and global corporations.

Now, borrowing and lending will not go away and are as necessary are any historic forms of currency and monetary exchange. But what do we believe? In what do we trust? How will the current realities change our creeds? How might they?

The Pervasiveness and Persuasiveness of an Ever-changing American Civil Religion (Part 1)

My interest in American civil religion (ACR) relates to religious formation and leadership and ecclesiology (theology of the church). My thesis is that American civil religion continues to evolve as a complex systematic theology (in my view counter to a theology of the cross and resurrection), with its own creeds and mission statements, and with an exclusive ecclesiology for a nation professing to be an inclusive, democratic, just, peace-seeking nation. What is American civil religion? How did it come to be? How is it changing? Is there competition over the creeds of civil religion?

Civil religions, alongside beliefs of specific faith communities, shape attitudes and actions of individuals and of entire peoples. American civil religion, with its presumption of entitlement to global dominance, presents a particular problem. Civil religion is a social phenomenon, a sacred citizenship. The term appears in Jean Jacques Rousseau's The Social Contract. Alexis de Tocqueville empirically observed a form of civil religion that emerged precisely in the situation of church-state separation.

Robert Bellah's article in 1967, "Civil Religion in America," Daedalus 96 (Winter, 1967), gave words to what others had long felt:

While some have argued that Christianity is the national faith, and others that church and synagogue celebrate only the generalized religion of "the American Way of Life," few have realized that there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-instituted civil religion in America...this religion—or perhaps better, this religious dimension—has its own seriousness and integrity and requires the same care in understanding that any other religion does.

In his 1975 The Broken Covenant, Bellah outlined more fully the historical evidence of American civil religion, clearly describing both the “chosen” character of America’s story of origin and two great flaws: the fact that the American dream from the beginning did not include the dreams of all, particularly African slaves and indigenous peoples.

For my extensive article on American Civil Religion, written one year ago, click on title of this post.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Super Bowl XLIII

If January 20 was a day of community and celebration, Sunday, February 1, followed close on. Once again millions gathered around television and computer screens (BIG screen was definitely preferred), this time for the XLIII Super Bowl game. (Roman numerals are always used for Super Bowls, symbolic, perhaps, of the ancient Roman coliseum). Years ago, when first doing work on ACR, I noticed a pre-game Super Bowl commentary playing the “Hallelujah Chorus” in the background.

Super Bowl Sunday continues to be a High Holy Day of ACR. The advertisements not only amuse, but reflect our belief systems. This year the advertising spots sold slowly, but they sold, many for beverages which people continue to consume during hard times. Side celebrations were fewer. Corporations didn’t want to be seen spending millions to party with the country in a recession. Eyes were focused on the game! And an exciting game it was! The Cardinals mounted a comeback to pull ahead just to lose the game in the final seconds to the Steelers. Probably the play that will be most long remembered was the Steelers defensive linebacker intercepting a pass with 18 seconds left in the first half and running 100 yards for a touchdown, those who would stop him being knocked down all the way.

One could also take the broader picture on television. Even though it was no competition, there were options for the wide variety of tastes in the society with Anne of Green Gables on PBS and an interview with Alice Walker on C-Span. The game, of course, was the center attraction. I noted, perhaps not surprisingly, a pre-game sports commentator said, “Even though fewer people may be able to afford to come to Tampa,” it’s still a communal gathering, “kind of like the whole country going to church together.”

Sunday, February 1, 2009


Is there a “New revised standard version” of American civil religion emerging? What signs and symbols did you see in the Inauguration?

Presidential inaugural addresses have long been studied to discover the core elements of American civil religion. What did you hear in Barack Obama’s address? Where were you on Inauguration Day?

People gathered in their own way. It certainly depended upon whether or not one had voted for Obama. However, there were differences even among these people. Some held strong beliefs that Barack Obama should not have been elected. Some ignored the inauguration. Some fear his presidency, for a variety of reasons. Some stand ready to critique. I have not heard of people intending to leave the country, but there has been a marked rise in interest in white supremacist groups. There are also large numbers of people who, though not voting for him, think favorable of Obama’s leadership thus far.

Which direction will these opinions and actions go? What opinions are held by people in your faith community? What is the spectrum? How do we talk together about these hopes and fears?

For young, newly engaged people, the energy, the real involvement, the opportunity to participate not only in an election, but in a democracy is exciting. It draws forth commitment. How do leaders of faith communities encourage such participatory democracy, especially among the young? (People of any age?) How does the realization that this is a pluralistic, diverse, multi-cultural, many-storied nation finally bring opportunity for actions of inclusion and cooperation? How can leaders of diverse faith communities encourage such involvement, such ministries in vocations of citizenship in daily life? What are the challenges? The opportunities?

African Americans when asked, almost to a person replied, “I think of my parents, my grandparents." Bill Cosby on Face the Nation said, “I took small pictures of my mother and father and brother, who had died as a child, into the voting booth with me and said, ‘Now we are going to vote.’” He added with his indomitable humor, “I voted only once.” But, the meanings on that voting day and inauguration day were many. The presence of saints from the past was unmistakable. There was quiet calm, thanksgiving, resolution that although surely issues of race, as systemic sin, are not resolved, hatred not ended, and problems not solved, there were new possibilities that few thought would come... at least not this soon.

For me and my husband, who had been active in the Civil Rights movement, Inauguration Day 2009 was a day that moved us almost beyond words. The contrasting images: We lived in the inner city of Detroit during the revolutionary movement (riots) in July of 1967. The hot summer Sunday evening when they started, our 4-year-old son, Mark, and I had just returned from a ride with my husband Burton to a hospital where he was making a pastoral call. Not long after, we heard there were fires in that same area. Soon there was shooting, all over. And more fires. I remember vividly during a TV variety show that evening hearing the singing of, “This Land Is Your Land,” accompanied by colorful pictures of the nation… and with words of warning scrolling across the bottom of the screen: “Curfew is now in place throughout Detroit.” We could now hear the gun fire and smell the smoke close to our house.

And I remember the miles and miles, entire neighborhoods, particularly commercial streets, in flames. I was 8½ months pregnant at the time, and there could be no safe passage to the hospital. Concordia College in Ann Arbor, Michigan, opened its doors for refugees. We gathered neighbors who were willing to go (I understood then the unwillingness to leave one’s home, even in the midst of danger and disaster), and drove out of the city during daylight hours. There were reports of shooting from the overpasses, so we took side streets. Mark and I remained in Ann Arbor for a few days, while Burton and others tried to watch over the neighborhood around the church at night.

But in a few days we returned. The new turquoise checked curtains I had recently sewn for our kitchen were bright as ever. The laundry I had been gathering on that Monday morning we left was still piled near the washing machine. And the riots went on, and on and on. I recall how national news announced things were calm and it was all over, but guns outside told me differently. And the guns were aimed at us. At the people. The National Guard and Army troops were called in to protect the large financial institutions and departments stores.

And I heard again in my mind, “This land is your land, this land is my land, from California, to..”

Joel, still in the womb, was due in August, but didn’t arrive until September 8. His birth story goes that he wasn’t so sure he wanted to come into this world. But he did, and is now a leader himself, building community through music.

And that September, just a week after giving birth, my days as a community organizer began…

Today, how beyond words, to hear Pete Seeger leading the huge gathering at the Lincoln Memorial the Sunday evening before Inauguration Day 2009, in “This Land Is Your Land…” The Memorial to Lincoln, where in 1939 Marian Anderson sang, and where in 1963 Martin Luther King preached, and where Barack and Michelle Obama took their daughters to trace the words of the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural on the marble. One girl asked, “How are we doing?” with living out those words.

There are ironies, of course, and new exclusions. Bishop Gene Robinsons’ prayer, at the beginning of that same concert where Pete Seeger sang, was not heard by television audiences, even as Pete, slipped back in the original words from that Woodie Guthrie song that had been censored, banned years before. The challenges to be the beloved community (Dr. King’s phrase) continue.

In my view some of the most significant words of the day were delivered in the benediction given by Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery, himself a Civil Rights leader. Many people on the Mall had begun to leave after Obama’s inauguration. (And who could blame them? They had been standing in bitter cold weather for hours.) Therefore they missed what we through television could see and hear. The prayer was noted on the news for its light-hearted conclusion (even Obama smiled). It’s telling that we can now hear these words as somewhat humorous; during the Civil Rights Movement they were a pledge, a commitment, a dream.

Dr. Lowery began the prayer with the final verse of what is known as the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”
“God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
thou who hast by thy might led us into the light,
keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee;
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee;
Shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand,
True to our God, true to our native land.”

Dr. Lowery prayed for God’s blessing upon God’s servant, Barack Obama, his family and the administration who come to this high office at this low moment.
Because we know you have whole world in your hands, We pray for our land and the community of nations. You are able and willing to work through faithful leadership to restore stability,
mend our brokenness, heal our wounds, deliver us from exploitation of the poor or the least of these, and from favoritism toward the rich, the elite of these. We thank you for the inspiring of our 44th president to inspire our nation that yes we can work together to achieve a more perfect union. We have sown seeds of greed and corruption. We seek forgiveness, and come in a spirit of unity and solidarity with a willingness to make sacrifices, respect creation, and turn to each other and not on each other. Help us to make choices on the side of love not hate, inclusion, not exclusion, tolerance, not intolerance. As we leave this mountain top, let us hold on to spirit of fellowship. and take that spirit back to our homes, our workplaces, our churches, temples, and mosques… We go now to walk together pledging we won’t get weary in the difficult days ahead. We know you will not leave us alone with your hands of power and your heart of love. Help us work for that day when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when none shall be afraid, when justice will roll down as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream. In the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around,when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right. Let all who do justice and love mercy say Amen. Amen. Amen.

Global Responses to Obama Presidency

Here are a few quotes from friends of this blog, reporting from around the world:

Peter Kjeseth in Cape Town, South Africa:

On election day some people stayed up all night to be sure of the results—and not just U.S. nationals. Both before and after the “historic day” all English language newspapers featured Obama’s smiling face on the front page.

At Holy Trinity, the Anglican parish we attend in Kalk Bay, on the Sunday after the election, one of the retired priest/members preached. He is a gentle, non-flamboyant guy, but three minutes into his sermon, he dramatically rolled down from the pulpit a full front-page newspaper featuring Obama’s victory scene in Grant Park, with the gigantic headline LANDSLIDE across the full page. The good priest proceeded to inform us with quiet pride, about his wonderful trip to the U.S. a few years back and how he had always had great faith in the American people. Now the U.S. had returned to its better self, and that gave hope to the whole world.

He was not the only one to feel this way. Ray Ackerman, one of South Africa’s leading businessmen, gave an inspiring speech at a business breakfast in which he celebrated Obama’s victory.

There were a few precautionary voices. We must not expect too much of Obama. After all, he must undo the tragic mischief and neglect of the Bush years. We should not all load our hopes on him and the Americans.

But the loudest sound was euphoria.

As Obama mounts the world bully pulpit almost daily to remind us that the struggle will be long and hard, the mood here is more than sober. Throw in the disintegration of our neighbor, Zimbabwe, where starvation and cholera continue to wipe out the most vulnerable, and you have signs of panic.

South Africans expect to be inspired by his charisma [in his inauguration speech]. But a mood of watch and see, words are words, but deeds are what count most, has set in. Our media sees Obama as preoccupied with U.S. economic recovery. What will the implications be for Africa, for the whole global system? How NEW with the new beginning be?

Tanya Wittwer in Australia:

Together with all of my friends, I was absolutely delighted at the outcome of the election (and terrified for Obama’s personal safety). It followed on from our own significant change of government a year before. We have already experienced that year, with jubilation at important (mostly symbolic) things that were quickly done – Sorry Day (longed for by so many, for so long), holding a summit of citizens and a summit of young people, which felt like a great counterbalance to the years of suppressed dissent under Howard. But the reality of the economic downturn, for which the greed of individuals and the unregulated nature of banks in the U.S. seem to be fairly and squarely to blame, has tempered our expectation of what might be achieved. Australian hopefulness of building a better and fairer country at this time is somewhat diminished.

So I think that is the background that I have in thinking and feeling about President Obama. Absolute joy over a new person in the White House. That feels very important for the US, and ultimately for the world (and for women). Much hope that the US may relate differently to the rest of the world, particularly parts of the world that have been much burdened by its policies and war machine. A quiet confidence that decisions get made differently by people that have significant experience outside of the U.S. But all those positive feelings are strongly tempered by the reality of the global situation into which this President walks: climate change, economic crisis, Iraq, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe. Decisions and actions of the U.S. have a wide-reaching impact on the rest of the world, but one person cannot achieve miracles.

And yet, he already has. Already there is a noticeable cultural shift. He has invited collaboration between people that think differently about things. That’s huge. He has been very clear that the U.S. will not be known for its torture, invasions, incarcerations (which have coloured all western nations in the eyes of particularly the Muslim world). So the hope remains.

Leigh Newton in Baku, Azerbaijan:

In Baku, in the party I was at, there was a communal sigh and anticipation. Only a few were from the U.S. The hope was almost tangible. They held an inauguration party. Interesting that they could do that without worrying about political differences – this is one election in which the non-U.S. part of the world is relatively unanimous in their support for the outcome.

Chris deForest, traveling in Haiti:

On Inauguration Day, I was leading a group on a cultural encounter trip, in Haiti’s capital city, Port-au-Prince. Haitians we talk with that day are optimistic, but cautious – so many past days of American dreams have come and gone, only to leave behind empty promises and false hopes. As we drive past a newsstand, one of our U.S. visitors yells out – “Hey! Can we get that newspaper?” He points to a young man holding a tabloid-sized print, so we stop and buy a copy. None of us know much Haitian Kreyole, but even we can interpret the paper’s headline: “A NEW PRESIDENT FOR THE PRESIDENT!” Under these words: a full-page photo of two men – one Obama, the other a smiling, confident Haitian gentleman – we assume, the president of Haiti. Our Haitian friends traveling with us laugh quietly, and shake their heads. “What’s so funny?” we ask. Our interpreter explains: “This is not the president of Haiti. This is a popular singer, who calls himself ‘The President of Music.’” Now we get it: We’ve just bought a copy of an advertisement! My American friend jokingly remarks: “Well, I could still give it to my family. They don’t know the president of Haiti either!” We all laugh, Haitians and Americans, but don’t fail to miss the bigger point: Haitians know much more about us, than we know about them. We always expect the world to follow our lead.

Karen Bloomquist at Lutheran World Federation in Geneva, Switzerland:

Excerpts from Epiphany, January 2009 “Thinking it over” series:
Seldom has so much of the world’s attention been focused on and infused with such hope in the midst of such foreboding darkness as it has been by one political figure. The hopes and dreams of not only US citizens but also of much of the rest of the world have been placed on him—in ways that seem to transcend race, nationality, religion, culture and political divisions.

Many have attached deeply religious meanings to this event, especially those who long have interpreted their struggles for justice and equality in light of the biblical witness. As sung in the well-known African American hymn:
“We have come over a way that with tears has been watered…
treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
out of the gloomy past, ‘til now we stand at last
where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.”

Many of us have grown skeptical of political leaders and movements who all too readily align themselves with biblical figures and stories—especially when such leaders claim to be acting on God’s behalf or as God’s chosen people or nation.

But something else may be going on here. Might God be active in these stirrings of something new, initiating the beginning of a shift away from the ways of empire? Might we be moving toward a new sense of human community…seeking greater justice for the most vulnerable?

Obama embodies the diversity not only of the USA but of the world. The world’s hopes have coalesced around a highly gifted yet fallible human being. He is a different kind of world leader…in both his [diverse] lineage and the nuanced complexity of his thinking.
Yet, because of how desperately our world is yearning for hope, there is the danger of placing too many hopes and expectations on him. Thus, it is crucial to insist that he is not a messiah or savior. Obama has been consistently clear and sober in reminding us to except disappointment, mistakes and failures—not miracles—and insisting that the focus be not only him but on what people can do together.

Obama was shaped by grass-roots community organizing of which he was a part, and through which he was elected. This style of widespread democratic participation which has been quietly growing in the US for decades now—in and through churches, synagogues, mosques and other organizations—resists divisiveness of partisan politics. It is similar to many of the civil society movements around the world that in recent years have grown exponentially. In such movements the focus is less on the leader than on what he or she inspires in others….Leaders who know their own fallibility and still have the audacity that hope can inspire and encourage us.

For Dr. Karen Bloomquist's full article, go to "Thinking it over..." Issue #21 January 2009 at

Opening Prayer at the Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast In Dubuque, Iowa, January 19, 2009

God of Community, thank you for gathering us this day, this very significant day at the beginning of an important week for our country. We remember Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his dream that we might all be one, living together with justice, liberty and opportunity for all. We repent of the mistrust and prejudice which divide and oppress. We celebrate. We dedicate ourselves to the work of reconciliation. The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. The time of fierce urgency is now.

On this 80th anniversary of birth of Dr. King, 46 years since he gave the “I have a dream speech,” we pray for the man, Barack Obama, who will take the oath of office of president of the United State tomorrow on the steps of the Capitol built by slaves.

As people of all faiths, give us courage, clear and convincing voices, and energy for acts of powerful servanthood to build Dr. Kings’ neighborhood all over this city, all over this nation, all over the world. Bless this food and those who have grown and prepared it that we might be strengthened to serve this day and every day. Amen.

May all of us here, some for the first time, and we who sang this song again and again during the civil rights movement led by Dr. King, now sing the first verse of “We Shall Overcome.” It is fitting we begin this day singing that song today, but singing it now with a difference.

We shall overcome.
We shall overcome.
We shall overcome someday.
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome someday.

This annual breakfast was first held many years ago in Dubuque, with a handful of people. Today it is held at the convention center downtown with hundreds in attendance, including elected officials and high school students. Community service events are held all over town for the participation of school children and adults. As we sang, some youth did not yet know the words, and other people sang with emotion too great for words.