Friday, March 23, 2012

So Why am I More Afraid of My Neighbor? And What Congregations Can Do

The man’s voice on the phone responded when I asked, “Who is this?”
“Who are you?” I said. I had just rung the number of my husband’s cell, the cell he had a half an hour before said he had misplaced. So I had tried to “call” the phone, both of us hoping the ring would tell Burton where it was…in his car, or in the parsonage where he was staying as an interim pastor.

But the person who called back said he was “Adam.” He said he had found the phone in a parking lot. It made sense. Burton had been at Northeast Iowa Community College where he teaches just that afternoon before he drove to Waterloo, Iowa, where he is serving a parish. “Adam” could have picked it up and taken it with him. But why had he not turned it in at the school? I didn’t ask. I simply asked where he lived and said I would come and retrieve it.

Of course. I would go to Adam’s house and pick up Burton’s phone. No problem. So, why was there even a slight hesitation of fear? Because I have been surrounded by news of Trayvon Martin, murdered by a self-appointed neighborhood watch person. I care. I care very much. I have long been aware of the “mother’s talk” that African-American women give to their sons when they reach a certain age because they know they are not safe being black on the streets of the United States of America.

I care about those sons. Those sons are my sons. When we lived in inner cities of Detroit and New Haven we organized people to not be afraid of one another. We did not arm them to kill each other. I care.

And yet here I was, at least slightly hesitant to go to Adam’s house, a stranger’s house. The irony of course is that as a white woman, benefiting from white privilege, I am much more free to walk or to drive around town, in little danger of being shot. But, you see, violence is contagious. How far have we come, down the road of suspicion of the stranger? The man who authored the “Stand Your Ground” Florida bill, the first in the nation with about 20 states following suit, believes to this day such laws have saved lives. (In fact, there have been many, many more people killed by guns.) They are needed, he says, because this is a more dangerous world. So the argument goes. We need to arm more people because there are more people with guns. And then, when we have more people with guns, more people will need guns to defend themselves. That’s why I am more afraid of my neighbor. We, collectively, are collaborating in suspicion. And those who are “guilty” by virtue of “walking while being black” are by far the most vulnerable of all, so much so that most often it does not even make the news.

But this time it did! Rep. Corrine Brown, at the large rally in Sanford, Florida, last night, said, “I want an arrest. I want a trial” Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton said, “Trayvon is my son. Your son.” His father, Tracy Martin, earlier in the day walked the sidewalk where his son last walked and mourned this young man. You see, Trayvon, at age 9, had pulled his father from a burning house, saving his life; Tracy mourned the fact that he had not saved his son’s life. But how could he know he would be shot on his way home from the store?

So what can congregations do? Close our doors or go out together into the community? Draw inside and become gated communities or open wide the gates and proclaim new life in the One whose resurrection we will soon again celebrate?
We are called to create safe, trustworthy environments where we can be different together. Those are my words for setting a teaching and learning environment in the classroom and they apply to the neighborhood, to the community and to the globe. We don’t need guns in the classroom. And we don’t need to teach each other how to stand our ground. We need to teach and learn how to set hospitable spaces, to trust, to know about each other, so we do not need to be suspicious.

This means that faith communities will need to work hard--very hard--with other faith communities, with neighborhood groups, with police forces, school districts and with any one and any group or coalition, not just after a tragedy, but before. And it can be done. Not community watches with self-appointed vigilantes with guns, but communities of people. We are commissioned to build communities that are safe for everyone. Take back the night. Take back the day. Come outside and know each other. No more, “Get back from the window, they all have guns out there.” This mission of faith communities together will not be easy because of how far down the road of suspicion and violence we have come. What can your congregation do? First, talk together. Then, empower one another to act, right in your own neighborhood, and also at the local, county and state level legislatively. Go outside, walk around. Who is there? Who is not there? How can we be and become communities of people who know and trust and work together for justice? At times like this, and all of the time!

I don’t want to be afraid to go to a house to pick up my husband’s lost cell phone. Oh, I know how to take precautions. We did when we lived in the inner city. I do here in Dubuque. But I didn’t want to be afraid tonight, as a testimony to the freedom from fear that we need to provide for everyone. I could have called a friend to go with me, but I decided to go alone. I wrote down the address. I did call Burton at his church 75 miles away and told him where I was going and when I would arrive and he asked that I call him when I arrived…sensible things.

I found the house and went up to the door. The barking dog didn’t know me. But a smiling old gentleman came to the door and handed me Burton’s phone. “I went out to pick up my grandson at the Community College,” he said. “Tonight when the phone rang, I didn’t know what to do, but Adam did.” “Thank you for calling me,” I said. “Thank you for finding my husband’s phone.” “Thank you” …thank you for so much more that I didn’t say, for his smile, for being my neighbor across town on a street I had not been on before. We did not have to kill each other. Thank God.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

From Winter to Spring at the County Political Convention

I saw my first robin Saturday morning, a sign of an early Spring. It’s been a short winter, and early spring.

Surely we could have been outside Saturday doing early yard work. Or, just have gone for a walk on the river front. But, no we had received a postcard with a reminder of the Dubuque, Iowa, County Convention of the political party to which we belong. The news media were all over those famous Iowa Caucuses in early January; Saturday, Mach 10, 130 delegates selected at the precincts arrived at Northeast Iowa Community College for a day of deliberation. No news media. Just us citizens.

We began with prayer by a pastor who was in the role of citizen delegate that day. The prayer was inclusive of all faiths. Then we said the pledge to the flag. Then, not unlike an ecclesial assembly, we were invited to look around and greet one another with handshakes. We heard words from county elected officials, words of encouragement and challenge. With redistricting, there will be challenges to fair representation. Our state senator’s words were kind and inspiring. Our state representative, who had been Speaker of the Iowa House until the 2010 election, spoke. He lives in a modest house in Dubuque and each year invites people to his home on St. Patrick’s day. At the county level, people know each other and are known. (I was surprised leaders knew my name.)

With voter suppression laws are a huge issue across the nation (see my earlier blog). Iowa has been able to hold back that initiative by Democrats retaining, by a small margin, control of the Senate. Still, helping people—all sorts of people—be able and empowered to vote this year is our task.

The day proceeded in what I thought was a wonderfully civil manner. Through proper procedure and careful listening to one another we chose 21 males and 21 females to represent Dubuque County at the District Convention in April and the State Convention in June. Some of the party leaders stepped back and put their names on the alternate list so that more “regular people” could be delegates.

After lunch, hard work of deliberation on the Platform began (15 pages, 763 lines). Surely the nice weather outside would entice people away. And would the work of these 130 delegates at a mere “county” convention matter in the large scheme of things? But the Platform Committee had done their work and now these delegates did theirs. I have been to many, many church conventions. Some are collaborative; some full of rancor. But this day at NE Iowa Community College, the delegates deliberated for three more hours, listening carefully to one another. Each section began with a “Mission Statement” which summarized our “commitments” to Agriculture; Climate and Environmental Integrity/Stewardship; Education; Energy; Environment; Government and Law; Health and Human Services; International Policy; Taxes; and Veterans.

A person took the microphone to say, that “Immigration” was emerging as a significant enough issue to be a separate section, not just part of “Government and Law.” It was agreed upon by consensus. Another person quickly noted that “Immigration” would then need a “Mission Statement” and that perhaps lines 465-467 from the section could be moved to serve that purpose. Agreed!

That was the tone of the afternoon! People paid attention—to the issues and to one another. A platform plank under “Environmental Integrity/Stewardship” on open leaf burning, composting and mulching, could not be resolved quickly, because of rural concerns of open country in this prairie/savanna context. “Could some of you work on that and we’ll come back to it?”

We proceeded with conversations about commerce and collective bargaining, about rebuilding the financial support for public education that has been cut in the past 15 months, about international trade policies and nuclear weapons. If someone wanted to amend the Platform with a substantive change, one had to submit it in writing with 20 signatures. During the course of the afternoon that happened a number of times.

One proposed an amendment related to the “under God” words that were added to the Pledge of Allegiance during the Cold War period a few decades ago. Dubuque County is highly Roman Catholic and very churched. Even so, there was good, clear conversation about why removing those words might be very good to say this is a pluralistic nation of many faiths, people who believe in other than a monotheistic god or in no god. It was decided that such an amendment, at this time, might not serve well.

Another proposed amendment related to contraceptives. Again, this is a highly Roman Catholic area. The amendment was not opposed because of religious reasons. In fact a man suggested changing the words “women” to “people,” saying that birth control is a responsibility of men and women. Conversation continued about words for “access” and “insurance” and these 130 people worked it all out by consensus: “We support birth control being accessible for all people through their health insurance with no co-pays.”

The afternoon was growing long. People monitored their time at the microphones, and so did the leaders. Still they gave fair time to individuals who had submitted written minority reports. It was clear to most, including the ones who proposed them, that they would not pass, but they were considered, seriously considered and through debate the assembly learned. Then, we returned to the issue of open leaf burning with the addition of “except for resource management.” And we ratified our deliberated Platform, now to be sent on to the District Convention. There our voices would be joined with many others, and likewise at the state and eventually the national conventions.

The day that began with my seeing of a robin, a sign of Spring, concluded with a strong sign that I had seen participatory democracy; I had witnessed intelligence, wisdom and pragmatism. These people had deliberated all afternoon…when surely they could had been outdoors on that amazingly warm Iowa March day. Did it matter? It does!

When we returned home we saw crocuses blooming in our yard where only a week before all the trees had been covered with snow.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Separation of Church and State offers Freedom to be Religious in the Public Arena

People laugh, but I wonder. If we aren’t really supposed to take Rick Santorum’s view about religion in the public world seriously, then why are there so many people cheering him on?

Whether or not he wins or loses in the various state primaries and caucuses, the issue of church and state and the place of various faith communities in a pluralistic culture remain.

I’ve blogged about these things before. After all, the name of this blog is “Conversations on the Church’s vocation in the Public World.” Now these issues are before us, and all twisted up. We need to get our history straight. If Rick Santorum feels like throwing up when he hears John F. Kennedy’s speech, then Santorum doesn’t know his history. In the fall of 1960 JFK needed to make clear that should he become president of the United States, the pope would not be dictating policy of this nation. There would be “absolute” separation.
Mr. Santorum, now saying he would take back his words that the speech made him want to throw up, has, however, gone even further by insinuating that only non-religious people can have a voice in the public square and that the voices of people of faith (e.g. conservative evangelical Christians) would be excluded by adhering to separation of church and state.

The words, “separation of church and state” indeed are not in the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson wrote them in response to a letter of October 7, 1801, from the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptist Association, in which they, “rejoicing” in his “election to office” said, “Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty: that Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals; that no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions,” and added, “But, sir, our constitution of government is not specific.”

Thomas Jefferson responded: “Gentlemen….believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God…I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature would ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and state.” He concluded, “I reciprocate your kind prayers…and tender you for yourselves and your religious association, assurances of my high respect and esteem.”

There are various kinds of separation: absolute, functional, institutional, transvaluative, equal. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in its constitution (4.03n) pledges to “work with civil authorities in areas of mutual endeavor, maintaining institutional separation of church and state in a relation of functional interaction.” That’s another way of saying that we hold to both the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First amendment; we also believe that all faith communities are called to work together for the common good, yes, carry out our various “vocations” in the public world.

Barack Obama, in a keynote address at the Call to Renewal’s Building a Covenant for a New American Conference in Washington, D.C., in 2006, told his own faith background story, of an adult working as a community organizer in Chicago. He saw Christians “who knew their book.” He said, “the black church understands in an intimate way the Biblical call to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and challenge powers and principalities....I was able to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world. As a source. Of hope.”

Obama went on to say people “need to understand the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practices. …it wasn’t the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of the First Amendment. It was the persecuted minorities, it was the Baptists. …It was the forbearers of the evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religion….” His speech goes on at length concluding with “a hope that we can live with one another in a way that reconciles the beliefs of each with the good of all.” A worthy goal!