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Church and Society

Clearly I talk with my hands a little too aggressively 

Clearly I talk with my hands a little too aggressively 

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prohibitionists were not messing around

notice the progress of a drunkard is to suicide...

Most people look back at the temperance movement and remember it as a funny time in our nation's history where momentarily we were really boring stiffs. But for Methodist's especially, temperance was seen as a grave moral cause that was necessary for the upkeep of a good society. As one Methodist historian once told me, "the last thing Methodists got done in this country was prohibition!" So important was the cause of prohibition, the Methodist Church had a Board of Temperance and Public Morals. When the Rev. Dr. Clarence True Wilson, executive director, saw a lot next to the U.S. capitol for sale, he immediately went to work to build the property we now know as "the United Methodist Building." We are no longer advocating for prohibition, but we still advocate for a just society right across the street from the nation's capitol.

A couple weeks I got a chance to be a part of a young clergy forum learning about and discussing the work of Methodists on Capitol Hill. We advocate for our Social Principles as well as working with United Methodists around the world through community building efforts led by Church and Society. Some people are excited that we have such an advocacy group right in the middle of US political power. Others are less enthused. But one effort that has resounded from Church and Society was the call for a more humane approach to immigration reform. Particularly the public art and rallies caused quite the stir.

While I was in D.C., we had a chance to meet with the chaplain of the Senate, Barry Black, as well as eat in the Senate cafeteria. While cafeteria's are the same everywhere, not every cafeteria includes a surprise appearance by Bill Nye, the science guy.

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Bill Nye was very gracious as we shouted "BILL NYE" from across the room

On that Tuesday the day began to stretch a little long and we began to grow tired. As soon as we were released for dinner, we relished in the opportunity to grab a spot to watch the State of the Union Address. Earlier that week we had heard people excitedly talking about how certain restaurants have lots of bureaucrats who give you their real opinions on the speech. Being in D.C. for the State of the Union made me feel like a little kid in the big city. We were minding our business as we noticed a television crew setting up. When a reporter approached us and asked for a comment from our table, I begrudgingly agreed to represent the big table of clergy. Then a weird thing happened.  

 

This experience was one of the scariest of my life. My heart was beating quickly and I worried about my ability to represent the gospel well. Thankfully, I had a whole table praying for me and encouraging me. 

As I reflect on the time spent in D.C. with Church and Society, it was clear to me how many wonderful caring people are advocating for morality in a city that is often derided as being amoral. But I am also emboldened to go back to my local community and advocate for the neighborhood. At the end of the day, the real way that you make a big difference in the lives of people is in the local community, within the neighborhood. 

Let me hear from you: how do you advocate for moral issues you believe in? What are some of the most pressing social issues in your neighborhood? 

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Thanks to the generosity of the Texas Annual Conference, this year I was able to go to Church and Society's Young Clergy Forum. Church and Society is a general board of the United Methodist Church and sits next to the Supreme Court on Capital Hill in Washington D.C. 

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Do we suffer together?

Quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." Graphic art by Daniel James Rarela.

Quotes from Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."
Graphic art by Daniel James Rarela.

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and a lot of bad history will inevitably be going around the news and social media. Or perhaps a lot of well-meaning white people will call for a day of unity. Unity is good principle to have in the abstract. All people should understand that we hold to a common bond as members of the same species. Theologically, we were all created by the same creator. The apostle Paul also deeply cared about unity of the church. In one passage he memorably describes the church as the “body of Christ” and continues to use this image of the body throughout an extended portion of 1 Corinthians. In one portion, Paul writes “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it” (1Corinthians 12:26a, CEB). So, at least one thing that Paul says about the church, is that we suffer together.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was clear though, the white church was not feeling the pain and suffering of the black community. As a white clergyperson in a majority white church, it stings to realize that we have not lived up to the call of the church to be united in suffering together.

Over the last few years, every MLK day the same images seem to keep popping up. One graphic designer created a series of images to go with quotes from “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” Often when we imagine MLK at his apex: on the steps of the Lincoln Monument describing his dream. We adore the way he idealistically describes what the U.S. could be. Much less often do we dig in to the letter he wrote to white moderate clergy in Alabama.

In an interview with Mic, Daniel James Rarela says, "As a graphic designer, I wanted to shatter this false image of a Martin Luther King who everyone loved, never got arrested, was universally popular and made zero privileged people feel uncomfortable or angry enough to want to kill him." MLK faced lots of vitriol, but what is often forgotten is the white mainline church that passively agreed with MLK but disagreed with his actions or refused to act.

Often on MLK Day we hear calls for learning. Learn the history. Wake up to the social injustices that are around you. This is a good idea. But is it enough? What if we in the white church went beyond that and instead went to solidarity. What if we began to feel the hurt of the black community and stood next to them. What if we deeply felt kinship bonds and so would do anything to stop the injustices of the world?

Talking with a friend who is a black woman and deeply involved in the movement for black lives, she asked me if that was really that important. She asked if it was true that white people won’t do anything until they feel a sense of solidarity and pain? She began to explain that for black and brown people, there is already a strong sense of belonging to each other and people feel in solidarity without having to do the work of developing friendships and family bonds. It became clear that the white church in particular struggles because we don’t have enough social connection to black and brown communities to even feel the pain.

In the East End, the struggle is similar to the majority black communities in Houston. Beyond all the problems of poverty, there is deep fear of loss. A worry that the community will be changed and the residents who have lived there for generations will be displaced and broken off from the community that has given them life. The need in the East End is to band together. To be overtaken for love for our community and all those who reside in it. We need to be in solidarity to face the challenges of the neighborhood. Only then will we truly fulfill the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Dreaming big

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This group got together on Thursday, January 11 to imagine an East End neighborhood that could maintain its identity in the face of development and change.

We talked about helping maintain communities, building up trust as you start a new thing in the neighborhood, and all the challenges of getting a neighborhood initiative off the ground. We chose to have a potluck because we wanted to get to know each other a little better and to really build community.

Here is to many more parties like this one!

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A king who cares for the poor

King Solomon, the wise king of Israel

King Solomon, the wise king of Israel

Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king's son. May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor. Psalm 72:1-4

I was teaching a Bible Study on Epiphany. This was one of the most dedicated and consistent groups of people studying the Bible I have seen. Every week for decades they have come together to read the selected scriptures for the upcoming Sunday. Most weeks they just skip over the psalms. How much theological depth do we really get from just a praise song?

This week Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 was on the lectionary. This was a royal psalm, a psalm that was written for the king. Even more important, this was a psalm that was used for coronation day as well as the anniversaries of that day. If you read the passage, the message is clear: a good king is one that cares for the poor and oppressed. This is a strong reminder that every king of Israel had a duty to care for those that had no power in society.

One gentleman asked a question, “Where does this idea come from that a good king is supposed to care for the poor?” The first thing that came to my mind was the fact that kings in Israel were supposed to be close to the heart of God. They were people who were supposed to care about the things that God cares about. And God deeply cares about the poor and the oppressed. I think that was a faithful answer. But it caused me to keep thinking and coming back to society in the United States.

The U.S. is not a theocracy as Israel was. However, we are certainly a very religious country, one where most leaders are religious themselves. What do we demand of these leaders? Do we demand that they “defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor,” as verse 4 implores?

Perhaps the call of the people of God who live in a secular democracy is to make sure our rulers have the most important things at the heart of what they do: care and defending the poor, oppressed, and needy. What a sacred duty we have.

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