April 2018

Monday, June 26, 2017

A Call to Not Look Away

Yesterday morning, my partner Ann and I were in Raleigh, NC, and visited Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, the church I grew up in. In some ways, the church is just like it was then: about 350 adults sit in the main part of the sanctuary, and teenagers dot the three balconies. (Maybe they slip out for the sermon like my friend Ande and I used to.) Royal blues and deep golds color the sanctuary: embroidered cloths, one of wheat and the other of flames hang from the two pulpits (I once heard the church split earlier in the 20th century over the split pulpit, and the Baptist church that split off had only a single pulpit—I suspect and hope the issue splitting that church was more significant than the number of pulpits. There’s nothing about this split on the church’s history website, so maybe it didn’t happen, but I think it did, and am curious about why it's not in the church history); another blue and gold embroidered cloth hangs from the communion table displaying the Alpha and the Omega, Greek letters that stand for Christ. The embroidery somehow manages to be both noble and homey, like this church.

Behind the split pulpit and choir, images of Jesus and other important men shine in vivid colors in the stained glass windows. (Jesus is the one in the middle with the dove flying around his head.) Over the side balconies, rounder windows tell Bible stories in the same vivid colors. They were just like this when I went here. On today’s visit, Mom, Dad, Ann and I sat on a gold pew cushion. I remember when there was a lot of discussion about buying the gold cushions: “Couldn’t the money have been spent on some better cause than easing Southern Baptists’ behinds?” some folks in the church wanted to know. It was a fair question, I thought, the kind of question that has shaped who I am and what I believe is right.

The church has always seemed to me to be a place that strives to do right, to understand what’s right, and to ask a lot of questions. J.A. Ellis the church’s pastor beginning on August 6, 1919, was “the first of Pullen’s pastors to make frequent application of the gospel to controversial social issues.” 

In the 1958, before my parents had married and years before I was born, the church’s constitution welcomed Black people and folks from other denominations into membership, and in the 1960’s protested against the Vietnam War. As I understand it, the church was kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention for these affronts. This banishment was a source of pride, an indicator of who we were: Christians more committed to Jesus than the Southern Baptist Convention.

In the seventies and early eighties, as I advanced through Sunday School, I didn’t learn the books or stories of the Bible, but I did learn songs like Pete Seegar’s "Garden Song" (“Inch by inch and row by row, I’m gonna watch this garden grow….”) and “OneTin Soldier”  (“Go ahead and hate your neighbor, / Go ahead and cheat a friend. / Do it the name of heaven, you can justify it in the end….”)

I was always encouraged to ask questions in this church. (I remember a service in Poteat Chapel when we were asked to share a doubt with the person next to us, so I turned to my mother and said, “I’m not sure Jesus is the son of God.” It seemed to me that all of us were God’s children, so the distinction didn’t make sense to me. This is not the only time I shocked my dear mother.)

Our minister in those years, Reverend W.W. Finlator, was often in the newspapers challenging the next-door university and the rest of us to recognize racist policies. (I loved the man and appreciated the time he said he’d pray for snow so that I wouldn’t have to take a test in school the next day and an unexpected blizzard indeed closed the schools, but his sermons seemed painfully long and dull to me.) The next minister, the good Mahan Siler, who came to the church after I had moved out of state, led the church through a “discernment process” in which the church decided to sponsor a gay commitment ceremony in 1992 (and this time was kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention for good.) I wasn’t out to myself or anyone else at the time, but my parents and I feel so lucky that they had been through that process and stayed in the church while many long-time members left.

Along with all that’s the same are differences, but the similarities and differences both connect to the church’s core of “radical community.” For example, the church building and parking lot have changed significantly in the decades since I frequented the place. Poteat Chapel is now a meeting room. Finlator Hall, which used to be Fellowship Hall, has moved from under the sanctuary to the addition on the back of the church, near the Hope Center, which serves homeless youth. That’s new to me, too. When I was young, the church had a relationship with Coventry, England, and youth went regularly to see the church that was bombed during World War II. Thirty-five years later, as Ann and I headed to the sanctuary, we read about sister churches and communities in Nicaragua; Cuba; Coventry, England; Zimbabwe; and The Republic of Georgia. The current minister is a lesbian, a white woman who works for racial justice with the African American leader Rev. William Barber II. (If you haven’t read his book, The Third Reconstruction and want a cause for hope concerning racism in our country, don’t walk but run to your Kindle or your favorite local bookstore and start reading.)

There were other changes to indicate the decades that have passed since I attended the church regularly. In the service, I didn’t recognize others in the congregation, nor did I recognize the giant art hanging on the sanctuary walls, feminine representations of the divine to balance all the men in the windows.

I did recognize the accents. I loved it when I heard a woman behind me talking to the folks sitting there. As she left them, she said, “If y’all wont to, come own up this a way.” (No, I didn’t misspell anything.)

I also recognized the spirit of the place: people there seemed glad to be there and glad to see one another. During the service, one woman gave a talk encouraging others to come to a meeting about environmental justice.  Such a talk might have occurred at our littleMethodist church in Seattle, WA, differing in its size (only seventy people attending most Sundays) but similarly devoted to radical community. Oh, and we have a lesbian pastor, too.)

I hope that one day our churches will build a sister relationship, not across oceans but across this continent, where there’s such a regional divide. I think we could find solace in such a relationship and that our Pacific Northwesterners could learn about liberals in the South. I think our pastors would love and respect one another.  I’m working on that, but for now if you’re on the left coast and visit Raleigh, I’d recommend a visit to Baptist church, and if you're on at Pullen, (or anywhere else), I invite you to our little Methodist church with a big heart.

On our visit, the minister, Nancy Petty, preached an intelligent, heartfelt, and challenging sermon about one of the Bible’s most disturbing stories, Genesis 21:8-21. This is the story where aging Sarah directs her husband Abraham to have sex with their younger slave woman, Hagar, so that he’ll have descendants, and then when Sarah has a child of her own, she directs Abraham to send the slave and her child to the desert. (Nancy pointed out the problems of abusive power in this dynamic—thank heavens she didn’t ignore it—but saved that sermon for another day.)

Nancy focused on the scene where Hagar, in the desert and out of water, placed her baby under a bush, a make-shift grave, and wept for him. This scene reminded me of stories women in El Salvador told by peasant women forced to let their crying children die so that they and others with them would not be detected and might escape violence. Though Ishmael lives in the Biblical story, I know that many children in this situation did not, and I know the mothers will grieve for a lifetime. I cannot hear this as a happy story in which God provides for those who mourn and was glad that Nancy didn’t take the easy way out, didn’t suggest that if we just feel the pain deeply enough, God will make everything all right.

Nancy focused on this passage in the story:  “and as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy.” Nancy pointed out the oddness of these lines, that God heard Hagar weeping and heard the boy’s voice. This, she argued, teaches us to pay attention to another’s suffering, and she told stories of paying attention this week to homeless women she passes on her way into the church each morning. In this story, she said, she is called to notice others’ pain. She said, “I must always remain suspicious of my serenity in a world that’s suffering.”

Ann said she wished she’d heard this sermon before she tried to teach this story in Sunday school a couple of years ago. I remember how frustrated she was at the time: “How do you talk with kids about this story?” she’d ranted. “I just skipped some of the hardest parts and rushed through the rest until we got to a game that was in the curriculum.”

To be honest, I haven’t done Nancy’s sermon justice. When the sermon is posted on the church’s website, I recommend you read it yourself. I so appreciated not only her willingness to challenge traditional, pat interpretations of the scripture, but also her close attention to language. Just as she paid close attention to Biblical language, I paid close attention to her language. She made linguistic choices that interested me and that I feel sure weren’t accidental. For example, when she recounted Biblical dialogue and action, she used present tense, the tense commonly used when we talk about literature, rather than past tense, which we use in journalism and history. This choice revealed that she thinks of the Bible’s truth as literary rather than historically factual, as Biblical literalists do. (Don’t get me wrong: I know, love and respect some Biblical literalists. I just don’t think that way.)

Also, when Nancy talked of paying attention to pain in the world, she said, “I tried to not look away.” Now, split infinitives (placing an adverb between “to” and the verb in an infinitive), drives my English-grammarian self nuts, but I trust that Nancy knew what she was doing. The opposite of looking away in this case is an intentional not looking away. This, then, is what she says we are called to do, to not look away.

I’ll try, also, to not look away, and if y’all wont to, come on up this a way, too. And if you have prejudices about the South’s stupidity and bigotry, go to Raleigh, NC, and visit Pullen Memorial Baptist Church. They’ll give you a lot to think about. 

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