Friday, January 18, 2013

The Sound of Silence

I saw the movie Lincoln last week. Like countless critics and lovers of film, I highly recommend this particular picture to anyone who wants to be reminded where we were and how far we have come. Lincoln is nothing short of spectacular.

But there is a part in the film that is still haunting me. There is one scene that will not leave my mind....or my heart.

The proposed 13th Amendment to the Constitution has finally reached the floor of the House. A diverse crowd is shepherded into the visitor's gallery above passionate and angry Members of Congress below. A heated debate starts to take place and then votes are cast one by one. There is some cheering and some groaning as individual members vote "aye" or "nay." As the voting is close to being finished, cameras take us back to the White House, zooming in on the President.

President Lincoln is 1.6 miles from where votes are being cast. There were no Blackberries or CSPAN or Facebook to inform him immediately of the vote. Rather, Lincoln receives the news through a different sound. He knows that the 13th Amendment has passed because church bells start to ring. Houses of worship, churches centered on the good news of one who came to proclaim release to the captives and freedom for the oppressed, ring in joyous celebration. The windows of the White House are flung open as the bells continue to ring. The sound is sweet and familiar. But not all bells would have been ringing.

In fact, the bells at my church would have been silent.

There would have been no celebration coming from the church I serve. We would not have been celebrating this momentous passage of a bill that finally offered full freedom to oppressed people because of the color of their skin. Rather, our church was built as a monument to the opposite.

Mount Vernon Place was founded in 1850 by 50 people who believed that the Methodist Episcopal Church South needed a representative church in the nation's capital. The 50 people had nearly quadrupled in size at the start of the Civil War, growing to nearly 200 members. When the war waged on, people moved on and the nearly 200 people were reduced to their original 50. There were 50 folks who believed in the institution of slavery, standing behind the new denomination that came to be when Bishop Andrews acquired slaves in 1844, causing the denomination to split.

When the building was built in 1917, no expense was spared. The structure cost $280,000 to complete with $220,000 of this amount coming from people around the country who joined in support of slavery. The monumental church is hard to miss - though most people mistake it for a museum. It's quite a building, and I wish regularly that the walls could talk.

Thankfully, those inside did start to talk. One of my favorite stories to tell is about Rev. Dr. John Rustin who served as our pastor from 1935 to 1950. I've heard enough stories about him to know he was quite a leader. Some of our longtime members are convinced, I am certain, that Dr. Rustin is sitting next to God in heaven. When Dr. Rustin left, the Washington Post wrote an article about him following his last Sunday. These words were printed in that article:

"Doctor Rustin told the congregation, 'the trouble with the church is that it is not liberal enough,' and then spelled out what he thought the church of the future should be like. 'When the church becomes a real factor in the life of the people,' he said, 'first of all, it has vision and is not expending all its energy in defending creeds or standing on ancient dogmas. 'It should challenge the people to move beyond its warped emotions and deep-seated prejudices,' he continued, 'and it should always move into action."

Amazing, isn't it? Dr. Rustin worked hard to make sure that the bells of our church would never be silent again. It was almost a century after the passage of the 13th Amendment when he preached these words but more than a decade before Dr. King started to march in Washington.

I regularly wrestle with his words.

Where do we need to stop standing on ancient dogmas? Where do we need to move people beyond our warped emotions and deep-seated prejudices? How do we do everything within our power to make sure our bells are never again kept silent?

Each time I walk past our church I see words etched in the stone that continue to be my call to action. When I read "Mount Vernon Place Methodist Episcopal Church South," I am reminded of how we have spent our early years opposing the good news of Jesus Christ instead of being his hands and feet tirelessly working for equality. Our original stance has changed, and it must continue to change.

While we have traveled long roads towards diversity, building a congregation that is considered "multi-ethnic" in the eyes of the denomination, we have a long way to go. Our denomination is still oppressing people. We are still causing harm to others, elevating heterosexual people above homosexual people, telling some of the best Christians I know that their lives are incompatible with Christian teaching. We are standing on the wrong side of another civil right when it comes to who can be married by our pastors and our churches. Our bells are not ringing on the side of equality. We are voting "nay" instead of "aye" when it comes to treating all people equally.

When I heard the bells ringing in a movie theatre last Friday afternoon, I heard them as a call from God, a reminder that God still needs people who will work tirelessly until the oppressed are set free once more.

The sound of silence is deafening.

May our bells never again remain silent.

1 comment:

Rev. Steve Clunn said...

These are powerful words, Donna! Ones I believe we, as clergy, need to embrace and live out. For me, that means letting the ministry I do ring out when the church bells fall silent. It means being one of those clergy who is willing to risk getting in trouble by supporting, defending and sometimes simply standing with my LGBTQ sisters and brothers; and, my colleagues who take risks to stand with them as well. Unfortunately what is hurting the United Methodist Church jsut as much as the "nay" sayers on inclusion; are the silent colleagues (clergy and bishops) who say "yes" in private and fall as silent as the church bells you describe when it comes to anything being said or done publicly. Inaction born out of fear of self-preservation (or self-advancement) is as damaging to making needed changes as the call for inaction born out of prejudice. may we all live into the fullness of God's Grace and ALL inclusive love together!