This past weekend Peter McKinnon and I attended the 2017 Ecumenical Advocacy Days in Washington, D.C. We journeyed there on behalf of our colleagues on the Justice and Peacemaking Committee, but also on behalf of all of you, the people of Guilford Park Presbyterian Church. Our hope is that we can put to use what we learned and experienced in our own ministry of justice and peacemaking right here on Fernwood Drive.
In case you don’t know, as I did not, what this 15-year old conference is all about, here’s a brief summary from the website. This particular 2017 gathering celebrated the 50th anniversary of the “Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence” speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Riverside Church in New York, one year before his assassination. You can listen to it here.
“In our annual National Gathering, Ecumenical Advocacy Days focused on the theme “Confronting Chaos, Forging Community“ from April 21-24, 2017. We grappled with the intersectionality of racism, materialism, and militarism, and learned more about the impact they have around the world, in our communities, and in our own lives. Through prayer, worship, advocacy training, and networking with other Christians, we faced the current manifestations of these ‘triplets’ and together advocated for change in public policy that better reflects the Beloved Community about which Dr. King spoke. After a weekend filled with education and training and a prayer vigil at the Pentagon, the event culminated with a Lobby Day on Monday, April 24, 2017, where participants converged on Capitol Hill to meet with their Members of Congress and Senators. Also on Lobby Day, a group of dozens of Christian clergy and lay leaders and advocates participated in a prayerful witness and civil disobedience in a Senate office building, rejecting the budget proposal of President Trump which calls for reduction in human needs spending at home and abroad to pay for sharp and unnecessary increases in Pentagon spending.”
Wow. That sounds like a lot to me now – no wonder I’m still tired! And no, Peter and I did not get arrested for civil disobedience. But we participated in all the rest, and it was an astonishing experience. 900 or so Christians, committed to and exploring the meaning of justice and peace in our world, spellbinding speakers including the Stated Clerk of the PC(USA) Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, and a great many enthusiastic and well-informed people leading various workshops, including a wonderful breakfast meeting exploring the challenges experienced by our LGBTQ neighbors. A lovely young Muslim woman shared with us the heartbreaking simplicity of her life as a gay woman: “I am not allowed to exist.”
Some of what we heard made us uncomfortable, but we were there partly to be made uncomfortable. Some of what we heard affirmed our fledgling Justice and Peacemaking ministry at GPPC that has been supported by so many of you. Much of what we heard challenged us to dig deeper into the meaning of justice in our nation and our world, deeper into empathy with those who suffer from injustice, discrimination and marginalization, and deeper into the power and challenge of being an advocate. And we connected with people from across the USA, from many different faith communities, who are facing the same challenges.
Snatches from my notes tell some of the story: “The sin of just doing our jobs;” “Out of love & faith the women (at the tomb) show up – so find your inner woman;” “Be a midwife of hope;” “Faith is porous – there’s room for stuff to get out and stuff to get in, it’s subject to intrusion and perversion;” “When we promote just wars & holy wars and claim God is on our side, we become tools for the 3 evils of racism, materialism and militarism;” “One can name Jesus Savior and Lord and promote someone who displays by actions he or she does not know our Savior and Lord;” “We just want to love people and get along, not get involved with politics;” “‘Us’ and ‘Them’ eats away at the soul, making some people expendable;” “We adjust to empire and don’t critique it;” and my favorite (from Dr. Nelson): “If your church isn’t promoting social justice, you need to find a new church.”
It was powerful to stand on the lawn of the Pentagon with a couple hundred others singing and praying for peace, especially after having heard stories from around the world of how our nation often takes actions that seem to promote war and not peace. It was equally powerful for me to witness Peter pushing an elderly man in a wheelchair back to the hotel, one of God’s mighty warriors for peace even in his age and infirmity. He was grateful for the help and clearly thrilled to be there! Earlier in the day, one very poignant story came from a North Korean guest speaker, begging that we as Christians advocate that our government help promote a peace process and not escalate war. I thought of that man and the everyday citizens on whose behalf he spoke, and prayed that our nation will exercise wisdom and restraint in the current climate. His face will stay with me as our leaders debate our course.
And on our last day, Peter and I were happy to head to the Senate office buildings to sit down with the rest of the NC “delegation” and talk with staffers of Senators Burr and Tillis about the budget. We asked that we not increase military spending at the expense of spending on people, health care, infrastructure, education and the environment. We asked that the proven programs that have fed people here and around the world not be cut, but expanded. We asked that black and brown people – African Americans who have been imprisoned in such devastating number, Muslims and others who seek refuge from terror and war, immigrants who seek a better life and have contributed to our communities – that these people be protected and respected as God’s children. Here’s a picture of the two of us outside Senator Burr’s office:
Let me say how grateful I am for our congregation that has also been challenged and stretched by this new ministry. Many of you like me grew up not understanding what on earth such “political” matters have to do with faith, and together we are coming to understand that working for justice and peace in the world is actually central to our Christian call. Let me also quote Dr. Nelson again: “There is no conflict between justice and spirituality. A church can do both.” I thank God as always for all the good ministry in which we are engaged at GPPC. And I hope more of us will get the chance to attend the Ecumenical Advocacy Days gathering, and bring back their energy, passion and ideas, as together we strive to be people who seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.