“I don’t want to say this in a public forum,” began the first email message in response to my blog post yesterday on my own hesitation to attend church—to participate in “the most segregated hour in America”—on a day when I suspected there would be little real engagement with the issues underlying the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin. The writer went on to describe her progressive, white, suburban church’s response—or lack thereof—to the verdict. “I almost burst into tears at the ‘white noise’ of the liturgy,” she wrote.
Through the day, I would receive forty-three such emails,* another four of them this morning, most beginning with some version of the confession that what the writer was about to share was not something that she or he could say on Facebook or Twitter, where congregants, clergy, or colleagues might read it. They came from laypeople (29) and clergy (18); from seminary and university professors (5) and seminarians (12).** Most (41) of the writers were white, but African American (4), Latina/o (1); and Asian (1) correspondents from mostly white churches also contacted me—they, too, expressing a reluctance to speak publicly about how the Martin case was addressed in their churches.
“I could almost feel the physical strain of members of my almost all white congregation—we’re the only black family—trying not to look at me and my daughters as the pastor talked about ‘who is my neighbor’ in the sermon without saying anything about the young man killed on the side of the road in Florida,” a former student from Ohio told me. But, he explained, he didn’t want to make his teenaged daughters feel any more awkward or uncomfortable than he worried they already did. “I didn’t want to make a thing out of it,” he said, “but I was hurt by it.”
A seminarian who is interning at a church in Michigan asked her supervising rector if she should add something to the Prayers of the People about the killing of Trayvon Martin and the trial verdict. “Only if you want an empty collection plate,” the rector responded.
Several laypeople talked about wanting to discuss how their churches might respond to the case in the wider community, but they had no idea how to broach the subject in the congregation or with their clergy. “I’ve only been here for a few months,” one person wrote. “I’m not sure it’s my place to say what we should be doing as a community.”
Another wrote, “I was so angry after the sermon today. It was so abstract—nothing to do with anything in the real world, least of all the Trayvon Martin case. But,” she continued, “I’m just getting to know the new rector, and I don’t want to stand out as a complainer at this point. I’m disappointed with myself, but I didn’t feel like I should say anything.”
Still another confessed, “I don’t go all that often, but I did want to be there today. I guess I just expected that something would be said to acknowledge the whole situation and help me sort through it. There was nothing besides ‘love thy neighbor’ fluff. But, I only go maybe once a month or so. Who am I to complain?”
The tone of the comments I received through the day highlighted this silence from the pulpit and from parishioners themselves, and the “white noise” humming over it, so consistently that by evening I was still mulling the Parable of the Good Samaritan. A comment a friend had posted on Facebook on the Saturday the verdict was announced turned over and over in my head. Then, having noted the gospel reading set in the Common Lectionary, I’d tweeted, “Hey preachers: Luke 10:25-37 for tomorrow. Time to change it up.”
My friend Matt responded, drawing on a teaching of David Steindl-Rast, that one of the ways in which the Good Samaritan story addressed the idea of social privilege was in the inability or unwillingness of the legal expert quizzing Jesus to so much as say “Samaritan.”
“When Jesus asked ‘who was a neighbor to the beaten man?,’” Matt wrote, “the only answer the lawyer could give was ‘the one who showed him mercy.’ He could not even name the Samaritan. At this moment, what are we unable to even name that gets to the core of the matter?”
Certainly, the bigger answer to Matt’s question includes things like “white privilege” and “racism,” things like “justice” and “equity.” But it also struck me that there was a simpler silence that brought these more complex concepts to a human level: the silence in many churches around the very name of the teenager who was killed in Florida, Trayvon Martin—the slain young man who calls into question all of our theological musings about what it means to treat someone as a “neighbor.”
As a starting point, I thought, we at least need to be saying and hearing that name in our churches, holding the reality of the lost human life it stands for in our hearts. In my multitasking way, I was thinking about this while also scanning Twitter where, on most Sunday evenings, a wide selection of the day’s sermons begin popping up from around the U.S. and across the globe. One after another, I clicked through them—sixteen in total before I lost patience, at which point I tweeted:
If you preached a sermon today w/out saying the name #TrayvonMartin, you need to rethink your vocation. Just sayin…
Almost immediately, a flurry of clergy began complaining on Twitter and Facebook that I’d been unfair, insulting, judgmental, arrogant, unkind, thoughtless, and more. I hadn’t, I was told, considered congregational contexts and sensitivities, the difficulty of changing up sermons on the fly in light of the responsibilities of a clergyperson on Sunday, the need for time to reflect before speaking, and so on. Perhaps most, I was taken to task for calling into question people’s vocations.
Now, with good reason, clergy can be a defensive lot when called to task, fairly or otherwise. For one thing, most clergy I know are called to task quite often by various parishioners on issues ranging from drone strikes, to the offertory hymn, to the brand of tissue in the loo. Most are overworked, and underpaid, and pretty much all of them, like teachers and nurses, are undervalued in the culture. Many people inside the church and out assume that, outside of presiding and preaching at Sunday services, a clergyperson’s day consists mainly of reflecting on scripture, taking tea with the odd ailing shut-in, and organizing bible-themed games for the youth group. This could hardly be further from the truth in all but the very rarest of cases. But the result of the skewed perception means that many clergy live in a sour spot between the assumption that they do only what is seen in public and complaints about their performance therein.
So, it seems easy to understand the touchiness of many clergypeople when anyone pokes around at vocations they commit to against very great, often very daily, pressures to do otherwise. I get it. And, I’ll grant that my words were strong. Perhaps I might, as one commentator suggested, have asked how clergy had approached discussing the verdict in their congregations. If not in the sermon, I might have queried, why not? How otherwise was the topic explored?
I might have done that. But the truth is that I don’t expect the ensuing conversation would have been especially meaningful. I don’t think this moment in the moral history of the country calls for genteel reflection. And, I can’t imagine very many congregational contexts in the American Church in which a note from the pulpit that the nation is (once again) struggling with matters of race, legal equity, and social justice would not be appropriate—even though I know there are many such contexts in which such a note would be disturbing, provocative, and otherwise unwelcome.
To wit, several clergy contacted me after having tried their best to at least nod to the Martin case only to be rebuffed by congregants.
A Roman Catholic priest who serves an affluent, white congregation in the San Francisco Bay Area, for instance, added two sentences to his seven-minute homily on the Parable of the Good Samaritan: “Maybe we think this difficulty with understanding who is our neighbor and how we should respond to them is a feature of ancient tribal rivalries that we don’t suffer from in our modern age. But we only have to look at the headlines to see that when people who don’t look like us walk through neighborhoods like ours, we often have a hard time truly seeing them as ‘neighbors.’”
No mention of Trayvon Martin or his killer. No labored reflection or confused, unfocused reactions. Just a note “at the intersection of Word and community” as both exist in much wider world to which said community is obligated.
When the priest offered a communion wafer to a congregant who is a significant donor to the church, he reported, the man met “The Body of Christ” with “Keep your opinions to yourself.”
Another followed a similar path in amending the sermon with a sentence or two. She was scolded by the largest donor to the church, “It sounded like Cornell West up there!”
Other clergy have apparently had that sort of experience enough in the past to know better than to try. “I preached about immigration last year in what I thought was the most temperate of ways and about poverty, which I’d think Christians would be concerned about regardless of political leaning,” said a minister from a church in Colorado. “Both sermons were cited in my annual review as evidence of my preaching being ‘too political’ and ‘not spiritual enough.’ I give up,” she wrote.
I’d be inclined to give up, too, I suppose. Indeed, I’ve walked away from this post several times today because, like most people, I find arguing disheartening and exhausting. Even when I feel like I’m right, I don’t like having the smug, self-righteous tone that the privileged position of having a public voice can provoke in me when I’m pissed off called out by people I respect and admire. The whole of it just sucks. None of it feels good.
In the end, however, we just can’t give up. Too much is at stake.
We are in the process of losing the Church, giving up on the vision of a Kingdom of love and justice that Jesus invited us to join us in creating. You may well think the growing population of the unaffiliated—Nones—are uncommitted, narcissistic, vapid bores. (I could write a book about how you’re wrong about that…) But we have to contend with the fact that the majority of Nones are being formed in our churches. They’re hearing our sermons, sitting through our liturgies, seeing us act in the world on the basis of the beliefs we profess. And we are again and again found wanting, particularly at moments when the larger culture (from which the Church is not excused) is focused on events like the announcement of the verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder trial. Particularly when the voices of people with a claim to some measure of moral and social insight are needed most. Again, I just don’t know of many contexts in which saying something about that wouldn’t be appropriate.
Finally, I know that the strong words and feelings in this conversation have clearly been difficult to work though. But, however imperfect our words might be—mine especially, perhaps—however uncomfortable the feelings they provoke, they are better than white noise humming over to many of our churches, making so many of us—laypeople and clergy alike—feel that we cannot speak, that we cannot risk speaking, that the context won’t tolerate it.
At times like these, those of us with the privilege of any kind of pulpit or public platform simply must speak. Trust me, if we don’t get it exactly right, someone will let us know. In which case, we’ll still be in conversation.
*I’ve adapted quotes from these emails to protect the anonymity of the correspondents.
**The numbers add to more than forty-seven because of overlap across categories. That is, some of the seminary professors are also clergy as are some of the seminarians.