By Eileen Gebbie
In the Christian tradition, Wednesday, February 10 is known as Ash Wednesday. It marks the beginning of Lent, a 40 day period (excluding Sundays for convoluted, medieval reasons) that prepares us for our highest of holy days, Easter. Lent is marked by quieter, more meditative Sunday services and simplifying the visuals (like fabric art and candles) in our sanctuary. We pastors who wear robes to lead worship will switch from white to black and wear purple-colored stoles (those long scarves). As a result, Easter morning, with its flowers and white banners and loud alleluias, becomes that much more of a celebration.
Another common Lenten practice is to intensify our corporate spiritual work with mid-week meals and study. At Ames UCC, that means a soup supper at 5:30 p.m., a book study at 6:15 p.m., and a choice of choir practice or 30 minutes of meditation at 7 p.m. (beginning Wednesday, February 17).
Although my branch of the Christian family tree (a.k.a. “denomination”) formed through a merger as recently as 1957, we have deep, rich roots through our parent denominations. As such, we claim many “firsts.” We are the church of the first published African American poet (Phyllis Wheatley), ordained the first African American pastor (James O’Kelly), defended and sheltered slaves who escaped from the Amistad, created the first integrated abolitionist society, ordained the first female pastor (Antoinette Brown), ordained the first out, gay pastor (William R. Johnson), and had the first African American leader of an integrated denomination (Joseph H. Evans).
None of those choices came easily or without a great deal of prayer and study. While being opposed to slavery now seems like a righteous and obvious choice, it was as controversial in its day as the inclusion of LGBTQIA people is now. But, like refusing to reduce people of color to chattel, we refuse to relegate people who are queer to the shadows. We try to live out the faith behind those firsts by listening closely to how holiness may be leading us into equally challenging, yet ultimately just, positions. So it is no surprise that our regional leadership has invited us to spend the season of Lent reading a new book: “Dear White Christians: For Those Still Longing for Racial Reconciliation” by Drake University’s Dr. Jennifer Harvey.
Given the history I have shared here, that may be a surprise. With so many “firsts” on the side of racial justice, don’t we have race relations all sorted out? No, we do not. The Pew research Center on Religion and Public Life reports that historically “mainline” denominations are 86% White, 6% Latino/a, 3% Black, 1% Asian, and 3% other/mixed. Within my denomination, 87.1% of churches identify as primarily White, though that number has gone down by 2.6% over the last decade, with congregations that identify as multi-racial up to 3.5%. In other words, while we are good at uniting around issues of racial justice, we are not as good at the work and intimacy of being in weekly, prayerful relationship with everyone in our community.
But we are committed to it. In my seven months at Ames UCC, I have witnessed a genuine awareness that we cannot rest on our laurels or leave our own selves unexamined. Just as the majority white Iowa State cannot merely wave flags with George Washington Carver’s likeness and name a stadium after Jack Trice and call it easy to be a person of color in Ames, majority white churches like mine cannot tout our own firsts for racial justice without constantly interrogating whether we are creating barriers to seconds or thirds or fourths.
The sparseness of Lent and its push to go to uncomfortable places reminds those of us with a modicum of material and social ease that the revelation of Easter morning was not a mere spiritual pick-me-up. Instead, it was a blasting cry of hope for the most broken and most oppressed. For any of us who would dare stake our lives on that story, we must be trumpeters of that same cry regardless of the discomfort and costs to us personally.
So, we mostly white Christians at Ames UCC who yearn for racial reconciliation will examine again what we must give or give up to support the liberation that such relationship requires. If you would like to join us, just give me a call.