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Joyful Engagement

Note: We were asked to respond to our co-discussants by June 10; I am writing on June 7, unfortunately without access to the essay from the Christian Reformed Church Office of Social Justice. But I do have Nathan Dannison’s delightful post, and so I will respond to that.

Agreements: What can you affirm about the approaches that have been taken by First Congregational Church of Kalamazoo?

First, I will tell my favorite story about First Congregational Church.

My wife was confirmed at First Presbyterian Church, another one of the “downtown churches” that sit on Bronson Park, our town square. Later, her family moved to a smaller Presbyterian congregation, North Presbyterian Church, on the integrated North side of Kalamazoo, where she became a member. Much later, after we were married, we moved to Kalamazoo and became members there together. North Presbyterian was a wonderful congregation, with a strong gospel witness, great Bible teaching, active participation in the community, and a membership where a third to a half of the congregation had diagnosed mental illnesses. It was always a bit of a poor relation to the downtown church, and eventually had to leave its building.

But First Congregational Church, in addition to its main sanctuary, has a sizable chapel. Their welcoming hearts extended to North Presbyterian, and North meets in their chapel, without charge. North has been able to continue to meet because of the generosity of First Congregational. Isn’t that a bit amazing?

I heartily admire their stance of welcome. “Welcome” appears on their church’s home page eight times, and the website allwelcome.church leads you there. As I wrote in my initial essay, I am delighted that they have decided to be a Public Sanctuary Church and take in Saheeda Nadeem as part of that welcome, as we have welcomed immigrants into our own home/church.

As the pastor of a small church, I am grateful that some churches have enough time, talent, buildings, and money to put on larger events that we can participate in. And also I am glad for the way that First Congregational Church blurs the line between what is political, and what is just being loving to our neighbor. Putting a “Black Lives Matter” poster up might be viewed as solely a political act, helping with direct cash assistance might be viewed as solely almsgiving, but we both know that noticing that lives matter is an act of love, and that almsgiving can be a transgressive, political act.

Disagreements: What concerns do you have about the approaches that have been taken by First Congregational Church? What key questions do you think First Congregational Church has avoided or have not addressed adequately?

In my essay, I stated my belief that individual churches have different gifts, or charisms, and I believe it is First Congregational Church’s charism to be a progressive Christian church, and I am glad they are who they are.

As Nathan writes, they sometimes struggle to remain Christian as well as progressive, and he writes about three incidents. First was his statement that some in the congregation are willing to knock on doors for Bernie Sanders but would refuse to knock on doors for Jesus Christ. Second was his story of some who would prefer Sunday morning to focus on “raising awareness” rather than on joyful worship. And third was his story of the dissenters who came expecting a new home for like-minded progressives. Very much to Nathan’s, and First Congregational Church’s, credit, all of these resulted in challenging the underlying assumptions about where power really lies. “We do the painful, critical work of understanding our role in powers and principalities six days a week. On Sunday, however, we rejoice without ceasing.” That’s some powerful stuff.

Still, the claims that “we have no politics but the politics of Jesus Christ” and “We aren’t liberal, we’re just early” are a bit disingenuous. I would prefer them to acknowledge with a bit more humility what they are about. I don’t know much about the history of First Congregational Church. It really is wonderful that they worked as abolitionists during the Civil War and invited Sojourner Truth to speak to the congregation. But any church with a history of nearly 200 years has closeted skeletons and the legacy of some of those problems. Even acknowledging that they were “early” to the right position or stance implies there was a time when they were wrong. It’s hubris to believe there they’ve gotten everything just right.

I will suggest two such areas where they might be wrong; they are just suggestions, and barely rise to the level of criticisms. First, are questions of what some Catholic theologians call a “seamless garment” ethic of life, including the life of the unborn. Nothing in Nathan’s essay, or the First Congregational Church’s website, mention the unborn or abortion. Is it at least imaginable that, one day, First Congregational Church will look back and wonder why they did not care for the least of “the least of these”?

Second, I wonder whether we will look back and ask why progressive churches spent so much time on identity politics implied in Nathan’s list of “the demonic forces of systemic sin (racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, etc.)”. I don’t really know what the reality at First Congregational Church is, but it takes up an inordinate amount of energy in some of the church circles I am in. Will there be some new insight that comes along which dethrones power dynamics as the central concern of the progressive church? I see Nathan’s leadership in joyful worship as a possible hint.

But as I say, these are my suggestions, and Nathan can probably come up with a longer list of lamentations for First Congregational Church. Mostly, I am glad for the way they seem to “study, pray, meditate, interview, protest, and converse over shared meals,” and then to join together on Sundays to rejoice.

Also, I can confidently say that the bell at North Presbyterian Church has, in fact, been rung in the past half-century, because I use to ring it when we were members in the ‘80s.

What insights can you glean from the approaches taken by First Congregational Church as to ways in which they are seeking to be faithful to their particular understandings of commitment to the Christian faith? What, if anything, did you find out about First Congregational Church that surprised you or caused you to change your view of them?

Here’s something I really do want to learn from First Congregation Church: that sense of joyful worship on Sunday in the midst of a politically engaged congregation. In fact, I’m taking a short sabbatical this summer, and I hope to join my sisters and brothers at First Congregational Church for worship, both to rejoice with them, but also to learn from them. There is so much dourness, depression, and discouragement in our current moment, and in our past. It sounds refreshing to join in a large group of people in joyful worship. I want to learn more viscerally that “nobody goes to church on Sunday morning to feel bad,” and what to do about that.

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