Go Back and Go Forth!

Picture a crowded auditorium. It’s the last day of General Council, the national gathering of the United Church, where approximately 300 delegates, an equal number of clergy and lay people from across the country meet to make decision that affect the entire church There are also a number of observers and guests from around the world; I had the privilege of hosting a Muslim woman throughout our time together. We’ve been sitting on plastic lawn chairs for a week now… a week of 12 hour days. And there’s been a lot of words…

Rev. Dr. Paul Walfall – Photo – Rev. Richard Choe

One of the intercultural observers gets up to make his presentation, he is a United Church minister, the Rev. Dr. Paul Walfall, a black man, who speaks about his experience of being invisible at General Council, that only other black people speak to and with him and he jokingly says, ‘At my size, I am NEVER invisible!”

He goes on to talk about the discrimination and racism that other marginalized people experience in the United Church. A black woman who interviews at a church, only to be told that the congregation is not ready for a woman… (incidentally, this is not legal) only to find they have called a woman a few weeks later. An ordained man from India, who has fulfilled all the requirements to become a United Church minister, but who can’t get a call… for SEVEN years. This at the same time that over 100 places in a couple of conferences remain vacant… some for as long as 10 years. And you know what we did? When he finished, we applauded and went back to our regularly scheduled business.

Rev. Penny Nelson (Screen grab from UCC video

A short time later, two young ministers, Rev. Penny Nelson from the Tatamagouche Pastoral Charge and Daniel MacDonald, a student minister from Ontario, now ordained and serving a pastoral charge here in Nova Scotia, went to the mike and said something like, “This is what is wrong with our church, we just heard stories of discrimination and racism and we went right back to business, like their stories didn’t even matter.”

They went on to propose that we offer them an apology, a few men got up to wordsmith what Penny and Daniel has proposed and Rev. Jordan Cantwell, who was the Moderator said, “I invite those who are privileged by their gender or race to allow others to speak.”

Then followed two hours of listening to deeply painful stories from people on the margins… gender, race, orientation, disability… it was all named… there was a holy and uncomfortable silence in the room as we tried to absorb all this pain that has just been waiting for a time and space to be spoken.

Voices from the margins calling on us as United Church people to actually BE inclusive, not just say we are inclusive. And this didn’t even touch on the pain of racism in wider society. This is not what God wants for any of us.

Listen to some of the first sacred writings in our Bible, it’s from Genesis 1:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness God called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day. Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, to be like us. Let them be stewards of the fish in the sea, the birds of the air, the cattle, the wild animals, and everything that crawls on the ground.” And so humankind was created as God’s reflection, in the divine image God created them.

Humankind…created as God’s reflection. Since we are created in the divine image, how on earth has it EVER been okay to use people as things instead of manifestations of God.

Rev. Paul Walfall recently wrote in a blog post, “History tells us that Black people have had to, and continue to, overcome these same issues of racial discrimination while eking out a life for themselves and their children on this continent. In the face of many formidable obstacles they have constantly drawn upon the resources of their heritage as a lever to move forward. This can be seen in the place that music, art, dancing, worship, community, and family hold in the lives of many Black people today. They reached back and carried with them the strength of their heritage to move forward.” https://united-church.ca/blogs/round-table/what-black-history-offers-us-times-change

Sankofa, the symbol that was on the front of the bulletin, comes to us from West Africa. The symbol is usually seen in the form a bird with its head turned backwards carrying an egg in its mouth. The symbol speaks about the need to reach back into the past to get that which is important for life today. It has also been associated with the proverb which says that it is not wrong to go back for what you have forgotten.

What do we need to go back to that we have forgotten? Have we forgotten our primary purpose as a church? What would you say our primary purpose is? For those of you at home, you can respond in the chat box on Zoom, email me later, or in the comment section on Facebook.

We just finished three brainstorming sessions on ways to Connect with the Community, Making Better Use of the Building and Faith Based Programs. The Transition Team is going to have their own session next week and then we’ll take a look at the data as a whole. We had some small ideas and some big ideas. We had some that we can probably implement fairly easily and quickly if someone wants to take the lead on them… and we have some that will require a great deal more thought and input. Before we move ahead with any BIG idea there will be lots of opportunity for input and conversation.

In this time of uncertainty and transition, the lessons of persistence and resilience from our siblings of African Heritage have a great deal to teach us. They drew on art, family, music, heritage. We can draw on the same.

Rev. Paul Walfall continues in that same blog post: At the time of Union, the ethos of the Congregationalists, Methodists, and Presbyterians came together in a dynamic tension to form The United Church of Canada. The Congregationalists gave us the ethos of the importance of the local congregation to carry out the mission of the church. The Presbyterians gave us the ethos of the leadership of spiritual elders and conciliarity governance. The Methodists gave us the ethos of connexionalism and the principle holiness (personal and social). The Methodists gave us the ethos of connexionalism and the principle of personal and social holiness. All three gave to us their undying belief that the church has a mission that it needed to discern and fulfill.

This my friends is where we are… in the midst of a pandemic… in the midst of transition… in the midst of a time when church is no longer at the centre of community life… We go back and remember that we are all created in the divine image, we all carry a spark of the divine fire… And we go forth into the future… carrying that with us.

Thanks be to God for the challenge and the opportunity, amen.

Genesis 1: 1-5, 26, 27
February 14, 2021 – SMUC

Part of this was originally preached on September 9, 2018

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