A letter to a Senator

Dear Senator Obama,

I hope you won't mind a word from the mother of a young graduate whose hand you shook last Sunday.

On the news this morning, a number of commentators discussed your decision to resign your membership at Trinity United Church of Christ. As a pastor, and particularly a UCC pastor, I've been following this aspect of your campaign with great interest, frequent dismay and occasional outbursts of "he said what?!?!!" directed both at your pastor and at you.

Let me respond first as a pastor. It would be my hope that NO member of any church I serve would EVER be held responsible for my words from the pulpit. In the Congregational tradition, whatever the colorway might be, freedom of the pulpit is an essential. Pastors are sometimes called to be prophets, and they may say, and I hope WILL say, things that people in the pews or outside the church walls might find perturbing, if not shocking, particularly when the people being shocked are essentially comfortable themselves. Pastors step up into their pulpits, televised or not, to break open the word of God. Anyone who thinks that ought to be restrained to sweet stories about what we learned in kindergarten or advice for how to keep your husband happy or instructions on gaining financial success is not in touch with the history of preaching and in particular with the history of prophetic preaching.

I'm sad that politics have driven your decision to part from a church where your children were baptized, where you came to faith yourself, a church that has been part of the fabric of your life. As a layperson, I experienced in my own small way the ups and downs of church life, dissatisfaction with some pastors and sadness at the way others were treated. I have seen the full range, I believe, of love and cruelty, as played out by church folk toward their clergy. People who don't belong to churches may not understand this. They may have an expectation that everything is clear cut, that no relationships are compromised, that your pastor is a service-provider, and you will up and go if you are no longer satisfied.

People forget that the congregation may not actually be paying attention during the sermon, may be writing a shopping list on the side of the bulletin or catching up on some sleep or simply attaining a Zen state compatible with keeping eyes open but mind closed to the spoken word.

Church is more like family than is any other organization. It doesn't operate like a non-profit or a country club, though some may try to do one or the other. It's a mixed-up mess of humanity, full of the "fallen," which is to say the human.

I can't imagine being at Trinity as anything other than a tourist. I'm not accustomed to worshiping with so many other people. I'm not familiar with the kind of preaching you heard regularly, except as I have seen it on videotape. My experience of church is softer, stiffer, and frankly, whiter.

And this is what troubles me about your story. It's the implicit racism that bothers me the most. When Reverend Wright gave his talks at the NAACP and the National Press Club, he stressed his blackness, if you will forgive me for putting it so bluntly. He stressed his blackness, and by extension, yours, and we both know there are people who cannot cope with your blackness.

Those people, by the way, do not include my children, two of whom will be old enough to, they hope, vote for you. At 22 and almost 18, they don't look at you and see black and I'm not even sure they look at you and see male. They look at you and see hope. They look at you and see themselves. They look at you and see the world they want to live in as they become adults.

I am closer to your age, very close, just three months older. I am a white woman, gently raised, from a part of the country that was only progressive at my house and in a few other select households in town. I grew up in what might as well have been apartheid.  We are on the cusp, you and I, between an old way and a new one, the
one I wish to embrace
instead. I am trained, as you no doubt were, to respect my elders and their experience, but I long for the freedom to make things new. It's hard for me to look at you or anyone else without reference to
background and age and gender and orientation, not because I am biased
but because I am trained to see differences as the first step toward
accepting them.

My kids are not that way. They simply see people. I believe you see people, too, and even if you don't, you try to see them.

Of course, since I'm a pastor, that feels profoundly theological to me. Because Jesus? Saw people. He didn't see issues of blood or the specter of death or the taint of tax collecting. He saw people.

I'm not trying to turn you into Jesus, by the way. I'm saying I hope the world will become the kingdom he told us was at hand, a place where people are just that, and loved for it, although they are broken and flawed and egotistical and attention-gathering (and if you think I might be referring to some preachers here, you would be right) and bent on a purpose they understand to be the right one even when their means may be distinctly flawed.

You're in a campaign that is only beginning. When the 2008 version of the Swift Boaters come along, we are all going to have to watch those video clips again, and I'm afraid you will have to state your case again, too. You always seem to find a way to do it that sounds reasonable, even when I know you must be irritated, and I admire that in you. Keep taking the high road. We need to walk the high road.

As a person in the United Church of Christ, I hope you will come back to us, to some version of us. Since our understanding of membership means you have to belong to a local church to be part of the wider church, you are a free agent for the moment. I hope you will find a church where, as you said, your girls can receive their religious education without attracting so much attention. I hope you will find a church where the gospel is preached.

But if it is? Don't expect it to be safe.

Yours in Christ,

(Yes, that really is #1 Son himself with the Senator.)

17 thoughts on “A letter to a Senator”

  1. I was so disappointed when I read this news. You have expressed yourself beautifully, and I hope you sent this to him.

  2. towanda, I’ve emailed it through the campaign website.
    Sherry, I’m not sure they would accept something so political, but I appreciate the thought.

  3. Songbird – do more than submit it to your local paper. Edit it to whatever length required for an Op Ed in the Washington Post, New York Times, or some other widely read and respected newspaper. It’s good stuff and should be shared. And as the child of a politician, you have yet one more unique POV on the subject.

  4. I agree with your last commenter, Songbird. Try to get it into a larger paper. It’s really good. Thank you for this.

  5. I agree with your last commenter, Songbird. Try to get it into a larger paper. It’s really good. Thank you for this.

  6. Yes, La Reina’s right, Songbird! Please submit your letter to one of the biggies. Yours is the voice of wisdom and reason.

  7. Songbird–this is a lovely, kind analysis of this whole mess. I wish Mr. Obama and his family well—and I, too, hope to vote for him this fall.
    Just once, however, I wish a politician would have the courage to stand up to the media and say “Enough!” I would have had so much more respect for him if he had done that…

  8. did you see the comments that the big JT wrote in response to obama’s choice? the only thing that is missing for me (and you do hint at it) is the reminder about covenant and what that means — especially for those wacky congregationalists of the ucc. thanks for this.

  9. “People forget that the congregation may not actually be paying attention during the sermon, may be writing a shopping list on the side of the bulletin or catching up on some sleep or simply attaining a Zen state compatible with keeping eyes open but mind closed to the spoken word.”
    Hey! You weren’t supposed to notice that! ROFL [face red in shame of self-recognition]

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