01 April 2006

Stormy Weather

It’s been a few days, I know, but sometimes the chores come on fast and all my time is spent doing things and little time is left for describing them. The most interesting day was certainly Monday; interesting in the way a spring day is interesting when the weather changes dramatically.

For example, every Monday has a long meeting with the other two members of what we call the Executive Team. We spend two hours together each week, planning and thinking and reviewing the overall work of the church. It is the most important appointment I have every week after Sunday morning. This past week I also had a meeting at 1230 with a member, someone who was part of the search committee that contacted me now about two years ago and led to my arrival just a year ago. In short, also an important meeting. And rich in conversation as he told me his sense of the future of the church. Then, a scant half hour later I officiated at a funeral.

So my day went from institutional to personal to pastoral, from systems and policies to persons and values finally to death and family. See what I mean about the weather changing dramatically?

Of course, the most important of the three was the funeral. Death goes to the front of the line whenever it arrives. Mary was quite old, had been living with her daughter and son-in-law across the state, and so someone I did not know. She died the previous week after a short illness. She was a devoted member of my church so the family came back across the state for the service and asked me – despite not knowing me - to officiate. I know an honor when I see one.

What made this even more challenging was that she was the matriarch of one of the few African-American families in my otherwise large and largely white congregation. It was challenging because there is always more to the story when someone willingly associates with a church that is off their own beaten path. Often, that story is not told, at least not all of it. And the wise parson does not ask directly but listens for what is said silently.

It also meant that the people coming to the service would be from a wider cross section of the community. Not only would there be non members of my eccentric community of devoted skeptics, they would be bringing a different sense of church in the door with them. Not until the service began would I know how adequate my words would be to speak to their state of soul as well as those of the family and church.

I said it was a funeral, meaning there was a coffin there. The family held calling hours in our parlor, with mom laid out for visitation. As I was in that previous meeting, by the time I got to the visitation it was quite crowded, mostly with extended family and not church members. The undertaker was part of the larger African-American community, himself a pastor, and helped me navigate the customs and expectations that are always present but never expressed because everyone knows what to do.

For example, there was a procession, meaning the order in which we entered the sanctuary. And during the service there was the reading of the obituary and letters of tribute. Even in my Brooklyn days, I only had scant experience with these important rituals. My own words at the beginning were typical of memorial services, dignified and deliberate. I still could not tell exactly what the occasion called for in terms of character and delivery.

Aside: About two weeks before I attended an award dinner for an ecumenical group, as I noted in a previous post. The keynote speaker, a state official for working with faith-based groups was clearly a preacher by trade and delivered quite the sermon. The culture differences in the room were easy to read by how the white people listened and how the black people listened. It was also different between Catholic and Protestant, Anglo and Latino. My table, all white and Protestant, was receptive but slightly uneasy with the fervently religious manner of the state official. Others were more at ease. Some were clearly nonplussed. I felt for the man because expectations are hard to gauge.

The soloist and pianist at the funeral gave me my direction. A strong alto voice and a pianist delivered two well known devotional songs from the heart of the African-American religious repertory. As they were chosen by the family I knew they were my best guide to the character of the service as the family wanted it. So when it came time for the eulogy, which duty fell to me as the pastor – another part of the ritual landscape – I knew my scripted words were not adequate to the occasion. They needed someone to speak to them, to them not merely about Mary. Just as the songs spoke to them of their hope and faith, so my words had to speak to those who were there, to the family and friends who are not part of my church but were deeply connected to Mary and her family.

So I paused a few moments before speaking, and then, after thanking the singer and the pianist for their good gifts and for inspiring me, picked up on the text of the second song, taken from the 23rd psalm. “I shall not want,” became the place I began, with assurances that even in our loss we shall not want because Mary had given to us all that needed to be given. I then – using pieces of my prepared text – the gifts of devotion and courage and more, salted with remembered passages from scripture which many in that room knew well and turned to in their lives. The murmur of voices and the nodding of heads told me I was speaking rightly. They were listening to what I was saying. We were together.

Then the drive to the cemetery, which began with a solemn recessional to the curb and the long assembling of the cortege. My car came directly after the hearse and was the first to have a little flag posted on it. After a considerable while organizing things we moved off at that slow pace funerals take. Our route was complicated because it so happened that there was also a protest march in town right then, against the proposed immigration bill, and we had to snake our way through town so as not to try and cross paths. I had a funny and irreverent memory of the end of Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” when the brawl of the western collides with a Busby Berkeley style musical on the next set, so different were we from those marching in the street.

I had to speak at the cemetery, and again had to call strong passages from the Bible to service in completing the ritual of committal. Then I had to return to town directly, as I had to do some dad duty within the hour and we were now several miles south of town.

Only later did I realize that something had been missing in my life for a long time. In my previous pastorate, there was always a variety of people in my community, ethnically. This is not true now. I had grown accustomed to, and empowered by, the diversity of folks I served and led. My speaking style and presentation style had expanded its vocabulary because the community I had to address was wide and various. But now, I am in a monocultural context and that means a cultural expectation about worship and preaching that is more monochromatic in every sense.

The previous Friday, I attended an annual community summit on racism. This was my second. So maybe I was more alert to the diversity angles because of that. But it is just as likely that having lived in a more immediately diverse world before coming here I am feeling the loss a little more right now. And for me it is not a political loss, it is a personal loss. My gifts are not as well deployed as they were before because they were nourished in a world that was more intimately and consciously diverse. My voice, my soul and my heart were strengthened by that time. I grew. I do not want to set that aside.

The question is - should I adapt? I have no choice but to find a way, but I do feel a sense of loss as I do it. And a hint of sorrow that I must leave something of what I have been up to now.

A more difficult question is should the church adapt? They do have a choice. But would that be the best choice for them? From my perspective the church would benefit as I have to engage the complexities of diversity in a deep way. But it is not easy. It is often confusing. And in the more segregated world I live in now, it could safely be avoided or diluted from the comfortable enclosure monoculturalism allows.

I need to remember the sense of authenticity and integrity I felt at that funeral. That is the prize on which I should keep my eyes. The best hope for liberal religion may lie with those who are not yet or barely in its midst – people of color, the poor, the disabled, the dispossessed. It is time to lose our assumption that they need us and begin to think that we need them.


Elizabeth Bernstein said...

An interesting post, Fred. I must confess that I haven't been keeping up with you, and remembered to check up on you just now as I was looking at sites I'd added to my "Favorites" list!
I understand your feelings of loss; when I have lived in places that were less diverse (or actually, diverse but more segregated), I too have felt a loss in the richness of my learning and experience. I encourage you to try reaching out. Maybe there is an Interfaith community where you live now- charity and good will are usually a way for different congregations to learn about each other and help those less fortunate. Are there other people in your congregation who are willing to explore these issues? And, I can't help but think about that demonstration you mentioned, snaking through your city. Current events can be an avenue of introducing an issue (even if it's been in the back of your mind for awhile) to the consciousness of others.
Just a few thoughts...

Beth said...

Hi Fred, I've been lurking occasionally but I wanted to comment on this one. I'm sorry I couldn't be there for Mary's funeral, I did not know her well but I was familiar with her from being in choir togther years ago and I have a sense that she would appreciate the sentiments you expressed here. The one thing that causes me discomfort about our beautiful church is the lack of color in our community. But I think it's important to remember that even though evolution happens at a snail's pace, communities do evolve. Our church community is doing just that, we have more people of color now then we did when I was growing up and I see that as a beautiful beginning!