Reflections on a decade of shared ministry 4: The Church in the midst of political conflict

I don’t recall any conversations about politics as we were discerning my call to Grace Church in 2009. We were in the throes of the Great Recession, Obama had just become president, but Grace had other, more urgent issues that focused the attention of its lay leadership. As a newcomer to Madison, I recall paying very little attention to either local or state politics in 2009 and 2010. While I voted in the 2010 election, I don’t remember the campaigns even though that was the year that saw Scott Walker elected Governor.

All that changed in February 2011. On February 15, 2011, protesters from UW Madison walked down State St. to the Capitol and begin their sit-in. I could hear the sounds of the marchers as the neared the top of State Street. I didn’t really know what was happening although I knew about Governor’s plans to break the unions and transform the political culture of our state. For the next three weeks as protests grew and subsided and the Democratic senators fled the state to prevent a vote on the “Budget Repair” bill,  Grace Church found itself in the middle of the political conflict and division in our state. In many ways, it was the beginning of the deep division and conflict that has rent our nation over the last years.

I made a decision during the first few days of the protests that would change my ministry and completely transform the ministry and mission of Grace Church. With hundreds, then thousands, even tens of thousands of people protesting at the Capitol in the middle of February, I decided to open the doors of our church, inviting the protesters to come in for respite, warmth, and prayer. Within a few days, Grace became the staging ground for the religious community. We hosted press conferences and served as a gathering space for religious leaders and members of religious communities as they sought to make a public witness.

Ironically, after the Democratic senators finally returned, the Budget Repair bill was passed on Ash Wednesday. Our prayers to God during the Litany of Penitence at our 6 pm service that night were accompanied by the sounds of new protests gathering.

In the years that followed, beginning with Madison’s version of Occupy and “Walkerville,” continuing through the protests around police violence and the Trump presidency, Grace has continued to be a gathering place for religious voices calling for justice and an end to inequality and oppression. Now, when a rally or protest is planned, members come to me to ask if they can help make sure our doors are open and that we offer rest for tired feet and space for reflection and prayer.

Looking back from this vantage point, I’m surprised by the prominent role political witness has come to play in my ministry. I’m sure I’ve attended more protests in the last 10 years of my life than I did in my first fifty, probably ten times more. I’m also somewhat surprised by the ease with which the community at Grace has come to embrace this role. There were some nay-sayers at first, people worried about vandalism or theft, or the sheer toll of hundreds of people coming through our building on a wintry day. But as I point out whenever someone expresses concern, especially over the possibility that we are being partisan, we don’t have a choice in the matter. Whether or not we open our doors, we are making a political statement, or it will be interpreted as such. To offer hospitality to protesters, to offer our restrooms to the attendees at the first Latinx protest against was as necessary as it was the right thing to do.

I’m not particularly comfortable in the role of “activist” priest, if that’s the reputation I’ve developed. I’ve written and preached often about my conviction that our witness as individual Christians and as a church should be rooted in the gospel and communicated with religious language, that we should clearly articulate the theological basis of our position. As a congregation, we have done that in a number of documents, and I hope I have been clear about that in my sermons and posts here. I do believe that the church should be a place where people of different political views can come together to worship, that we ought to be a place where we can give voice to our different opinions and prayerfully discern what God is calling us to do. I also believe that following Jesus means speaking clearly on matters of justice and responding to the deep needs of our fellow human beings. But I worry that too often we lose focus on the centrality of Jesus Christ in our effort to build coalitions and participate in the political process. I also think that too often our political opinions are more important and more deeply-held than our religious commitments, that we don’t allow the Word of God to stand in judgment on us.

I hope, though it seems quite unlikely, that some day soon Grace will no longer need to serve as a gathering place for religious people who are challenging the powers and principalities, that we can return to a quieter time when it didn’t seem that the very Gospel of Jesus Christ was hanging in the balance every day. But such a development seems quite unlikely in our present moment. Instead, it’s much more likely that the cries of injustice will continue to be heard, and that they will come from more people who feel threatened. And as long as the cries rise up, Grace will provide a place of gathering, hope, and respite for people who are suffering and protesting injustice.