Protests, Pandemic, and Parish Ministry

Over the past few days, I have struggled to put into writing the feelings that welled up in me when I arrived at Grace Church on Tuesday, June 2 and saw the devastation on Capitol Square and State St. from the riots the night before. It was the third morning in a row that I had come down to Grace, the first time since early March that I had been downtown on three consecutive days. I had come to make sure Grace Church property was ok. Fortunately, we were spared the violence and destruction.

But just a few feet away, it was a different story. The graffiti and broken windows along W. Mifflin St. and State St. continued onto N. Carroll with the History Museum also a target for protesters. Lady Forward on the Capitol was drenched in red paint.

I have watched in horror and anger as the scenes of violence and destruction fill our media. Peaceful protests against the murders of unarmed African American civilians by police have turned into violent rampages destroying property and the livelihoods of people who were already suffering from the economic impact of the pandemic. Instead of working to calm us and bring us together, the President seems to be fanning the flames of violence and uses teargas and brute force to clear a path for a photo op in front of an Episcopal church.

I have a profound sense of helplessness and foreboding as I witness events unfold both nationwide and here on Capitol Square. Grace Church has been a symbol of Christ’s love on the square for more than 150 years and we are called in this time to continue to share that love, to work for justice and reconciliation, and as we repent for our sins to ask God’s forgiveness and the strength to amend our lives.

Ever since I became Rector of Grace, I have been urging us to seek our mission in our neighborhood and we have done that. We have hosted the men’s homeless shelter for over 35 years, a food pantry for over 40, and in the last decade we have opened our doors to concerts, protesters, press conferences, and gatherings of all sorts. We are engaged in important anti-racism work through our Creating More Just Community task force and our Outreach Committee is exploring new ways of serving Christ in our neighborhood and throughout our city.

But as I’ve reflected on the images I’ve seen of the demonstrations and rioting, the looting, and as I’ve seen for myself the graffiti and boarded up windows on Capitol Square and State Street, I have been disturbed to the core of my being. I’ve never made much of those surveys that proclaim Madison’s desirability as a place to live but it has been my home for almost 11 years. I have loved living here. But the graffiti and broken windows remind me of the stark reality lying beneath the veneer of beauty, progressive politics, and gourmet restaurants. The deep racial and economic inequities of our city and county are the foundation on which everything else is built here. I’ve seen those realities first-hand as I’ve worked with homeless people and with people of color who are trying to make ends meet in an expensive city on minimum wage jobs or struggling with a criminal justice system. The violence that broke out in Madison earlier this week is a reflection of the violence we don’t see; the violence perpetrated by racism on the bodies and lives of African Americans every day, in the pricks of micro-aggressions and the institutional violence of schools that fail to educate African American children and an economy that discriminates in every way against African Americans.

In the middle of the chaos stands Grace Church, a silent symbol of Christ’s love and a testament to faithful generations who have worshipped here and supported our ministry over the decades. As I’ve said many times before, our spiritual ancestors who chose to build a church on Capitol Square had a particular vision of civic and religious community, one in which the Christianity of the mainline was a pillar of civic engagement, one of the ways in which community norms were maintained and articulated.

That nineteenth century vision of civic community has not survived into the twenty-first century. The political divisions that have been a hallmark of Wisconsin have torn at the fabric of our state and city. The vibrant public square envisioned by the first Madisonians and still evident from time to time in the recent past—the Dane County Farmer’s Market and Concerts on the Square being two examples—has crumbled under the divisions: competing demonstrations from different sides of the political spectrum. At times, we have sought to be a bridge across that divide but at the same time, we have consistently advocated for policies consistent with biblical concern for the stranger and alien, the widow and orphan, the poor and oppressed.

Events earlier this week in DC are evidence of another version of the relationship between the Episcopal Church and our political system—as a prop for violence, hatred, and corruption. If we cannot clearly and consistently preach Christ crucified, who was reconciling humans to each other and to God, who challenged the forces of violence, oppression, and empire, who himself died as a victim of injustice, oppression, and empire, we will no longer be faithful to the gospel with which we have been entrusted, to the God whose image we bear, and to the Christ who was executed because he challenged the powers and principalities.

I have remarked in sermons and conversations with others that COVID-19 has led to an abandonment of the public square. On the few times I visited Capitol Square over the last two months, the silence and emptiness of the square was palpable. Often, the only sound was the bells ringing the hours from Grace’s tower. The depopulation of the square was eerie; devoid of people, the square seemed like the set of a post-apocalyptic film. Our building is almost as empty as the square itself. Public worship is suspended; the homeless shelter has moved to the Warner Park Community Center; and our pantry is operating with a skeleton crew of volunteers.

But we cannot abandon our ministry and mission here. It is more important than ever. With our congregation dispersed throughout the city and the county and our meetings conducted almost entirely via the internet, it might be easy for us to adopt one of those clichés about the church being the people and not the building. We are a parish, which is not just a gathering of people. It is also tied to a location. In our case, it is tied to downtown, to Capitol Square.

Even in our current circumstances with no in-person worship and virtual gatherings, we are called to share the good news of Jesus Christ in our community. We are called to love our downtown neighbors. The frightening reality of looting and destruction is happening in our neighborhood. Our neighbors are hurting even as the demonstrations proclaim loudly the suffering and injustice borne by the African-American community here.

Madison will be hard-pressed to find a way forward after the events of this week. Fear and anger, the images imprinted on our brains will not go away as easily as graffiti removed or broken windows replaced.

In this moment, we are called to continue to witness to the love of Jesus Christ. We are called to continue to work for justice and reconciliation. We are called to be the church on the corner of N. Carroll and W. Washington. We are called to offer a vision of God’s beloved community that welcomes all and brings healing to the nation. We are called to weep, to lament, to mourn, and to be prophetic voices in our community, on the square.

 

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