Lift Every Voice Rev Dr Durrell Watkins In our scripture reading today, the Apostle Paul is writing to a congregation with which he has had a contentious relationship. And he reminds them that his work has put him in harm’s way. Fellow followers of the Christ Way have been suspicious of him, the Corinthian church […]
Lift Every Voice
Rev Dr Durrell Watkins
In our scripture reading today, the Apostle Paul is writing to a congregation with which he has had a contentious relationship. And he reminds them that his work has put him in harm’s way. Fellow followers of the Christ Way have been suspicious of him, the Corinthian church hasn’t always appreciated him, people from his former life have given up on him…he has received criticism and insults and even slander at every turn; still, he remains willing to make sacrifices to help others. So, let people say mean things about him, try to vilify and exclude him, even run him out of town and threaten his safety. He will remain faithful and courageous and operate as best he can with integrity, and with hope that beyond any moment of difficulty there are better days to come.
His experience and witness agrees with the Roman poet Virgil’s belief, “Come what may, all bad fortune is to be conquered by endurance.” And the Buddha also concurs, “Endurance is one of the most difficult disciplines, but it is to the one who endures that the final victory comes.”
These stories and sayings about endurance call to mind more recent history for me.
I remember today that in June of 1973 the founding church in the MCC movement, MCC Los Angeles was burned to the ground by an act of arson. Obviously, our founding church and the movement it birthed survived that terrifying ordeal.
I also remember that same year, a small MCC in the French Quarter of New Orleans was destroyed by arson.
The New Orleans church met in an upstairs bar. In the early days, MCCs often met in bars. Bars were integral to gay community life, and so, when staring a church, a friendly bar that wasn’t open on Sunday morning made for a natural meeting space. When MCC founder Troy Perry was asked about some of our churches worship in taverns and pubs, he is quoted as having said, “We didn’t care. If Jesus could turn water into wine, hell, we could worship in a bar.”
In the New Orleans church, people would often worship in the morning, leave to grab some lunch, and return later for cocktails and dancing in the same room. On June 24th, 1973, the bar that doubled as an MCC worship space was attacked and the resulting fire was called the largest gay massacre in US history.
Of course, southern firebombing of sacred places wasn’t a new phenomenon. Even during the Civil Rights struggles of the 60s, churches were bombed. 10 years before the LA and New Orleans MCCs were victimized by arson, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL was bombed and four young girls were killed.
But long before the bombings of the 60s, southern churches were burned. Two centuries ago, a church was founded in Charleston, SC, an African Methodist Episcopal Church that would come to be called Emanuel. In 1816 Morris Brown founded Emanuel AME Church and about three quarters of the city’s African American population flocked to the church. From its inception, the parish was a center for anti-slavery activism, and for their efforts, their worship services were often interrupted by white folk in town trying to intimidate them. Eventually, the city government imposed a ban on Black churches, only allowing them to worship if a Caucasian person was present. Emanuel Church was forced to disband, and its building was burned to the ground.
However, the church continued to operate underground, even without a building, and the congregation was part of the Underground Railroad helping enslaved people escape to freedom.
After the Civil War, the church was rebuilt. But that building was destroyed by an earthquake. And the church was rebuilt once again.
Booker T. Washington and later Dr Martin Luther King, Jr both spoke at Emanuel. It is a church of historic significance. It has been part of working to build a better world for 200 years. It has survived racism, persecution, fire, and earthquake, and from every devastating misfortune, Emanuel Church, now called “Mother Emanuel” because of its age and significance, has been resurrected to new life, new hope, and renewed purpose. Literally from the ashes of despair, Mother Emanuel, like a phoenix, has risen.
Last Wednesday night, during a bible study and prayer service, racism attacked Mother Emanuel again. A young white man entered the bible study, sat among the worshipers, and eventually opened fire killing 9 people including the pastor; another victim was an 87 year old woman. But Mother Emanuel has proven for 200 years that a sense of purpose, commitment to a mission, integrity, and love cannot be destroyed.
This is not, as some unscrupulous commentators have claimed, an attack on religion. This is an attack on diversity, on human dignity, on equality. But as MCC showed after its churches were bombed, as 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham showed after it was bombed, as Emanuel AME Church has shown time and again since its antebellum beginnings, hatred can delay progress but it cannot stop it; fear can cause chaos and destruction, but it cannot keep new life from emerging; oppression can launch its evil forces but they will never defeat the power of love; weeping may endure for a night but joy comes in the morning (Psalm 30.5).
Racism, personal, institutional, subtle or overt, is incompatible with following the non-European, non-American Jesus. The New Testament tells us, “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 John 4.20). I am bone weary of seeing people of color used for target practice in this country. Hatred of the other is incompatible with spiritual integrity.
As people of faith, regardless of our racial or ethnic heritage, this issue is our issue because justice is never about just-us.
Please hear this message today: racism has emerged with a renewed and unholy boldness and it is nefarious. It is up to people of faith and goodwill to call it out, to speak out against it, and to insist that the ugly forces of injustice and oppression will not prevail; all faithful communities dedicated to hope, compassion and peace will overcome their destructive efforts, not by might, nor by power, but by the Spirit of justice-love! (Zech 4.6).
We declare in the name of God that Black Lives Matter! All lives matter, but let’s not dilute the issue at hand; let’s be bold enough to speak to the specific crisis before us today. Yes, we stand against misogyny, we stand against homophobia and heterosexism, we stand against xenophobia, but today, let us be very clear, we stand against racism, we stand against racially motivated hatred, we stand against white supremacy.
In fact, please stand now, rise as you are able in solidarity with our sisters and brothers of Mother Emanuel AME Church and as a witness to our dedication to heal racism in ourselves and in our nation, let us rise and sing this powerful prayer, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
Lift every voice and sing, Till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
let our rejoicing rise, high as the list’ning skies, let it resound loud as the rolling sea –
sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us,
sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
facing the rising sun of our new day begun, let us march on till victory is won.
Stony the road we trod, bitter the chast’ning rod,
felt in the day that hope unborn had died;
yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet, come to the place on witch our parents sighed?
we have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
we have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last where the bright gleam of our star is cast.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
thou who has by thy might, led us into the light,
keep us forever in the path, we pray –
lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee,
least our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee,
shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand,
true to our God, True to our native land.
This prayer we offer in the name of all that is holy, and this is the good news! Amen.
© Durrell Watkins 2015
I affirm the sacred value of all people.
Today, I make the decision to love myself,
And to love my neighbor as I love myself.
Divine Love heals me and my world.