An Autobiographical Theology Chapter 2 Meeting Bill Stringfellow

Featured

Photo of William Stringfellow, lay theologian, author, and lawyer.

This podcast is the second in a series of autobiographical reflection on life as a theological pilgrimage.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), 49 brief (two to four page) essays on faith and life; host of Views from the Edge; Brooklyn Park, MN.

A Good Friday World

Forlornness then and now

Robb Elementary School, Uvalde, Texas, May 26, 2022

The anguish keeps coming. Ukraine, Buffalo, Uvalde. There are no words. Only screams, gasps and tears in a Good Friday world. The crucifixion, then and now, stops the chatter, the distractions, and the illusion that positive thinking will save us.

 Ukranian Easter Eggs

On Good Friday hope is gone. There are no empty tombs, no resurrections, no hosannas, no palms, no lilies, no chocolate bunnies, no jelly beans, no Easter egg hunts, no Fabergé Easter eggs from Russia or Ukraine. Goodness has been nailed to a cross.

God-forsaken

The good man who hangs there screams a desperate cry religious people do not expect to hear: Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani?— “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” — the cry of the forlorn psalmist of Psalm 22. The lament is heard in our living rooms on TV, our androids and iPhones. Although the New Testament Gospels do not complete the first verse of Psalm 22, the sense of the words would have pounded the ears of the three Mary’s who stayed at the foot of the cross: “Why are You so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?”

On Good Friday we come face-to-face with god-forsakenness. Not just the fear of it, the loneliness of it or the terror of it. The body on the cross bursts every bubble of denial, illusion, suppression, fancy, or flight.

The Hydra and the Savages

It’s a huge leap from John Calvin to Franz Kafka, but they saw the same thing hiding in every bubble. Calvin used the metaphor of the hydra. There is a hydra, said Calvin, lurking in the breast of every human being. Lop off the head of the hydra? Two new heads grow in its place. Lop off two? Two will become four and four will be replaced by eight. “We acknowledge and confess before You our sinful nature — prone to evil and slothful in good,” I remember praying as a child, wondering what it meant. Now I know.

Franz Kafka spoke of our nature in parables like The Savages:

The savages of whom it is recounted that 
they have no other longing than to die, 
or rather, they no longer have even that
longing, but death has a longing for them,
and they abandon themselves to it, or rather
they do not even abandon themselves, 
but fall into the sand on the shore 
and never get up again -- those savages 
I much resemble, and indeed I have fellow 
clansmen round about, but the confusion 
in these territories  is so great, 
the tumult is like waves rising and falling
by day and by night, and the brothers 
let themselves be borne upon it . . .
. . . . .  

And yet the fear! How people do carry their own enemy, 
however powerless he is, within themselves.

Becoming children again

The public enemy hanging from the cross had spoken in ways that had offended:

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. -- Gospel According to Matthew 18:2-4 NIV.

When Easter eggs break in Uvalde, Ukraine, and Buffalo, the god-forsaken cry from Golgotha (“the Hill of Skulls”) echoes in our hearts. The broken eggs and burst bubbles of 2022 reveal what we prefer not to see: the enemy we carry in ourselves, the hydra that lurks in every breast.


Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, May 29, 2022.

A Pastoral Letter after Uvalde

Featured

Moments ago Andrew Long gave Views from the Edge permission to re-publish his pastoral letter to the people of First Presbyterian Church of Watertown, NY. If you read nothing else, I call attention to the fourth and fifth paragraphs that offer a peek into the new world of his five year old son and his peers.

Dear Friends in Christ, 

I had a hard time getting out of bed this morning. I didn’t sleep very well last night. The smallest sound in the cool evening air through our open bedroom widows roused me. And these words from Scripture kept circling my mind: 

A voice is heard in Ramah,
   lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
   she refuses to be comforted for her children,
   because they are no more.–Jeremiah 31:15


We wept last night watching the news from Uvalde, Texas. We wept at the sight of parents frantically searching for their children. We wept for the dead. We wept over the immediate shenanigans coming from the talking heads. 

And we wept because we have an elementary-aged son who has told us about the shelter-in-place, active-shooter drills they routinely have at school.

I wish I was exaggerating. God, I wish I was exaggerating. It almost sounds comical. I had fire drills when I was in school and was told not to pick the paint off the radiator because it likely had lead in it. Our son has had to learn, before age five, how to hide and keep silent so that an active shooter in his school won’t find him. 

Are you OK with that? I’m not.

Frankly, I don’t think God is OK with it either. I know Jesus isn’t. He nearly excommunicated one his disciples when that disciple tried to keep children from coming to him. And in a society where laws are made and/or reversed to ‘protect’ the unborn, but only ‘thoughts and prayers’ are given to the families of children who are gunned-down at school, we must look at ourselves deeply and question what we truly value in life. Right now, sadly, life for every one of God’s children does not seem to be at the top of the list. 

Right now I’m thinking of the statue of Jesus that stands across the street from the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial. Jesus has his head in his hands and his back turned to the site of the bombing. He stands on a pedestal made from the same number of polished marble stones as the number of children who were murdered in the bombing. Jesus weeps. 

We should, too. 

Feel deeply the intense sadness of this moment. As people of faith, we do not have the luxury of turning away. Our faith is founded on the truth that all people are created equally in the sacred image of God. When one of those beloved image-bearers is taken from this earth, all of us are diminished. It is no longer ‘out there’ or ‘somewhere else’; it is right here, right now. We must not turn away. 

And in our weeping, maybe the Lord will fill us with just the right amount of righteous anger to truly work for a more just and peaceful world.

A world where children can learn their ABC’s before they learn about active shooters. 

A world where thoughts and prayers are followed by action and policy. 

A world where idolatry gives way to true, robust faith in God. 

A world where every person can fully access the abundant life Jesus Christ came to give us all. 

Come, Lord Jesus. Make it so! 
 +andrew

P.S.–Secondary Traumatic Stress is a real concern in times such as these. STS happens when we witness the first-hand trauma of others. Please know that I stand ready to pray with you, visit with you, even sit with you in silence if you are struggling right now. Please reach out to me at (Phone numbers and emails deleted by Views from the Edge) if I can be of assistance.
Copyright © 2022 First Presbyterian Watertown, All rights reserved. 

Thanks for coming by Views from the Edge, May 26, 2022

The First and Second Fires

Featured

A Required Honesty

Easter was hard this year. I couldn’t bring myself to put my body in a pew. Imagining the shiny brass trumpets heralding Christ’s victory over sin and death had no more appeal than the silly silky banners waving up and down the aisle to make Easter more festive. Whether Easter felt like a fraud orI felt like the fraud didn’t matter yesterday.

A Ghost named Gus

If we’re honest about the resurrection, many, if not most, of us have some difficulty with one or another of the post-crucifixion stories of Jesus’ resurrection. Although my grandmother swore that our 120 year-old home was haunted by a friendly ghost named Gus, I’ve never gotten into ghostly apparitions.

Photo of Henri Fuseli's painting of Hamlet and his father's ghost
Hamlet and his father’s ghost — Henry Fuseli

Years ago an eccentric older congregant, long since deceased, claimed her deceased husband regularly visited her, standing at the foot of her bed. Even without this claim, there were multiple grounds for concluding that she would have been institutionalized in a previous generation. I never could get into her story, or the story about Gus’s footsteps creaking the steps of my childhood home. They were outside my experience. Like the Apostle Thomas, my faith is suspicious of such claims. “Unless I see for myself…” is second nature to me.

Unless I See

One person’s experience, however, is not the measure of all things, especially in matters that cannot be confirmed by objective verification. The world is full of experiences that are enigmas to my little piece of reality. My slice is not the whole pie, although, come to think of it, if my slice tastes like blueberries, chances are good the pie is blueberry. “To thine own self be true,” Shakespeare’s Polonius advises Laertes.

“And it must follow, as the night the day thou canst not then be false to any man . . . ” (Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene III). Being true to oneself leads some honest people to leave the faith. Think Jean-Paul Sartre. Think Albert Camus. It leads others to stay and dig deeper. Though I was once almost one of the former, I am still one of the latter.

An Honest Conversation

Nowhere is the challenge of good faith greater than the resurrection. “Seeing for ourselves” like the Apostle Thomas is a hard way to live; it can be tricky. Sometimes we see things that aren’t there; other times we don’t see what stares us in the face. In a year like this, I rub my eyes in hopes of a clearer view of what is true. Honesty is slipping away in America. So is hope for the nation. The dark clouds of willful ignorance and unabashed dishonesty leave me looking for the light that faith tells me cannot be overcome.

Honesty, or the attempt at it, was what I had, but not much more. Although I could not say, with James Russell Lowell, “I do not fear to follow out the truth,” I know that the search for truth takes place “along the precipice’s edge.”

A Jarring Juxtaposition Between Two Fires

For the likes of those of us who stay, Easter is less accessible in the garden outside an empty tomb than in the encounters with the skeptical Thomas, and with Peter, who has gone back to his fishing nets after the crucifixion. Staying home on Easter for the first time reading the Gospels’ passion narratives, portrayals of Peter caused me to stop and ponder the jarring juxtaposition between two scenes around a fire.

The Denial of Saint Peter by Caravaggio (1610)

The First Fire

The first fire is set in the courtyard of the High Priest’s residence where Peter “The Rock” crumbles like shale. Warming himself by the courtyard fire, two domestic workers identify Peter as Jesus’ disciple. His Galilean accent betrays him. Three times Peter denies it. “I do not know the man!”  “I do not know the man!” “I do not know the man!” The rock crumbles.

The Second Fire

The second fire is lit on the shoreline to which Peter, the fisherman, returns after what would have been a bad night without the miracle shouted by the stranger on the shore. Peter has not become a fisher of fellow-humans; he is a fisher of fish again, not different from before Jesus had called him, except for the guilt he now carries from his denial before the fire in the courtyard. That I understand. That reversal I know by experience. I wasn’t Peter, but the dead, crucified, and buried Jesus whom the Creed claims “descended into hell” reached down into the hell of my own making to blow the remaining embers of the first fire into the charcoal fire of the second. The risen Christ is not an apparition. Christ comes as the stranger we forgot we knew, the host who serves us breakfast on the shoreline.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), writing from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, April 20, 2022.

Faith and the Administered Consciousness

Featured

“To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates, ‘We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.'”

Gospel according to Matthew 11:16-17.

Having nothing new to say on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I scrolled back to this sermon on Faith and Patriotism which re-awakened my appreciation for Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man and his analysis of a culture of “administered consciousness”.

“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel” — Eugene Debs/Thomas Paine?

Love of country is a good thing. Worshiping it is not. In the hands of a scoundrel, patriotism becomes an idol.

Faith and Patriotism

Gordon C. Stewart, Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, January 19, 2022

Views from the Edge Looking Ahead

Coming Next Week: What Makes Us Tick?

It takes me a long time to see more clearly. Views from the Edge has been around 10 years now! Do I continue? And, if I continue, why would I, and what would I do differently going forward? The last few years have forced me to look again at who I am, what I do, and why. You might say it’s a vocational thing.

I am not a pundit. Nor do I wish to be one, though I sound like one too often. So I said to myself, get back to doing what you do best. Speak from faith, but not to faith, as Eric Ringham of Minnesota Public Radio put it when All Things Considered was still airing guest commentaries. What did Erick mean? Take your faith with you into the public square, but write for everyone. Don’t write That’s the essential work of public theology and a public theologian.

In that spirit I will seek to speak aloud the faith that is in me, the faith the drives me into the public square. Guest commentator Harry Strong will look more closely at Brian McLaren’s work on biases. We promised readers a fuller review of McLaren’s 13 measures of bias ( one’s and others). My commentaries will speak aloud the faith that is in me and its relation to American culture, the Prosperity Gospel and QAnon.

Thanks for dropping by,

Gordon, Nov. 5, 2021

Insurrection and Faith (Part 4)

A State of Mind: Patriots and Traitors

The maximum capacity crowd at the First Tuesday Dialogue did not have a crystal ball. It was February 1, 2013, eight years before the insurrection that would come eight years later. QAnon, the Proud Boys, the Boogaloo Bois, Wolverine Watchmen, Oath Keepers, and other White nationalist militias that traveled to Washington, D.C. to “Stop the Steal!” were unknown, but the mindset was already there.

Some Mindsets Never Really Die

Some states of mind are like toxic waste. They have long shelf lives. Before two people in the crowd took the floor to read aloud from the John Birch Society Blue Book and newsletter, it had been years since I last thought of the John Birch Society (JBS). What we thought had ended with the public shaming of Sen. Joe McCarthy and McCarthyism had not died. Like a baton that changes hand in a mile relay race, the mindset of McCarthyism was passed into the hand of the John Birch Society.

Like McCarthy’s search for traitors hiding in government and the entertainment industry the Birch Society’s conspiratorial mindset was ludicrous. The JBS had alleged that President Dwight Eisenhower (“Ike”) was not to like. Ike, his brother, Milton, and Allen Dulles, director of the CIA were closet Communists or Communist sympathizers.

When the John Birch Society Blue Book and newsletter were quoted on February 1, 2013, those who knew their history recognized the old voice we thought had died in the mid-1960s.

The Jack Ash Society lyrics (Mary Brooks)

A bunch of jack ashes at large in this land
 Have suffered a terrible fright
 They looked under their beds and discovered such reds
 As Allen and Milton and Dwight
 

 If more you would know of this Jack-Ash credo
 See the blue book, the black book, the white
 If you do you will find we're all Reds of some kind,
 Like Allen and Milton and Dwight.
 

 Joe McCarthy is dead, so Jack Ash instead
 Leads the anti-Communist fight;
 U. S. Reds he has found swarming all around.
 (179 million so far)
 Including Allen and Milton and Dwight.
 

 If you believe in more hospitals, housing, and schools,
 New highways and civil rights,
 The Ashites will add you to the un-American list,
 Along with Allen and Milton and Dwight
 

 Social security's a Bolshevik plot
 Cooked up by some shrewd Muscovite.
 So go naked you must or be security risk
 Like Allen and Milton and Dwight.
 

 Beware of good pay and the minimum wage,
 It's part of the Socialist blight;
 Created by conspirators bold,
 Like Allen and Milton and Dwight.

Pete Seeger and the “Jack Ash Society”

Pete Seeger performing The Jack Ash Society

The Berkeley Pit

Photo by William Rosmus uploaded from Wikipedia. Shot of telephone poles used to show scale of the flooded Berkeley Open Pit mine site, with respect to the photo ‘Composite fish eye view of the Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana’ (Butte_MT_Berkeley_Pit_April_2005_Composite_Fisheye_View.jpg). The poles are just slightly right of centre in the larger composite fish eye picture of this flooded open pit mine.

Long Shelf Lives

An uninformed passer-by may assume the Berkeley Pit is a swimming hole, a place to swim and fish. It’s not. Nothing lives there. The Berkeley Pit is a pool of deadly toxins left behind by the Atlantic Richfield Company which bought the site from Anaconda Copper. Anaconda Copper left long ago, but the Berkeley Pit is still there. The Pit is not managed by the Department of Parks and Recreation. It’s an U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site, one of the largest, if not the largest in the land of the free.

The Call for Patriots

By 2013 the John Birch Society’s had made a quiet comeback in American political-cultural. It had not perished. The toxins from its Superfund clean-up site had seeped into the stream of American consciousness. It has never been cleaned up.

Now, more than ever, your patriotic leadership is needed. Is this the America our Founders envisioned? Their principles, and the Constitution itself, are under attack by forces that include socialists, Marxists, globalists, and the Deep State. We’ve created some great resources for you to educate Americans and stand for freedom. May we count on your help? We, as Americans, cherish our God-given liberties. We stand for a free and independent nation that fully abides by the Constitution and the Founding Fathers’ values. The John Birch Society provides a national program designed to counter the Deep State/Big Government agenda and to restore our rights.

John Birch Society website

The Birther Movement and “Stop the Steal!” Call for Patriots

2010 billboard displayed in South Gate, California, questioning the validity of Barack Obama’s birth certificate and by extension his eligibility to serve as President of the U.S. The billboard was part of an advertising campaign by WorldNetDaily.

The “Birther” and “Stop the Steal!” movements repeat the Birch Society call for real patriots to fight against “socialists, Marxists, globalists, and the Deep State.”

During Barack Obama’s campaign for president in 2008, throughout his presidency, and afterwards, “there was extensive news coverage of Obama’s religious preference, birthplace, and of the individuals questioning his religious belief and citizenship—efforts eventually known as the ‘birther movement‘”, by which name it is widely referred to across media. The movement falsely asserted Obama was ineligible to be President of the United States because he was not a natural-born citizen of the U.S. as required by Article Two of the Constitution. Birther conspiracy theories were predominantly held by conservatives and Republicans, as well as individuals with anti-black attitudes.

“Barack Obama citizenship conspiracy theories,” Wikipedia

The Pit of American Toxic Waste

Donald Trump tapped into that toxic stream in which right is wrong and wrong is right, truth is wrong and falsehood is right, information is wrong and disinformation is right, reality is wrong and fantasy is right, science is wrong and ignorance is right, confession is wrong and denial is right, Howdy Doody is wrong and Mr. Bluster is right.

But some things stay the same. White is still right and Black is still wrong. Barack Obama had no birth certificate. He had been elected, but his presidency was illegitimate. So was the election of 2020. Donald Trump is legitimate. Real patriots know they wish to believe. Real patriots stand back and stand by until the time is right to fight.

The toxins in American culture reach far back into our history, and the Pit is deep. The prevailing myths of White supremacy and national exceptionalism were here from the start. The Founding Fathers’ and Mothers’ values are both healthy and toxic.

Cleaning Up the Superfund Site

Only we can clean up the mess. The toxins in the Berkeley Pit still poison the American mind and turn hearts to stone. American culture and politics will be clean when we embrace our history as the continuing struggle between truth and falsehood, reality and fantasy, and all the hard truths we prefer not to see.

Bob Dylan, like Mary Brooks and Pete Seeger, may have thought the Birch Society was terminal. Or perhaps Bob, like Mary and Pete, knew that some toxins continue to make us blue.

John Birch Paranoid Blues — Bob Dylan

Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock) — 49 two-four page social commentaries on faith and life — Chaska, MN, Feb. 24, 2021.

Insurrection and Faith (Part 3)

“World history would be different if humanity did more sitting on its rear.” — Bertolt Brecht, Drums in the Night (1922).

Dialogues Series cancelled

The Epidemic of Gun Violence in America three-part series ended where it began. The first event was also the last.

“examining critical public issues locally and globally”

In addition to concerns outlined in “Insurrection and Faith (Part 2), the featured presenters of different positions on the Second Amendment and gun control withdrew. Each refused to appear on the same stage as the other. Each regarded the other as a fanatic.

The Shepherd of the Hill Church board came to a rueful decision to cancel the Dialogues series. A public letter accompanied the press release. NOTE: “The church with the rocking chair” refers to the large Amish rocker created for Shepherd of the Hill’s front lawn after the Amish School massacre at Nickel Mines, PA.

Public Letter from the Board of Shepherd of the Hill Church
 February 8, 2013

"This the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the LORD of hosts….” – Zechariah 4:6 (NRSV)
 
In this spirit we at Shepherd of the Hill – the church with the rocking chair – have chosen to cancel the First Tuesday Dialogues previously announced for Feb. 19 and March 5 on Gun Violence in America.
 
The First Tuesday Dialogues serve a single purpose: examination of critical public issues locally and globally with respectful listening and speaking in the search for common ground and the common good. The program expresses our own Christian tradition (Presbyterian) whose Preliminary Principles of Church Order (adopted in 1789) call us to honor individual conscience and direct us toward kindness and mutual patience.
 
The First Principle -“God alone is Lord of the conscience…“- upholds “the still, small voice” in the midst of social earthquakes, winds and fires. It requires us to listen. Ours is a tradition that honors dissent. The voice of one may be where the truth lies. The Dialogues are meant to give space for that voice on critical public issues.
 
The Fifth Principle declares that “There are forms and truths with respect to which people of good character and conscience may differ, and, in all these matters, it is the duty of individuals and of societies to exercise mutual forbearance.”  It is our tradition’s answer to Rodney King’s haunting question: Can’t we all just get along?
 
These historical principles are not only our historical tradition. They represent a daily interpretation of Jesus’ teaching to love our neighbors in the present moment. One can only love God, whom no man or woman has seen, wrote the Apostle Paul, if we love the neighbor we do see.  How we treat the neighbor is how we treat God.
 
The success of Shepherd of the Hill’s community programs depends upon a wider acceptance of these principles of respectful listening and exchange among individuals in dialogue. They also assume a group small enough to engage each other more personally and thoughtfully.
 
If numbers were the only measure of success, last Tuesday’s Dialogues event on gun violence … was a huge success. 138 people attended. The Chapel was filled. I thought perhaps it was Easter!  But it wasn’t Easter. There was tension in the room. The established habit of the Dialogues program – one person speaks at a time without interruption or rebuttal, no clapping, and respectful listening – gave way to a sense of one team versus another. When a woman dared to stand to ask how many people in the room had lost a loved one to gun violence and proceeded to tell her story of personal tragedy, she was not met with compassion. She was met with shouts that her story was irrelevant. … She deserved better.
 
We all deserve better than to be shouted down, no matter what our experiences or views are. One first-time visitor who had come to oppose gun control shared his puzzlement over the treatment of the woman. “How could anyone not have compassion for her pain?” he asked. “Everyone should be moved to compassion by her story of personal tragedy, no matter what we think about the Second Amendment.”
 
America always jeopardizes its promise as a place of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness when might and power rule. To the extent that we fear that we are unsafe, it will be because we have chosen to ignore the wise word to Zerubbabel to live not by might, nor by power, but by God’s spirit reflected in the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.

The Gathering Storm: eight years later

Marjorie Taylor Greene brings QAnon to Congress and threatens the life of her colleagues. A mob storms the the U.S. Capitol, injuring and killing Capitol Police; Representatives and Senators are whisked away to a secure place. The Speaker of the House and the Vice President are moments and a few yards away from being assassinated.

The POTUS who had ridden the wave of the Birther Movement to the White House in 2016; had legitimized armed White supremacists in Charlottesville and tweeted “Liberate Michigan!” while armed White militia occupied of the Michigan State Capitol and threatened to execute the Governor; had stayed silent following the murder of George Floyd and cleared Lafayette Park of a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest for a photo op with a Bible before declaring himself the law-and-order president; had stayed silent following the school massacre at Parkland; had declared the new coronavirus a hoax; and had told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” for a stolen election, and lit the match that nearly destroyed the foundations of the American Republic. The POTUS is impeached a second time, acquitted by a Senate vote of 57 guilty to 43 innocent, nine short of the two-thirds necessary for conviction.

Our language going forward

Braver Angels

L.K. Hanson’s cartoon brings this historic moment into focus. How do we reduce the temperature of our language? Can we talk? If so, when, where, and how? Braver Angels offers an opportunity to soften the rhetoric and find the lost common ground we thought we shared. Click the link to learn about Braver Angels and consider joining them.

Gordon C. Stewart, author of “Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness” (2017, Wipf and Stock), Chaska, Minnesota, February 16, 2021.

The Police Riot and the Tape Recorders — a Memoir

MLK this hour of history
This hour of history – The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Scene: Calm on the streets the Night Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was Shot

“Dr. King’s been shot!” came the shout to the large gathering of youth and adult advisors in the church recreation room fifty years ago on April 4, 1968. 

Several hundred teenagers from Decatur’s public housing (“the projects”) were doing their normal thing after Teen Town when Melvin’s shout from the stairwell changed everything. “Dr. King’s been shot! Dr. King’s been shot!”

Teen Town was an outreach program of First Presbyterian in downtown Decatur, Illinois and the Decatur Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). Charles Young of OE., a former Chicago gang member, and I, the 26 year old Assistant Pastor of First Presbyterian, oversaw the program with a cadre of adult volunteers.

The room was hot.  What do do?

We quickly rounded up tape recorders, organized the kids into small groups, and gave each group a tape recorder to speak their hearts and minds to anyone who might listen. There was anger –“I told you the m—-fs would kill him! Malcom’s next!” (“Malcolm” was Malcolm X.) There was shock. There were tears. There was shouting. But there was no violence in Decatur that night. A young reporter for the Decatur Herald paid credit to Teen Town’s importance to the larger community. We shared the tapes with the city authorities, the Superintendent of Schools and teachers, and the Decatur Chief of Police as a way of deepening the majority white population’s education in blackness.

Scene: The Police Riot on the Church Parking Lot and the Kerner Commission Report

Photo of members of the Kerner Commission with President Johnson.
http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.08051
Some Kerner Commission members with President Lyndon Baines johnson (1967)

Not long after the night one might have expected an “urban disturbance,” the same site became a different scene. Two kids came to fist-a-cuffs just after Teen Town’s 10:00 p.m. closing time. Again a voice yelled news to the lower-level recreation room: “There’s a fight outside!” We sent Melvin upstairs to stop the fight. Moments later we saw the racially-inspired police violence reported by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Kerner Commission) erupting on the church parking lot: Melvin in a choke-hold behind the paddy wagon, billy clubs flying, white cops spraying mace into the crowd, Teen Town teenagers whose only crime was that they were black running for their lives.

Forty store windows were broken out that night. The church and chief of police went toe-to-toe on the front page of the Decatur Herald. Facing loud cries to shut down the program, the church board voted unanimously to stand behind Teen Town and our partnership with the Office of Economic Opportunity.

First Presbyterian Church was itself a kind of death and resurrection. Before 1953 it was known as “Power’s Towers” referencing Jack Powers, the CEO of the Staley corporation. I was a place of white privilege and power whose members worship Sunday morning and went out to rule the city for another week. By the early ’50s its membership had shrunk to less than an unsustainable membership of less than a hundred. Then something happened that transformed a dying church into a beacon of racial justice and peacemaking.

In 1953 First Church’s new minister, Rev. Jay Logan, and an African American foundry worker walked the short distance from the church to the YWCA across the street to sit-in at the YWCA segregated lunch counter. By the time I arrived in 1967, First Presbyterian had become a vibrant 1200 member multi-racial congregation. It grew because two disciples of Jesus put their feet and rumps where their mouths were, followed by a great cloud of witnesses who dared to do the same.

In this tumultuous time of wrestling with white privilege and choke holds, the Kerner Commission conclusion that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal,” and the commission’s call for “programs on a scale equal to the dimension of the problems” seem prophetic.

Today I’m remembering Jay Logan, and Ruling Elders Jim Smith, Art Tate, Ken Varney, Larry Baer, and Ralph Johnson who quickly gathered the tape recorders five decades ago, and weeks later bore witness to their faith in the midst of a police riot… without flinching.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, June 22, 2020.

Easter Morning

The painter’s brush, the poet’s pen, and the musician’s composing take the heart and mind into the space of wonder and joy that is Easter.

Easter Morning verse

EASTER MORNING
a double acrostic 


Either Jesus really did rise or
All his followers made up the worst
Series of lies in history... Poor
Thomas certainly was right to doubt
Even after hearing tales: what four
Reached the tomb (or five?) Who saw him first

Matthew says two women; Mark says three
Or was it just one, as said by John?
Reports of what eye-witnesses can see
Or was it just one, as said by John?
Never can be trusted. Luke said one
In the road joined two who could not see --
Not until he broke the bread...No one 
Got the story straight! Conspiracy?

Even grade school kids could do as well.
And Luke throws in Peter saw him too --
Somewhere unreported... Who could tell
That this jumble of accounts could do
Enough to give faith and hope to all.
Resurrection? Who could think it true?

Maybe just the simple: those whose eyes
Open to the light through grief, through tears…
Reminded of love, of truth, of grace…
Needing to be fed, hands out for bread ...
Inspired by the scriptures, in whose head
Grow visions: life can come from the dead.

- Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, 2012 

Text set to music by Palestrina (1591)

“The strife is o’er, the battle won; the victory of life is won . . . . The powers of death have done their worst, but Christ their legions hath dispersed: let loud shouts of holy joy outburst.

[“The Strife is o’er” is often sung to the tune Victory, adapted from a 1591 setting of the Gloria Patri by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina from a Magnificat tertii toni. An additional Alleluya refrain was set to music by William Henry Monk.”

Grace and Peace to you this Easter in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Life can come from the dead!”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 11, 2020, Easter morning.