Tag Archives: social justice

The Doors of the Church are Open

The Doors of the Church are Open  —by Jinny Batterson

During my childhood and adolescence, I attended Sunday school. As a young adult, I took a multi-year sabbatical from organized religion, then resumed attending a small congregation—a chance to sing in the choir, I told myself. I liked being an alto. For the past several years, I’ve attended two different congregations. One is mostly white, generally affluent, with a mix of children and adults, trending toward the older end of the age continuum. The other is mostly black, less affluent, with a similar age distribution. The Unitarian-Universalist congregation has slightly more college professors than the African Methodist Episcopal congregation; A.M.E. worshippers include slightly more former college football players and basketball stars. Both groups have several hundred members on their rolls, some of whom show up most Sundays. As older members die off, our numbers dwindle.

The fastest growing religious segment of the overall American population are the “unchurched.” A 2014 Pew Research Center survey of more than 35,000 Americans found that the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christians had dropped from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.6% just seven years later. Over the same period, the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – describing themselves as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular” – jumped from 16.1% to 22.8%. 

Many younger adults have little use for Sunday worship. Partly, this is because Sunday morning can be the only unscheduled interval in their increasingly busy lives. Another partial answer may lie in incidents of mass violence, like a 2008 shooting at a UU worship service near Knoxville, Tennessee or the 2015 assault on an evening prayer service at an AME church in Charleston, South Carolina. These two horrendous incidents are part of a series of mass shootings in churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples that can badly damage our sense of safety. The congregations I attend have trained our ushers to be alert to potential violence, defusing it if at all possible, otherwise sounding the alarm and limiting the damage.

In both congregations I attend, we wrestle with questions of how to affirm each other’s dignity, how to forgive each other and ourselves, how to help each other grow spiritually. Both congregations also grapple with hateful rhetoric coming from the highest levels of our government. The U.S. constitution forbids church statements in support of or opposition to specific political figures or groups. However, we allow support of or opposition to specific policies and behaviors. Right now, churches are often centers of opposition to inhumane treatment of immigrants or “others.” 

Despite many similarities, both of the congregations I attend feel incomplete to me. I wonder if it’s partly because they continue to reflect a situation that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. noted in a 1960 speech: eleven o’clock on a Sunday morning is among the most segregated hours in Christian America. In a religion whose basic tenets include “love one another,” such segregation of “white” and “black” (or any other group identity) is hypocritical at best. Is how poorly we walk our talk one important explanation of formal Christianity’s dwindling numbers?

Given its recent decline, it’s tempting to conclude that Christianity, even religion more generally, may not survive in 21st century America. I think it can both survive and thrive, but rejuvenating our faiths will take a lot more than one older woman crossing a racial divide to attend two churches.

After both the Knoxville and the Charleston incidents, church leaders reassured and challenged us: whatever losses we’d suffered, “the doors of the church are still open.”  Often I imagine church doors as fully hinged swinging doors—capable of swinging out as well as in, like the doors sometimes found between restaurant kitchens and dining rooms, or fronting saloons in old cowboy movies. 

Many church activities have little doctrine associated with them. They can happen outside the confines of church buildings. They’re not limited to a single day per week. They are just something we can do as Christians, as humans—social outreach, social justice, social uplift. Our faith encourages us to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, visit the sick and those in prison, comfort the bereaved.

From what I know of church history, the earliest Christians had no special buildings, very little liturgy, no delineated creeds. They just wanted to share the love of God with their fellow humans and with the rest of creation. Such sharing is not limited to Sunday mornings. It recognizes no artificial boundaries. The “doors of the church” in each one of us need to swing both ways. Maybe then the doors of our various denominations will be easier to keep open.      

A Different Kind of Step Back

A Different Kind of Step Back   —by Jinny Batterson

Since the spring of 2013, groups of North Carolina citizens have been gathering during legislative sessions to protest some of the actions of a heavily gerrymandered state legislature elected in the wake of partisan redistricting after the 2010 U.S. census.  The “Forward Together” movement, a broad consortium of citizen activists drawn from over 80 different organizations, has sponsored the protests. I’ve participated in some of them. I’ve grown accustomed to a frequent chant as we loft our protest signs:  “Forward Together, Not One Step Back.”  Although I’m in solidarity with the movement’s goals and demands, my life experience cautions me against the expectation that there will not at times be backward steps—our current North Carolina legislature’s record is ample proof of that.

Recently, I’ve done some remedial study of the history of my adopted state, having missed out on this state’s history during my public schooling elsewhere. I chanced upon a North Carolina history by noted area historian William S. Powell.  Some of his descriptions of the traumas that North Carolina experienced in the first half of the nineteenth century resonated:

“Between 1815 and 1850 the state was drained of one-third of its population.  … The 1850 census, the first to give figures on interstate migration, revealed … that 31 percent of all the natives of North Carolina then living in the United States were living in other states than North Carolina. Because of her indifference to education, neglect of natural resources, reluctance to levy taxes for any public service, and general backwardness, the state had driven away 405,161 people, of whom two-thirds were white.”  (Powell, William S.; North Carolina: A History; 1977; Nashville, Tennessee; The American Association for State and Local History.)

Reverend William J. Barber II, head of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and a highly visible presence at many “Forward Together” rallies, emphasizes a different period of North Carolina history. He reminds us of that portion of the late 19th century when a coalition of blacks and whites pushed through a progressive agenda for the state during a period of “fusion politics.” Before it was partially derailed by violence, voter suppression, and race-baiting politics,  this fusion coalition passed legislation to improve public education, enhance infrastructure, and provide rudimentary social safety nets for the disadvantaged.  Barber counsels that this sort of fusion politics can be resurrected in current times. The coalition of which he is part is doing its best to stay coalesced and to move forward toward social and environmental justice.

A different agenda seems to have temporarily taken over our legislature. Its main tenet seems to be that lowering taxes on corporations and the wealthy will all by itself fuel economic growth and improve people’s lives. A corollary is that technological progress will all by itself alleviate any social or environmental problems we currently face. Economic theory and technological advances can be arcane areas of study. It can be easy to get lost in the jargon. That may be why we’ve partially abdicated our rights and responsibilities as citizens to the notions that “economic growth” and “technological progress” are universal panaceas. We cannot and should not stop the many advances that have enhanced human and planetary life, but we would be wise to question the  notion that all such “advances” are worthwhile.

So I think we need to take the kind of “step back” that gives us a chance to view the bigger picture, to see not just economic growth and technological advance, but also human dignity, equitable distribution of wealth, adequate provision for the young, the elderly, the disadvantaged, concern for the natural world that envelopes us. Perhaps we can bend the ears of our legislators to encourage them to do the same. Then we will all be better equipped to go forward together.