After struggling over wording in the prayer, one ecumenical organization is developing new tools to address divides within its own network.
Attendees of the Christian Churches Together annual forum participate in a prayer pilgrimage starting at Monument Circle in downtown Indianapolis during the October 2022 meeting. Photo courtesy of CCT
December 15, 2022
(RNS) — In October, Christian Churches Together, an ecumenical group of Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christians, gathered for its annual forum to address a topic that has plagued the church and society beyond it: polarization.
They sought to answer the question “Who Does Jesus Call Our Christian Churches to Be in a Polarized Society?” But they found that polarization within their own ranks made it hard to move forward with a response. Two months later, on Dec. 9, they released a prayer.
“In the power of the Holy Spirit that blows where it will, remove the divisions and historical inequities between Christians and in society — between those who strive to follow you and between us who raise this prayer,” it reads. “Show us new ways to be your churches in these troubled, polarized times. Give us fresh vision to respond in love to a world consumed by hate and fear.”
Christian Churches Together logo. Courtesy image
Reaching prayerful words that might seem to outsiders to be relatively innocuous required some heated discussion.
“We did have challenging moments in that conversation about the prayer, I think because prayer is such a central part of our common tradition, Christian tradition, that there were strong feelings around how we should pray and how we should end the prayer,” said Monica Schaap Pierce, CCT’s executive director.
“And so when that kind of came to a head, we decided to have a cover letter to explain the diversity of approaches to prayer.”
The letter, addressed to its participating churches, gave three options for ending the prayer: “Ashe,” a closing used by some historic Black churches that is rooted in many African contexts; “in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit,” used in Catholic and Orthodox settings; or another ending chosen by the person saying the prayer.
Since the meeting, after struggling over wording in the prayer, the organization has taken steps to develop new tools to address divides within its own network.
Monica Schaap Pierce. Photo courtesy of CCT
Schaap Pierce, a former CCT steering committee member who served for four years as the ecumenical officer of the Reformed Church in America, said letters and other statements — on racism, poverty and immigration reform — have been produced by the ecumenical organization since its founding two decades ago. But they often take time and debate.
“There is a lot of conversation that leads up to the decision and it often is a bit heated and challenging, but we do come to consensus,” a decision-making mode she says “can honor all the voices in the room,” with many perspectives across generations, denominations and socioeconomic and racial backgrounds.
The organization, founded in 2001, includes 34 communions and Christian organizations that Schaap Pierce says represent 57 million American Christians. It includes five “families”: Catholic, Orthodox, historic Black Protestant, mainline Protestant and evangelical/Pentecostal.
She said the organization is seeking to address polarization within and among those Christian subgroups even as it hopes to eventually extend what it learns to broader communities. At its October forum in Indianapolis, following a process used by the World Council of Churches, several dozen people raised orange or blue cards as they sought to gather consensus, with the colors showing they were “warm” or “cool” to an idea being discussed.
Some of the attendees responded to an invitation to foster understanding among themselves in a new way a month later.
In November, dozens of CCT participant group members and observers devoted four and a half hours over two days to a workshop conducted by Resetting the Table, a nonprofit that teaches listening exercises designed to reduce polarization.
Resetting The Table logo. Courtesy image
“The million-dollar question is how can we shift ourselves and others from the usual rigidity of how we listen across differences and how we listen in general,” facilitator Eyal Rabinovitch said at the start of the second online session after a get-to-know you gathering two days earlier.
“Can we support people to move beyond their confirmation bias so that they can actually take in information, take in views and people that they might otherwise dismiss out of hand?”
In one instance, two men who had different responses to a hypothetical statement about voting — “We should automatically register all eligible citizens to vote” — spent time in a Zoom small group coming to understand the side each was on.
Anthony Elenbaas, a member of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, was all-in, seeing the increasing barriers to voting across the U.S. as “antithetical to the founding principles of the country.”
Dana Wiser, a participant from an Anabaptist background, opposed the statement, recalling how his father was interred in work camps for his conscientious objection to the draft during World War II.
Christian Churches Together participant group members attend a workshop conducted by Resetting The Table in November 2022. Screen grab courtesy of RTT
They achieved what Rabinovitch called “getting to bull’s-eye” — or gaining an understanding of each other’s views — by stating not just what each said to the other but what they were communicating — which could be different.
Wiser told the overall group afterward that though he and Elenbaas started out on opposite extremes of the discussion question they found similarities in their overall views and “also discovered nuances of our positions that we would have completely missed if we had rushed to judgment.”
Added Elenbaas in a later discussion: “It kind of sharpens both your ability to speak but also to hear.”
Religion scholar J. Gordon Melton, who recently retired from Baylor University, was not surprised to hear of the challenges CCT has faced in determining what its representatives could agree to say jointly.
“All Christians want to fellowship with as broad a body as they can but their lines in the sand are drawn on different issues, so as long as you don’t talk about the issue I draw my line in the sand on, we’re great,” he said in an interview. “For different groups the issue that breaks the agreement is different. And ecumenical groups have to learn to do that.”
The Christian Churches Together annual forum was held in Indianapolis in October 2022. Photo courtesy of CCT
Schaap Pierce said the workshop gave her and CCT’s other leaders effective means to continue their consensus methods “in ways that are maybe not as heated and emotionally charged as they have been in the past” even as they consider using the lessons gained in personal as well as professional circles.
“Our faith leaders within CCT who were at the workshop talked about bringing these tools back to their own denominations to share either at the denominational staff level or with a church board,” she said. “Or just even with their family members in order to better understand one another. And to really seek a unity that goes beyond uniformity.”
It is not often that I go to the movie theater and feel like a movie left my speechless but that is exactly how I felt about Devotion. It is based on a true story and has been the culmination of decades of work by the family and friends of Jesse Brown, a true American hero. There was a national conversation a few years ago about the “Hidden Figures” of American history. As African Americans unfortunately much of our history has gone untold, and some of it has been erased by racism, fear, and cultural amnesia. The story of Jesse Brown, one of the first black Naval Aviators to serve in an integrated unit, is a piece of history that must be remembered. It is an honor to Jesse’s daughter and grandchildren who are still alive that their grandfather’s story can finally be told. We are rooting for everybody black, and as we learn his story we help to remember more of our own history.
Jesse served during the Korean War, a war that is not often highlighted on the big screen. It is called America’s forgotten war because it was not the heroic story of good triumphing over evil from World War II and it is overshadowed by Vietnam during the Cold War in its tragedy and impact on American consciousness. But it was the first war where young Americans who were inspired by WWII joined the ranks of the military in order to fight for their country and were not drafted. Jesse Brown was like many African Americans in his era in that he was motivated not simply by patriotism, but an opportunity to help his family advance in a rapidly changing society. He saw himself not as an incredible black man, but as an incredible man. His wife and daughter were the center of his world and his purpose was to fly with the best pilots in the nation.
As we watch the impeccable talent of Jonathan Majors bring Jesse Brown to life we cannot help but to see his devotion. He was a man of faith, a man of family, and a man of fortitude. He demanded respect but rarely opened himself to trust people outside of his home. A lifetime of facing overt and structural racism had taught him to test before he trusted. A new and accomplished member of his unit Tom Hudner played by Glen Powell attempts to build a friendship across the cultural divide.
There is a special bond between team members that go through battles together, and it builds a devotion to one another and to the cause they fight for. This movie explores the depths of that passion in a profound way. But the reason why you should really see this movie is because the story of Jesse Brown needs to be told. We hear about how African Americans have to work twice as had to get half as far, Jesse Brown lived it in our military. We remember stories of American heroism trying to serve our country and protect their fellow soldiers. We rarely hear about black men in those positions. There have been countless successful war movies. This one is for our community with all of the nuance and authenticity that is true to our struggle to be part of the military let alone thrive in it. How can we honor the people in uniform for a country that has long neglected the rights and humanity of black people? Hundreds of our ancestors wore those uniforms and the story of the American struggle for freedom has been the story of the African American struggle for freedom since America’s first war. All Americans need to hear that story and be reminded of the struggle and the triumphs. We need to tell Jesse Brown’s story the same way we tell the stories of Pearl Harbor, Letters from Iwo Jima, Dunkirk, and all of the other films that share tragedies and triumphs of our veterans.
I left the theater in tears. I was moved. I could not believe I had never heard about Jesse Brown’s story, and had rarely heard about the Korean War in all of the history classes I had taken. I feel myself particularly acquainted with African American history having attended the illustrious Howard University and taken several African American history courses. I could not shake the sadness, frustration, and inspiration I felt because I had never heard the name Jesse Brown as one of the “First Black” in the long list of first blacks. We have to know and share our history. We have to share our devotion to our heritage. You have to see this movie, so that this piece of history, our history, is never forgotten again.
(RNS) — Water is both sacred and the cradle of life. It connects us to one another. We all have relationships with bodies of water, whether that be with the Chesapeake Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, a local creek, wetland or river or a nearby lake. These places are vital to our health and wellbeing but also help us spiritually connect.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act — legislation that helped clean up waterways across the nation — we must use all the tools available to ensure clean water is available in all our communities. Ensuring clean water often means properly stewarding upstream waters and wetlands. With more than 117 million people in the U.S. receiving their drinking water from public systems fed in whole or in part by intermittent, headwater, and ephemeral streams, protecting these waters is paramount.
The Clean Water Rule, which the Environmental Protection Agency put in place to designate which waterways were protected under the Clean Water Act, helps ensure safe drinking water for communities. The Clean Water Rule protects nearly one-third of all Americans’ drinking water from pollution.
Despite the reality that water is not bound to particular waterways but is connected, the U.S. Supreme Court recently heard arguments in a case that could change which waters are protected under the Clean Water Rule and eliminate certain wetlands and waters from protection. This would have severe repercussions to clean drinking water in Virginia and across the U.S.
In Virginia, we have a lot of water to protect: 249,000 miles of streams, 322,000 acres of lakes, 1,600 springs, and approximately 1 million acres of wetlands that provide flood protection, pollution filtration and essential wildlife habitat. For a state that values its lakes, streams and waterways, as well as public health, a robust Clean Water Rule is crucial.
Clean water is not a luxury. Clean water is integral to all human communities and the rest of the Earth. Which is why it makes common sense to ensure our common good through clean water protections. While clean water isn’t a partisan issue, it is a faith issue. Water is central to many faith traditions and most sacred ceremonies: washing, baptism, forgiveness. Religious traditions across the spectrum attend to justice and urge us to properly steward the Earth. In addition to our call to be faithful stewards of the Earth, our faith traditions teach us to care for vulnerable populations, including communities of color and low-income communities.
Regional studies and stories from across the country document the water struggles of these communities and demonstrate that there is much progress to be made before water justice is achieved in the United States. There are numerous instances where these communities are disproportionately burdened by water degradation, ranging from lack of clean drinking water to higher exposure to fish contamination.
The removal of clean water protections for wetlands, such as the Supreme Court is considering in Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency, leaves too much to chance. Specifically, it puts more than 117 million people at risk for pollution and would be highly detrimental to wildlife.
Protecting clean water is a moral call. The Clean Water Rule helps us, as a country, protect one of the most important elements of creation: clean water. We have a duty to care for these essential, life-giving waters.
(Cassandra Carmichael is the executive director of National Religious Partnership for the Environment. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)
Jim Clyburn has led a remarkable life that has been marked by the pursuit of a more just society. As the child of a minister and a Christian himself, his faith has been a driving force in his public work for justice. He was an early members of SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) working alongside Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Jon Lewis who became his fellow Congressman. He now serves as a Congressman in South Carolina and one of the senior ranking members of the United States House of Representatives. President Joe Biden credits him directly with helping him win the presidency. UrbanFaith sat down with Congressman Jim Clyburn to discuss his faith, his legacy, HBCUs and his work to strengthen democracy and justice in the United States. The full audio interview is above!
Wheaton College has an open library commemorating Tolkien and the “Lord of the Rings” universe, formally known as the Marion E. Wade Center, at the college in Wheaton, Illinois. RNS Photo by Emily Miller
WHEATON, Illinois (RNS) — It started with an inkling.
It was the 1950s. Clyde S. Kilby, then an English professor at Wheaton College, had a feeling about a British author he’d been reading named C.S. Lewis — that he was “probably going to be famous one day,” according to Crystal Downing, co-director of Wheaton’s Marion E. Wade Center.
So Kilby wrote to Lewis and started collecting books and letters written by the author. He met some of Lewis’ friends and family.
Years later, he was traveling to England to work with Lewis’ Oxford University colleague J.R.R. Tolkien on “The Silmarillion,” a collection of stories that fill in the background of Tolkien’s beloved “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
Decades later, the professor’s collection of letters and books has grown to become the Marion E. Wade Center, one of the foremost research centers not only on Lewis, but also Tolkien and five other British Christian authors who had influenced Lewis’ work.
Now the Wade Center is preparing for an influx of archival materials and interest as Tolkien and his fantasy world of Middle-earth have once again grabbed the spotlight.
After years of speculation, the first two episodes of “The Rings of Power” — the multimillion dollar prequel series produced by Amazon Studios and inspired by the appendices to Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” novels, debuted Thursday night (Sept. 1) on Prime Video, Amazon’s streaming service.
“Tolkien probably would never have gotten published if it weren’t for Lewis,’” Downing said.
“And, of course, Lewis wouldn’t be famous if it weren’t for Tolkien because Tolkien is the one who convinced him he could be a Christian.”
The Wade Center can feel like the evangelical Christian college’s best-kept secret, housed in a cozy building that looks like a stone English cottage nestled into Wheaton’s suburban Chicago campus.
Laura Schmidt, archivist and Tolkien specialist at the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College. RNS Photo by Emily Miller
But Laura Schmidt, archivist and Tolkien specialist at the center, said, “Tolkien knew about Wheaton College. He knew about the Wade Center.”
Pre-pandemic, the Wade Center welcomed about 10,000 people a year, ranging from elementary students from Chicago-area school districts to scholars from around the world.
Its archive includes books belonging to authors Lewis, Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams (including more than 2,400 from Lewis’ personal library alone). It also includes original manuscripts of their work, letters they wrote and oral history recordings of people who knew them.
Among its treasures are rare, autographed first editions of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “The Hobbit,” all featuring cover artwork designed by the author himself.
Marion E Wade Center, home to the Tolkien Library, is housed on the campus of Wheaton College in Illinois. RNS Photo by Emily Miller
An exhibit in the museum shows how those covers have changed over time, from Tolkien’s artful eye of Sauron circled by Elvish script to a 1980s paperback featuring an Olan Mills-style portrait of the dwarf Gimli and elf Legolas with flowing, romance-novel hair.
Another exhibit atop the dining room table from Lewis’ house displays merchandise that accompanied the popular “Lord of the Rings” films released in the early 2000’s and more recent films based on “The Hobbit.” There is a Lego scene of The Shire; a letter opener made to look like Bilbo Baggins’ Elven sword, Sting; even a board game.
The museum also features the small, nearly hobbit-sized desk at which Tolkien wrote “The Hobbit” and much of “Lord of the Rings,” as well as the dip pen he used to write, slightly melted on the end he used to tamp his pipe tobacco. Its most popular attraction, though, is the wardrobe carved by Lewis’ grandfather that inspired his beloved children’s story “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”
Yes, there are fur coats inside.
On Tuesday, scholars from Ireland and Australia perused texts in the reading room, home to at least one copy of every book published by the seven Wade authors, as well as nearly everything ever published about them.
Meanwhile, across campus, members of the Wheaton College Tolkien Society shared their plans for watching “The Rings of Power” while manning a table at Wheaton’s club and ministry fair. The series had yet to premiere, and members were feeling both excited and apprehensive.
Elizabeth Church, president of the Wheaton College Tolkien Society, was one of several students helping to run a booth about the club at the school’s Club and Ministry Fair. RNS Photo by Emily McFarlan Miller
Tolkien Society President Elizabeth Church said that what drew her to Tolkien’s stories was the “found family aspect.” In the “Lord of the Rings” series, the Fellowship of the Ring brings together hobbits, elves, dwarves, humans and others for a single purpose: to destroy the one ring and defeat evil.
Church has found a similar family in Wheaton’s Tolkien Society, she said.
“We’re very much like the fellowship in the books in that we are a ragtag bunch of people who come together for one goal, which is to be a fellowship,” the senior said.
The first two episodes of “The Rings of Power” set up an epic battle between good and evil. In one of its opening scenes, a young Galadriel, who will become the elven Lady of Lórien in “Lord of the Rings,” questions how to recognize the light when evil masquerades as good.
The answer comes near the end of the episode: “Sometimes we cannot know until we have touched the darkness.”
Light and dark, good and evil are themes found throughout Tolkien’s work, Schmidt said before watching the new series.
And Schmidt, who advises the Tolkien Society, expects the series to get dark.
The Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College includes a wide variety of memorabilia including cards, miniature swords and other decorations symbolic of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” series. RNS Photo by Emily McFarlan Miller
It’s drawn from writings set before the events of “Lord of the Rings,” when the evil sorcerer Sauron is handing out what Schmidt jokingly called “friendship rings” to men, dwarves and elves that he’ll later use to control Middle-earth. It’s a long time before the conclusion of “The Return of the King,” the final book in Tolkien’s series, when good ultimately triumphs over evil.
Those themes are also part of the reason why the author’s work not only endures nearly 70 years after it first was published, but also has inspired what has been called the most expensive TV show ever made.
“I think that’s going to really resonate with people in this time and era now, because there’s a lot of darkness that we’re trying to figure out. That’s why these books are pertinent to our time, and it’s going to, hopefully, inspire hope in people’s hearts that the fight is worth fighting,” Schmidt said.
“Maybe we’ll get a ‘Return of the King’ in a few years.”
Visitors with a Let’s Talk initiative pose together at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Sept. 13, 2022, in Washington. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
WASHINGTON (RNS) — For missionary Doug Gentile, it was seeing the “shackles for tiny children” used during American slavery.
For seminary professor Darrell Bock, it was confronting the specificity of the list of “Black codes” that restricted the lives of Black people after slavery ended — mandates in many states, for instance, that they sign annual labor contracts on pain of arrest.
These revelations, and many more, came out of an early morning tour Tuesday (Sept. 13) of an otherwise empty National Museum of African American History and Culture for 42 Black, white and Asian American evangelical Christian leaders, sponsored by an initiative called Let’s Talk, which aims to foster racial unity among evangelicals.
“A lot of folks had some real eye-opening moments at the museum,” said Bishop Derek Grier, founder of Let’s Talk, the day after the tour.
The visitors, who included Council for Christian Colleges & Universities President Shirley V. Hoogstra, public relations executive and longtime Billy Graham spokesman A. Larry Ross and National Association of Evangelicals President Walter Kim, followed a museum guide, most listening silently, past Harriet Tubman’s hymnal, a dress made by Rosa Parks at the time of her bus protest and an exhibit about the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, which occurred 59 years nearly to the day before the tour.
Their guide explained that enslaved Blacks regularly attended “what could be called church” secretly in brush arbors, because it was illegal for them to preach or gather during the time of slavery.
But there were other lessons about how the slave experience formed the basis of what some view as racial injustices today. “Most people did not realize the economic impact slavery had on the founding of the United States of America and one of the plaques said something along the lines of 60% of the U.S. economy was based on slavery,” said Grier, who is Black.
The initiative comes in answer to the rejection by some evangelicals of the idea of systemic racism. A 2019 survey found that, when asked if the country has historically been oppressive for racial minorities, 82% of white evangelicals did not agree.
Gentile, founder of Alexandria, Virginia, nonprofit James 2 Association, said the tour bolstered his organization’s goal “to use the Bible to fight back against these white-rage, rear-guard attempts to cancel discussions of racial history and racial justice in the public schools.”
Pastor Lee Jenkins, the leader of the nondenominational Eagles Nest Church in Roswell, Georgia, and co-chair of the regional organization One Race, said he appreciated how some white visitors to the museum were affected by what they saw.
“It shook some of them to their core,” he said. “And that was encouraging because it showed that they had compassion and they were willing to acknowledge that America has had a problem in this area and this problem of racism and injustice needs to be addressed.”
Bishop Derek Grier, right, founder of Let’s Talk, talks with missionary Doug Gentile outside the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Sept. 13, 2022, in Washington. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
The Let’s Talk initiative was launched at a banquet at the Museum of the Bible in November, and since then more than 500 people have signed its “Statement of Change,” which says in part: “We believe both the spirit and clear moral imperatives of scripture require the Christian community to lead the way in defeating racial bigotry.”
Some of the signers have also committed to meeting regularly — at first monthly and now quarterly — over Zoom to continue conversations about racial tensions.
Many of the participants already work on race issues through their churches or organizations. But Kim said Let’s Talk was a chance to learn, share and network together. “There’s a desire for us not to be territorial about this work,” he said. “This is gospel work, and it is really important for us to be in collaboration with others, sometimes applauding what they’re doing from afar, other times collaborating closely.”
Bock, a white New Testament scholar who has taught at Dallas Theological Seminary for 41 years, said the museum tour helped orient the work the group has ahead. He said their focus on unity in Christ is a starting point for conversations about polarization in the country, adding that discussions of race should not be separated from the church’s testimony.
“Most of the evangelical church is about individual salvation and a person’s individual walk with God,” he said. “This is all about larger community structures and being able to think through that space and to help people see that space is an important part of the conversation.”
Kim said his organization expects to support Grier’s plans for a “Unity Weekend” in June 2023, when churches will cooperate across racial and denominational lines on service projects and hear sermons about unity.
In March, the NAE hired a director of its new Racial Justice & Reconciliation Collaborative who has been meeting with leaders of local and regional initiatives to address racial injustice such as One Race. The NAE, an umbrella organization for a wide range of evangelical organizations, hopes to foster networks that address not only what the churches can do within their own structures but beyond them to transform their communities.
Grier, who is pastor of an independent church in Dumfries, Virginia, said his reasons for founding Let’s Talk are based on biblical lessons about collaboration, including Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels “that they may be one” and that “a house divided against itself will not stand.”
“I have children I love, people I love that are going to be here a lot longer than I will be,” said the 57-year-old pastor. “And I want to make sure that I do my part in trying to make this a better country for the young people that are going to follow us.”