Stefan Lallinger had just finished teaching a lesson that traced the fight for civil rights and school integration in the U.S. when a student in his New Orleans classroom posed a question: “So, why do no white kids go to our school?”
Decades after Lallinger’s own grandfather had helped argue the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in front of the Supreme Court, which declared that segregated schools were unconstitutional, he said the boy’s question left him speechless — and still demands an answer today.
“I think as a country, more broadly, we don’t have a satisfactory answer to that,” Lallinger said.
The collaborative seeks to fill the gap between research showing more diverse schools can improve outcomes for all students, and the political will to pursue integration. To do that, Lallinger hopes to bring together advocates and policy makers who rarely work together — from charter and district schools, and housing — to learn from successful integration efforts across the country.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the collaborative has delayed plans for meeting in person, but is still laying foundations for the inaugural class of about 50. Applications are expected to open this fall.
Lallinger spent about a decade teaching and leading a New Orleans charter school post-Katrina, in classrooms where virtually every student was black and came from low-income homes. For the last year, he was a Harvard doctoral resident working in the New York City education department on integration issues.
Here’s what Lallinger had to say about what’s still standing in the way of more diverse schools, and what integration should look like in 2020.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How would you describe the status of school integration right now?
We know that integration is good for kids and there’s tons of research that backs this up. Yet most people across the country don’t know about that research. In part, because folks don’t know about this — and also because of many, many historical reasons — the state of our public schools continues to be segregated.
Nationally, about a fifth of schools across the country have almost no white children. That is to say, they are 90% or greater students of color. And then another fifth of our schools nationally have almost no students of color. So their student bodies are about 90% or greater white.
There’s other data that shows that the percentage of American schools that are intensely segregated along both racial and socioeconomic lines has actually increased over the last two decades.
So we’re not headed in the right direction, coming up on the 66th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education.
What kinds of bridges does this collaborative seek to build? Who or what needs to be brought together to advance school integration?
Ultimately, the goal is to build bridges across lines of difference in our schools and in our classrooms, creating environments in which children who come from different backgrounds have the opportunity to learn together. I don’t think we need to look any further than the state of our country today to see why that is needed.
If that’s not good enough, then there’s research to demonstrate that students who go to integrated schools are much less likely to harbor bias, they’re much likelier to have higher average test scores, much likelier to enroll in college.
Our collaborative is also looking to build bridges across sectors. We’re bringing together folks from school districts, from charter schools, and from fair housing organizations. We want to provide a space for folks to be able to have the difficult conversations and engage in the type of collaboration that is actually going to move the needle in communities across the country.
What is getting in the way of that collaboration now?
To start with, charter and traditional school districts, the way things have been set up structurally, there’s often either competition or distrust.
Then, to bring in the housing folks — oftentimes folks who work in housing and folks who work in education speak in different languages. Getting them on the same page to truly understand what the barriers are that each set of folks face is a feat.
Your grandfather, Louis Redding, was a civil rights lawyer who played a role in the landmark school desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education. How is your personal history connected to your current work?
I always start with my grandfather, a man who was born in 1901 and whose grandmother was a slave. Despite that, he attended Brown University and was one of few African Americans at the time. He decided to move to the South after graduating and went to teach at a school created by freedmen after the Civil War to serve children of emancipated slaves. Then he went to Harvard Law school, where he was one of the first African American graduates of that institution, and decided that he wanted to move back to his home state of Delaware to practice law.
In 1952, he brought two lawsuits against local districts in Delaware, which he won, forcing them to admit black students. When those cases were appealed, they became a part of Brown vs. Board.
I often think about my grandfather and wonder, if he were alive, if he came to tour the school where I was a principal and saw all the amazing things, how proud he would be — and then wonder how long it would take him to realize he was walking the halls of a segregated school, and what he would think about that decades after he won this legal battle.
Why do you think integration should remain a goal of American schools, all these years later?
In the divided society that we live in, research also demonstrates that attending a diverse school helps reduce bias and counter stereotypes. For many of us, this is the most divided any of us have seen our country in our living history, and this is one way we can address that for the future.
Thirdly, this is something that will improve outcomes for students.
How can policymakers begin to overcome skepticism of integration — whether due to racism, from more affluent and white families worried about losing access to ‘good’ schools, or from families of color afraid of sending their children into hostile environments?
Folks by and large don’t have the vision for what a truly integrated school is, and therefore don’t truly know why it’s the best option for all of our students. Additionally, I think a lot of people fall prey to old and stale arguments, and fear mongering tactics.
It’s incumbent on folks who really believe in this issue to make clear, through appropriate communication and messaging, how we might do this in 2020 that’s different than 1960 and 1970, why it’s worth doing, what are the benefits that all students get — that it’s not some social justice crusade on behalf of one group of students, but that it’s truly beneficial to all students.
We have gotten to a place where, when we look at segregated schools, we’ve tricked our minds to think that is a natural phenomenon. That is absolutely not a natural phenomenon. There are specific reasons, and specific actions, and choices that have been made throughout the course of history that have made us believe that this is normal.
How are today’s integration efforts any different from the past?
Matthew Delmont has a great book that talks about the history of busing in this country and the use of ‘busing’ as a phrase, just as a fear-mongering tactic — when in fact, students have been bused in this country for decades with few ill effects. Ironically, busing really came into vogue in the era of segregation when white families needed to go to school farther from where they lived.
These are the things that come to people’s mind when, in reality, there are so many innovative ways to think about how we might get a diverse set of bodies into schools.
The things I’m talking about include reexamining district lines that mostly have been drawn specifically for the purpose of segregation, number one. Number two: being more creative about where we place sites for new schools.
Number three: developing innovative programming in schools that might attract different types of populations. Number four: identifying very closely systems of tracking that segregate children within schools. Number five: developing magnet programming and specialized programming that allow students to attend schools away from where they live.
And number six: opening up school choice in the public system, and, in places where choice exists, coming up with innovative enrollment mechanisms that promote diversity.
What will success look like for the Collaborative?
We want districts, and charter schools, and housing folks around the country to see examples of districts and schools advancing the issue in ways that make sense, and in ways that bear fruit, in a way that makes it feel safe for them to try.
To get a little more specific on some of the tangible things that we will be doing, we have engaged with a reputable polling and messaging firm to help us tackle this issue of how do you develop messaging that is compelling and gets across all of the benefits of diverse schools.
In New York City, one of the country’s most segregated school systems, there has been growing local support for integration, but few systemic changes. Why?
One of the things that needs to happen more is a clear articulation of why creating integrated schools in New York City is a strategy for improving our schools. You can’t really define an excellent school without answering the question of how diverse the school is, because a key element of excellence is what kids are learning from one another.
What does integration look like in a system like New York City, where most students are black or Hispanic and come from low-income families?
We have to think of integration more expansively than just black and white, and low income and not low income. New York City is one of the most diverse cities in the world, and it’s not just because you’ve got a lot of white folks and black folks living together. There’s a lot of beautiful and rich diversity within a lot of these blanket categories we use.
There’s a huge difference between a family of four that has a household income of $35,000, and a family of four that relies on public assistance, or a family that has students in temporary housing.
For race, there are schools that are reported as having 95% of their population being black or Latino, and you have Dominican populations, and Puerto Rican populations, and you’ve got Mexican students and you’ve got students from the Caribbean. We need to think more expansively about that.
The last thing I would say is that, what I think a lot of folks who bring up that argument are getting at is that, if we think of integration as necessarily involving a critical mass of white students, that integration of the entire city is then mathematically impossible. Well, that doesn’t mean that any action is futile. It means we need to start by integrating the spaces where we can and those spaces will become richer and better environments because of it.
How has COVID-19 changed or shaped this effort?
I definitely think that COVID-19 has shone a light on the rampant inequities that exist in our system. Some folks have adapted really easily to digital learning, mainly due to their environmental circumstances, and other folks have had a really, really hard time. At a time when these inequities are laid bare and there’s an opportunity to rethink the way we do things, I think the collaborative becomes even more important.
One of the things that we do want to make sure folks think about is that, during this time of social distancing, numerous parents and children have talked about how important the social aspect of schooling is, and how much they get from the interactions they have day to day with folks. Even when folks are not socially distant, where kids are in close proximity in the classroom, there’s so much that they are missing out from when they attend schools that are homogenous. Everybody’s experience would be so much richer if they attended schools with a vast array of beautiful diversity of students.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.
Every mom’s journey to and through motherhood is a little different. That’s the beautiful thing about motherhood — there’s no perfect way to do it, yet most moms find their way to doing the best that they can with God’s help. So, today we’re celebrating each unique motherly experience with a compilation of 10 two-minute podcast shorts by Dr. Melvin E. Banks, founder of UMI. We’ve pulled them from Dr. Banks’ daily radio program called Daily Direction, which covers a variety of issues and topics. Listen in and remember all of what you love (or loved) about your mom.
When I was growing up, my mom often said everything I needed to know about life was in the Bible. She called the Bible a manual for living. Because I observed her faith and life up close and personally, I know she believed this statement and lived her life always looking for God’s answer in the Bible. But, when I grew up, got married, and had a child of my own—one of the first things I heard was that kids didn’t come with a handbook. While there was plenty of information on pregnancy, what to expect at each stage of child development, and a boatload of books on raising kids, there was still a sense of adventure and fear of the unknown amongst my mommy friends. We gathered together often to talk about the latest development and wondered what to do next—often googling a phrase just to see what would come up (after all, that was how I had handled every symptom I had had during pregnancy).
Then I got to thinking: what if the Bible has the answers? I took my mom’s advice and opened up the pages of the Bible in search of answers on being a successful mom, teaching my child about life, handling bullies, balancing this mommyhood thing, and so much more. I reread some of the stories of moms of the Bible—and I’m happy to report that my mom was absolutely right. We have lots to learn from the pages of scriptures and what they say about moms of the Bible.
If we open our eyes and hearts, we can hear the moms of the Bible teaching us invaluable lessons about raising our kids. Some things have changed—thank God—but for the most part, we—just like the women of antiquity in the Bible—all want the best for our children and take this special task of mommyhood seriously.
I hope you will journey with me as I retell the stories of some of my favorite—and successful—moms of the Bible and gather real, motherly advice on raising children. Whether you are expecting or nursing a baby or caring for a toddler, tween, or teenager, these women have something to share to encourage you on this journey. Or perhaps you’ve successfully raised or mentored children who are now adults; I bet you can still relate to these women and the challenges they faced and overcame.
Motherhood is not for the weak. It takes guts to raise children well and still keep ourselves intact. We need more than a firm hand and a special, authoritative look; we need wisdom and help. God has placed all we need inside of our manual—the Bible—and as we unpack the messages shared from the moms in the Bible, we will garner the support we need. Take a seat and soak in the stories of our foremothers so you can gain new strength for the motherhood journey.
God has called us to this special task—and has left us with special help and messages. Let’s acquire some motherly wisdom.
Mary, a Beacon of Wisdom
I don’t see Mary fighting to get Jesus into the best daycare program because that will lead to selective enrollment in the top kindergarten, which leads to the best college! (Huh?! Really, the method you use to teach our children their colors determines their future college admissions? And the price tag for those early childhood programs could very well pay for an Ivy League college education!) I don’t see Mary stressing over how many kids to invite to the party—or even the venue—and scheduling it four months in advance and preparing just the right take-home goodie bags. (What happened to the parties where cake and ice cream were enough and playing pin the tail on the donkey was a really big deal?!) I don’t see Mary working late at night to create yet another class project or filling out college applications for her children because she’s afraid they won’t make the deadline and they’ll never get into any other school and then their lives will take a spiral downward and…No, when I look at scripture, I see a totally different picture of motherhood in Mary. She doesn’t seem fazed by the clarion call of mommyhood. She isn’t cloaked in worry—the byproduct of attempting to maintain control over every iota of her children’s lives—like most moms I know. What I see when I see Mary is calmness and peace, a demeanor that eludes today’s soccer moms.
Studying Mother Mary teaches us how to raise children in a crazy and cruel world. She is a beacon of wisdom and demonstrates the attitude moms need in order to navigate through the overwhelmingness of mommyhood while crazily trying to have a life at the same time.
How do you do it, Mary? How can you be so calm while raising kids—while raising Jesus? Please share.
Piecing together Mary’s story throughout scripture may give us moms some clues.
Like us, Mary’s life changed immediately once she heard those words: “Congratulations, you’re pregnant!” The Message translation actually says it more accurately. It records that the angel Gabriel showed up, greeted Mary, and said: “God has a surprise for you” (Luke 1:29–33). Now, that’s a line for every mom to remember: God has a surprise for you! And yeah, while Mary’s surprise was a little more surprising than any mother’s I know—that producing-a-child-before-having-sex part—I believe that line is still true for every woman whose life is changed by nurturing and caring for a child—God has a surprise for you! But, almost instantly upon hearing the life-changing news from Gabriel —Mary declares herself a true servant of God (Luke 1:38). She had a few questions for Gabriel when he thrust that news upon her—and who could blame the woman?! I can hear her asking, How is this so? I’ve never been with a man. Oh, my what will Joseph say?
Whether God has chosen you to be the mother of the Savior or of a president, a teacher, or the next person who will grow up and show love and care to another (you know your child has all of that potential bottled up inside of her little body or teenaged heart), apparently learning that you’ve been called to the sacred task of motherhood puts you in a new mode. You are forever changed. You know you are called to serve and nurture and care for someone precious, even more precious than yourself.
What a daunting task. What a surprise God has for you!
Mothers Are True Servants
Mary shows us how to handle this amazingly awesome task. It’s almost as if she took in every word dear Gabriel had to say, processed it rather quickly, and came up with her wise conclusion. Mary hears the angel Gabriel, in all of his lofty language. She hears his words and knows he means more. I can hear her wondering, So, yeah, Gabriel, you say I’m going to have a child—even though I haven’t been with a man yet? This must be some child, some miracle. And what if, just what if, I were to believe you and think I would produce the Savior of the world this way…may I ask, why me? I’m not noble, I’m not the prettiest. I haven’t even been the best. I’m just a little country girl trying to get through this life. I have someone who wants to marry me, and I think we can settle down and have a good life. But, you say, it’s going to be a lot different than we’ve dreamed, huh?”
Within just a few moments, Mary continues to take in this life-changing news: Iknow Joseph’s a good man but come on…you think he’s going to believe I got pregnant miraculously. Yes, you say. Well, let me tell you one thing—I’m going to have to let you and the good Lord handle that one. If you say Joseph will go for it, great, but you’re going to have to make that one work out on your own. I already know there are some things in this life I just can’t deal with—so that one is on you and God, Angel Gabe.
Gabriel returns with: Don’t worry, Mary, this is just the beginning. Your motherhood journey is going to be one for the books. The Almighty God knows motherhood is no easy road, but God is going to surprise you, my dear. You are going to be amazed by the child God gives you. You’re going to be filled with wonder at everything he does—and blessed by what he ultimately does for the entire world. And, just for the record, I like your attitude. Remember to let God handle that really tough and perplexing stuff—you don’t need to understand everything if you’re willing to trust God.
And almost instantly after she gets those questions out Mary accepts the news of her pending parenthood and says, Okay, I’m up for this. I’m God’s servant. How do I get started?
Mary was a wise chick. Clearly, she understood—more than many of us—that one big part of motherhood is service. From changing diapers to wiping off spit-up and washing and washing and washing clothes, to carpooling and shuffling around town to baseball and tennis and swimming and ballet and piano and birthday parties (oh, the birthday parties), to cooking vegetables and cutting them in cute shapes in hopes that someone, anyone, will eat them and grow up to have strong bones and healthy teeth…yes, healthy, nonexpensive teeth! Mary accepted that mommyhood meant taking a back seat in your own home, going without so your children can have. Staying up late and rising early—all in the name of the children. She understood that servanthood was a huge part of this mommy thing. And she openly and gladly accepted it.
Whoa, mother of God! She should be considered a saint…no joking. Many moms, myself included, still struggle with the servant word. We love our kids, Lord knows we do, but do they have to need us all of the time? Do you really need to call my name one more time? Can I just use the bathroom in peace or talk to my girl pal for fifteen uninterrupted minutes? (I really do miss talking to her—ever since she was blessed with her first child nearly fourteen years ago!) Just one moment is all we crave, just one—without the threat of returning to find paint on the walls and the one precious figurine from Aunt Claire broken! Can I get one moment, please? Um, no, you’re a servant now! God has a surprise for you.
I think when we begin to see ourselves as Mary saw herself, as a servant of God, we can handle those duties with a little more grace and patience. We are, in essence, working for God, tending to the souls and care of the little ones and the older ones in our charge. This mommyhood thing is a sacred task, and we have been assigned to it. In all of its glory and in all of its messiness, we have been selected and chosen to be called mother.
Okay, I see myself as a servant now, a servant of God, called to nourish and guide and lead this one toward adulthood, independence, citizenship…Yes! Our task is no slight one; there is no greater calling. But how can I, like Mary, break out into the Magnificat (Mary’s praise song in Luke 1:46–55) because of what God has done, because God has chosen me to serve these particular children?
Still, Mary teaches. One of the first things she does—after she questions Gabriel and accepts life as a servant of God but even before she can sing her praise song—is to run to be in the company of another woman who is pregnant with possibility and whose prayer has been answered (Luke 1:39–40). Mary wants to rejoice with a woman who understands her condition.
Know Where You Can Find Support
When the young Mary first found out the news, she ran straight to her older cousin Elizabeth, who was also carrying a miracle baby. Scripture says Mary stayed three months in the company of this older cousin. Mary was hanging out with another promise-bearer; she was soaking up the awesomeness of God, bathing in the beauty of answered prayers and the sacred call to servanthood. She knew where to hang out; she didn’t run through the streets sharing her good news with everyone—not just yet. She ran to the side of someone she knew would understand her and support her and rejoice with her (and this person wasn’t her husband-to-be; sometimes our dear mates just don’t understand the magnitude of motherhood!) Oh, the joy of having supportive sisters and aunts and moms who can rejoice with us even when life seems strange and daunting and overwhelming. Do you know whom you can call or text or visit when you need this type of care? Keep that woman on speed dial and use her number as often as possible! She can somehow remind you about the awesomeness of this task. Yes, even though you’re buried in homework and tournament schedules, another mom—a sister in solidarity—can remind you of your ultimate task: to serve these kids. You can see the joy in her eyes—most days. You can be reminded of the calling because of the joy she has. You can see God’s promise when you look at her. Keep her close. Keep her near. Hang on to her for dear life. No one knows what you’re going through quite like another mommy.
Your Elizabeth could be the woman who knows you’re overwhelmed by the look in your eyes. Even while you have a smile on your face, she can sense that you can use a break. She’s the mom who drops by and says she’ll sit with the kids while you go do anything else, even just sit in your car and catch your breath. Or, she’s the aunt who just happens to come by to take the kids out for pizza so you can catch a nap or clean or cook or do whatever. Or that friend who sends the text at the right moment: “You’re a great mom.” Ah, yes, someone sees and knows. Thank God for sisters who understand. Thank God for women who journey with you. Keep them close.
I still remember the sweet words of a mother I sit near in church most Sundays; she actually sits with her twenty-something grown daughters—a reminder to me that our kids actually do grow up! As I fretted over my nearly five-month-old precious child, this veteran mom reached over to hold her and whispered: “Sometimes you need a break too.” Those little words made such a difference. She knew what I needed, and she knew what I needed to hear. She went on to reminisce and educate me about how she had encouraged her husband to help more when her children were little and how she had laid out clothes for him to get the girls dressed in (already colored-coordinated, she explained with a smile). Had she looked into my home and observed my struggle? Moms just have a way of knowing. Keep your mommy support group close.
Katara Washington Patton has written and edited Christian books for children, teens, and adults and created supplemental materials for books by T.D. Jakes, Beth Moore and Joyce Meyer. She served as general editor and writer of Aspire: The New Women of Color Study Bible. She is currently the engagement editor for Christian Century. Katara holds an M.Div. from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.
The virtual choir of Grace Baptist Church performs ‘I Am Thine,’ which was included in the April 19, 2020, online service from the Mount Vernon, New York, church. Video screengrab
Top officials of seven black Christian denominations have joined civil rights leaders in calling for people to stay home until it is safe in states whose governors are lifting shelter-in-place orders.
“We regard this pandemic as a grave threat to the health and life of our people, and as a threat to the integrity and vitality of the communities we are privileged to serve,” they wrote in a statement released Friday (April 24). “For these reasons, we encourage all Black churches and businesses to remain closed during this critical period.”
The signatories include leaders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church; Christian Methodist Episcopal Church; Church of God in Christ; National Baptist Convention of America, International, Inc.; National Baptist Convention, U.S.A. Inc.; and Progressive National Baptist Convention Inc.
Some of those denominations have tallied or been the subject of reports of COVID-19 deaths among their clergy and members.
“The denominations and independent churches represented in this statement, which comprise a combined membership of more than 25 million people and more than 30,000 congregations, intend to remain closed and to continue to worship virtually, with the same dedication and love that we brought to the church,” they added.
The denominational officials and faith leaders, including the Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson of the Conference of National Black Churches and the Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action Network, joined presidents of the NAACP, the National Urban League and other groups as signatories.
They noted that an April 21 report by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that 20% of the COVID-19 deaths in the United States were of African Americans. In comparison, blacks constitute 13% of the U.S. population.
“Across the country, we see the same disproportionate impact,” they said. “Our families need us. Our communities need us. We must continue to telework wherever possible, and to tele-worship for however long it is necessary to do so.”
The letter comes in the same week the conservative law firm Liberty Counsel has organized a “ReOpen Church Sunday” initiative, encouraging clergy to begin in-person worship again on the weekend of May 3. That Sunday falls in the same week as the annual observance of the National Day of Prayer.
According to The Hill, some governors have never issued stay-at-home orders, others’ mandates are expiring within days, and still, others stated no end date.
Likewise, states have varied widely in their decision to have or not have religious exemptions in their orders about staying at home.
The black church officials and civil rights advocates said they understand some people may believe they need to be involved in public life. The leaders urged those who do to follow precautions about physical distancing and wearing masks.
“We do not take it lightly to encourage members of our communities to defy the orders of state governors,” they added. “But we are compelled by our faith, by our obligation as servants of God, and by our commitment as civil rights leaders, to speak life into our communities. Our sacred duty is to support and advance the life and health of Black people, families, and communities in our country.”
One of the gravest mistakes of the tradition of faith that I walk and love is the valorization of the violence of the cross, mixed with a shallow celebration of the heroism of the spectacle. It makes many of us inordinately emphasize sacrifice as negation, asceticism as an idolatrous form of faith. This often leads us ironically to hunger to be recognized for our sacrifice. When we are not…it leads destructively to resentment, to vicious forms of passive-aggressiveness that masquerade as “help” but are really desperate measures to punish and control. Christians, I believe, are the worst when it comes to this.
The cross can be of great help here; but, it must be preached and taught properly. We need our greatest preachers and theologians to reflect on suffering and violence (overt and emotional forms) in ways that are life-giving and not “pornographic”—by this I mean ways that excite us deliciously but shallowly; stimulating us without building relationship; encouraging privatistic and consumerist spirituality: in a word, pornographic. Yes, pornographic violence because of what is hidden, the processes and instruments of the humiliation that serves us. We cover the most probable nakedness of Jesus on the cross—always! Why? It’s easier to celebrate a Disney-ized view of good and evil than to grapple with the self-critical reality that the cross actually represents.
Jesus is not a victim of history or theology. He is an agent of the reconciliation and the wholeness that deep change makes possible. Sacrifice is not an end. Rather, the giving of one’s self is a grace. If self-giving leads to emptiness and “crooked-twig” abusiveness it is not a grace: it is faith misguided, faith misused.
How does the cross teach us the limits of our own self-sacrificing? I am not entirely certain. I am still grappling with the centrality of violence in this spectacle…but I am certain that we do not need to be Jesus, but simply like him. I am sure that our crosses are specific to our fears and our callings; sure that our crosses are not an end in and of themselves. I am confident that healthy sacrifice does not require acknowledgement. Healthy sacrifice, instead, is intrinsically valuable for us as well as those we seek to serve. We each have a cross, a rightful one—not Golgotha’s, but our own. When we face our deepest fears we achieve a victory so deep that it inspires the grace we need to forgive, to endure, and to thrive without resentment or regret: wholeheartedly.
The light of the cross shines within us; the most truly heroic things we do are often small and insignificant to most people but work transformation in our lives and the lives of others. I am sure that pain is involved, but not destruction and that on the other side of real sacrifice is the negation of fear’s powers over us.
I am coming to the realization that some of us sacrifice too much. Some of us are asked to bear the costs for whole families, whole communities, and whole systems. This pressure misshapes us, often making us practitioners of abuse ourselves: self-abuse, unfairness, quiet, destructive, and often secret forms of resentment-driven despair—even rage—almost certainly rage in us or those we love the wrong way.
The cross of Jesus seeks to end the cycle of violence, the curse of fear and hatred. Sometimes our cross is facing and ending our victimhood. Our cross might be the pain and sadness we must face to end our own willingness to be used by others. Our cross could be facing own need to be thought of as good, right, helpful, noble, useful, or nice; to be thought of as the peacemaker, the good son, the good daughter, the good wife, the good friend. Our cross may entail putting an end to crosses themselves—in our life and in the lives of others we sentence to the isolation and pain of our pettiness. Jesus dies once and for all, for us the living, a living sacrifice.
It is hard to see this on “Good Friday,” but it is certainly there proleptically. In Jesus’s actions through the Passion we are somehow freed from the bondage of sacrifice systems that purport to free us but perniciously feed on us. The victory of the Cross is the victory of over fear; the victory over the sting of death; the victory that stalks every vengeance-driven tale or politics or religion; the victory over triumph shallowly understood. We are more than conquerors.
In this way the cross can free us from the need to win that often attends sacrifice for sacrifice sake and the ultimately corrosive resentment and passive aggression that attends such “victories.” Jesus frees us from this game with His cross: Once and for all.
Our faith is often in need of reformation, individually and collectively. The cross does this work forever. Every Easter we are asked to encounter these ironies and to encounter this challenge as a form of renewal. And we do not undertake this work alone, for the Holy Spirit—who comes at Pentecost—augments and undergirds our strength.
As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, global religious leaders have been advised or compelled to shut the doors of their places of worship. In many places, public worship has come to a halt for the first time since the 1918 influenza pandemic — although even then, some cities insisted that churches needed to stay open.
For Jews, Christians and Muslims, COVID-19 hit at an especially hard time. Ramadan, Passoverand Easter are coming soon. For members of these communities, these are among the holiest seasons of the year.
Virtual religion, however, is not new. It’s actually pre-internet, even pre-electricity. Medieval cloistered nuns and monks took pilgrimages by reading travellers’ accounts and pacing the distance to Bethlehem or Rome in their cells. The differently abled have long participated in their communities of worship through radio, television, audio recordings and the telephone.
2. Going online means new opportunities to be more accessible and open.
In their now-shuttered physical places of gathering, traditional faith groups struggled with being welcoming and inclusive. Many of the pioneers of online faith communities challenged religious exclusivity, providing a home for Christians who felt they did not belong elsewhere.
Online churches have attracted Christians with diverse theologies and sexualities, neuroatypical and disabled Christians and people who had rejected — or been rejected by — local churches. The COVID-19 crisis presents an unparalleled opportunity for all churches to be more accessible and open to groups historically excluded from their pews, while taking care to accommodate and consider people’s varied levels of digital literacy.
Especially in times of crisis we tend to prefer what feels familiar and authoritative. In the first weeks of the pandemic, it is no surprise that many religious groups chose to livestream bare-bones versions of their regular activities, featuring music, a speech and readings one could follow at home.
5. “Normal” will change.
Tim followed a small group of online churches for more than a decade. He learned that the most successful survive because they are willing to experiment. Each of those churches started with something familiar, then built the confidence to adapt to their new medium.
The term virtual sometimes implies “less-than” — but digital faith communities insist their online experiences are more than just a simulation of what happens in a local church. New ideas, new worship practices and the new theological interpretations supporting them take time to mature.
In almost every religious community, there are those who have spent decades exploring the possibilities of virtual religion but they will often not be found in denominational headquarters. Churches can find these experts, and learn from them.
Promise and peril
A memorable image from the first week of enforced distanced worship was of a Catholic priest in Italy who printed colour photographs of his congregation and taped them to chairs in the church sanctuary. He stood, arms stretched wide in prayer, before all these faces. Around the world, other churches rushed to copy that extraordinary gesture.
As inspiring as this act was, it was immediately turned into a Twitter meme that picked up on petty politics in church communities to joke that someone “complained another person’s photo was in their spot.” The priest and his heckler show both the promise, and the peril, of the digital transformations.
Will digital worship become a chance to radically rethink what it means to be both faithful and in community? Or in the rush to the web will it simply be the same-old institutional thinking wrapped in a new format? Only time will tell. As the first online Easter for so many of the faithful quickly approaches, Christians are about to find out.