Monday, March 30, 2020

A rock in a weary land

Mick Dubose photo, UM News

The gospel song lyrics “Jesus is a rock in a weary land, a weary land, a weary land. Jesus is a rock in a weary land, a shelter in the time of storm” is singing in my head as I ponder the life of Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery, who passed away March 27 at the age of 98 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Abingdon Press photo
Like our Lord, Dr. Lowery was a rock.  He was a rock in the weary land of racism and discrimination for decades in this country.  Among his many rock-hard accomplishments was heading up the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during a time of deep financial stress. He helped birth and lead that pioneering civil rights organization with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s and later led it again, back from the brink.

Moreover, when The United Methodist Church was formed from merger and racial desegregation in 1968, Dr. Lowery served as a board member of the newly created General Commission on Religion and Race (1968-1972). He played a pivotal role in working with annual conference merger committees to establish new, racially inclusive conferences. I’m told he was a relentless, effective negotiator, tough as a rock perhaps. But for him, I suspect it always amounted to a labor of love—Christ’s love—for this new church and for all its people.

Anti-racism work—the work we are all called to do in Christ’s name—is difficult and unglamorous work. But Dr. Lowery succeeded because of his conviction about the importance of the mission. 

Kathy L. Gilbert photo, UM News
He never wavered on his commitment to racial justice, be it in his church or in his country or worldwide, as he took even stands for those suffering under South Africa’s racist apartheid regime.  He put himself in the path of criticism and harm for years, speaking out against bigotry, discrimination and racism. That is how rocks are!  They are firm, and they stay the course.

As rock-solid were his convictions, Dr. Lowery had a down-to-earth humility that drew people to his message.  Back in 2009, Tindley Temple UMC in Philadelphia hosted the first “Charles Albert Tindley Awards,” and Dr. Lowery was one of the honorees. Though unable to come in person, he received the honor by live-streamed video. 

His gracious, approachable spirit was evident to all.  That is the “secret sauce” for those who are “rocks in a weary land.” As we remember this giant of the civil rights era, may we commit ourselves to that same mixture of strength, endurance, and compassion.

May we be the fulfillment of Dr. Lowery’s benediction at President Obama’s inauguration, so that, in his colorful words, “Black will not be asked to get in the back, brown can stick around, yellow will be mellow, the red man can get ahead, man, and white will embrace what is right.”

Also, be sure to read Bishops mourn Rev. Lowery, beloved pastor and Dean of Civil Rights Movement, Bishop Woodie White’s fond remembrance of his “mentor, confidant and friend.” He particularly emphasizes Rev. Lowery’s first love: being a United Methodist church pastor.

Monday, March 23, 2020

'God’s Microphone’
In Remembrance of Bishop Oscar Romero

I have always bristled when a preacher or a workshop leader, who has access to a microphone, says something like “You can hear me, can’t you?  I don’t like using microphones.” 

No one seems to object, and they proceed to put aside the sound system to the detriment of someone out there in the audience who cannot hear well.  The non-hearing folks rarely speak up, but they sit in silence, missing much of what is being said by the speaker.

Providing amplification for physical hearing is vitally important, but not as important as amplifying the voice of people suffering on the margins of life.  Often we are “deaf” to the cries of the victims of injustice, and thus, we need to hear the voice of “God’s microphone” for justice. 

The most shining example of one who spoke loudly for justice in our time was Bishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero (y Galdámez).  We remember the 40th anniversary of his March 24, 1980, assassination this month.

He was the Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Salvador, in El Salvador, during a time of widespread violence and oppression of the poor there because of an evil dictatorship.  When he first became the fourth bishop of San Salvador he shunned the work of justice in favor of maintaining church order and sacramental ministry. 

However, in 1977 a Jesuit priest, Rutilio Grande, Romero’s personal friend, was assassinated for speaking out for the poor.  This profoundly affected him, and he prophetically wrote at the time, “If they have killed him (Grande) for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.”  From then on, he became a bold proponent for social justice, speaking out against poverty, injustice, disappearances and torture.

According to Catholic Relief Services ( “Bishop Romero publically denounced violence and injustice and urged people to live out Christ’s Gospel message of love for one’s neighbor.” 

As his “microphone” continued to amplify the message, he encouraged others to join in his justice ministry, and there was a groundswell of support.  As a result, the church began to experience a swift push-back of persecution from the government that legitimized terror and murder.  This included threats, intimidation, community raids and bombings.

There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.
Bishop Oscar Romero (1917-1980)
Romero continued his ministry despite it all. But he was assassinated by gunshot in the church while celebrating Mass on a Sunday morning. No one was ever convicted of his murder.  

Romero was canonized as a saint on October 14, 2018, by Pope Francis.  The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed March 24 as the “International Day for the Right to the Truth concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims,” which recognizes the important work and values of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero. (December 2010). 

His voice was not silenced on the day of his death. Indeed, his words are still an inspiration to many. These words, for example:

A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never perish. I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I will rise again in the people of El Salvador.

God’s microphone never stops proclaiming justice!  Because of his martyrdom, many have been inspired by his work, and countless Christians across the globe continue to be voices for the poor and mistreated to this day.

You too can join this vital Christian ministry of outspoken justice.  As microphones enhance physical hearing, God’s microphones speak a loud word of justice and relief for a world that is bruised and broken. Every day you have a chance to do something or say something that will make a difference.

In the good bishop’s own words:

Here there is a challenge from Christ to the goodness of humankind. It is not enough to be good. It is not enough to not do evil. My Christianity is something more positive; it is not a negative. There are many who say, “But I don’t kill, I don’t steal, I don’t do anything bad to anyone.” That’s not enough. You are still lacking a great deal. It is not enough to be good.

Dr. Edgardo A. Colon-Emeric (Assistant Professor of Christian Theology at Duke University Divinity School and author of Oscar Romero’s Theological Vision) quoted Romero as saying, “In this hour, when one feels like trashing everything, leaving the country and abandoning everything, remember this about Christ: ‘A bruised reed he will not break and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.’  Let us keep stirring.  Let us keep building.”

Look around you for the bruised and discouraged people and do what you can to call attention to the systems that create and maintain their suffering. Commit yourself to engaging in ministry to alleviate their pain. 

“They who have a voice,” said Bishop Romero, “must speak for those who are voiceless.”

Thursday, March 5, 2020

‘Thursdays in Black’

March is Women’s History Month, and many women have changed the course of history by their excellence in science, social justice, religion, medicine, environmental concerns and just about every field of endeavor. I could name many stellar women, many well-known “she-roes.”

But this year I would like to lift up the countless, unnamed women who have spoken out against sexual and gender-based violence. They can inspire us to continue speaking out for justice and mercy for women around the world.

These unnamed voices of social justice inspired the “Thursdays in Black” campaign of the World Council of Churches.  According to the WCC “it grew out of the Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women (1988-1998), in which stories of rape as a weapon of war, gender injustice, abuse, violence and many tragedies that grow outward from such violence became all the more visible.  But what also became visible was women’s resilience, agency and personal efforts to resist such violations.”

Some of the women who inspired this campaign included:

Mothers of the Disappeared” in Buenos Aires, Argentina, who on Thursdays protested at the Plaza de Mayo, against the disappearance of their children during the violent dictatorship of their government;

Women in Black” in Israel and Palestine, who protest against war and violence in their land, women in Rwanda and Bosnia who protested against the use of rape as a weapon of war; and

Women of South Africa’s “Black Sash” movement who protested against apartheid and violence committed against black people.

These brave sisters all are calling for “resistance and resilience.”  This is a serious global issue according to the WCC.  One in three women today experience physical or sexual violence, mostly by an intimate partner.  Globally, more than eight out of ten girls experience street harassment before they are 17 years old. Women and girls represent 70 percent of exploited human trafficking victims.

Everyone can play a part in drawing attention to these issues and doing something about them.  The campaign calls upon us to:
  • Wear black on Thursdays.
  • Learn more about this movement and share what you learn.
  • Order, wear and share Thursdays in Black pins and other resources to declare you are part of the global movement resisting attitudes and practices that permit rape and violence.
  • Show your respect for women who are resilient in the face of injustice and violence.
  • Protest against systems and societies that encourage violence in any form and work for legislative and social solutions.
  • Become knowledgeable about the challenges of sexual and gender-based violence.
  • Encourage others to join the movement.

The 348-member churches of the World Council of Churches, including a number of inter-religious partners, have adopted this campaign.  All of us can “be ambassadors in our words and actions for respect, security and justice for women, men, girls and boys.”

At our UMC’s 2020 Session of General Conference in Minneapolis there will be a “Thursdays in Black” reminder.  We don’t have to wait until then. Let’s make our churches into places of peace, justice and learning about these issues during Women’s History Month and beyond. Let’s honor those brave women who have resisted cruel exploitation, violence and injustice and who remain resilient in their efforts.

Hymn writer Rev. Carolyn Gillette reminds us in her hymn: “God of Love, We’ve Heard the Teaching”:

By your Spirit may we witness to your peaceful, loving way
May we share your love and justice every moment, every day
May the people hurt by violence know they’re valued by your grace
And may all who are in crisis find a refuge in this place.