Sanctuary: Being Christian In the Wake of Trump

Sanctuary: Being Christian In the Wake of Trump September 21, 2020

Full disclosure: a few summers back our family took a road trip with long stops in D.C. and Manhattan. We stayed in the vacant parsonage of a friend near the capitol, and then in Manhattan we slept on the floor of a room on the second floor of Heidi and Gregorio’s home/parsonage.

In other words, I know the author of this book, Heidi Neumark, and it colors how I review it. I’ve slept in her home, watched the cat make its way around her kitchen, toured the church, gone out to eat with them at favorite breakfast nooks, and sat up late in the front room discussing life and church while listening to the sounds of the city.

In the case of Sanctuary: Being Christian In the Wake of Trump, however, this collegial intimacy serves as an asset to reviewing the book, precisely because the book offers, more than almost any pastoral memoir I’ve ever read, a real glimpse into the life and thought-world of Heidi Neumark as a pastor.

Early in my career as pastor, perhaps maybe even for the majority of my career, I tended to read books by pastors about their successes. In particular, books about how they grew their church.

There’s a lot of pressure to read such books, and I guess also pressure to write them, inasmuch as they sell and inasmuch as those of us who haven’t grown our churches into mega-churches maybe want to learn from those who have.

That’s not this book. Not even close. What you get in Sanctuary is something else, something rare, something almost unheard of written into book form.

You get a glimpse into the church as manger/shelter for homeless LGBTQIA+ youth and young adults, church as slowly falling apart building in gentrifying Manhattan, church as honest as honest can be woman pastoring among the poor in a city that has regularly built itself up off the suffering and disenfranchisement of those poor.

Reading the book, it is as if you yourself are the parsonage, attached if ever so tenuously to the side of the church. For a brief moment, you are an anchorite. Reading it, you get not just a glimpse into church as sanctuary, but by necessity invitation into the vulnerability of being such sanctuary.

“The future of the church is in cages with children. The future of the church is profiled and choked and left dead on the street. The future of the church is hiding under a desk and in a nightclub bathroom as bullets fly. The future of the church is with a Black, transgender woman mocked and shot in the heart. The future of the church is in the belly of a whale stuffed with plastic garbage and lying lifeless like the body of a dead migrant child washed up on the shores of the Rio Grande. If the church is not in these places of crucifixion, the church is not with Jesus, and if the church is not with Jesus, we are lost and have no future” (11).

Heidi has an amazing sense for liturgy, if you are willing to consider liturgical ideas that arise on the outskirts beyond the walls of high church orthodoxy. The first chapter is titled “putting Herod back in Christmas,” which as you might guess includes a Herod in the Christmas pageant who closely resembles the Herod of 2020.

More generally, the entire book is organized by the church seasons–Christmas, Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, Ordinary Time, Christ the King Sunday, Advent. That being said, read the book and you may never think of any of these seasons in quite the same pietistic manner you’ve been trained into.

One thing I love about the book, among many: the chapters are more like shards, explorations, forays into what sanctuary as being Christian means in the wake of Trump. The closest book I can think of that might be a model is Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic by Reinhold Neibuhr.

I appreciate this approach, a book that is more of a notebook with entries in it, because it so authentically portrays the life of a pastor. Those of us who pastor in complex communities are aware of how piecemeal everything is, how the meaning of something sometimes never emerges, or if it does, it comes surprisingly late and in the middle of some other moment.

Heidi is a profoundly political theologian. She has a distinctive enough voice that she ends up representing the faith on national shows like Good Morning America. But she also wears such political faith lightly, perhaps because it’s never a posture or empty rhetoric for her. She lives it, and abides among people who live it.

Heidi is also a great teacher of pastors. Over the course of her long career first in the Bronx and now at Trinity Lutheran in Manhattan, she has hosted handfuls of interns. Many of these interns have gone on to help shape ministries in far flung locations around the country.

She models pastoral ministry in a way that frees those interns to be their own selves. She tells many of their stories, and names their names in this book, a way of honoring the student I’ve rarely encountered in any published text.

Perhaps a word I could use to describe this book is “raw.” This isn’t to say that it lacks finish, or isn’t polished enough. I get the real sense the book is raw because it is intended as such.

Because that’s how we’re all feeling right now, and a church sensitive to being Christian in the wake of Trump is going to be raw.

Whether you’d like to spend time with Heidi in her work at Trinity Place, the LGBTQIA+ homeless shelter, or get some solid liturgical insights through her worship experiments, or see how to do and be vulnerable church in public right under the nose of empire, or whether you’d like to journey with her to the border to see how the church is practicing sanctuary in the “sanctuary” sense of that word, I recommend this read.

It’s not long. It’s not difficult. But it’s guaranteed to give you a different sense of church than almost any book you’ve ever read. Which is something we really need right now.

One snippet, for a taste of how Heidi weaves together her meditation on church life with the invitation she had to ensure it was a reflection ‘in the wake of Trump.’

Counting, as Donald Trump understands, is never neutral. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that, as the Gospel of Luke tells us, Jesus was born during a census. God came to earth not only in a manger; God came to heart during the season of counting. Every time I read a newspaper article about the census, every time I hear the president on the news inflating numbers, I am reminded that we can put our own counting to various ends. For women, for the dispossessed, for immigrants, for the precariously housed, for queer people, for all of us, our counting can advance, or it can prevent, the kind of community Jesus always seeks” (169).

Finally, there was one revelation in Heidi’s book I’d never heard before, or read anywhere, and this tidbit has totally transformed the end of the church year for me. It’s in her chapter on Christ the King Sunday.

For churches that follow a calendar of liturgical seasons, Christ the King Sunday falls on the final Sunday of the church year, the Sunday before Advent, crowning the year. It’s a relatively recent addition to the calendar that was introduced by Pope Pius XI in 1925 as the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. In 1925, in Italy, where the pope lived, Benito Mussolini, the leader of the National Fascist Party, had claimed that supremacy for himself. Over in Germany, also in 1925, Hitler had published his antisemitic manifesto, Mein Kampf, and rose in his bid for absolute power as the leader of the Nazi party. In light of these political developments, Pius XI decided to boldly assert that Jesus Christ is the one who reigns supreme and to remind Christians that their allegiance is to their spiritual ruler, Jesus Christ, as opposed to any earthly leader who claimed supremacy.

I’ll just leave that right there. Christ the King Sunday is anti-fascist…



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