When I Kept Silent: An Excerpt from “Preaching as Resistance” for Ordinary Time

When I Kept Silent: An Excerpt from “Preaching as Resistance” for Ordinary Time October 6, 2018
Image via Pixabay/CC0 Creative Commons

This week, Chalice Press published Preaching As Resistance: Voices of Hope, Justice, and Solidarity, an anthology of sermons edited by Phil Snider to preachers during this particular political time we’re in today.

Below is an excerpt of my introductory piece to the collection, which you can read in its entirety where I originally published it on my blog. You can purchase “Preaching as Resistance” directly from the publisher here, or on Amazon here.

This week especially, as many pastors face difficult decisions about what to say, how much to say, and how to say it, I pray that you’ll remember that silence is just as much of a statement as anything you may preach or not preach. I pray that you’ll be bold.

“These are weird and confusing and evil times. Don’t let fear of getting it wrong keep you from saying what your conscience prods you to say. Listen humbly, be kind, be angry, and speak bravely.”

***

“Alas, Sovereign Lord,” I said,
“I do not know how to speak; I am too young!”
Jeremiah 1:7

I used to work as a chaplain at an elderly residential facility and rehab hospital in Atlanta. I was there on December 28 2015, the day that the police officer who killed Tamir Rice was not indicted. I was scheduled to preach to a community of little old Black ladies who marched in Alabama for Civil Rights, and little old white ladies who practiced racism as a daily ritual.

I haven’t ever felt so young, ever, ever, as when I stood up to preach. I looked at all these people who leaned on me for spiritual care and guidance, and a fear/anger/sadness/anxiety ball sunk in my stomach, because oh Jesus this little white girl from one of the whitest states in the US who has only just barely graduated seminary is not prepared to do this. Let’s just skip this, just preach something else, just preach the fruits of the Spirit or something else innocuous and irrelevant because what I was holding was too heavy and too fragile for me to lift and not shatter.

This is absolutely not a story of me wildly succeeding as a White Savior to end racism in a nine minute sermon. It also is definitely not a story of me mastering how to talk about oppression when the oppressed and the oppressor are both in the room. It’s not even a story about me owning my spiritual authority and leaning into my female empowerment as a pastor.

I’m not really sure what this story is about, but ever since the election I can’t stop thinking about all those elderly faces watching me, and how it felt to talk about evil when we all disagree about what evil is.

***

I started work at the nursing home in August 2015, and by December, I excelled at ducking and dodging all sensitive topics with my congregation. It was a politically and racially diverse hospital, which seemed like a really good reason to just talk about Jesus Loves Me all the time. I avoided “taking a stand” like it was my job (I may have actually told folks that it was my job). I was Chaplain Laura Jean for the middle-aged Midwestern white man as well as the black trans woman on suicide watch. My work  was to be present to every member of the community, to love well, to listen well, to hold them up in prayer, and when preaching, to preach the Gospel of grace and the unfailing, unrelenting, unstoppable love of God through Jesus Christ.

I underestimated a central part of life in the nursing home, though. Everyone – every political, religious, ethnic, and racial identity – was watching the news. And they were watching it non-stop. There isn’t a whole lot to do in a nursing home except play Bingo (not a stereotype! We loved Bingo!), sing old Broadway musicals (my favorite unofficial Chaplain Position was Broadway Pianist), and watch the news. By October, every time I knocked on a door, my patients – my congregation – wanted to talk politics. They wanted to talk to the chaplain about the primaries and the election and the immigrants and the “urban crime” and police violence and the gay agenda and the racist politicians. So I listened super well to everyone, and tried to ask thoughtful questions, and worked hard to be present to every member of the community. […]

Then the week after Christmas, a grand jury declined to indict the police officer who killed Tamir Rice, a twelve year old Black boy playing with a toy gun. […]

What I had started to feel somewhere in my gut was suddenly out loud and in my face. I had worked so hard to “be present to every member of the community” by avoiding difficult issues in public. That week I realize that my avoidance was also a statement – a statement of non-presence to my Black residents. My silence said that both sides of the issue of racism had equal weight and that as a spiritual leader I was committed to letting evil hide as long as it was uncomfortable for me talk about. I had chosen the most vulnerable members of my congregation, and had decided that I’d address their fear and sorrow and anger privately, just in case I unsettled a cart of apples that I didn’t have the skills to re-bag.

I had another sermon prepared for that day, and I threw it away.

Read the piece in its entirety here on my blog.

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