Iglesia Luterana Memorial
By Ken Chitwood
Below a large, stained-glass mosaic of the cross are the words, “Ein feste burg ist unser gott.” German for “a mighty fortress is our God,” they are from a hymn written by religious reformer Martin Luther. In front of this impressive array, the Rev. Dimas Jimenez leads worship for Iglesia Luterana Memorial, a Spanish-language congregation in the town of Katy, a suburb of Houston, Texas. These Latino Lutherans are part of an increasingly diverse, and difficult to qualify, Latino religious population. They eschew Luther’s German hymns for Spanish worship songs, and this Sunday, they join together in singing a popular praise song, “Tu Bandera.”
Just two days before the general election, Pastor Jimenez is not preaching about politics. “We talk about social issues from a biblical point of view,” he said, “but not politics, not from the pulpit.”
But the discussion after the service gets political as parishioners talk about the issues particularly poignant for Latinos. Paola Piper, a Mexican woman who lives in Katy, said she will not vote due to her immigration status, but she cares about the outcome of the election. She said, “Immigration reform, the economy, safety—these are the important issues for Latino voters.” Jimenez, who hails from Panama, agreed and said the most important issues for Latinos include, “the economy, health care, immigration certainly, and education.”
Piper said she is not impressed by either presidential candidate. Another congregant chimes in that she would vote for Obama, “just because he is the least worst,” a view that reflects the fact that a large majority of Latinos support the president in polls.
Still, Piper believes little will change when it comes to U.S. policy on immigration or its relationship with Latin American countries. “I don’t think it is a priority for either candidate,” she said.
Abyssinian Baptist Church
Harlem, New York City
By Xarissa Holdaway
Abyssinian Baptist will celebrate its 204th anniversary next week. Founded in 1808 by a group of African-American and Ethiopian Baptists who rejected segregated seating in their former congregations, today the church is the most famous “black church” in America, and before Barack Obama put the South Side of Chicago on the map, was the longtime seat of black political power in America. Its imposing stone building in Harlem occupies a generous chunk of the 138th block between 7th Avenue and Lenox. It’s a neighborhood where, despite disenchantment with the economy and President Obama’s decision to back of same-sex marriage, the black vote is so assured that Obama campaigners aren’t even ringing doorbells.
So, hearing the Mormon poet William Clayson’s pioneer anthem “Come, Come Ye Saints” sung by Abyssinian’s choir, here in the heart of Harlem two days before Mitt Romney and Barack Obama face off in the presidential election, was, to say the least, ironic.
The sanctuary was already half-full when I arrived 20 minutes before the service. An usher in a fedora noticed me hovering by the door, looking thoroughly out of place. I told him I was visiting from Washington, D.C., and that I’d like to attend the service. I wasn’t sure he’d let me in: rumor has it that tourists are often turned away to make room for members. But the usher flagged down a woman headed for the entry. “Would you mind escorting her in, sister?,” he asked. She greeted me, all smiles. The usher explained that I was granted entrance, “because you’re an American.” I nodded solemnly, uncertain what he meant, but I thanked him just the same.
I was glad to have arrived early, as the pews filled up fast. The buzz in the room grew louder as friends recounted stories of their difficult post-Hurricane commute. Hurricane Sandy’s unprecedented damage to the city’s infrastructure left some members without gasoline, power, or public transit for the better part of a week. Despite the difficulty, more than a thousand people filled the sanctuary by the time the service started.
Abyssinian’s pastor is Calvin O. Butts, III, a gifted administrator and activist, who has taught black history at City College and Fordham, and has railed against rap lyrics that degrade women. He is also involved in national politics, having endorsed then New York Senator Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries. But since then, he’s backed the President, even cheering on Obama in advance of the second presidential debate. “I think we all hope that the president will wipe the floor with [Romney].”
Unfortunately, Reverend Butts was preaching elsewhere on the Sunday before Election Day. So Reverend Nicholas Richards, another ‘Aby’ minister, gave the sermon. But Reverend Richards didn’t disappoint. Using the hurricane as a conceit, likening it to the daily trials—poverty, racism, even homophobia—that buffet us, Richards praised the “first responders” who, when everyone else ran away from the storm, ran towards it. Ministers are the first responders of the soul, he explained, and while anyone can love and aid their neighbor, those who claim to have the authority to bless with the laying on of hands, but do so without the training and practice of a minister (including perhaps, the lay ministers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), are practicing a form of “spiritual malpractice.”
Richard’s voice dropped a little when he spoke of Tuesday’s election. This was where I expected him to talk about Romney and Romney’s religion. It’s commonplace (or at least used to be) among Baptists that Mormons don’t count as Christians. In 2007, Neil J. Young at Slate wrote, “[P]robably no other organization in the nation has played a bigger role in perpetuating the idea that Mormonism is a cult than the Southern Baptist Convention.” To be sure, Abyssinian is not the SBC. Yet especially among black Baptists, implying that Romney’s unsanctioned faith is a reason to vote against him would make a certain (and certainly racialized) kind of sense.
But just when I expected Richards to zig left, he zagged right: Romney isn’t just a spiritual negligent, getting in the way of God’s true EMTs. No, no. It’s much worse than that. Romney is the hurricane itself.
“We knew [Sandy] was coming,” says Richards. “We tracked it, we saw the pattern, we knew how it would happen. And it’s the same with this election: There are two distinct patterns. Storms will surely come if we choose the wrong person.” He never named Obama’s rival, but the message was clear. “I coulda told you he was no good,” Richards almost sang. “Saw him coming a mile away, gaining strength … some storms aren’t surprising.” In on the secret, people in the pews giggled, and pockets of cheers and clapping erupted around the sanctuary.
In this sermonic narrative, the flood that Romney brings with him isn’t heresy. Instead, Richards talked about the jobs not landed, the bills not paid. He talked about sickness, and health care, and about women’s bodies. In context of churches like Abyssinian, where political activism and religious devotion intertwine, it’s not hard to see why Richards talks class, not cult.
With this in mind, I think about the usher at the door, and I wonder if by “American,” he meant “voter.”
Mount Olivet Lutheran Church
By Lauren Alexander
In a fogged-in Minneapolis this past Sunday morning, families towing blonde children with stiff collars and pink tights, elderly couples holding hands, and groups of middle-aged women, all filed into the vast corridors of the Mount Olivet Lutheran Church. Located at one of Minneapolis’ busiest intersections, Mt. Olivet is the largest Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA) congregation in the United States, with an average weekly attendance of nearly 6,000. Its large stone edifice sits adjacent to a city neighborhood where front yards are decorated with political signs, most of which vouch support for President Obama. Signs with the words, “Vote No,” speak to the most contentious issue on the Minnesota state ballot, a constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage.
Mt. Olivet bills itself as a “servant church,” a congregation dedicated to creating change, both locally and globally. “Changing the World,” was even the title of this past Sunday’s sermon, delivered by Craig Johnson, Mt. Olivet’s interim senior pastor. “Let us pray for our friends in New Jersey and New York, our friends devastated by water and wind,” Pastor Johnson began. “And help us grasp, God, that you stand by your people.” The pastor informed the congregation that offerings from next Sunday’s service would go towards Hurricane Sandy relief funds. Not much, compared to the billions of dollars worth of damage, and millions of lives turned upside down. But it’s something that might help, might create some change, however small.
And this was the thrust of the sermon. The story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead was Pastor Johnson’s scriptural example of God’s ability to create change, even the most radical kind of change of “unbind[ing]” a man from the finality of death. Yet Lazarus served as a biblical precedent for more modern history of “microcosmic events [that] can grow into a macrocosmic result.”
The ELCA’s Southern Minnesota Synod officially voted to oppose the resolution to ban gay marriage in Minnesota. “[P]eople of faith stand up for all families,” said Lauren Morse-Wendt, who co-authored the Synod’s resolution. “This marriage amendment to define marriage between a man and a woman is a discriminatory amendment which would deliberately deny justice to a portion of the population of Minnesota.”
The church’s official statement on gay marriage was not mentioned during the sermon, nor was there explicit talk of the coming election. Still, the tone of Pastor Johnson’s message pointed to the congregants’ ability, as individuals and as communities, to create change in the world. The Pastor’s use of an historically-situated example, the oppression of Soviet Germany in the 20th century defeated, in part, by the “Monday Demonstrations” that started at St. Nicolas Lutheran Parish in Leipzig, highlighted the fear and inequality—and potential for great change through microcosmic actions—that mirrors, albeit more dramatically, the climate of American’s own precarious time.
In a country plagued by huge problems, including economic insecurity, the deficit, and vitriolic fights over social issues, Pastor Johnson urged his congregation to think big by thinking small. Indeed, Pastor Johnson hoped his thousands of congregants would take into next week’s election the faith that monumental change can begin as a series of incremental steps, perhaps even as small as a few yard signs or a few dollars sent to victims of Hurricane Sandy.
The miracles of Lazarus and St. Nicolas Parish, “Do you think this still happens?” Pastor Johnson asked the congregation, “I do.”
The Faith Community of St. Sabina
By Matthew J. Cressler
As I parked my car at 78th and Racine on the South Side of Chicago two days before the election, I noticed an Obama/Biden sign in the shadow of the towering gray stone walls of St. Sabina. I arrived a little early, and I made my way to a relatively inconspicuous pew. There—under the lights of neon sign proclaiming “JESUS” to the sanctuary, and under the gaze of the Black Christ with arms stretching out to embrace the congregation painted on the wall behind the altar—I waited for Mass to begin. One woman in the front pew sported a denim jacket emblazoned with President Barack Obama’s portrait. Another wore a sweater with Obama embroidered on the front.
What did I expect from this service so close to Election Day? The Faith Community of St. Sabina is one of the most prominent Black Catholic parishes in the United States. For decades, Reverend Dr. Michael L. Pfleger, the senior pastor of St. Sabina, has been a tireless activist against drug abuse, gang violence, and racism on Chicago’s South Side. Father Pfleger was catapulted into the national spotlight in 2008, when clips of his friend, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s fiery sermons almost derailed then Senator Obama’s presidential bid. To put it bluntly, visiting a predominantly black church in Chicago two days prior to the potential re-election of the first black president in Obama’s hometown, I was prepared for a thoroughly political Catholic service. The “political persuasion” of the congregation, seemed so obvious it didn’t need to be stated.
This Sunday morning Mass was like most services at St. Sabina, which is to say, it was nothing like most services at Catholic churches across the country. The service began with vibrant song and dance. The cantor and choir led the congregation in a roaring call-and-response rendition of the Alleluia. After about a half-hour of such celebration, Father Pfleger continued the service with spontaneous prayer that called the congregation to worship God by God’s many names. And the congregation responded, shouting “Hallelujah!” and “Praise Him!” The service was accelerating toward its climactic moment, when Pfleger would offer his sermon—a sermon that would draw heavily on the black preaching tradition— a meditation on the power of prayer drawn from the Acts of the Apostles.
But before he began, Father Pfleger had something to say. Speaking as much to the handful of reporters and cameramen present as to the congregation, Pfleger explained that recently a Catholic woman approached him about the spiritual consequences of her vote. She feared the fate of her soul hung in the balance, depending for whom she cast her ballot come Tuesday. This woman’s fears arose out of statements made by certain Catholic bishops and pastors, like Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay, Wisconsin, who have recently felt compelled to highlight certain issues the Catholic Church considers “morally intrinsic evils,” like abortion, euthanasia, and homosexual marriage. The implication was that a vote for Barack Obama on November 6 was an act that might “put your own soul in jeopardy.”
Though he has “tried to be quiet” since the last election, Pfleger felt a moral obligation to speak out. He urged his congregation to “vote according to your faith.” But he assured them that no vote, nor one politician could put your soul in jeopardy. First, everyone should vote—“every one!,” he exclaimed. Second, St. Sabina would provide rides to polling centers for anyone who needs assistance. Third, and most critically, Pfleger responded directly to the charge that Democratic (and thus presumably pro-choice) voters face “grave moral danger.” “Salvation is freely given by God,” Pfleger proclaimed, a statement that met with exuberant applause. Quoting Pope John Paul II, who quoted Pope Paul VI, who quoted the pivotal Second Vatican Council document, Gaudium et Spes, Pfleger proceeded to list other “intrinsic evils”: homicide, wrongful imprisonment, poverty, war. “We are not pro-life from conception to birth,” Pfleger channeled Chicago’s former Archbishop Cardinal Bernardin, “we are pro-life from womb to tomb!” No one perfectly fits this Catholic pro-life paradigm—no one in the congregation and no one running for president. But if we want to be seriously pro-life, there is no single issue at stake in this election. Anyone who tries to tell you that that abortion supersedes poverty is trying to “hoodwink” or “bamboozle” you,
But this, the only explicitly political statement Pfleger offered on Sunday morning, was short and to the point, unrelated to the hour-and-a-half sermon he had prepared on the power of prayer. Contrary to my own assumptions, what I found at St. Sabina was that the congregants gathered first and foremost to worship, to hear their pastor break open the Word of God.
Yet, the act of worship is itself political, though not in the ways we expect. A purple banner has hung at the back of the church for years now, boldly declaring, “Discipleship will cost. Are you willing?” This challenge illustrates St. Sabina’s understanding of the relationship between religion and politics. Religious life, a life lived according to the Gospel, is intended to extend beyond Sunday service. If praise and worship on Sunday morning doesn’t transform your life, then you’re not doing it right. To speak of religion and politics as two distinct categories, converging on Election Day and diverging thereafter, in the words of Father Pfleger, would be to bamboozle you.
Durham, North Carolina
By A.T. Coates
Newhope Church loves superlatives, or so it seemed when I visited on November 4. It’s proud to be counted among “America’s ten fastest-growing churches” by the evangelical magazine Outreach, boasting a weekly attendance of about 3,000 across its six campuses in central North Carolina, though most gather at the main church building located at a central artery close to Chapel Hill, Durham, and Raleigh. This decade-old congregation aims to be the high-tech, professional church for the “Research Triangle” of North Carolina, a corporate haven with one of the country’s highest concentrations of PhDs. The pastor, Benji Kelley, who holds a divinity degree from nearby Duke and a doctorate from Asbury Theological Seminary, called the early twenty-first century “one of the most exciting times in history” as he welcomed people around the region who were watching his sermon via simulcast.
Newhope practices old-fashioned evangelical “religion of the heart,” but through the modern chest-rattling bass lines strummed out by the church’s rock band. The main worship area looks like (and is) a television studio, but also has the feel of a laser-lighted rock concert. At the service I attended, most congregants seemed to range in age from 18 to 45. And though practically every evangelical church in the South claims to be “racially diverse,” Newhope is one of the first I’ve attended where this claim reflected reality. Whether you’re black, white, or Latino, this church offers an up-tempo atmosphere for the Triangle’s caffeine-fueled corporate class, many of which are migrants from the North.
Only a handful of Romney-Ryan signs dotted nearby lawns. And for most of the congregation, next week’s poll has already taken place. When asked by the pastor, most of the congregation indicated by a show of hands that they had already voted in one of North Carolina’s early voting centers.
Still, with two days before most Americans would vote for the next president, Newhope lured me in with the promise of a sermon called “Jesus and Politics.” But Pastor Benji’s “Jesus” wants nothing to do with politics. Instead, Pastor Benji described wanting to stiff-arm aggressive political canvassers at North Carolina’s early voting stations. Placing himself directly between pictures of Romney and Obama, Pastor Benji chided the congregation for its propensity to “clap louder for America stuff than for Jesus stuff.” In what proved to be the mantra for the week, he insisted, “The primary political task of the church is to be the church.”
Near the end of his sermon, Pastor Benji played a video interview with Duke’s revered Anabaptist ethicist Stanley Hauerwas—the person who “had most shaped his vision for what the church ought to be.” In the brief excerpt, Hauerwas compared the 2012 election to the Roman circus, pronouncing it a form of entertainment that distracts the church from its real calling and society from its real (spiritual) problems. When Jesus comes back, Pastor Benji shouted authoritatively, he will come riding on a white horse—not on a donkey or an elephant.
Cottonwood Heights, Utah
By Allison Pond
From the outside, the square brick chapel looks much like any other Mormon ward in this quiet, predominantly white suburb of Salt Lake City. But on this Sunday night, the service inside is anything but quiet.
“Sweet Jesus, I love you, you’ve done so much for me,” belted a crowd of more than a hundred Mormons, many, but not all, African American, clapping and swaying to the beat. They came from all over the Salt Lake valley for the monthly meeting of the Genesis Group, an official support organization for black members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).
When it comes to identity politics, black Mormons in 2012 find themselves in the odd position of identifying strongly both with African Americans — of whom 95 percent are expected to vote for President Barack Obama — and Mormons, who will vote overwhelmingly for their fellow Mormon, Mitt Romney.
Because of what, at least to outsiders, understand as their dueling identities, during this election some Genesis Group members have achieved a degree of national prominence, regularly called to comment for stories on race and Mormonism for CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. The Daily Showcame to Salt Lake to interview black Mormons, most of who are members of Genesis, and to riff on their supposed competing racial and religious loyalties.
And yet anyone who attended the Genesis Group meeting on the Sunday before Election Day hoping for some politics would have left disappointed. Not only was there no mention over the pulpit of candidates or parties; there wasn’t even political chatter among group members as they socialized over fruit and punch following the service.
“I am happy and proud to say politics does not come up and has not come up in the 41 years of the Genesis Group,” said founding member and former president Darius Gray. “The philosophy we foster here is the brotherhood and sisterhood of mankind.”
The Genesis Group was organized in the early 1970s, not as a segregated congregation, but in response to black members of the LDS Church expressing a need for fellowship and support. After all, blacks could join Mormon communities but were not granted full membership until 1978. In June of 1971, Gray and two other black LDS men began meeting regularly with several members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the church’s highest governing body, and from those meetings the idea for the Genesis Group was born. At the time, there were 300 or 400 black Mormons around the world. Today, there are approximately 700,000.
The brotherhood and sisterhood Gray noted is marked by an unusual patchwork of black and Mormon legacies. On Sunday night, a small choir performed two rousing gospel songs, followed by the congregation singing a hymn with organ accompaniment in the placid Mormon style. The singing concluded with quiet prayer, observed with heads bowed and arms folded, before members directed their attention to the evening’s featured speaker. This speaker, a white woman in her 30s, recounted personal lessons of love and gratitude learned over 15 years of humanitarian work in Kenya and other African countries.
The speaker’s own racial identity highlights an ironic aspect of the Genesis Group’s membership. The ostensibly “black Mormon” organization has more members who trace their lineages back to England or Scandinavia than Africa. Some are the descendants of Mormon pioneers who, in the mid-1800s, fled to the Salt Lake Valley in search of the religious freedom they could not find in the United States.
Many of these white Mormons come to Genesis because they’ve adopted black children, or have married black spouses, and now have mixed-race children. Still others come for the exuberant worship and fellowship, a rarity in most Utah wards. This is the case for one Genesis Group regular. Many of these white Mormons come to Genesis because they’ve adopted black children or married black spouses and now have mixed-race children.
Still others come for the exuberant worship and fellowship, a rarity in most Utah wards. This is the case for one Genesis Group regular. During the last 15 minutes of the service, when members were invited to “bear their testimonies,” this Latter-day Saint strode to the pulpit to share her own “testimony of faith” in the Mormon version of the Gospel with a spontaneous rendition of “I Need Thee Every Hour” in a sonorous alto voice.
Taken together, the Genesis Group meeting on Sunday night and the Election Day this Tuesday, signify tow hard-won American constitutional freedoms: the (Mormon) freedom to worship and the (black) freedom to vote. But the focus at Genesis is on fellowship not politics, explains Darius Gray. “It’s about supporting one another, embracing one another, taking joy and pride in one another … the way the Gospel ought to be.”