In the days before the 2012 general election, we dispatched writers from around the country to attend houses of worship from California to Connecticut. They sent back slices of life, scenes from religious services, and political talk from parishioners. In between their interviews with the faithful, they surveyed the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, shared in a community meal at a gurdwara, and followed Rick Warren’s Twitter feed. All glanced at the places where religion and politics meet, both in and out of the pulpit. – The Editors
Staten Island, New York
By Abby Ohlheiser
Scripture for the day: Matthew 9:35 – “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd.”
The lights flickered back on at the Crossroads Church in Staten Island about 24 hours before services began Sunday morning, five days after Hurricane Sandy devastated large portions of the island’s coast. In the lobby, tables filled with food, cleaning supplies, and toiletries lined the hallway to the sanctuary of the storefront church building. Matt Parascando paced in front of the bounty on his cell phone, trying to figure out where the supplies needed to go, and how it’d get there, since a gas crisis across New York City has made car travel a precious commodity.
Congregants trickled in for the 11 a.m. service, some carrying, some needing supplies. Chatter before the service was of clearing houses, gas lines, and neighbors who lost everything. For the most part, those at Crossroads this morning were faring a bit better. Many were volunteering, and, as founding pastor Ray Parascando (Matt’s brother) told me, some had been working since the night of the storm. With an election days away, talk of politics was in terms of FEMA and Mayor Bloomberg, of relief needs, police keeping order, and a notion that the current attention being paid to Staten Island’s disaster would be swept away by increasing media attention on the election.
But for now, the church was a central point in the island’s recovery work. Crossroads’s donation bank “went viral,” as Matt told me, after Sandy hit the island hard. Occupy Sandy, among other relief groups working on the island, had directed donations to the church’s lobby and NBC had spent the day there on Saturday. They had filled and cleared the space at least three times over the weekend.
The seats were two-thirds full by the time the praise music ended, performed live by four young women on vocals and guitar. The services opened and closed with the same song, with the line repeated, “Greater things are still to be done in this city.”
Many of the empty seats, I was told, would have been occupied by displaced families. The pastor had a list of 25 church households who’d been directly affected by the storm, 18 of whom had been displaced from their homes. There were no casualties among members, but some among their families and friends. The church’s old meeting space, P.S. 52, was condemned Sunday morning from flooding, the pastor said.
Crossroads is a mission-based church of nearly four hundred members. They’re associated with the North American Mission Board—the missions wing of the Southern Baptist Convention. It’s a mostly working-class congregation, what Matt described to me as “salt of the earth type people.” During the service, Pastor Ray said, “none of us are rollin’ in it here,” that the congregants hit by Sandy were “already in a hurting position.” Nevertheless, his sermon intentionally offered words of action more than of comfort. “Don’t give spiritual reasons for what happened, be God’s hands and feet,” he said, to applause from the room.
There was a sense at Crossroads that the government’s role in the post-crisis recovery should be limited, reflecting the pastor’s comment that he “leans right.” “I’m praying for both candidates. I’m gonna vote for someone who is gonna advance freedom,” he said. “I think they both love the country, even though they want to take it in opposite directions.” Voting is still up in the air for many recovering families since some of the schools and community centers scheduled to hold election centers are still unusable. After the service, Ray told me that he believed faith-based groups like his should take the lead in providing relief to the community, while government groups like FEMA, the police, and the National Guard should focus on keeping order. “God bless FEMA, and the Red Cross, and everything else,” he said, “But you NEED God.”
As I left the church, neighbors came in to truck supplies out to hard-hit areas. Two women came in looking for baby supplies. Matt promised to track some down for them. Despite the needs around them, the congregation’s closing prayer seemed to sum up their gratitude: “Lord, thank you for sparing each of our lives.”
North Ogden, Utah
By Emily W. Jensen
“In this part of the scriptures, we get an endorsement of Isaiah from the Savior, Jesus Christ,” said Carl Grunander, a Sunday School teacher, as he listed the reasons Mormons should study the prophet Isaiah as proclaimed by Jesus Christ in the Book of Mormon. And that was the only actual “endorsement” the Sunday before the election in one North Ogden, Utah, church building.
The absence of political endorsements highlights the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ declaration of “Political Neutrality,” which has been disseminated widely to the individual church units. The church’s mission, as they state, “is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, not to elect politicians,” even when, or perhaps especially when, one presidential candidate happens to be within the faith.
In the LDS Church, where it is estimated that only 8 percent consider themselves liberal, and in a state that is already colored red on electoral maps (a recent local poll suggested that 69 percent will vote for Mitt Romney), it was surprising to find only one car sporting a Romney bumper sticker in the church parking lot. The only other political bumper sticker found read: “Politicians are like diapers, they can be changed each election season, for the same reason.”
And yet, as the Mormons worshipped, there were glimpses of asking for divine assistance in the upcoming election. One pleaded for the ability to “choose leaders who will lead righteously.” Another asked for “the wisdom to make the decisions we need to make this Tuesday.” And one fervently requested, “Please bless that we will elect leaders who will uphold the Constitution.” Church member Brad Ouderkick told the congregation, “I’m sure you haven’t forgotten, but remember to vote.” Finally, an elderly churchgoer gave an earnest testimony describing the election as a reminder of her “privilege to be counted.”
Some ward members seemed fatigued by this election season, with one stating that, “I am grateful for the ability to vote, but wish I could ban all political ads.” And even Grunander, the Sunday School instructor, joked, “I just remember that the Lord’s in charge, so we can just look forward to getting Tuesday over with.”
Gurdwara Sachkind Darbar
By Valarie Kaur
Nestled in the suburbs of Hamden, Connecticut, a little brick building has been transformed into a gurdwara, a Sikh house of worship. Inside Gurdwara Sachkhand Darbar, dozens of families from the greater New Haven area gather for Sunday service.
Most of those who attend services have lived in New England for more than twenty years; only a handful of them are recent immigrants. All listen intently to the kirtan, lips moving softly to the words of a prayer: “Tu Thakar Tum Pe Ardas Jiyo Pind Sabh Teri Ras.” On a projector on the wall, an English translation appears for the younger ones to follow: “You are the Divine Master, we pray before you. Life and body–all is your property.”
It’s a somber prayer—a prayer soaked in memory of the past and hope for the future.
On this Sunday before Election Day, the gurdwara is a quiet place of remembrance. Sikhs across the nation take November 4 to commemorate the anniversary of the anti-Sikh pogroms in India during November 1984. Twenty-eight years ago, at least three thousand Sikhs were massacred in the streets of New Delhi in the wake of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Indian government officials were complicit in the riots: some led the pogroms, many failed to stop the violence as it spun out of control. In the months and years since, thousands of Sikhs fled India to find a new life and home in America.
There are now half a million Sikhs in the United States. Many wear articles of faith, the most visible of which is long and uncut hair wrapped in a turban—a marker that tragically has made many Sikhs targets for violence, especially since 9/11.
“Today we pray for Sikhs who died in the 1984 riots,” said Manmohan Singh Bharara, president of the new gurdwara. “But we also honor all who we have lost to hate and violence in this country.”
In August, a white supremacist walked into a gurdwara just like this one in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and opened fire. He killed six men and one woman, and injured three more. Three months later, the news of Oak Creek has faded from the nation’s consciousness. During the second presidential debate, in response to a question about the rise of gun violence, candidates referenced the horrific mass shooting in Aurora, Colorado, in vivid detail—but did not mention the tragedy in Oak Creek. Perhaps it’s because Oak Creek confronts us with a challenge more complex than gun control: the persistence of religious bigotry and the alarming rise of hate groups in America.
Hundreds of miles away from Wisconsin, Sikhs at the Hamden gurdwara have placed a tribute to the Oak Creek tragedy at the entrance to the prayer hall. It includes a portrait of Lt. Brian Murphy, the police officer who was shot multiple times when defending the gurdwara, now a hero to the Sikh community. The tribute sits next to the blueprints for the gurdwara complex, inaugurated just this summer. The juxtaposition captures the Sikh spirit of “Chardi Kala:” everlasting optimism and high spirits, even in the shadow of darkness and death.
After the service ends, families sit together on the ground to share langar, the free and open community meal. As they eat, they begin to talk about the upcoming election. They avoid particular ballot initiatives or policy choices; rather in light of the morning’s prayer and remembrance, they reflect on the future of the Sikh community in America.
Most are hopeful. They are pleased with the Obama administration’s response to the Oak Creek tragedy. The president ordered the flags to half-mast, the first lady visited to grieve with the victims, and Attorney General Eric Holder declared the shooting an act of domestic terrorism. The Indian government would never have done so much for us, some say.
Younger Sikh Americans interject: they want more than short-term response to the tragedy. They want a president who will combat racial profiling, employment discrimination, bullying, and domestic terrorism. They want a president who will restore our economy, relieve student debt, and move the country as a whole forward.
“The younger generation is realizing that their voice must be heard,” Bharara told me. “I’m seeing an energy I haven’t seen before. I think it happened after Oak Creek … they want a say in our democracy. They are registering to vote and are excited about voting.”
“No matter what happens on Tuesday, we will be here,” he said, taking a deep breath. “We will be a place where people can gather to remember, pray, and hope for a better future.”
A Shabbat for World Hunger
By Rachel Gordan
On the Friday night before Election Day, in Evanston, Illinois, a chavura-style group met at the home of a neurosurgeon and her family. A few children were among us, but mostly we were adults in our thirties, forties, and beyond. Academics, physicians, writers, a couple of rabbis and teachers, we sat in a circle in a living room crowded with books and art and plants. We call ourselves Lomdim, the Hebrew verb that means learning, and on Friday, November 2nd, 2012, as part of World Hunger Shabbat, we read a Hebrew prayer for those living in hunger, written by Rabbi Shai Held.
Aleinu lishabeach. We recited one of the concluding prayers for Friday night services. Aleinu, Sam Feinsmith, one of our rabbis, reminded us, means that it is upon us; it is our responsibility. What is our responsibility, he asked us: today? This week? Later, crowded into the kitchen, holding tiny, plastic cups of juice, we said the blessing over the fruit of the vine, and tipped our heads back to savor sweet, red grape juice.
Eating—mindfully, given our theme—vegetarian take-out from a Kosher restaurant in Skokie, conversation see-sawed from hunger and poverty to the election and politics. On the table, beneath our paper plates of falafel and salad, lay a scattering of pamphlets from organizations fighting world hunger. The faces of starving children stared up at us as we ate. The poorest are not easy to keep in mind while consuming a meal—even a self-consciously light Shabbat dinner—in the richest nation in the world. Of weary minds (what can one do about hunger?), we leaned back gratefully into the easy chitchat of politics and the approaching election. The Farm Bill! Someone reminded us. Now, there was something the election might accomplish for the poor.
It may be our last sane Shabbat, Laurie Zoloth, one of two ethicists present remarked. And the poorest will feel it most, she said. People nodded. We were a somber Shabbat crowd. As with the topic of hunger, there was no debate among us when it came to the election.
St. Stanislaus Church
New Haven, Connecticut
By John Stoehr
As you approach St. Stanislaus Church in New Haven, you see a banner affixed to its wrought-iron fence that says what you are about to experience is an “extraordinary form” of worship—the Tridentine Mass, the traditional liturgy given in Latin. By “extraordinary,” the banner doesn’t mean “awesome,” though listening to the Schola Cantorum, the church’s choir, raise its unaccompanied voices to the gilt-and-gold arches of the ceiling does inspire feelings of awe. “Extraordinary” refers to the distinction Pope Benedict made in 2007 between the post-Vatican II mass, which is in the vernacular, as “ordinary,” and the pre-Vatican II mass, which held sway for nearly 400 years, as “extraordinary.”
On a cloudless Sabbath, the last prior to Election Day, the mass of “extraordinary form” is one of a series. St. Stanislaus is trilingual. Every Sunday features one mass in Latin, two in English, and two in Polish. This, too, may seem extraordinary, but it is not. The church was passed to Polish Vincentian priests in 1904 after waves of immigration from Poland to Connecticut in the late nineteenth century. New Britain, a city just to the north of New Haven, has four Polish-language newspapers competing for readers in a population that is about a quarter Polish. St. Stanislaus, meanwhile, serves 900 households around the state.
Whether congregants came for the homily on choosing between good and evil on Election Day or for the sight and sound of a liturgy centuries old, it’s hard to say. What’s certain is their dedication to the old ways. Some women covered their hair with scarves and veils. Some in the pews responded to calls in Latin. The face of John Paul II, the first Polish pope, looks out from the cover of a book of prayer in every pew. His portrait, framed in gold, hangs opposite one of Christ and the Madonna.
The homily made no mention of the candidates, President Barack Obama or Republican challenger Mitt Romney, but the choice on Tuesday, said the Rev. Stanley Miekina, is clearly between good and evil. Economic issues are important, he said, but more important was the crisis of morality tearing the country apart. Catholics would do well to remember Judas, who betrayed Jesus Christ for 30 pieces of silver, and bear in mind the following: abortion, marriage and religious freedom.
Abortion, Miekina said, was the No. 1 civil rights issue of the day. It harms women, hobbles the poor, and has killed 50 million babies since 1973, the year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade. The government, meanwhile, is redefining marriage between a man and a woman, and could, logically speaking, redefine any kind of relationship, including those depending on confidentiality between parishioner and priest. As for religious freedom, Miekina said the new health care law—he didn’t use the word “Obamacare,” but that’s what he meant—violates the God-given right of conscience by forcing American Catholics to offer or administer care that’s anathema to their core religious beliefs. “We are living in a time of martyrs,” he said.
Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center
By Sarah Moawad
Situated in the heart of Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, the 70,000 square-foot Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center (ISBCC)—constructed out of red brick and glass, and complete with a towering minaret and expansive dome—is impossible to ignore. It houses a mosque, an elementary school, an interfaith space, a library, and a café. As the largest Islamic center in New England, the ISBCC is the spiritual and social home to recent immigrants from Africa, Asia, and Europe, second and third generation Muslim Americans, as well as African American Muslims, many of whose families folded into Sunni Islam after the heyday of the Nation of Islam.
On any given Friday, or Jumuah, the Muslim holy day, at least 500 Muslims show up to hear the khutbah, or sermon, and then stay on to participate in the communal prayer. Last Friday, less than a week before the presidential election, the prayer hall was packed to the brim, forcing many into the “overflow” prayer space above the main hall.
The center’s imam, Suhaib Webb, a charismatic, blonde-haired, Oklahoma-born Muslim convert, has achieved celebrity status in the local and national Muslim community for his unique blend of humor and faith. But last Friday, Webb did not deliver the sermon. Instead, he shared his pulpit with Abdullah Hakim Quick, a historian, social activist, and religious scholar of African and Native American descent, who delivered a sermon focused on climate change. Quick cited droughts, earthquakes, tsunamis, and Hurricane Sandy, as proof that the earth, is “reacting to us and throwing us off like a virus.” But all is not lost. Muslims in America—the country that has contributed the most climate change—can positively affect the environment. Quick explained, “We are in a strategic position” to create “self-sustaining communities” that can survive in times of crisis.
The khutbah was followed by the communal prayer and a few last-minute announcements. “Get out and vote on Tuesday,” exclaimed one young congregant, who urged people to vote for the candidate that best represents their values and those of Islam. “It is one of our tools in a wide array of tools to affect change in this country,” he said.
Because of its size and prominence, the ISBCC is also the political hub of the greater New England Muslim community. In 2009, the first Muslim congressman, Keith Ellison, along with local and state political dignitaries, all attended the center’s well-publicized opening. During this election cycle, the congregation was the largest religious group of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization to meet with Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren. But, as a religious institution, the ISBCC cannot legally endorse any specific candidate or political party. Imam Webb, however, can and does, and does so quite vocally. After prayers, I sat down with him in his office (noticing immediately an Obama-Biden sticker on his computer) to speak about how the ISBCC’s own work intersects with politics. He told me that his community has been invested in the political process since its inception. And it had to be, due to the opposition the center faced from community groups. After the five-year-long legal battle, which was played out in the local and regional press, the center was ultimately completed because it gained the support of the state’s most important politicians, including Governor Deval Patrick and Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.
The next generation of American Muslims must be engaged in culture and politics, Webb explained. The “Islamophobia industry,” as he calls it, currently enjoys an outsized influence in the discourse between American Muslims and their fellow American citizens. Webb believes that it will ultimately be up to young Muslims to change this conversation. “It’s time for you to take the mic.”
Orange County, California
By Edward J. Blum
I couldn’t believe it. LSU’s offense was wearing the Alabama defense down, and the Tigers were poised to take the lead. “This is some amazing football,” I said to myself. Then, when I clicked on the website for Saddleback Church to print directions for Sunday’s service, mega-church pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren popped up on the screen. His homey plaid shirt was unmistakable. The Saturday evening service had begun, and I could join from my laptop. “This must be what heaven is like,” I thought: college football on one screen; church on the other. Both even had commercials (one for food drives; the other for alcoholic beverages). Heck, if some people can “bowl alone,” why can’t I church alone?
All of Saddleback’s services are simulcast on the web, and they showcase one of the reasons Rick Warren has gained such popularity. He is, in the words of sociologist Shayne Lee and historian Phil Sinitiere, a “holy maverick,” an “evangelical innovator” able to present simple, folksy gospel messages with new media of the twenty-first century. If I can borrow some insights from Matthew Avery Sutton’s work on an earlier and just-as-famous southern California pastor, Aimee Semple McPherson, it is clear that combining old stories with new technologies is one of the hallmarks of modern politicized evangelicalism.
Like many, I’ve followed Pastor Rick for a long time. With tens of millions, I tried his 40-days-to-change-your-life-book Purpose Driven Life, a work first published in 2002 and that Pastor Rick humbly mentioned in Saturday’s sermon was now the “most published book in history.” Based on my marginal notes and daily check-ins from 2008, I got to day eleven. I remember, though, Barack Obama quoting the beginning of Purpose Driven Life repeatedly during that election season: “it’s not about you.” Maybe that was how far Obama got into the book. I was then excited when Obama invited Warren to offer an inaugural prayer in 2009, naively believing that there may be a détente in the partisan culture wars. More recently, I puzzled over Pastor Rick’s canceling of the presidential debate that Saddleback had hoped to host. Neither Mitt Romney nor Barack Obama seemed inclined to join Pastor Rick so it seemed a little like a scorned boyfriend claiming after the fact that “he broke up with her.”
Pastor Rick’s pre-election sermon had nothing to do with politics per se. It was vintage Saddleback. Contemporary problems answered with a biblical story and framed in the literary style of an acrostic. Today, the Bible story was from Genesis. Joseph was sold into slavery; he labored under Potiphar; and he refused the lustful come-ons of Potiphar’s wife. The main point was that Joseph was a model employee. He was the kind of man you would want working for you, the kind of man you would want to promote.
Although nothing explicit, there were some subtle political points made, and they tied Saddleback firmly to one main feature of the political-culture wars: the defense of heterosexual marriage. The conservatism of the church was evident in Saddleback Staff’s “10 Commandments.” Number 1 linked lunch with lust: “Thou shalt not go to lunch alone with the opposite sex.” Number 4 honed in on the homefront: “Thou shalt not visit the opposite sex alone at home.” Each commandment assumes heterosexuality not only on the part of the staff member, but also on the part of the church member. What is unspoken, of course, is the opinion that homosexuality, bisexuality, or anything beyond monogamous heterosexuality is unthinkable for their congregation.
But there were some elements of the sermon and the church’s webpage that gestured beyond the stereotypes of conservative evangelicalism. There was no mention of Mitt Romney or Barack Obama during the sermon—or even that an election was taking place. Unlike Billy Graham’s ministry, Saddleback’s website had not removed its pages that presented Mormonism as an “other religion” or “cult” like “Wicca” or “Scientology.” Even more, the first point in the sermon was defined by “audacity.” For politically informed listeners, this word is clearly charged with Obama-esque meaning. The title of his political manifesto, The Audacity of Hope, were words taken from his Chicago pastor Jeremiah Wright.
The apolitical feel of the sermon was matched by my trip to the church. I ventured on Sunday morning to Saddleback’s physical space in Orange County. There seemed almost no indication that profound political moments were at hand. I witnessed hardly any political bumper stickers in the massive parking lot. I overheard no chatter about Romney or Obama, this proposition or that proposition. At one point, I mentioned how glad I was to be away from my television and the non-stop political ads; the group around me laughed as if they completely understood. If anything, Saddleback seemed the only apolitical space I’ve encountered recently—other than watching sports.
But Saddleback’s appearance masks some overt political positions. Just minutes before the 9 a.m. service began, Pastor Rick tweeted, “Why would anyone jobless today vote to maintain the status quo instead of change? Unemployment is STILL HIGHER than 4 yrs ago.” Knowing that the sermon was about employment issues and that Pastor Rick did not mention the election, I was struck by the magic of modern media. Just as Internet video technology allowed me to “watch alone,” new social media allowed Pastor Rick to make his political point without stating it from the pulpit. He was able to leverage his pastoral power for political influence—but without church stationary or from the pulpit lectionary. In this case, new technology allowed him to have both his apolitical pulpit and his partisan presentation. It was the ultimate example of having his cake and eating it too.
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.”