Rev. John Dorhauer: What does it mean to be a reforming church?
UCC General Minister and President the Rev. John Dorhauer lead a contingent of church executives on a 17-day trip in Europe, meeting partners in five countries, exploring questions about what it means to be a reforming church in today’s world.
For 17 days we explored a fundamental and rather important question: what does it mean to be a Reforming Church?
Behold, I am about to do a new thing. Do you not perceive it?
Remember, there is yet and still more light and truth to break forth from God’s holy word.
Time makes ancient good uncouth; we must upwards still and onwards who would keep abreast of truth.
The United Church of Christ acknowledges as its sole head, Jesus Christ, Son of God and Savior. It affirms the responsibility of the Church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God.
Never place a period where God has placed a comma.
Our history is replete with reminders of how God’s new thing calls to the Church to adopt a posture of openness before the Sacred. Allowing the Holy Spirit in each time and place to move freely, the Church seeks through discernment, prayer, and dialogue with its membership to come to new understandings of how our present expression of the Church might need to evolve for the sake of the mission for which it was called into being.
After 500 years of reformation, leaders from the United Church of Christ traveled to the places where this work began and explored how it is the Spirit is moving today and what we intend to do to stay faithful to Her.
As Nigel Uden, pastor at St. Columba’s in Cambridge said: “We are nowhere between two somewheres.”
More time and distance from the experiences will afford us all better opportunities to fully process the meaning and impact of this trip, but some initial thoughts, insights, and observations are required even this soon after our return.
There were two subject matters that came up in every place we traveled, and I think it is important we make note of that up front: refugee/immigration advocacy and race equity. What is the church called to do to address these lingering and massive injustices? How do we leverage greater impact and capacity by sharing what we know and how we respond? What must we do to acknowledge our complicity as colonial religionists in the perpetration of these injustices? How is our way of being church a continuing threat to marginalized and impacted communities? What are we willing and being called to do to become more fully and more authentically the Body of Christ incarnating commitments to fully love neighbor and build a just world for all?
Those questions were central to our exploration with Reform partners for new meaning and missional relevance.
In Geneva, the World Council of Churches agreed to assemble theologians from around the globe to explore deeply the roots of a reform theology that provided foundational support for the spread of global colonial empires. In the past, those empires enslaved an entire continent of peoples and today impoverish many places where our feet have trod. This is not just an exercise in historical research. We acknowledge that we must identify where the roots of this theology remain and how they are manifest today in theologies that evolved from it and still carry vestiges of white power, white privilege, and white supremacy.
In Budapest, we sat with a young preacher and two of his young staff who have established a safe home and space to educate, to care for, and to empower a large Roma population that remains one of the poorest and most marginalized communities anywhere.
In Sicily we stood upon the shores where last year 19,000 refugees from Africa crossed an angry sea on inflatable rafts with the slim hope of finding a better life. Our reform partners in the Waldensian church make sure that when they land they are greeted first with a warm smile and a hearty embrace. We walked through the holding center where they will spend their first days, waiting to find out if they will be among the ones granted status and allowed to stay and pursue a new dream in a new land.
Later that evening, we dined with families of refugees who were starting over. One woman spoke of a five month old child who died at sea during the crossing. Another spoke of her dream of becoming a caterer, and smiled with much pride when we told her how the rice dish she prepared for the meal that evening was our favorite dish. One woman remained quiet throughout the evening, reluctant to open up and leaving us wondering what pains were hidden in the lines on her face and in the past she left behind. Their stories and their faces, their laughter in song and dance, their pain of a past they can’t completely forget, and their hopes and dreams all came to us as part of a sacred trust: what are we willing to do to seek a new pathway to peace and justice for these precious ones who risked everything and left everything and everyone for a slim chance at a new life? We cannot forget them; but we can’t remember them and not act in ways to ease their pain and increase their joy.
In Germany, we visited the memorial site that was the concentration camp in Sachsenhausen. Nothing had a greater or deeper emotional impact on me – and I daresay this was true of others in the delegation. At the end of two long and painful hours, we stood before the guide who told us the story of Martin Niemoller, a Reform pastor who trusted Hitler as a populist, reform politician willing to speak out about the injustices endured by the German peoples in the aftermath of the first World War.
He read once again Martin’s haunting quote: “When they came for the Jews, I said nothing because I was not a Jew. When they came for the Trade Unionists, I sad nothing because I was not a Trade Unionist. When they came for the homosexuals, I said nothing because I was not a homosexual. When they came for me, there was no one left to speak.”
Those words came at the end of our sojourn, and put everything into context for me. Having ended the first part of our trip with Nigel’s haunting words about the church being nowhere between two somewhere, we now end our trip with Martin reminding us of the cost of our silence in the face of raging injustice – and the price even the church must pay for complicity with evil. We will not be found exempt from the consequences of our unwillingness to address the great evils of our time.
It became clear to us we have a mission. Having witnessed first hand the suffering we often only read about, or even worse dismiss as the sins of our distant past for which we have no responsibility – we left with a clear understanding that disciples of the Risen Christ must assemble their collective resources – not just to speak about the evil and injustice that persist. We must act decisively as advocates for justice. We must test how it is our way of being either hinders, conditions, or limits our participation; or how it is our way of being can evolve to maximize the capacity of Christians around the globe to be true and vital activists for a just world for all.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to travel with colleagues I cherish, and in whose presence I find myself challenged to grow and evolve myself.
I am grateful for global mission partners who have abandoned colonial impulses to conquer, and who now accompany gentle, weary souls in search of their rightful justice and the pursuit of happiness.
I am grateful for the ability to witness the enduring hope that persists in the margins into which the world has strewn her precious children.
I am grateful for the willingness of mission partners to hear the cries, to own anew a mission for the Church to be present in those margins, to speak truth in love to the powers that establish the margins and determine who will occupy them and who will not, and who commit in love to work for justice.
I am grateful to the living God, who spoke to us of love in the incarnated Jesus and who continues to abide through a brooding Holy Spirit whose presence was felt in every corridor we explored.