We are saying it, but do we mean it?
By Rev. Wendy Witt, Chicago Temple United Methodist Church
“As you have done unto the least of these my sisters and brothers, you have done to me.”
Luke 9:22 – 24:
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross DAILY and follow me. For whoever wants to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for my sake will save them.”
“I have come that they might have life and have it in abundance ~ or to the fullest.”
My church, Chicago Temple, is actively engaged in lively discussions around formally affiliating with IIRON. (Northside P.O.W.E.R., A Just Harvest’s community organizing arm, is a member of IIRON, a regional community organizing network devoted to people power, real democracy and economic justice.)
This process is leading us into some very good conversations around what it means for us individually and collectively to live out the faith we profess on Sunday. These conversations are not without tension. But as we’ve learned through IIRON, tension is a good thing ~ it moves us forward.
The number one charge leveled against the church by people young and old who no longer choose to participate in “organized religion” is HYPOCRISY ~ that we say one thing on Sunday morning or Saturday evening but live according to very different set of values during the rest of the week.
I saw this up close and personal at the recent General Conference of the United Methodist Church. I observed it as “worship vs. plenary”. We had incredible worship with calls for racial reconciliation and healing; to bring down the dividing walls of hostility; to open wide the doors to the church; then we would turn and in that very same room, just moments late we would hear speeches filled with hateful rhetoric and pass legislation that would once again deny full membership and participation to some in our congregations.
I came back even more determined not only to continue the struggle for justice and inclusion but to do all I can to ensure that we at the Temple are striving to live our faith with boldness and courage so that we can proclaim that faith with integrity and honesty. I am tired of the hypocrisy of the church and the timidity that locks into our fears and keeps us from living out our faith in real ways.
One of the recurring themes at the Temple, and in most churches involved in community organizing ~ in fact I have heard it even within IIRON leadership ~ centers around pastors and leaders fears about taking a bold, prophetic stance for fear of alienating some in their congregations. Usually those we fear to alienate or offend are people of power and prestige in the church and in the community. They are the moneyed, positioned people; people with status and prestige, people with power in the church and beyond. Interesting to me, we never seem to fear alienating or offending those who need us to speak for them the most: the poor, the powerless, the marginalized . . . or as Jesus would say the least, last and littlest among us.
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr’s Letters from a Birmingham Prison expose this problem:
You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
At the Temple our prayers of confession almost always include a line goes something like this: “Lord, forgive us our reluctance to stand up and fight for the poor and powerless for fear of the rich and powerful.”
The following is a portion of United Methodist Social Affirmation. The first part is confessional, the second professing a time of commitment:
We confess our sin, individual and collective, by silence and action;
Through the violation of human dignity based on race, class, age, sex, nation, or faith;
Through the exploitation of people because of greed and indifference;
Through the misuse of power in personal, communal, national, and international life;
Through the search for security by those military and economic forces that threaten human
Through the abuse of technology which endangers the earth and all upon it.
We commit ourselves individually and as a community to the way of Christ,
To take up the cross, to seek abundant life for all humanity.
To struggle for peace with justice and freedom;
To risk ourselves in faith, hope and love,
Praying that God’s kingdom may come.
At the Chicago Temple we have a saying: “If we say it, we mean it. If we mean it, we do it.” We are saying it, but do we mean it? And if we mean it why are we still so often afraid to do it?
Reverend Wendy Ann Witt is an associate pastor at First UMC/Chicago Temple in charge of justice ministries. She was ordained as a deacon in the Northern Illinois Conference in 1987 and as an elder in 1989. She has pastored seven local congregations throughout the Conference, including rural, small town, suburban, and downtown churches. She has also served as the Director of the Wesley Foundation at Northern Illinois University.
Reverend Witt chairs the Conference Board of Church and Society and serves on many other boards and committees in the wider United Methodist Church that are working on issues of inclusion and justice.
Reverend Witt is married to Don Floyd, Lead Organizer and Director of Training for IIRON. She has four children: Peter, married to Gretchen with four-year-old daughter, Chloe, living in Texas; Abigail, an attorney in Chicago, and engaged to Michael; Zachary, a recent graduate of NIU and now employed by Enterprise Car Rental; and Ross, a sophomore at Jones College Prep High School.