Speaker: Cynthia Lapp
Here in this political season, in this ever political city, it is once again time for that occasional address, the state of the congregation. I so wish I could parade down the center aisle (like I did one time) while you all stand and cheer from the left and the right, or perhaps mostly from the left.
My friends, we have come through some difficult months, even years, as a country. And though the world affects us greatly, I want to talk today more about the congregation than the world.
The guiding theme we chose for 2020 was “connect fo(u)r.” What irony, a connections theme, for a year that has been all about separation. Today is the 46th Sunday that we have not been together in person. 46 Sundays that we have lit peace lamps in our own homes and mailed in our offerings. 46 Sundays that we have not been able to feel together the vibrations of our singing, that we have not greeted each other with hugs or handshakes.
And church, look at us, we are still church. We pray with and for each other; now not only on Sundays but some of us gather on Tuesdays and Thursdays as well. We sing, not so we can hear each other but we see each other’s lips moving, the smile in our eyes. We read the bible and wonder together how this ancient text might still speak to us. We gaze upon each other on Sunday mornings, not at the backs of heads but at each other’s faces, taking in the beauty of the gathering, screen upon screen, each person created in the image of God.
We continue to serve the local community providing lunches at the Day Center, sharing mutual aid with the Life After Release community and so much generosity with LAR during the advent season. We stand with our neighbors at St Matthew’s, we support a family seeking asylum, we work with Congregation Action Network, walking with our immigrant neighbors.
We continue to learn and grow together: adult ed hasn’t had this kind of attendance in years. Children gather as well, greeting each other, praying together, learning stories from Jesus, about Jesus. Your offerings have been generous, even on line. More people than ever pledged their financial gifts for this coming year.
I would say, given the state of things, the state of the congregation is strong.
And because we are strong it is a good time to examine ourselves, to look at those places that are tender and may be painful. We have grown, are growing in our understandings and we can at least look at one hard truth from our past.
This year it is 69 years that this congregation has been meeting, first over a coffee shop in Georgetown, then in a church building in the Woodridge neighborhood of NE DC and since 1959 in Hyattsville. In 2012 we moved in with University Park Church of the Brethren for almost a year while part of the building was torn down and rebuilt. It is already 8 years that we are back in the building – or at least I am in the building sometimes. “The church has left the building.”
Our name as a church has changed several times, from Georgetown Mennonite, to Woodridge Mennonite, then First Mennonite of Hyattsville, and then – when it seemed there were no other Mennonite churches coming to town – just plain old Hyattsville Mennonite Church.
How did we get to be in Hyattsville? Gene Miller tells the story in the church history, Taking Root in Strange Soil which was published now almost 16 years ago.
This past year we often read in the press that this is a time of racial reckoning in United States, that it is time to acknowledge and reckon with this country’s origins in white supremacy. Perhaps it is also appropriate for us to reckon with our early years as a congregation.
It is easy to gloss over the move from Woodridge to Hyattsville but if we are truly leaning in to being an anti-racist church, if we are serious about understanding white supremacy and how it is part of our lives, we have to ask why the church moved from NE Washington to the white, sundown town of Hyattsville.
As Gene recounts in his history, the young, white congregation, many of whom were new to city living, purchased the building in Woodridge, where no one from the church lived. It was a time when the surrounding neighborhood was changing from 85-95% white to 80% black in less than a decade. If the congregation didn’t realize it previously, the shift in demographics became apparent when the church held summer bible school, inviting the neighborhood children to attend. Almost all of the 100 children that attended were black. In the minutes of a 1956 church council meeting it is recorded that the young pastor asks “what kind of policy (do) we wish to pursue on the inter-racial question?”
I am telling you the short version. You can read the fuller story as written by Gene. Let’s just say that we have, in our history, white flight. We, and I say ‘we’ though none of the people from the 1950s are here today, ‘we’ left when it got uncomfortable, when we weren’t sure how to interact with our neighbors. Sylvia, whose white Mennonite family moved from Kansas to DC in the early 1900s, settled in the Woodridge neighborhood. Sylvia attended HMC in her retirement. She spent her growing up years and much of her adulthood in the family home in Woodridge. Sylvia often told the story, with bitterness, of how all the white neighbors left in the 1950s but her family.
In Mark’s gospel we read the story of Jesus calling the first disciples. Mark is known for getting right to the point, telling the story quickly. The details are compressed and all we know is that John the Baptist has been arrested. It is now up to Jesus to proclaim the Good News, the imminence of the reign of God. And preach Jesus does. He calls people to follow him.
Andrew and Simon are casting their fishing nets and along comes Jesus. The shorthand invitation that Mark describes seems less than compelling to me but these brothers are ready to hear. “Follow me; I will make you fishers of humankind.”
Mark’s gospel makes it sound like Jesus sees James and John at the next pier over. These brothers also receive the invitation to follow, even leaving their father standing in the boat, as they accompany Jesus.
These young men are not white but what is this flight? What are they jumping at so quickly? Are they leaving something or going toward something new?
The short passage we heard from I Corinthians is so strange. If I would have reminded myself of the surrounding text I probably would have left it on the cutting room floor. But I plowed ahead thinking the final phrase apropos: “for the world as we know it is passing away.”
This seems to be what drives white flight, what drives MAGA, the fear that “the world as we know it is passing away.” White flight is driven by fear that the world, as we know it, is no longer possible where we are. But we are determined to find it again, so we go somewhere else to recreate what we know, to make ourselves comfortable again.
Simon and Andrew, James and John do not fear; they hope that the world as they know it is passing away. They hope there is something other than the oppressive empire that taxes every last fish they catch, that keeps them working day and night. They follow after Jesus, to find something new, to experience this Good News, the reign of God. They follow to see how Jesus will lead them into a new way of life.
There is not much we can do now about our history of white flight as a congregation. None of us were in the congregation in the 1950s. The same might be said about slavery in this country. No one alive now owned slaves so let’s just leave it alone and look to the future.
In the last few months I have started to describe us as a congregation that is working toward being anti-racist. This is not a commitment we have made as a congregation in a formal way so maybe this is just wishful thinking on my part. On the other hand, our conversations in the racial justice group, in adult education, around Sophia’s Table, in council meetings, in sermons and prayer times seem to be pointing us in that direction. We have certainly outgrown the question asked in 1956 – “what kind of policy do we wish to pursue on the inter-racial question?” We have lived into life together, for years, holding hospitality as our hallmark. The reality now is that at least 1/3 of the children and youth in the congregation are children of color. What kind of “policy” indeed!
If we truly want to work at being anti-racist as a congregation, if we truly want to participate fully in the community where we are now, it would be helpful to recognize our own history as a congregation. I’ve lost track of which preacher said this in the last week but it stuck with me. If we want to make a change, if we want to work at being anti-racist, there are three steps to take, all starting with the letter A. They get progressively more difficult.
The first is acknowledgment. We can acknowledge our history as a congregation and be truthful about it. We can be compassionate toward the mostly young adults who made up the church then and we can see where we may be like them, even today. If we do not acknowledge our past, even our present, we cannot bring change, certainly we can’t find healing.
The second step is apology. This gets harder. Do we need to apologize? Who would we even apologize to for moving out of the Woodridge neighborhood? If Sylvia were still alive that would be a place to start. HMC members, SHA and MA, live in Woodridge now. Maybe some of you have friends in the neighborhood. What would apology look like? Are there still neighbors there who knew the church then? What does apology mean in this situation? This gets complicated.
The third step is atonement, or reparations. What would that look like more than 60 years later? The last number of years, the Woodridge neighborhood has seen white people returning, buying up properties, renovating homes and businesses, opening coffee shops. What would atonement or reparations look like for a congregation that left in1958? Who would we talk to? Do we need to go to the old church building and see it? It is less than 4 miles down the road. Would reparations be for that neighborhood, for another neighborhood? Would it be financial or relational? Where and how would we even start? It all seems so complex, is it worth pursuing? I wonder if we can discuss this as a congregation.
If 2020 was about connections, our goal this year is to look at our 31 year old mission statement, and ask ourselves who we are as a congregation now and who we envision ourselves to be in the coming years. (We might even look at that old statement from 1990 and wonder if there is unintentional racism in it.)
It may sound like a chore, creating a new mission statement but our initial conversations last fall at the congregational meeting were interesting and energizing – even over Zoom. I hope there is room for creative thinking, imaginative dreaming and the work of the Spirit as we rename and reclaim who we are as a congregation. I hope there is room to look at our history and wonder where it might be pointing us to.
As Paul writes, “The world as we know it is passing away.” And Jesus calls us from what we know so well, fishing with our families, to something new and perhaps closer to the reign of God.
The state of our congregation is strong, strong enough to go with those young fisherfolk and follow the Jewish rabbi Jesus. It may not look like strength to leave what is known and pursue what is unknown. And – that is the call of faith, realizing that the world as we know it is passing away and the reign of God is near.