I’ve been the Rector of The Falls Church Episcopal since 2012, shortly after the Virginia Supreme Court ruled Episcopalians could return to their property after a six-year lawsuit over ownership.
Those who have heard me preach know I tend not to preach “topical” sermons, and almost never preach “politics from the pulpit.”
Part of the reason I seldom preach politics from the pulpit is because I used to work in politics: on Capitol Hill, briefly on a presidential campaign, as a lobbyist/issues person, and as a press secretary and speechwriter in my home state of Indiana.
Those experiences made me appreciate the fact that most issues facing our nation are complex and nuanced. Like many of my clergy colleagues who work “inside the beltway,” I also realize there are lots of experts in my very congregation: editors, writers, legislative directors, policy wonks.
And so one thing The Falls Church Episcopal refrains from doing is to offer a particular, specific solution to any particular specific political problem: you won’t find us saying that “we must all go out and support HR 123” as the way to address a particular problem.
As we mark the anniversary of our return to our property, we’ve been asking the wider community how we can make a difference locally and in the broader world. And we’re wrestling with the idea that being too political is not the side of the cliff we, as a church, are in danger of falling off of.
Here’s what I, as a Christian minister/parish priest am wrestling with now: is my silence from the pulpit – and our church’s general silence on issues facing us – sending an inadvertent message of indifference?
Sometimes preachers (and churches) are silent out of humility, or because we want to make room for lots of differing opinions.
But if we’re honest about it, other times preachers (and churches) are silent because we don’t want to rock the boat: we lack the courage to speak up, speak out, say something.
But then along comes something like the current President’s stances on refugees and immigrants.
I disagree with the new administration on a wide host of issues, but – again – on most of them, I try very hard to give others the benefit of the doubt, and try to maintain a posture that “people of good faith can agree to disagree.”
However, the Judeo-Christian mandate (Exodus 23:9, Matthew 25) to care for the widow, the orphan, and refugees is, for me – pastorally, personally and professionally – a central matter. It is a place to take a very firm stance.
Welcoming refugees and caring for vulnerable people in our midst is not only the American and patriotic thing to do, it is the Judeo-Christian thing to do.
It is impossible for Episcopalians to keep the promises we make in our Baptismal Covenant to “strive for justice and peace among all people,” and “respect the dignity of every human being” and also stand silently by in the face of thinly disguised xenophobia and the scapegoating of immigrants – actions which will almost certainly result in the loss of innocent lives.
And so – on the matter of refugees and immigrants at the least – we find ourselves having to take a firm stance. Taking a page from the World War II-era Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we believe, at least in regard to refugees, that the church must do three things:
First, to speak out: to question the state. That means making our voices heard and speaking out against unjust, cruel, and hatred-based policies.
Second, to minister to the victims –to provide aid and otherwise help those who’ve been crushed under the wheels of injustice, cruelty, and hatred-based policies. For us, as one small step, that means we’ve partnered with Homestretch to sponsor a refugee family; we’ve furnished their apartment, are helping them learn English and to navigate the school and healthcare systems.
But following Bonhoeffer, we must also “jam a stick into the wheels” of injustice, cruelty, and hatred-based policies. That means taking action; standing up for the defenseless, helpless, and hopeless.
Thank God, the refugee family we welcomed in January – including 12- and 10-year-old children – got here just under the wire of this administration’s policies.
Still, our ministry with them – and with others who are our society’s most vulnerable members – is far from over.
Obeying our Lord, and – as Easter people who are confident that God’s love always wins in the end – we will continue to do everything in our power to help and protect them and others who seek our help and protection.
And God’s power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.
John Ohmer is the rector of The Falls Church Episcopal.