We knew they were coming. The group of white supremacists had been issued a permit to gather in Lafayette Park, on this, the one-year anniversary of the “unite the right” event in Charlottesville. At their 2017 gathering, Heather Heyer, a counter-protester, was killed, while others were physically injured and their city was left scarred and deeply saddened. Now they were coming to Washington, DC.
A call was initiated by the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church to respond to the white supremacist rally with a rally of our own. I’d heard that there would be a group from Floris UMC going. Something inside inclined me to sign up.
Let’s be clear: I am not a very brave person. I am no risk taker. I am not foolhardy. I have never stood before the barrel of a gun, never truly feared for my life, and certainly never placed myself intentionally in the presence of someone I knew would be spewing hatred, shouting racist epithets or chanting anti-Semitic slogans. (Heck, I don’t even like the unruly crowds at Redskin games.) All of this swam in my mind as I boarded the Floris bus to head downtown.
There were 12 of us on that bus: 10 courageous women, one pastor and bus-driver extraordinaire, and me. During the ride down, organizers of our group delivered our “marching orders.” In case we were confronted by hostile protesters or situations that posed harm, we were to defuse any altercations, assist anyone subjected to harm and were NOT to engage any form of hatred. Our job was to sow peace, the peace of Christ. But, just in case something untoward occurred, we arranged for an alternate meeting spot, shared phone numbers, and signed into event alerts. Maps indicating the nearest metro stations were distributed, just in case we couldn’t get back to the bus.
This, you might imagine, did NOT assuage my fears. There I was, sitting in the back of a church bus, apparently headed straight into what might be harms way. I sat pretty quietly during that ride in spite of the lively chatter which surrounded me. This was a pack of peacemakers with a purpose! I was completely out of my league.
The plan was to collect for a pre-march pep rally at Christ United Methodist Church, so after Bob’s miraculous parallel parking on DC city streets, we poured out of that bus and onto the sidewalk to head to church. First, prayer. Circling to hold hands, Sara Greer even convinced a group of kids walking our way to join us. All prayed up, we headed to church where we were greeted warmly, welcomed magnanimously and inspired by word, song and fellowship. They handed us a lunch – our last meal? – as we gathered behind the banner to begin our march.
Our police escort immediately surrounded us. They proceeded to stop traffic (!!) so this little band — multi-racial, multi-ethnic, broad-ranging in age and mobility — could all find its way safely.
As we spilled onto the grassy lawn of the mall, instead of the hatred, weaponry, and harsh words I feared, we were greeted by nothing but love. A beautiful stage had been erected right in front of the Capitol building, its banner announcing our common purpose: United to Love.
Kicking off this rally, Bishop LaTrelle Easterling told us, this was not a meeting of counter-protesters. In fact, it came about in response to a request directed to the bishop imploring her to lead the effort to deny the “unite-the-right-ers” permission to rally. “Absolutely not,” she told them. “If we take away their rights, they will have the right to take away ours.” Instead, we will rally under this banner. Not as counter-protesters, shouting down hatred, but as representatives of a force stronger than hate, because, as Dr. King said, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”
United to Love had a permit, too — for the mall, not Lafayette Park, thank goodness! I would not be standing eye to eye with white supremacists, but surrounded by love in all colors and denominations. Relief! I even saw a bit of humor in this. As we staked out our place on the grass, we were instantly dive-bombed by dozens of large flying bugs that resembled dragonflies. One in particular hovered so close to me and held me with such intent focus, I imagined him a dragonfly-drone collecting data on this new species of invader. I waved a happy so-long, as he buzzed off.
Then I settled onto a borrowed beach blanket to enjoy the spectacle: song and word, prayer and praise, fellowship and message. A rally it was, to God be every bit of the glory. Yes, we knew that hatred and bigotry was gathering just a few blocks from us but we couldn’t hear them and we couldn’t see them; it was only from news reports via digital media that we heard they were there. Instead we were focused on the future, on ways that moved us forward, on a path we could chart together. We, a diverse group of interfaith worshipers, gathered in support of our common humanity and each other. That, I felt sure, was not what was happening in Lafayette Park.
Then the funniest of thoughts creeped in. What if all these dragonflies really are drone-spies sent by the “unite the right” rally organizers to report on that “other rally” down on the mall? I wondered what they’d think of what was being shared here: messages of hope, commitment, and unconditional love, amid preaching and teaching affirming that we, in our diverse array, are each expressions of a God whose nature is love.
OK, now that I’m relaxed and amused and my life doesn’t feel quite so endangered, this out-of-doors praising God inclines me to worship with a bit more abandon — to raise my hand in affirmation, clap my hands in rhythm and raise my voice in response. I’ll be honest, I feel WAY more free to really worship here than I feel inside a sanctuary on a Sunday.
Our times make it clear that now is the time we need to raise our hand when we see injustice and raise our voices to stand against it. From Micah 6, we take our marching orders… what does the Lord require of you?
As I look behind me and scan the gathering of the faithful around me, a peace that passes understanding settles over me. The trepidation I came with is gone. No, I’m not a risk-taker by nature, but I’m no standby-er either. I rise to wander through and greet a few folks, but mostly to snap photos of the amazing expressions of God’s mercy, love and justice, on display right there on the DC mall.
How proud I feel to have marched behind the banner which is now draped over the fence with the Capitol building as backdrop. Midway through the rally, as the afternoon sun beats down on us, and most of the crowd have taken shelter in the shade to right or left of the stage (but not the hardcore like us!), Dr. David McAllister-Wilson, President of Wesley Seminary addresses those gathered. He wonders to us, What is unite the right? How are they right? He concludes that they have gotten it confused. Not unite the right, rather, unite the righteous. “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.” ~ James 3:18
Many speakers refer to the distinction between our rally and that of “those gathered a few blocks away.” It starts me wondering if our times are something like the day in another capitol city, Jerusalem, some 2000 or so years ago when there were also two parades. Along one parade route people shouted Hosanna and waved palm branches, welcoming Jesus riding humbly on a donkey. Along the other rode Pontius Pilate, Roman governor of Judea, adorned in his imperial majesty. One rally peaceful, one rally proud. The peaceful not a counter-protest but a different message, entirely.
Sometimes, when we as people who are not brave, not risk-takers, and not particularly well-suited to diffuse differences or sow peace, let the God of love drag us up out of our pews into our nation’s capitol on a Sunday, we are forced to see and hear what is going on in our day.
I marched and rallied on Sunday in order to magnify the message that Jesus reverberates through the ages: “faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Love is the eternal answer to the toughest questions of every age.
The question that remains is: what will the followers of Jesus do with the message of love? Right or righteous?
You’ve heard of party crashers and wedding crashers, but perhaps you have never heard of a choir crasher. That’s me, the person who, back in the doldrums of September as election campaigns were still in full swing, shorter days and longer nights were just beginning to descend, and when Christmas trees were not yet at Lowes, I began to wonder in earnest … What can I do to make this season feel more like Advent?
A clear and undeniable suggestion came to mind: join the cantata choir.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m no solo singer. I have an average voice…a congregational voice…that’s mostly on pitch and works well in a crowd. Harmony is a stretch, but I can make a joyful noise.
So, I emailed choir director, Yoon Nam, who told me they were welcoming seasonal singers for the Cantata and told me to come for the last part of their Wednesday evening choir rehearsal. I did and they were expecting me. My name was written on a sticky note marking an empty seat saved for me.
“You’re an alto, right?” Yoon asked.
“Yes,” I said, as I took my seat, wondering how she knew.
And frankly, I was pitiful. I couldn’t find the notes, couldn’t hear the pitches, didn’t get the rhythms let alone the words, so I spent most the time lost in the music, scanning the pages, frantically looking for the alto line shuffled among the four parts and the piano accompaniment. Oh my, what had I done?
After rehearsal, I thanked Yoon, apologizing for my dismal performance, wrong notes and poor sight reading. Ever honest, Yoon said, “That’s okay. You have other gifts.” Haha! Thank God I do. Just point the microphone away from me!
At the end of that first night of rehearsal, we dismissed from our seats to form a large, hand-held circle to pray. The choir, you see, is actually the largest small group you’ll ever be a part of, nearly 70-strong. Not only do they sing together in worship, but they care for each other, share devotional reading and always, they pray together to conclude their rehearsals.
Yoon prays and the room falls silent:
“Lord, thank you for letting us sing to you.”
That says it all. It’s the reason we’re here, the reason we practice, and the reason we are admonished to take care of our instruments, which in this case are our bodies and, in particular, our voices.
Unfortunately, I immediately realize that I brought very flabby praise muscles. My vocal chords are sorely out of shape. My harmony is hard of hearing. After thirty minutes of singing, I’m hoarse and exhausted. This is ridiculous! What kind of praise is this?
Week by week of Wednesdays, I showed up for just a wee bit of practice with this small group disguised as large, where a chair welcomed me by name, faces smiled when I arrived, and strong, confident voices surrounded me. With Mandy and Erin, the dual Rocks of Gibraltar in the alto section verily ringing out from behind me, all I have to do is open my mouth to let the angels sing!
And Yoon… there’s just no describing singing for her. She is hilarious, mimicking and imitating us in practice, yet, serious about drawing it all together perfectly. As we prepare for what is not performance, but offering, she is generous, forgiving and heartfelt. Her direction is a whole-bodied, whole-hearted, full-minded, soul-filled affair. Notes travel, phrasing moves forward, sound grows and diminishes, and praise, praise, all of it is meant to praise. Yoon teaches us to praise through song.
“Open your mouth like this,” she shows us. Because when we sing reluctantly and without confidence, our lips tighten and the sound is raw and quenched. Opening your mouth lets the note ring beautifully. “Listen to how it sounds. Listen to how it blends. Open your mouth and let the Holy Spirit sing in you.”
The Light of the World is coming and has come. Words just can’t quite say it completely. This calls for singing, as if there is a microphone in every pew, which surely is how God hears us. There’s just nothing quite so true as singing Glory to God, double forte. Oh my goodness! Thank you, Yoon, and new choir friends. It was amazing praising God together.
Lord, thank you for letting us sing to you.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. ~ Colossians 3:16-17
Ok, so Jordan captured me, too! (the same Jordan Pastor Tom mentioned in his e-note). She told me she hoped I would come by her bake sale from 1-3:30pm where she would be raising money for children in Sierra Leone. Who can resist a 7 year old with a sincere smile, a passionate plea and a great cause?
Just as I was thinking, Hey! I could share this on my Facebook page, Tom Berlin swept by and, in a stage whisper, told her, “You should give your paper to her. She’ll post it on her Facebook page. She knows people.”
Irony of ironies, this is the same Tom Berlin who had just preached to us about the evils of social media which all too often distracts us from the important things all around us. So of course, I took that paper, snapped a photo, and shared it via Facebook, tagging Tom in the comments (although not in the post since I knew he would be checking his smart phone during the next service.)
Suddenly, Facebook friends and neighbors who were not even connected with Floris or any church, told me they were planning on going out to support Jordan. So, about 3:15, I drove up to the Safeway and spotted the neon green poster (matching the flyer) on the front of a table outside the store. I strode up expecting to see Jordan and her friends, or Jordan and her brownie troop or Jordan and her soccer team, but no, it was just Jordan. And her Dad. Before I even crossed the street, Jordan looked my way and said, “Hey, that’s the lady I gave my paper to!”
Dad and daughter had been there since 1:00, visiting with folks who stopped by. Jordan tells me some were friends, including one lady who wrote them a “big” check. One was from Hutchison Elementary who said she wanted to help out because Floris supported their school. Another bought some bottled water for them because they “looked hot,” and a couple more dozen bought a baked good or just donated for the cause. “Mostly, they were just nice people who said thanks for doing this,” Jordan says.
It’s the cause that’s important to Jordan. She knows she is fortunate to have so much and that Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world. She wants those kids to have what they need, like she does. Jordan’s not new to fundraising. She set up a lemonade stand last spring as part of the Imagine No Malaria campaign. “That did pretty well,” she tells me, “but I thought I could do better at the shopping center near my house because more people would come by.”
Jordan picked where to set up her table by watching to see how busy the places were so she could maximize her traffic flow. Her first choice store turned her down saying, “the manager might get mad.” Undaunted, she told her Dad, “Let’s just go somewhere else.”
“Kevin, the manager at Safeway was very welcoming,” Neal Ramsey said, surprised given the huge number of requests he probably gets. The employees were probably pretty happy, too, because they got the leftovers from Jordan’s baking – brownies, Rice Krispy treats and chocolate chip cookies.
Jordan collected an even $200 for her afternoon’s work (actually $199 but Mom and Dad made it an even $200). She’s not keeping any, she assures me. All of it will go to the church so they can use it for the children who need it. Will she have another fundraiser? Jordan thinks so. Probably in the spring. She’s not sure if her friends will come, but she’s sure her Dad will.
Neal says, there’s nothing he’d rather do than spend time with his daughter, chatting about ‘whatever’ all afternoon. He says the fund raising is her idea. “It’s hard to stop her. She pulls us along with her. When she says she wants to do this, what am I gonna do, watch football?”
Nope. No tv here. No phones, tablets or screens in sight. When I tell her that I hope to share the story about what she is doing, she thinks that’s okay. “Maybe my friends will see what I did and they’ll do it too and it will keep going and going and we’ll get lots of money for the children.” When I ask if I can take her picture for the blog, she smiles and says yes. Then she doesn’t smile for the picture. This is serious business, after all.
On my way back to the car, after donating and selecting my chocolate chip cookies, Jordan has me thinking about the privilege and the power of social media. So often we caution our children about its dangers. ‘Don’t get caught up in it.’ ‘Be careful what you share.’ ‘You don’t know who’s reading.’
What if they live a life so admirable and so transparent that it can be freely shared in the hope that others will see, and be inspired to join in. Just like Jordan.
“…and a little child shall lead them.” ~ Isaiah 11:6