Monday, June 18, 2012

Open Letter to Rev. Dr. Frederick D. Haynes, III

Editor's Note: The following is an open letter to Rev. Dr. Frederick D. Haynes, III, senior pastor of the Friendship-West Baptist Church by Rev. Dr. Robert Griffin, a member of the Episcopal Divinity School's Board of Trustees. Rev. Dr. Haynes recently delivered a sermon on President Obama's recent remarks in support of same-sex marriage. You can learn more about the sermon and see excerpts here

June 13, 2012

Open Letter of Gratitude to
Rev. Dr. Frederick D. Haynes, III
Senior Pastor, Friendship-West Baptist Church

Dear Dr. Haynes:

I want to offer a note of gratitude for your willingness to step up and out by honoring and showing respect not only for President Obama in a recent sermon you gave, but also for affirming the dignity of all human-beings, specifically the marginalized and "outcast," and even more specifically same-gender loving people.

Just as President Obama has used the highest office of our country to call for inclusion of all in our democracy, you have used the highest platform of the church, specifically that of the Black church, the pulpit, to give voice to what too often remains unspoken. Thank you for using your position and the pulpit in a manner that reminded me of our roots in finding in spirituality a call to do justice and an obligation to challenge the system and status quo at all levels. I trust that your witness to the gospel as you understand, and apparently live into it, will be an example for others to add their voices to a call to do right by all and for all. Your affirmation of the sacred value of lesbian and gay persons is courageous, righteous, and inspiring. And I, for one, want to thank you.

As an out gay minister with the Metropolitan Community Churches on staff at the Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale, FL and former Baptist, your words touched a part of my spirit that reminded me of what the Baptist church was and can still be - a courageous, autonomous, prophetic voice crying out and answering the call "To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." Micah 6.8

Please know that I believe that the mustard seeds of your words will and have already had an impact not just on you and your local congregation but also on our nation. Your voice was needed for such a time as this!

Thank you and may God continue to bless you, your family and your ministry.


Rev. Dr. Robert Griffin

Friday, June 8, 2012

How can the Church Survive? Reflections from “A Conversation with Rev. Jesse Jackson”

By Rev. Dr. Grace Ji-Sun Kim

Membership is falling in many mainline denominations. In 2011, National Council of Churches reported that there was a decline in church membership by about 2% in denominations such as the Lutheran, Episcopal, PC (USA), and Methodist confessions. With this kind of statistic, what is the future of the mainline denominational church? How can we survive and be meaningful and relevant to a society where the importance of belonging to a church has been forgotten or dismissed. Is church membership going to continue to drop because the churches lose the ability to assist those who have been pushed to the margins of society? What can we do to help our churches grow and survive?

This past spring semester, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. visited Lehigh University and Moravian College and participated in two public lectures called, “A Conversation with Rev. Jesse Jackson” moderated by Dr. James Braxton Peterson and myself.

The conversations were lively, energetic, and prophetic. At the end of each session a 30 minute Q&A period followed. A Lehigh University student asked Rev. Jackson, “What is your greatest achievement and why?” Rev. Jackson had a smile on his face and swiftly and unexpectedly responded “surviving,” to which the audience clapped and roared with laughter. After the audience calmed down, he quickly gave a moving, serious, and more elaborate answer to this question by telling a story from his childhood about his father and his brother. The fuller answer to the question was very moving, but it was the first impulsive, quick, and unanticipated one that caught me off guard and has stayed with me to ponder.

Reflecting on his answer that ‘surviving’ was his greatest achievement, it seems astounding when you consider that Rev. Jackson has worked on and continues to work on his fight for justice and equality. Rev. Jesse Jackson is well known for civil rights, racial justice, economic equality and many other issues of our time. He realized early that the economic, racial, gender, sexual, and social structure of society needed to be changed. For the past 50 years with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and later with his own organization, the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, he has continued this important work.

Perhaps there is some wisdom in Rev. Jackson’s quick answer and that ‘surviving’ is, indeed, one of his great achievements. After all, the impact of Rev. Jackson’s activism has been felt both across the nation and around the world. His fight for freedom and his work with progressive grassroots leaders has endured and been very fruitful. And it all stems from his survival.

With all the problems and difficulties of doing “ministry” in this environment, he has managed to survive all the criticism, racism, and systemic problems that society imposes on those who challenge the status quo. At Rev. Jackson’s 70th birthday celebration at Georgetown University (Nov 7, 2011), Dr. Eric Michael Dyson described Rev. Jackson by quoting Shawn Corey Carter, that “there has never been a guy this good for this long.” Yes indeed, he has survived.

Presently, we have come a long way from the 50’s and the 60’s but there are still many obstacles that block us from achieving our full humanity and moving forward to the next generation of churches. In certain ways, the church has played a major role in maintaining the status quo rather than being a prophetic voice to challenge it. The same churches blessed slavery, when they should have spoken out against it, stayed quiet during the slaughter of 6 million Jews when it should have stopped it, stood by during the invasion of Iraq when it should have sought peace and kept women in “their place” when it should have empowered women. Churches have excluded people who are different, marginalized and not part of the majority or the ‘norm’.

All these things leave me with the question—how are we to survive as a church that becomes a beacon of light and hope in this world—a world full of injustices, poverty and inequality. How can we reimagine the role of the church so that we can also welcome everyone to the table; to join in the fellowship and communion of all believers-whether we are rich or poor, men or women, radicalized or not, gay or straight. How can the church welcome all people to the table so that the church can be a place where people can encounter God and feel God’s love. How can we survive as a church so that our membership will not decline but actually grow and flourish?

I also need to ask myself, “how can I survive” as a person of color living in a racialized society embedded in racism, sexism, and colonialism. There are lots of battles to be fought and I do hope that I can somehow “survive” them and encourage others to do so.

Grace Ji-Sun Kim is Associate Professor of Doctrinal Theology and the Director of the MATS program at Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She is the author of The Holy Spirit, Chi, and the Other: A Model of Global and Intercultural Pneumatology (Palgrave Macmillan) and The Grace of Sophia: A Korean North American Women's Christology(Pilgrim Press). 

Friday, June 1, 2012

Dispatch from China: Gained in Translation

By Angela Bauer-Levesque

Sofia Coppola's 2003 film Lost in Translation was on my mind when I arrived in Shanghai, China, a little over a week ago to join a group of students, faculty, and staff from Episcopal Divinity School for a Travel Seminar.

What would be clouded by a non-alphabetical and non-cognate language? I do not speak nor read any Chinese. In my few attempts at learning some basic phrases (hello; please; thank you; excuse me; and the like), I have found the nuances of intonation difficult to duplicate. Having witnessed the laughter at unintended meanings due to what amounts to a slight change in tone to my ears, I have shied away more and more from even trying.

In the reverse direction, Western cartoons making fun of translations from Chinese into English are legion, and I do not intend to contribute to a racially problematic and cross-culturally insensitive dynamic. While sometimes indeed amusing, the signs we have seen in any of the cities we have visited (Shanghai, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Nanjing, and Xi'an so far, with Bejing still ahead on our itinerary) speak to the effort at bilingual access—for sure with business interests in mind. The cognitive dissonance creating the apparent funniness usually stems from word for word literal translations. Indeed, meanings get lost in translation in any direction. Nevertheless, it is amazing how much signage appears in both Chinese and English.

The much bigger issue is another aspect of translation altogether that has captured my imagination. What is said? What is left unsaid? And if it's even possible to understand with such little exposure and so much cross-cultural complexity, what is said between the lines? In various places we visited we had translators to help us communicate with our hosts. Welcome and introductions were usually followed by a time for questions and answers. The rhythm for the most part conformed to the usual short paragraph in one language being translated into the other, back and forth, and back and forth. There has been a lot of nodding and smiling led by those among us who understand both English and Chinese. And I keep wondering what is communicated.

Let me share an example: when I asked about whether something was “customary not to do” (i.e. cultural convention) or “not allowed” (i.e. prohibited), I was told that it was “required not to go." The nuance has struck me as profound, being both/and and neither at the same time. It is an answer without answering. It gave me a sense of expectation, both cultural/social and legal. Not knowing enough about either to say more, I was left pondering the additional space created by such way of thinking. The Aristotelian linearity deeply engraved in my own way of socio-culturally constructed thinking finds this concept of additional, rather than alternative meaning both intriguing and challenging. What am I told here to do and/or not do? Pushing for an answer a bit more, I receive the exact repetition of the earlier response. Clearly, I do not yet grasp the concept of additional space, translation for more options, enough to know what might be possible.

Not having a clear read on our Chinese hosts' restrictions on what they can or cannot tell us, I keep wondering about translation as it pertains to communicating across cultural differences of world-views, understanding of human relations in general and ethics in particular. How much there is to learn with each other and from each other's ways of thinking! (Let me also state that I know the bills need to get paid here as well as back home in the end, wherever the funding originates; which is to say that I understand that people need to say what they need to say, as I am aware of the privilege of such musings.)

Almost needless to say, translation is a form of interpretation. Thus, to move one step further and apply the rhythm of translation to more remote ancient texts, interpretation of interpretation takes center stage. Having listened to speeches as well as sermons in China that appear to embrace literal translations of biblical passages, I wonder what it would take to make space for “interpretation” that will empower all the people.

Professor Angela Bauer-Levesque is the academic dean of the Episcopal Divinity School. She also serves as Harvey H. Guthrie Jr. Professor of Bible, Culture and Interpretation. Her most recent book is The Indispensable Guide to the Old Testament (Pilgrim Press).