History is not a burden on the memory but an illumination of the soul.
Much of pastoral ministry involves not speaking, but listening. A new minister slowly learns the stories of their congregation, both individual stories and the collective history of that faith community. Listening takes time and intentionality. As relationships deepen, the opportunities for sharing significant and personal experiences grows.
A few months ago I shared some of what I’ve been learning about FCC Morehead, gleaned from conversations and practices. I listed the core values I’ve see in this faith community: communion, compassion, education, beauty, Creation, hospitality, community, history, and practicality.
It’s an incomplete list, I know. Still I hope we can continue the conversation on these core values. I’d love to see where our lists overlap and what you know of this congregation that I have yet to learn.
Let me say a bit more about one of those core values: history. I am mindful of the rich tradition of this congregation, under the direction of Frank C. Button its joint history with the founding of the Morehead Normal School, now Morehead State University. The very foundation of the church building rests upon the ground of its predecessor, the Union Church, which was built at the encouragement Col. John Hargis, founder of Morehead. Those two parts of our congregation’s history reveal the threads of ministry which continue to this day: our ongoing commitment to education and our dedication to ecumenism. It is, borrowing the words of Lord Acton, “an illumination of the soul” of this congregation.
An exploration of one’s history also calls us to reflection, and at times repentance. Our ancestors, both personal and corporate, were human beings like us, sometimes inspiring, at other points most fallible. Engaging in history requires much of us, to be willing to face uncomfortable facts and to learn what those parts of our history reveal about ourselves. Our congregation’s history is no exception. The first financial supporter of the founding of the Normal School and of the Christian Church in Morehead was William Temple Withers, a former Confederate general and slaveowner, and also a prominent Lexington philanthropist and supporter within Christian Church circles. His name is included in one of our stained glass windows.
History is complicated because human beings are complicated.
We are beginning our worship services with an acknowledgement of the land, a public recognition of the stories of this place before us, of the people who lived on this land, loved it, cared for it, and who were forcibly displaced from their lands. That story is part of the history of the American church, too, and of ours as members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). It’s a history which may make us uncomfortable, which challenges the narratives our ancestors told about themselves. Learning about the Doctrine of Discovery, the role that Christian churches played in the forced removal and the intentional erasure of indigenous culture and practices, enables us to tell our own stories with more honesty and humility. And it can change the ways in which we engage in ministry today, as we learn from the mistakes of the past and see how those historic decisions still affect the present day.
Our histories are a mix of cherished stories and of regrets. I’m grateful that this congregation is committed to being faithful storytellers who both inspire and who don’t flinch at the painful chapters of the past.
How do you understand the role of history in this congregation? In your own life? What lessons are you learning from the past? What stories do you want to know more about?
Let’s keep this conversation going.
Be well. Be kind.
And always be the church where you are.
Justice is what love looks like in public,
just as tenderness is what love feels like in private.
There is so much more to do. The jury in the Derek Chauvin murder trial returned a verdict last week, guilty on three charges. While in some ways it is a relief, the verdict is not an ending. Nor is it a beginning. Rather it is one more story which reveals the lingering legacy of our nation’s original sin of racism. It confronts us in an eight minute and 46 second video recorded by a 17 year old bystander, as a black man lays on the ground, struggling to breathe, calling out for his mother, all the while a white police officer presses his knee into his neck. But it is just one tragic story, in a long history of horrific stories.
We wonder what we can do? We don’t live in Minneapolis, or Boston, or Chicago, or Elizabeth City, NC, or Louisville—the list of cities grows longer. Yes, we must educate ourselves, on the full history of our nation and its complicated history of race. And yes, we as a denomination have committed ourselves to being an anti-racist/pro-reconciling church. In March I participated in the new anti-racism training required for Kentucky Disciples clergy. The Northern Lights region of which I was a part for 20 years has long required regular anti-racism training for clergy and expanded resources for congregations, too. Even so, book studies and training will not suffice. We know that.
In small groups recently several people have expressed their desire to become better listeners. It’s as if we know there are stories out there we haven’t heard, perspectives we don’t understand. The ability to listen openly, deeply to another is not easy for many of us. I confess in important conversations my mind often rushes forward to what I might say in response, rather than slowing down to receive what another person is saying. The practice of listening takes time and requires intention. As individuals and as a congregation there is work for us to do here.
In 2020 Disciples at the national level provided a series of conversations online called, “Love Is an Action Word.” The videos are available on the Disciples YouTube channel. The town halls featured voices from around our denomination focusing on anti-racism/pro-reconciliation issues and the church. The series begins with a conversation among white Disciples clergy on avoiding complicity in racism, and follows up with seven sessions with indigenous, North American Pacific Islander/Asian Disciples, Hispanic, African-American, and LGBTQ+ Disciples. If you missed the series, I invite you to watch them. The conversations are a good place for us to begin to listen to voices outside of our usual circles.
It is easy to despair, to think things will never change, but we are Easter people. In this Easter season we Christians are given another story, not of death and violence, but a story of resurrecting life. Easter gifts us with the ability to imagine another way of living together, of liberating ourselves from the systems of oppression which trap us all in cycles of violence and injustice. May we learn to listen with compassion, and may God open our hearts and minds to imagine a world shaped by God’s holy shalom.
A native of Illinois, Rev. Nancy Gowler lived for 26 years in the Pacific Northwest. She joined the ministry of First Christian Church in Morehead, KY, in July of 2020.