Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, and Adam Sander: Good Church Museums

Years ago when attendance was pretty low, Plymouth Church brought in a consultant who said, “You can either be a museum or a church.”

The consultant had been going to the wrong museums.  A good church is like a good children’s museum—a place to learn, explore, and discover.

On the tripadvisor.com list of things to do in Brooklyn, Plymouth Church is #82—behind the Coney Island Museum, but ahead of the Coney Island Brewing Company.

I have interrupted five groups of tourists in front of the church for no good reason.  One tour guide suggested I point out any mistakes he made—and soon regretted it.  I caught a mistake on another tour, but the guide was speaking Spanish, so I let it go.

They miss some details, but the guides are good at fitting the tour to whatever tourists paid the thirty bucks.  When the tour was filled with teenagers, the guide talked about Adam Sandler making a movie at our church.  (The Cobbler suffers in comparison to earlier classics, such as Happy Gilmore and The Waterboy.)

When the tour was an African American choir, the guide described the Fisk University Choir singing in our sanctuary in 1871.  The concert was so successful the choir sang at the White House shortly thereafter.

When the tour was a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the guide completely skipped our church’s role in the abolitionist movement, women’s suffrage, and civil rights, but pointed to a house across the street where Charles Taze Russell’s cousin lived.  Who knew?

My church has an amazing history.  When I sit in pew 89, I wonder what Abraham Lincoln prayed when he sat there.  I have turned off the lights in the basement—where runaway slaves passed through on the Underground Railroad—and imagined what it feels like to run for your life.  When I am in my office, I often think of Branch Rickey—a member of Plymouth Church and General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers—praying there until he decided that God wanted him to invite Jackie Robinson to integrate baseball.

Some of our church’s heritage is complicated.  The sculptor of a statue of Henry Ward Beecher and a bas-relief of Abraham Lincoln in our church garden was Gutzon Borglum, who also created Mount Rushmore.  Borglum was a member of the Klan.

The founding pastor, Henry Ward Beecher, was a gifted minister who fought courageously against slavery and was considered the most famous man in America.  His adultery trial sold a lot of newspapers and ended in a hung jury.

The portrait of Henry Ward Beecher in our arcade does not make him look particularly attractive.  Mark Twain wrote:  “Mr. Beecher is a remarkably handsome man when he is in the full tide of sermonizing, and his face is lit up with animation, but he is as homely as a singed cat when he isn’t doing anything.”

The list of people who have been in our building is surprising—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Hillary Clinton, Sonia Sotomayor, Elliott Spitzer, Colin Kaepernick, Norah Jones, and Sarah Jessica Parker.

A couple of years ago one of our committees was asked to name the three biggest moments in the church’s history.  They picked Henry Ward Beecher’s tenure as the first pastor, Martin Luther King, Jr. preaching an early version of his “I Have a Dream” sermon at Plymouth, and the church recommitting itself to Jesus Christ in 2004.  Plymouth’s resurgence is part of the story.

Every church has a history with which to deal.  Churches stuck in their history keep talking about how great it was years ago.  Churches that have forgotten their history mistakenly believe that there are no good gifts older than they are.

We can be grateful for our past without being trapped in it.  We do not need to choose between being a museum and a church.  We explore what God has done and discover that God is still at work.

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An Invitation to Matt Damon

Dear Matt:

Like everyone who loved Ocean’s Eleven (Twelve and Thirteen not so much), I was sorry to hear that St. Ann’s, a fine school, turned down your children.  I know you make $20 million a film, but it must still sting.  No one should blame your kids for Monuments Men.  Maybe you should have given them a Bourne Ultimatum.

This whole ordeal has to be hard on your family.  I’m guessing you are feeling pretty down—like the only person left on Mars, a criminal who has infiltrated the Boston police department, or a private in World War II caught behind enemy lines.

You and Luciana seem like great parents, so you know the importance of surrounding your children with caring people.  You should come to Plymouth Church.  Our congregation works hard to help children learn what it means to live in God’s hope.  You will love our children’s minister.  Julia Rassmann has helped create an environment in which children feel cared for.  (I am sorry that you are moving back to New York too late for your children to attend our preschool.  Plymouth Church School is fantastic.)

We have lots of activities for children.  Each Sunday after the children’s time in worship, they go to Sunday school.  Like St. Ann’s, we don’t give grades.  Our teachers use games, crafts, and music to share the Christian faith.  We have children’s choirs and summer camps.  (As you recently learned, it’s never too early to get on a waiting list.)

We have children’s movie night on September 16.  We are planning to show Milo and Otis, but if you have a DVD of Happy Feet 2 we would be glad to show that.

We will observe Children’s Sabbath on October 2.  We believe the church is an Adjustment Bureau improving the lives of children.

The Blessing of the Animals is October 4.  You would be welcome to share a few lines from We Bought a Zoo.

I have never been to Pumpkinland (October 30), but I hear it’s stellar, if not Interstellar.

Our church shows True Grit in our commitment to social justice.  Our congregation is given to the countercultural way of worship, friendship, and service.  We are a diverse community of faith, coming from many different backgrounds, but unified in God’s grace.

How do you like them apples?  (I bet you get a lot of that.)  I am sure Isabella, Gia, and Stella would find friends at our church.  You and Luciana would, too.  We would love to see your family at Plymouth.  If you see Ethan Hawke or Maggie Gyllenhaal, tell them their children are welcome at Plymouth, too.

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