Underground Church Business Meetings–and God Shows Up

Try to imagine the church business meetings that made this happen.  During the early 1800s, the network of churches and individuals helping those escaping slavery was known as the Underground Railroad.  My congregation, Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, was “the Grand Central Depot of the Underground Railroad.”  We give tours of the church basement where runaway slaves hid.  The guides turn out the lights and tell visitors to “imagine hiding in the dark, hearing someone coming down those stairs, and praying they can’t hear your heart pound.”

As far as I know, none of our tour guides tell visitors to “imagine the church business meeting where they argued about whether to help these people,” but the business meeting is equally amazing and easier to imagine.

“Why can’t the church stay out of politics?  This is a partisan issue.  We want people from both sides of the aisle to feel welcome in our congregation.  Some of our biggest givers aren’t going to like this.”

“How do we know the people we’re helping aren’t dangerous?  They could harm somebody.  What if one of our girls gets hurt?  Who wants to be responsible for that?”

“What’s the vetting process?  Normal vetting isn’t enough.  We need extreme vetting.”

“Churches shouldn’t be breaking the law.  Our ministers need to set a good example.  If people want to change the situation, they can write letters to Congress.  There’s another election in four years.”

“Don’t we have enough to do taking care of ourselves?  We have a stove that needs repairing and a sidewalk that’s a lawsuit waiting to happen.  Why don’t we focus on those things?”

At some point in a long contentious meeting, someone pointed out that Jesus and many of his followers were executed by the government.  The leaders of the first church were in and out of jail.  The early Christians believed that God’s people have promised to do more than stay out of trouble.

The church business meeting where a congregation decides to take risks to help someone other than themselves is about as close as we get to proof of the existence of God.

Churches across the United States are having difficult conversations.  Many are part of what they are calling the New Underground Railroad.

Recent executive orders on immigration and two Department of Homeland Security memos move past earlier guidelines to focus only on criminals for deportation, and instead put undocumented immigrants at risk of deportation for something as minor as a traffic ticket.  We are being asked to ignore the fact that immigrants are statistically much less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans.

The present administration’s ramping up deportations raises new questions, but the immigration system has not been compassionate or effective for a long time.  We break families apart and penalize the kind of people we most need in our country.  Since 1995 the United States has allowed 5,000 visas per year for unskilled workers—and a guest worker program of about 200,000.  But for years this country has imported most of its agricultural workers, so twelve million people work in the shadows.  Ninety percent of undocumented men are working, because our country needs their labor.

People who do not think of themselves as political, but take their faith seriously, feel compelled to do something.  Churches are resisting the deportation of undocumented immigrants.  They believe that the Jewish tradition compels us to practice hospitality to the foreigner.  They recognize that the Gospels are clear about the Christian requirement to care for the outsider.  Jesus warns those who pretend to follow, “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.”

The Sanctuary Movement includes more than 800 courageous congregations that have committed to protecting immigrants.  They pledge to pray, educate, and give money.  Churches have formed study groups that are looking for thoughtful, courageous ways to follow Christ’s instructions.  Churches are preparing to use private homes as part of a modern-day underground railroad to move undocumented immigrant families to Canada.

Churches are having business meetings and God is showing up.

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Dear President Trump, You could make things a lot easier for preachers

Dear President Trump:

I am sure you are getting letters from groups that feel like they are being mistreated. Muslims, Hispanics, African Americans, women, Jews, the poor, and the LGBTQ community have legitimate concerns, but have you thought about how you are making life difficult for preachers? Ministers are not usually considered an oppressed group, but preaching was easier before you became president.

Most preachers are not looking for trouble. We do not want to offend church members. We have little interest in partisan politics. We try to be respectful of those who do not vote as we do. Preachers say things like, “We are not all going to agree,” “Good people have different opinions,” and “My mother never votes like I do and she’s a fine person.”

But you are making it hard. On the Sunday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I was preaching on racism. I finished preparing the sermon on Friday afternoon. On Saturday you sent a tweet insulting John Lewis: “All talk, talk, talk — no action or results. Sad!”  How could I preach on bigotry on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend and not mention the president picking a fight with a civil rights hero? If you feel like you have to do things like this, it would be helpful if you would do them early in the week so preachers do not have to rewrite their sermons on Saturday night.

You may not even recognize that you keep doing this. The first lectionary reading for January 29 was Micah 6:8: “What does God require of you, but that you do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?” On Friday afternoon, you enacted an executive order that suspended entry of refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries. How could preachers ignore you coming out against justice, kindness and humility toward these people?

The first reading for February 5 was Isaiah 58:6-7: “Is not this the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free?” On Saturday morning, you tweeted about a federal judge: “The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!” How could a minister preach on the oppressed going free without mentioning that the president is trying to force the oppressed back into bondage?

The Gospel reading for February 12, Matthew 5:21-37, was Jesus saying, “If you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council, and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” Lots of ministers spent Feb. 11 worrying that you would call someone a fool. You have, according to The Mirror, insulted over 100 brothers and sisters on Twitter including Meryl Streep, Jeb Bush, Ronda Rousey, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Samuel L. Jackson, Megyn Kelly, Nordstrom’s, Mexico and the musical Hamilton.

How can ministers preach on telling the truth without using the phrase “alternative facts”? How can we preach on equality without noting that you have said horrible things about women? How can we preach on caring for the hurting without pointing out that you plan to cancel health insurance for 20 million people? How can we preach on the biblical command to welcome strangers without commenting on the wall?

Preachers do not have a choice. We have to preach that God loves all people and does not believe in America first. If we preach the Gospel, some are going to think we are taking shots at you. You are forcing preachers to mention you or look hopelessly out of touch. If we do not respond to the things you say, then some will assume we are asleep in the pulpit. Do we risk offending church members or feel like cowards?

You could make our lives easier. You could replace the Affordable Care Act with the More Affordable Care Act. You could work to alleviate hunger. You could strengthen our commitment to education. You could diminish the spread of terrorism by lessening the causes of terrorism. You could make the lives of so many people better. Some of them are preachers.

The Gospel text for this coming Sunday, Matthew 5:38-48, is, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’… But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Please do not give us anything to preach about.


Rev. Brett Younger
Plymouth Church, Brooklyn

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