Ecumenical Realities

By Don Rollins

It’s January, and in my line of work (ministry) that means that the annual interfaith/ecumenical MLK service is just around the bend. It’s one of the two or three times a year that the evangelical preachers and liberal types (like me) breathe the same air. Our task? To come up with a 90-minute service that doesn’t either bore ’em stiff or piss ’em off. Believe me, it’s harder than you might think.

Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, we act like the spiritual grownups we’re supposed to be. We listen. We cooperate. We compromise. We craft a good service. And, what do you know, the spirit moves; a holy transcendence visits the room, reminding us of what King was trying to say in the first place. We sing, we laugh, we cry and we wonder why on God’s green earth we’re so scared of one another.

But some of those services are just brutal. Superficial, Rodney King-style appeals that belie the difficult, soul-stretching work of true diversity. Bland sermons that fail to challenge the mind or inspire the soul. Then there’s always the white choir that tries to be funky again this year. (I swear, I’m going to bang my head on the pulpit if I have to sit through one more stiff, irredeemably Caucasian version of “Wade in the Water”.)

Straight up, amigo, you’re rolling the dice when you venture out to your local faith community for a little MLK Day reflection and connection. We might get it right or we might just pitch a dog. So why bother? Reality.

The reality that people of color still populate, out of all proportion, inner-city soup kitchens, food pantries and free clinics; the reality that every incident of domestic terrorism — attempted or completed — becomes the new poster for racial profiling; the reality that so common is black-on-black crime in inner cities that the local papers can describe a shooting and never have to identify the suspect beyond the fact that he wears dreadlocks.

Our often clanky MLK services are but a feeble attempt to put a dent in all this; we know that a once-a-year, ecumenical clambake won’t change much of anything. But most of us didn’t get in this profession to hide from reality; most of us became clergy because it’s a way, bit by bit, to do something about it.

So, if these annual stabs at unity in King’s name are to amount to squat, we’ll have to get over trying to make folks feel good about things that nobody should feel good about. We won’t insult you (or King’s memory) with platitudes, and we won’t send you out into the night more hopeless than when you came. But somewhere in the elusive middle between false feelings and rank nihilism is the golden, sustaining belief that we can still do more together than apart. If we can engage you and remind of that singular guiding principle, we will have done our job.

Give us another shot this year. We might just be on our game.

Rev. Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Spartanburg, S.C. Email

From The Progressive Populist, Febuary 1, 2010

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