A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
August 29, 2019
In the primeval story of Noah and the flood, God promises never again to flood the earth, setting the sign of the rainbow as a reminder of that promise. In the text, God tells Noah that the sign was meant primarily as a reminder for God, not for us. This remembrance was not mere commemoration, but a reminding directive to act in a different way than before. It was an act of divine self-policing. (Genesis 9:12-16)
Last Sunday a group of us gathered at Northside Common Ministries to remember the life and legacy of Rev. Sheldon Stoudemire, who was shot to death there a month ago, while staffing their night shelter. In my August 1 letter I noted the significance of how broadly his loss was felt across the community. That breadth was evident in last Sunday’s vigil in his memory – people gathered across all lines of religion, class, ethnicity, and culture to remember him. Many prayers were raised, and speakers reminded us that the best way to remember Sheldon was to carry forward with his work.
The program included a photocopy of the sheet he personally typed out to describe his mission. He left no doubt about what we should do if we wish to remember him well. In summary, his mission was to introduce people to Jesus, and in Jesus’ name to help people in crisis. Among other things, he considered it his mission to intercede in the plight of young African American males, something our presbytery is engaging through our Freedom Rising initiative. If we wish to remember Rev. Stoudemire well, one way we can do so is by supporting Freedom Rising with a gift of any size in his memory, which will go entirely to support the work of our Freedom Rising mission partners. If you wish to remember him this way, you can make your gift here.
Rev. Stoudemire’s mission statement was what one would expect of a “street preacher,” a title he proudly claimed. But one item stood out to me as something unexpected. “One of my objectives is to engage people in conversation to speak what’s on their minds. To listen to their thoughts, ideas, complaints, their dilemmas, and their solutions.” We think of “street preachers” as people with bullhorns, telling people what they need to do to get right with God. Sheldon preached the Gospel with no apologies, to be sure, but he also made it his explicit mission to listen to the people he sought to serve.
As the rally to remember him ended at 3 p.m. on Sunday, bells rang at that very hour across the nation to mark another remembrance – the four hundredth anniversary of the arrival of the first African slaves to the American colonies, in Virginia in 1619. For 250 of those 400 hundred years, legal public slavery of Africans continued among us, despite our avowed allegiance to the lofty ideal we placed in our Declaration of Independence, that all human beings are created equal, “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.…”
The legal ending of slavery was just that – legal. It changed practices of slavery, to be sure, but did not eradicate the systemic social will that had so fully and for so long invested in the forced subjugation of African Americans. We are still entangled deeply in the racial divide that was seared into the soul of our nation, as witnessed by today’s wide racial disparities in wealth, health, opportunity, incarceration, public safety, and the list could go on. Our national soul is still sick with the plague of endemic racism, something Jim Wallis has convincingly termed “America’s original sin.”
Sadly, that great racial divide is all too evident in the church, where of all places it should be otherwise. Here Christ is confessed to have broken down all walls of hostility between social groups (Ephesians 2:14). We declare with Paul that, in Christ, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free…” (Galatians 3:28) Of all peoples, surely Christians should abhor racism of any kind. Yet it was precisely those who claimed to be Christian that justified American slavery by twisting the words of Scripture to suit their own benefit. And that legacy remains all too present in the American church’s soul.
So how might we remember well this ignominious quatercentenary? God sets the standard for remembering well by committing to act differently after the Flood, setting a concrete reminder in place through the token of the rainbow. What actions does this four hundredth marker lead us to undertake?
I offer one concrete action possibility, derived from Sheldon Stoudemire’s mission statement. I challenge us to commit to listen to each other across our ongoing racial-ethnic divide, to each other’s “thoughts, ideas, complaints, dilemmas, and solutions.” Listening takes effort. It begins by being present to each other, acknowledging each other. Even looking each other in the eye rather than averting our gaze. We can begin right within our own presbytery family. Make space for it, be intentional about it. Invite someone from across the divide to your congregation in order to hear their story. That’s the entire agenda, at first. It will lead to more, a small but important step in remembering well on this solemn four-hundredth anniversary.
Seeking to listen well,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister