Thursday, May 25, 2006

Standing With Trish

Trish is a member of my congregation who has made the news in Memphis.

She is a PhD high school chemistry teacher who has not been renewed at her school, one year before tenure.

That kind of thing happens in educational institutions.

The suspicion, however, is that her firing had little to do with administrative cutbacks, and more to do with the fact that she is the faculty advisor for her high school's ACLU club.

And, as appropriate, the club raised questions about the the principal's involking Jesus name over the school's PA system - whether or not there should be sanctioned prayer at graduation.

You, know, stuff like that.

People in her community have turned their backs on her.

Her congregation will not.

In response to several recent articles in "The Commercial Appeal" and local TV outlets, I sent the following letter to the editor of the CA.

I've read with keen interest the events reported from Munford surrounding prayer at graduation, the ACLU, and the scapegoating of Trish Kilzer, whose contract was not renewed despite excellent evaluations and performance records.

My interest is piqued predominantly because, while I have concerns about the often too blurry lines between the role of church and state in the current climate, I am, as it relates to this story, Trish's pastor. And I'm proud to be so.

Trish is woman of deep Christian conviction, compassion, and a practitioner of the radical hospitality of the Gospel. I've seen grace at work in Trish's life and ministry, and I affirm God's gifts in her.

The dynamics at play within the administration and faculty of Munford school is the compelling question here. The rights of students to offer prayer is not.

The rule of law of our country has determined whether or not there should be sanctioned prayer in school, and the boundaries at that point must be honored, especially by those charged with administrative oversight.

But there is prayer in school. It's what happens when people pray. Which any person may do. To say that because there is no school sanctioned prayer there can be no prayer in school is just silly. Prayer happens when it happens - it needs no sanctioning body, and neither should it have one.

Prayer, as a spiritual discipline, is not a right, it is an expression of faith lived out and a desire to be in dialogue with God. We pray not because we can, but because of who God is. Neither is prayer to be made a spectacle. For when it is, the act of praying becomes idolatrous and the focus is no longer on the One to whom prayers are presumably offered, but the one who is praying.

I suspect that many who are among Trish's colleagues count themselves as disciples of Jesus Christ. What confuses me, then, is how they can so easily castigate and demonize her with a judgment that is so mean-spirited. I appeal to the better angels of their nature to judge less and love more. I'm pretty sure that's what Jesus would have us do. See, God does not need defenders, God needs people who will love God with all they have and are, and their neighbor as themselves.

Rev'd Dr. Jonathan L. Jeffords
Senior Pastor, Saint John's United Methodist Church
Memphis, Tennessee


Anonymous said...

Well said, Dr. Jeffords. Glad to hear that the Church isn't as fickle as our communities.


Joy said...

When I read your letter in Sunday's paper, I was thinking, "Right on! What a clear and sensible person." Then I saw your name at the bottom and was not surprised. We had heard about Trish but hadn't made the connection with St. John's 'til we saw your letter. By the way, we read the letter to our own Sunday School class in Collierville :-)

Joy S.

Chris said...

Some of the worst people can come up with the best messages... Again, don't be fooled, Niemoller was not a good guy, but Trish's story reminds me of these words.

First they came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I was a Protestant.
Then they came for me,
and by that time there was no one
left to speak up for me.

by Rev. Martin Niemoller, 1942