Friday, March 07, 2008

Pastoral Letter on Violence in the City

For those unfamiliar with the affairs of Memphis, a horrific, unimaginable massacre took place this week. The impact of that crime has shocked the city.

I wrote and distributed the following to my congregation this morning.

To the People of Faith Who Worship at Saint John’s,

Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I write you today as the appointed pastoral leader, to call you into action, and to seek your prayers for our city endlessly gripped by the perils of violence.

How do we respond to violence? The events on Lester Street this week have, for at least a moment, captured our attention. But before this past weekend, were you aware that there have been over 30 homicides in Memphis since January 1?

How do we stand with violence’s victims? Where is Good News in the face of humanity’s grotesque inhumanity?

In the years I have served as your pastor, I have been privileged to befriend and walk beside other spiritual leaders in the city. In recent months, an extraordinary fraternity of clergy has committed to stand together in mutual support and friendship. What we say to each other is that no one knows what it’s like to be a pastor except another pastor. We 12, together with our spouses, have gathered for fellowship and friendship. We have sought no publicity for our time together. Our emerging relationships are what matter most.

We 12 lead urban and suburban congregations. We serve congregations of diverse sizes and worship styles. We are ecumenical, inter-faith, multi-racial and we hold at our core that which we seek to frame our community of faith at Saint John’s, that the true hospitality of God makes room at Table for all. What congregations do we serve? Temple Israel, New Directions, Saint John’s, Mississippi Boulevard, Idlewild, Second Baptist, Calvary Episcopal, St. Andrew’s AME, Germantown United Methodist, Hope Presbyterian, The Catholic Diocese of Memphis, First Baptist – Broad Avenue and Christ Missionary Baptist. And, we have always known that there will be times when some of us, any of us, by nature of our work, will need the spiritual and collegial solidarity of the rest of us. Now is one such moment.

2 of the 12 are deeply involved in the Lester Street story. Frank Thomas, pastor of Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, and Keith Norman, pastor at First Baptist Church, Broad, are faces you may have seen in recent news reports. They are carrying the enormous pastoral load for a story of unimaginable horror.

Last night a regularly scheduled gathering of our group took place at the home of Micah and Sheril Greenstein. The buoyancy of our fellowship was tempered by the reality of what two of our number carry. From our time together, we, the pastoral leaders of these diverse congregations, pledged our support in two tangible ways – and it is this that I call to your attention.

Under Frank and Keith’s leadership, the Lester Street Victim’s Fund has been established to help the families of those who have died deal with the crushing financial reality of so many funerals. The financial impact of one funeral, as many of you know, is difficult enough. Multi-funerals are beyond the capacity for any to afford, much less imagine, and compound violence’s impact. This fund will pay normal funeral and burial plot expenses not to exceed $7,200 for each adult and $5,200 for the children.

The State of Tennessee does have an assistance fund for the families of homicide victims. However, there is a lag between the time the money is needed and when it is released. It is also only released when certain criteria within the case are met, and this case is no where near that.

All money collected not spent for funerals, or, ultimately offset by State assistance, will be put in trust for the surviving children.

The 12 pastors of the 12 congregations are committing our congregations to cover as much of this expense as possible for these families.

Here’s Saint John’s plan. As the last act of our worship service this Sunday, we will receive an offering from any of you who feel you can contribute.

The second thing to do is this. We are calling all of our congregations to gather next Wednesday, March 12, at 7 p.m. at Mississippi Boulevard for a service in which we grieve the impact of violence, all violence, on our city. Calling upon Ecclesiastes 3, in this service, we acknowledge that for now, it is “a time to weep.” But we will also stand firm in our resolve to reclaim the city for the causes of justice and peace.

Trajectories for making this so will emerge and a call to action will come forth over time, but for now, we gather, as God’s people, to pray, to grieve, and to, as one of my brothers commented last night, “just love up on some people because that’s what they need right now.”

We will gather at Saint John’s at our regular time, 6:00 p.m., to share dinner together. I am suspending our previously scheduled activities, except, perhaps the children’s program. Then, at 6:30 p.m., we will make our way to Mississippi Boulevard Church. I am asking that our nursery remain open as it would if our programming onsite were on track.

This change is not taken lightly, but it matters, and I call you all to participate as you can.

With Prayers for the City,

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