Red letter days
North Carolina church’s letter-writing campaign promotes political civility
August 25, 2010
Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories about congregations responding to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s call to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide.” The call to grow in evangelism, discipleship, servanthood and diversity was adopted by the 2008 General Assembly and renewed by the 2010 General Assembly. — Jerry L. Van Marter
There is no such thing as an insignificant voice unless a person decides to make it so by remaining silent. This is a lesson St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Louisburg, N.C., recently learned and shared with others.
When Congress passed President Obama's controversial healthcare reform bill a few months ago, the reaction from some opposed to the bill was both shocking and distressing.
"Bricks were being thrown through windows, pictures of nooses were sent to people, and there were all sorts of derogatory terms being used, sometimes in reference to race or sexual orientation," says the Rev. Jerrod Lowry, pastor of St. Paul's.
This all took place just before Passion/Palm Sunday, and as Lowry prepared his sermon for that day, the news inspired him to draw some parallels between what was happening here and the scripture he would be preaching about in worship.
"I went with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other," says Lowry.
He preached about the suffering of Jesus, but also about the voices he noted in the Passion story. One voice — that of the angry crowd — was raised and dominant throughout, while another, the voice of those who followed and believed in Jesus, was absent. Those who followed stood off and watched the crucifixion from a distance.
Lowry juxtaposed this with the story he saw unfolding in the aftermath of the health care reform bill. But he also stressed that it was less about the politics and more about life.
"Not everyone had to agree or be happy, but there should at least be some civility in the discussion, a sense of honoring what we believe that God gives us — life," says Lowry. "No one should feel threatened or demeaned due to their political actions."
He challenge is congregation to do something. He challenged them to do what the followers in the scripture did not do — speak out and be heard. It was a much bigger challenge than it might at first seem.
St. Paul's has just over 90 members on the roll but in reality, it’s more like 65. On a Sunday, 30 or so attend. It's also an older congregation with an average age well over 60.
"We have a Young Women's Bible Study group and they are all grandmothers," says Lowry.
Louisburg is a small town which Lowry also notes promotes an idea that while things that happen in the outside world are shameful, there's not much we can do about it.
"There's this idea that there's nothing we can do," he says about his congregation. "We're too small, too old, and we're African American so we’re a minority. There’s nothing we can really do about these things."
The challenge he gave members was to find out what they can do. Lowry pointed out that all are given gifts and abilities by God, including a voice and if voices are raised that God-given power is exercised.
The members of St. Paul's decided to do a letter writing campaign and gathered in the sanctuary immediately after that Passion Sunday service to talk about the things they wanted people to know. They came up with a list of points they wanted to make and Lowry used it to draft a letter that was then signed by members and sent to people on both sides of the issue and to those who were threatened individually.
The letter calls for civility, condemning those who threaten the livelihood or lives of legislators and individuals, and it calls for people to be respectful of the gift of life.
Members further encouraged organizations they belonged to outside the church to sign on as well and either send the letter they’d created or to write one of their own to send out.
"This congregation had been involved for many years in civic and community projects," says Barbara Campbell-Davis, executive presbyter for New Hope Presbytery, of which St. Paul’s is a member. "They used to run a day care for low income people in their area at a time when no one was providing child care and they were involved in some political projects, but they’ve just gotten older and aged out."
"When they can do things like this letter-writing project, it’s another way that they can do a ministry to be involved like they used to be."
Lowry also helped spread the word about the effort. He told the Rev. Mark Koenig, coordinator of the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, about the project and it took root from there. Other churches in New Hope Presbytery and around country followed suit.
The chaplain at North Carolina Central University in Durham brought in a letter-writing campaign with students there.
"I'm proud of this congregation and what they did and that they were willing to speak out even though they couldn't physically be a part of change or debate," says Lowry. "I think they definitely made a difference. They really stepped up and owned this thing."
While they haven't received any responses from those who were sent letters, those who participated have responded and said they feel they became a part of some good in the world.
"I don't know if it's a movement, but I think the fact that other people have stepped up to it and made it a part of who they are and what they do, I think that's fantastic," Lowry says.