Commentary: One recent Sunday afternoon I left the garden to go to Peace Lutheran for the Installation of Xolani Kacera as Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church.
I met Xolani when he first arrived in Cruces, and feel a connection to him.
Churches were never my favorite places in youth. Jesus's words resonated; but churchgoing didn't. As a civil rights worker, I learned that despite Jesus's concern for the poor and oppressed, white churches were fine with discrimination; then as I came to oppose the Viet Nam War, I noticed churches weren't very tolerant of dissenters urging peace. (I didn't yet know Christianity had been used to justify slavery.)
In the '60's, had you shown me a film of Xolani's installation ceremony, I'd have asked what the film-maker had been smoking.
The church itself felt pleasant: a few modernistic stained-glass windows, a wooden cross, and people dressed informally.
I don't recall different denominations being quite so cooperative – except maybe about cleaning out red-light districts and gambling joints. This Unitarian event at a Lutheran church drew a rainbow of clergy, all in their finery: Rabbi Larry Karol, Pastor Jared Carson, at least one Methodist, and an AME minister from Alamogordo joined a dozen UU ministers from around the country. Unlike the church gatherings of the mid-20th Century, there were both black and white, and both men and women.
The message was all-inclusive love. Which had always seemed to me Jesus's message. (A white minister from South Carolina addressed “the elephant in the room” by noting that Xolani is black – adding that this fact was not why he had been hired, but was meaningful. )
Rev. Pratima Dharm gave the sermon. She started by saying she was nervous, and her PTSD was kicking in, and asked if others present were veterans. (Xolani was a military chaplain.)
She talked about Gandhi, and how a friend of Martin Luther King, Sr. had met with Gandhi and then told the Kings about Gandhi's message. That message – of peace and inclusivity – our country deeply needed to hear. Gandhi's message had affected her own family, which was of the top caste in India, and thus wealthy landowners. Influenced by Gandhi, Rev. Dharm's grandfather and father (then 10 years old) gave up their land. They gave up 17 villages. Jesus and Gandhi both called on us to give up our wealth and start fresh. (Wealthy Christians don't always mention that.) For Pratima, it meant a life without the privileges she otherwise would have grown up with. Was she angry as a kid? “Who gives up 17 villages?” she asked, wonderingly.
She said plenty that I'd have loved to hear from a pulpit decades ago. She said churches were often comfortable places where people caught up with their friends or met new ones; but that as a [Unitarian] minister her job was to make parishioners uncomfortable. In a world of such economic inequality and ethnic tensions, we should all be uncomfortable. Not satisfied, and proud of our good jobs, nice houses, and smart children.
Jesus made people uncomfortable. So did Gandhi, and MLK.
As I was musing on all the changes, Rev. Dharm said, “Humanity is following a new heart, forging a new world.” I hope so. We need new hearts, to help us join together to soften the consequences of our excesses and those of our ancestors, and improve our world.
Here in Cruces, I think Xolani will help.