The uproar over President-elect Obama’s controversial selections of religious leaders for his inaugural events is just one of the problems already besetting our next president. But I believe there is power in the problems and religious leaders have a role to play in unleashing that power.
To some, the invitation to evangelical pastor Rick Warren plants a symbol of exclusivity and intolerance smack in the middle of an inauguration that millions have looked forward to as an historic moment of unprecedented inclusivity; to others, inviting the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, Gene Robinson, to give an invocation at the Lincoln Memorial affronts their sensibilities. To still others, the pick of pastors seems like small potatoes in the face of the nation’s plummeting stock market and soaring unemployment. Passage of California’s Proposition 8 is the problem that weighs heaviest on the hearts of others denied the right and dignity of sanctifying their loving, lifelong marital commitments as heterosexual couples can. Bloodshed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and now in Gaza and Israel is the most pressing crisis to many. To others, it’s the melting polar ice cap that threatens the globe.
Though we have a trillion-dollar deficit in our nation, I know first-hand from a lifetime in the ministry that there is more than a trillion dollars worth of caring, commitment, and courage in American hearts today. How do I know? As the pastor of Riverside Church in New York on the morning of September 11, 2001, I witnessed how in the worst of times we discovered the best in ourselves and in each other. Our city and our entire nation were united in grief as dishwashers and stockbrokers and sons and daughters and mothers and fathers alike perished. And we were united in determination as we moved mountains of cement and steel, donated blood and blankets, searched for survivors and perpetrators, and bravely embarked on rebuilding broken lives, battered hopes, and blasted buildings. There was a new feeling of unity and community and power as we stood together, strong at the broken places.
President-elect Obama clearly is wrestling with that challenge of how to bring out the best in our nation in these difficult times, and it is a question that likewise has the attention of our nation’s religious leaders. What do we say to our nation to inspire us to find the power in the problems? Just yesterday, Pastor Rick Warren asked me for counsel after being invited to preach the Martin Luther King Day sermon in Dr. King’s home church in Atlanta. As the first white pastor invited by the famed Ebenezer Baptist Church to deliver this sermon, Pastor Warren recognizes the need to build bridges and connections with Black pastors; as the first Black pastor of the famed Riverside Church, I understand the challenging dynamics of building authentic community.
I’m sure that Bishop Gene Robinson is also praying and pondering: what words can I offer to our nation today that will heal, inspire, and live up to the need and potential of this moment? The Reverend Sharon Watkins, the first woman asked to preach at the inaugural prayer service at Washington National Cathedral, is surely mulling over the same question. As I have prepared to preach and pray at five different events over Martin Luther King Day weekend and the inauguration, I’ve asked myself as well: What can we say that will help unleash the resources within us to heal our nation?
James Weldon Johnson’s lyrics for the Black National Anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” remind us that especially in times of trouble–every voice is needed. Not just the voices of the Black or the White, the rich or the poor, the gay or the straight, the conservative or the liberal, the Christian or the Jew, the elder or the youth, but every voice is needed. There is a song of harmony and liberty that we are called to sing in these times that recalls the problems of the dark past that we’ve come through by faith and God’s grace and that keeps our gaze fixed on the rising sun of a new day begun. At this moment in history, on the eve of the inauguration of our nation’s first African American president and just days from the Feb. 1 beginning of Black History Month, it is time to recognize that Black History is Our American History Together. Even as we look back at the history that has already been written, we stand on the brink of writing a powerful and positive next chapter together.
Sure, we’ve got problems. But we’ve come through worse. Slavery didn’t stop us. Segregation didn’t stop us. And whatever has been thrown at us in these days won’t stop us. There is power in the problems, if we know that God’s people are in it and every voice is needed; that God’s purpose is in it–to reflect the Beloved Community Dr. King described; and God’s promise is in it–that our best days are to come.
The Rev. Dr. James Alexander Forbes, Jr., is senior minister emeritus of The Riverside Church is founder and president of the Healing of the Nations Foundation.