Wednesday, May 07, 2014
Years ago, when I was a freshly minted candidate for ministry and in the midst of interviewing with various pastor nominating committees, I had my own preview experience of last week’s Supreme Court decision allowing prayer in public meetings. In Town of Greece v. Galloway the court’s 5-4 majority held that local governments “cannot require chaplains to redact the religious content from their message to make it acceptable for the public sphere.”
In the late 90s I interviewed with a church in downtown Columbus, Ohio. I remember two things from that long-ago interview: the church had a gym; and the church was part of a circle of downtown congregations that, on a rotating basis, provided someone to pray at the beginning of sessions of the Ohio General Assembly.
I’ve always wanted to serve a church that had a gym. I’ve never wanted to pray before the beginning of a government assembly.
Neither of these desires factored in the outcome of that interview. They weren’t interested enough in me to get to either point, but I recall clearly feeling ill-at-ease with the thought of praying at the statehouse.
My discomfort was rooted in a couple of unremarkable experiences with friends who are Jewish. So, I’ll remark on the unremarkable. The first happened in a high school government class in the late 70s in Chattanooga, Tenn. I don’t recall the details of the class assignment other than that we were working in small groups that were invited to take on the identity of a non-governmental agency advocating for change. My life-long fascination with the Civil Rights era was in its early days back then, and I quickly suggested to our small group, “let’s be SCLC.” Yes, I was, uh, hip enough to know the initials.
My good friend Amy was in the group, and she may well have been the one to ask what those letters stood for. “Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The group Martin Luther King founded,” I would have shared authoritatively.
“Uh, David, I’m Jewish,” Amy responded.
“Oh. Duh. Sorry about that.”
That was that, and we moved on. I'd be more than surprised if she has any recollection of it at all, but that memory stirred in me again 15 or so years later when I was staffing an annual meeting of the Midwestern Legislative Conference in some Midwestern city’s convention center. As staff at such events tend to do when the meeting actually gets going, I was standing at the rear of the hall with a friend and fellow staffer when the conference chairperson invited a local clergyperson to convene the gathering with a prayer.
The pastor prayed for a successful gathering and a bunch of other stuff that I don’t recall, before concluding in Jesus’ name. My friend, who is Jewish, leaned over and said, “well, I guess I’m off the hook for the rest of the meeting.”
Unremarkable moments, to be sure, but, just as surely, small marks along the boundaries of culture and society. In a nation dedicated to the proposition that all of us are created equal we should be more careful than the Court was when we consider such markings.