Evanston Clergy Trio Tackles Politics and Pulpit at Groundbreaking Service
This past Saturday, in an unprecedented gesture, Beth Emet The Free Synagogue's Rabbi Andrea Coustan London invited Second Baptist Evanston's Pastor Michael Nabors and Grace Lutheran Church's Pastor Daniel Ruen to share Yom Kippur--the Day of Atonement and the holiest day of the Jewish year--with her and Beth Emet members, and discuss the place of politics on the pulpit.
"This invitation is like a Baptist preacher inviting a rabbi to deliver the morning sermon at his church on Christmas Sunday. Like an Imam inviting a Buddhist monk to speak at the opening service of Ramadan," said Pastor Nabors, addressing the congregation of almost 700 people packed into the synagogue's sanctuary. "In all of my years of ministry, I cannot say that I have received a stranger and more 'unlikely' invitation."
Nabors, Ruen, and London have become good friends and close colleagues and have partnered to address a variety of social justice issues in Evanston. They can be counted on to pull the community together, even at the last minute, to rally against such issues as Islamophobia or organize to protect immigrants' rights.
Last month, they traveled together to participate in the 1,000 Minister March in Washington D.C., where they marched for criminal justice reform, laws to help the poor and underpaid, healthcare equity, and access to the voting booth for those disenfranchised because of race, economic status or criminal record.
"Our message is stronger and our actions more effective when we work across lines of faith, ethnicity, and race," London explained.
On Saturday, the three religious leaders offered powerful arguments for the pairing of pulpit and politics. After the Torah had been read and placed back in the Ark, before turning over the pulpit to Pastors Nabors and Ruen, Rabbi London explained her invitation.
"I said to them, I want you to come to Beth Emet on the holiest day of the year. As we spend the day in deep prayer and introspection, it would be powerful for my community to engage in conversation with you about what we should be doing as a religious community to build a better society together," London told the congregation.
Rabbi London said she was inspired to raise this issue after a debate this summer between a Conservative rabbi a Reform rabbi on the merits of politics on the pulpit. She said that, growing up as a reform Jew, she took it for granted that political activity and Judaism go hand in hand.
"There’s no doubt that this is a contentious time politically, and rhetoric that’s divisive, vulgar, and disparaging of so many groups in our society is rampant," she said.
"In this climate, clergy have a responsibility to bring people together and provide them with comfort and solace. But this is not enough. I believe we need to change the systems of oppression that exist so that comfort and solace will be the warp and woof of our society, not just an expression of thoughtful and caring people. But to create a just and compassionate society ... we need to create a better system to stem the rising tide of bigotry, injustice, and suffering of all kinds."
In his homily, Pastor Nabors told the congregation, "In bringing Pastor Ruen and I together under the auspices of this golden moment and under the canopy of this enormously significant day, there is the subtle suggestion that the God we serve is indeed the God of us all."
"God is not impressed with our fast if it does not inform our faith," Nabors continued. "God is not pleased with our sacrifice if it does not enable us for service; God is not happy about our worship if it does not involve our working; and God does not condone our bowing and lying on sackcloth and ashes, if it does not involve rising- standing- moving- marching- helping- assisting- aiding- and demanding that justice roll down as rivers and righteous as an ever flowing stream!"
Pastor Daniel Ruen said, "Politics and pulpit ... it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what we think is appropriate. The synagogue, the parish, the mosque, we have always been viewed as political targets by the totalitarian impulse present in every country and every century. And if we are who we say we are we will continue to be so for all time."
Ruen told the congregation that the synagogue, the church, and the mosque operate as centers of prophetic poetry.
"When white supremacy, war and income inequality are on the rise, we are to preach, teach, and act in favor of God’s poetic vision," he said. "We are not called to endorse candidates or turn our synagogues, churches, and mosques into call centers for various political campaigns. No, what we’re called to do is invoke the poetry of God’s justice, to invoke the poetry of God’s mercy, and invoke the poetry of God’s commands to love thy neighbor with creativity, courage, and joy."
After the service, Michael Finnegan, an Evanston artist and Beth Emet member said, "I thought Rabbi London made a brilliant move inviting the two men to speak. It was inspiring and gave gave me a little hope. During their collective sermon, I felt connected to my community."
Wendy B. Yanow, an adult educator, said, "I was incredibly moved and inspired by Rabbi London's invitation and by what they each shared. As I watched them, I could feel the affection and respect they share. This is how we build community, and they came on Yom Kippur to teach that."
Tami Lifton Manton, who serves on the board of Curt's Cafe said, "We live in a divisive world and for them to stand together as community leaders with common goals of renewal, strength, and equity despite their differences in religious beliefs, skin color, and cultural backgrounds was an important message of inclusivity, both visually and spoken, and reminds us that we can find common ground to better our world."
Rabbi Peter Knobel, Beth Emet's Rabbi Emeritus, was visibly moved by the unusual Yom Kippur service. "What made this occasion truly historic was that Rabbi London invited her two Christian social justice partners to deliver their homilies on the most sacred of Jewish holy days," he said. "Her brave and groundbreaking invitation emphasizes the concept that the only way to reach what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the Beloved Community is for religious leaders to join hands and invite their congregants to join hands and to march the road of compassion and justice together."
In a smaller group study session following the service, all three leaders encouraged Evanstonians to push beyond their comfort zones, make connections with people who are different than they are, and attend services at different churches, synagogues, and the mosque in Evanston. "Don't wait for an invitation. Just do it," Rabbi London said.
Of Rabbi London's invitation, Pastor Ruen said, "While I realize it was an earth-shaking move for Rabbi Andrea to invite Pastor Michael and I to preach with her at Beth Emet’s Yom Kippur service, it doesn’t surprise me in the least. Rabbi Andrea carries within her spirit the essential M.O. of Beth Emet as a reforming power in the history of Evanston. As the only religious site in Evanston to welcome The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak in 1958, Beth Emet has a history of boldly reaching towards love, education, and action.
What’s most significant is not that a clergy group like ours is working together. It’s not that we’re doing anything extraordinarily different than other interfaith alliances have already done, and are doing, across our country. What is most significant to me is that Rabbi Andrea, Pastor Michael and me, along with the Evanston collective of interfaith congregations, have chosen to pick up the baton of justice from our beloved ancestors during this salient moment in time, and carry it with fervency, hope, and joy. I will never forget this experience, and I pray it is yet another powerful platform for healing, justice, and change."
On his Facebook page that night, Pastor Nabors wrote, "I was going to go to sleep without mentioning a miracle I witnessed earlier today. On this high and holy Jewish holiday something happened ... Rabbi Andrea London invited a Lutheran Pastor, and a Baptist Pastor to end worship service with sermons on Isaiah 58. Oh what a day! The world got better. That's a miracle."
To read the complete sermons, email firstname.lastname@example.org.