So what do you do when your community is in a strong-hold of “Confederate American Pride”? What is it like to be a white pastor in a community where the Ku Klux Klan disseminates promotional material and hate mail? You found a parade honoring the legacy of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that’s what. The pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Lexington, Virginia – Lyndon Sayers – gives us a brief account of what happened when progressive leaders in the community decided to make a strong stand for welcome and inclusivity in their community. I think this is an example of Public Church ministerial leadership that we talk about at LSTC. Read, comment, and share!
Rev. Dr. Linda E. Thomas – Professor of Theology and Anthropology, Chair of LSTC’s Diversity Committee, Editor –“We Talk. We Listen.”
Through my seminary training and serving as a pastor in my first call, I knew that the Beatitudes are a hermeneutical key for understanding not only the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, but also Jesus’ ministry and witness to God’s kingdom. Until recently many of my examples for proclaiming this gospel were things I had read or heard second-hand, not immediately connected to the people and place where I live. Things began to change as I listened to stories from members of the LGBTQIA+ community and people of color who live here in Rockbridge County and Lexington, Virginia.
Some of us received a sharp learning curve when KKK recruitment flyers began showing up on our neighbors’ doorsteps one morning in the spring of 2016. We realized our postcard perfect college town was in need of a different narrative. People of color had known this for a long time, but for many of us white folks living in Lexington, we had falsely assumed that our town was largely the welcoming place it appeared to those of us not dealing with daily discrimination. Even after the KKK flyers arrived in all their grainy hatefulness, many white folks continued insisting our town is a safe place. These same neighbors never considered how unsafe people of color and members of the LGBTQIA+ community, among others, were already made to feel living here.
Our anti-KKK rally brought out nearly three hundred residents, advocating for a different vision of who we are as a community. It also led to the creation of the Community Anti-Racism Effort (CARE). After the rally we hosted similar events throughout the spring and summer, but one issue we kept coming back to was the MLK weekend in January. This is the one weekend in Lexington in which many of our residents feel too uncomfortable to enter public spaces in our downtown. Virginia remains a holdout for celebrating Lee-Jackson Day the Friday prior to MLK Day. Several Southern states no longer observe this as a state holiday and some municipalities within Virginia have stopped doing so as well. The effect of this juxtaposition of holidays has been for Lee-Jackson celebrations co-opting the weekend, casting Jim Crow’s shadow over MLK celebrations.
In response our anti-racism group applied for a parade permit on the same day and time that a Lee-Jackson parade had been held on the Saturday morning of the MLK weekend for the past seventeen years. After months of confusion about the city’s receipt of our parade permit and surrounding process, Lexington City Council approved unanimously to grant us a parade permit for our Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Parade this past January 15. The Sons of Confederate Veterans were granted a parade permit for their Lee-Jackson parade on Sunday afternoon the following day.
The angry reaction that followed our receiving the parade permit served as an opportunity to reinterpret the Beatitudes in a different light. It was no longer possible to interpret Jesus’ call for us to stand in solidarity with the poor, meek, peacemakers, the persecuted, those who mourn, merely in an abstract sense. Jesus’ call for us to follow him, advocating for justice, and witnessing to his love needs an incarnational theology. This Jesus, fully human, is here among us calling us to recognize brown, black, queer, female, gender non-conforming, and disabled bodies that are not welcome to take up space in our churches and neighborhoods.
I could safely ignore or at least downplay these lived realities of others without any repercussions to me. This privilege and fear to speak out is amplified serving as a pastor in a predominantly white Lutheran church in which I know that shirking my gospel responsibility to proclaim Jesus’ love more fully will not only not punish me, but even reward me for not rocking the boat.
I anticipated receiving some push-back within my congregation for speaking out and playing a public role in helping organize the MLK parade, trusting I would also receive support from leaders and members, which I did. Nevertheless I don’t think any of us as parade organizers anticipated the degree of the backlash. Neo-Confederate groups we had never heard of from North Carolina and beyond began weighing in on our local parade. There was an irony that they as outsiders to our community criticized us for not being from here.
Before long both another parade organizer, who is also a church member, and I were doxxed with our names, photos, home addresses, phone numbers, and other personal information shared repeatedly on-line. Community members began asking us for guarantees for their safety should they participate in the parade, which neither the police nor we could promise. Individuals and community groups who had previously pledged their support to march in our parade began backing out, citing fears of potential violence.
It didn’t help that seeming white allies were undermining our efforts saying things like, “Well, I like the idea of a MLK parade, but the way you went about it was all wrong” or “I support what you are doing, but you know that date has been traditionally reserved for the Lee-Jackson parade. Why are you poking the bear?”
At one point the Virginia Flaggers, a Neo-Confederate group based around Richmond, seized upon the division concerning the parade date and submitted a parade permit in bad faith, requesting to parade with Confederate regalia on the Monday of MLK Day. They attempted to hold MLK Day hostage, asking us to swap the Monday for the Saturday. We rejected the offer, not only on principle, but the Saturday was preferable since more people were able to participate on that day. Following this publicity stunt, they withdrew their parade permit. Instead they held a flag-raising event concurrent with our parade, erecting an 80-foot flag pole with a 20×30 foot Confederate flag next to a gun and pawn shop just outside of town. This would be the third such hate flag the Virginia Flaggers had raised along the entrance corridors leading to Lexington.
When parade day finally came none of us knew what to expect. Would people turn out or would they be too afraid? We instructed all our participants to adhere strictly to our rules of non-violence and non-engagement should any flaggers show up in counter-protest. In the end nearly a thousand residents and neighbors from nearby communities turned out for the parade. People came with homemade signs, rainbow flags, American flags. There were children, the elderly, and everyone in-between. It was a source of indescribable joy that we as a community, joined together, could take up space in our own downtown on the very day so many of us had feared in the past.
Together we articulated another vision of being community.
Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” The very ones who have been dispossessed of the earth in this life will receive the earth as their home when God’s kingdom comes in its fullness. I look forward to living out glimpses of this community one parade and community celebration at a time. Much like church festivals, the festival comes alive through its being celebrated. The body of Christ nourishes, restores, and gives comfort in the sharing of the meal. Sins are forgiven and absolution is granted in the praying of the confession, gathering around the baptismal waters. As Lutherans we often forget the work of the Holy Spirit – how the Spirit enlivens and is at work in our flesh, joining our bodies to the one body of Christ, rooted in grace, mercy, and love.
Today I give pause when proclaiming Jesus’ gospel rooted in the Beatitudes. I imagine how the Spirit is at work building the coming kingdom here today. I remember how the ones Jesus blesses are especially in need of being centered and heard, while those of us more privileged need to step back. I think of my African American neighbors and what it means to live in a world that rejects their bodies and right to life.
How do we as a church witness to Jesus’ promise that the meek will inherit the earth together with all people on the margins and intersections? To be sure many of these folks are not so meek, but amazingly bold and courageous, often offering free labor to those of us slow to catch on to the Spirit’s work. Together we are called to trust Jesus’ promise of a kingdom that is coming to life in our midst and not merely a spiritualized kingdom, indefinitely deferred. Let us as a church summon the courage and confidence to witness to the pain of those who have endured centuries of systemic injustice and pain. Let us witness to the beauty, justice, and joy of Jesus’ coming kingdom. I cannot wait for our next MLK parade, another glimpse of the kingdom, following Jesus by taking up space together with all our neighbors.