A Pastoral Letter from Regional Executive Minister, Marie Onwubuariri
April 20, 2020
Dear fellow leaders and culture-shapers of American Baptist Churches of Wisconsin,
It has been over a month since those in our state began to make adjustments to our way of living in order to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. We now know that the adjustments we have made will continue to be needed for at least a few more weeks, and life, as we knew it, likely will not return for months, if at all. Things are not only changing; lasting changes are in the works.
As a new week begins and I remember our ABC/WI family in prayer on the 20th of April, I know we have:
- some who have already had their lives touched very personally by this disease through those fighting to recover and those who have sadly been added to the death count; these are not just cases but these are people—whose names, families, and stories they know well;
- some who daily fear for the lives of loved ones as they courageously report to their places of essential business, providing health care, public services, and supporting the infrastructure of society;
- some who have been stretched economically due to unemployment or slowed business and who may very well come to the end of their financial “cushion” in the days ahead if not at the end already;
- some who, for a variety of reasons, are seriously struggling emotionally and relationally due to isolation and related stressors;
- some who are gracefully managing through these circumstances and are finding ways to contribute to the shared good of society through positive energy, donations, and volunteerism
- and many leaders—clergy and lay—like you, who are providing guidance and hope in all of these, and other, circumstances.
It seems I hear or read every day someone saying that this disease does not discriminate and that we are “in this together.” In this together? Perhaps in some ways, but also, the truth that I see is that even among our ABC/WI fellowship, let alone society at-large, there are some vast discrepancies between the circumstances in which we live and minister and between the factors that shape the resulting life stories. This was true before COVID-19, and it is certainly true now. Repeating the phrase “in this together” without intentional pause for careful application is simply paying lip service (service by words only). Yes, ideally our commonalities are what draws us and keeps us together, and I have observed that many people find comfort in lifting up our commonalities, but paying lip service to our commonalities alone stunts our spiritual growth, diminishes our discipleship walk, and obfuscates the fullness of God.
As I was leaving the region office last Saturday morning (4/18), I heard cheering and car honks yards away coming from Bluemound Road. As I drove by on my way to the bank to make the weekly deposit, I witnessed hundreds of protesters exercising their American first amendment by expressing their beliefs that the Safer-at-Home extension should be reconsidered and Wisconsin should begin the process to open up sooner rather than later, to put it mildly.
As I went home and followed the news story, and read the vitriol (a staple vocabulary word in American English the past few years) from both sides, and even acknowledged my own painful reactions rising up in me, I again remembered the ABC/WI family and the differences in how “family” members of OUR fellowship are experiencing this pandemic. The faith that has formed me and the instances of lived hope that I have witnessed journeying alongside many of you for the past five+ years reminded me that, as I mentioned at the beginning of this pandemic, “for times like these we have been baptized.” Yet not only baptized, but we have been put together for divisive times as these—as an unlikely and diverse association of people and communities over the decades who gather together in various settings, sometimes bringing our full selves in interaction with each other, equipping ourselves for courageous conversations across difference—perhaps to change the tides today, to witness to the unifying power of Christ even in the presence of our differences.
I just don’t see how this kind of love can be personified
by continuing to segregate ourselves, even virtually,
by our own geographies, circumstances, and priorities.
If there is any hope that the Church can light a path forward for a less-divided society, we cannot ignore the realities of our different circumstances and factors that shape the resulting life stories.
- If we hope for a society in which there is authentic and sustained efforts to grow in understanding of various perspectives and work together in ways that do not completely negate each other’s realities,
- a society in which there are more acts of sacrificial love than combustible hate,
- a society more reflective of the reign of God where there is justice for the least of these, humility in the powerful, and mutual mercy that understands that imperfection also does not discriminate,
- then my sincere prayer for us remains…“…that you[/we] may have the power to comprehend, with ALL the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the FULLNESS of God.”
COVID-19 did not bring division, but many say this pandemic has underscored the differences in systems, such as health care disparities. Many say it has also ironically given us opportunity, a gift even, to change our norm and forge new pathways and patterns. I believe the charge for Resurrection people is not just to adjust for our own (family, churches, like-minded circles of influences), but to forge new pathways and patterns that consider and care for those who are outside our default fields of vision. I’m not suggesting we start with those who appear close-minded and lead with vitriolic rhetoric, but can we start with our own American Baptist brothers and sisters who we know at least claim the same risen Savior and a similar framework of faith, who, I pray, also can radically hope for a different world?
With all the zoom calls and answer-seeking interactions you have been a part of in the past six weeks, how many of those have been with people who are experiencing this pandemic circumstantially different from you? And not just being in the same “meeting” together but actually trying to deeply listen to each other’s experiences and expanding your own understanding of the impact of this pandemic? Or are we only seeking answers from those who do and think like us, or who started in this pandemic from a very similar place?
COVID-19 has presented some opportunities:
- Could you each seek out a recorded worship or sermon of a sister church in another part of the state and “worship” along with them so as to understand what God might be saying to and doing among them?
- Can you entrust some of the daily tasks of the congregation to the priesthood of all believers and dedicate time to sincere theoretical, practical, and personal conversations with fellow leaders who are just as faithfully trying to lead out of and in their own circumstances across differences of race and ethnicity, socio-economics, geography, gender, generation, gifting, and theology?
- Might we pray with and for one another—together?
- How else can we practice post-Resurrection discipleship, where our eyes, too, can be opened and our hearts burn anew as we discern how God is refining us for powerful healing and transformation?
These times have taught us that we can connect even if we are physically not together, and many have learned that technological platforms open “doors” to those who have not before entered the doors of our church.
Last Saturday, the phrase “hard, sustained, courageous, radical Gospel work” stirred in me as I processed throughout the day. Crossing divides with an intention for Christian unity and ultimately transformative Christian witness to the world is not just opportunistic activity; it is much needed, faithful, radical, Gospel, work.
Congregational care, biblical exhortation and teaching, risky and selfless missional engagement, worship and fellowship, faithful stewardship—these are all important activities of the church—and it is hopeful to see how so many of you have creatively kept these good works going the past several weeks.
Jesus laid down his life for his friends, for us, out of a love greater than any other, and commands us, “love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12-13) I just don’t see how this kind of love can be personified by continuing to segregate ourselves, even virtually, by our own geographies, circumstances, and priorities.
I extend again an invitation to you to the Ministry of Conversation, an intentional effort our region has engaged in for the past few years. As timely and real as the question is about the phasing in of Wisconsin’s reopening, our differences of circumstance and opinion go far beyond that, each reality and concern giving shape and progress to the hard, sustained, courageous, radical embodiment of Jesus-like love.
If and when you are ready, please name yourself and share ways that make it possible for you to engage in uprooting deep-seated separations, collaborating on new paths forward, growing in knowledge and empathy with and for others, and transforming church and society to the likeness of Love.
Together Living Faithfully Through Christ Today.
Rev. Dr. Marie Onwubuariri, ABC/WI Regional Executive Minister