Reflections on the Inauguration

Here is a guest post from David Swanson, Pastor of Community Life at New Community Covenant Church in Chicago, IL.

Sometime this fall my wife and I were asked by some close friends whether we’d join them for the upcoming presidential inauguration in Washington DC. The invitation was contingent on one thing: Barak Obama’s election. These friends had been involved with the Obama campaign since the beginning, lending their support to the man who lives just a few blocks away in their Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago. It was an easy invitation to accept.

We woke up very early on the Sunday before the inauguration, loaded up our rental car, and drove from our apartment on Chicago’s north side to pick up our friends. From there it was a twelve-hour drive through the snow to our nation’s capitol. Along the way we talked, napped and listened to a few of Dr Martin Luther King’s early speeches. The anticipation built as we reached our hotel in Baltimore, but it wasn’t until we sat down for an upscale soul food dinner at Georgia Brown’s, just blocks from the National Mall, that the celebratory mood really kicked in. The restaurant was packed with glad people who had traveled from around the country to be in Washington for this event.

After a good night’s sleep we drove to Howard University to explore one of the premier Historically Black Colleges, known to many as “the Black Harvard.” Once again we encountered a thrilled atmosphere. Despite the chilly temperatures the campus was filled with alumni and prospective students. While warming up in a nearby Starbucks our friends bumped into a friend from Chicago who had also made the trek for the inauguration. The weekend was beginning to feel like a family reunion.

This sense of camaraderie and joyful expectation was only amplified on Inauguration Day. We were regularly asked where we had come from and people were happy to share their own stories that had brought them to the capitol. The ethnic diversity of the day was something to behold. While each of us had our distinct reasons for making this trip, there was a genuine sense of goodwill that I have rarely experienced.

“Hopefully nonpartisan” is the best way I can describe the demeanor of those in the massive crowds. While this was certainly a political event, and while the new president now steps into a very political role, there was very little political language that we encountered. The hope expressed by so many simply by their presence on that cold Tuesday was beyond political. While the speculation by some that Dr King’s dream has been fulfilled in President Obama is clearly preposterous, the significance of this election cannot be underestimated. Surely there is still a long way to go; there is much about Dr King’s dream that needs to be articulated in our day. But for one long, cold weekend many of us caught a glimpse of the road ahead and found plenty of reasons to be hopeful.

11 Responses to “Reflections on the Inauguration”

  1. inauguration recap at consuming jesus blog « signs of life Says:

    […] inauguration recap at consuming jesus blog By David Dr Paul Metzger is the author of Consuming Jesus and the director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins.  Dr Metzger recently asked if I could write up a short summary of our trip to DC for the inauguration.  My recap can be found on the Consuming Jesus Blog. […]

  2. Paul Louis Metzger Says:

    Hello, David. Thank you for your very thoughtful reflections on the inauguration. Among other things, I appreciated your comment, “While the speculation by some that Dr King’s dream has been fulfilled in President Obama is clearly preposterous, the significance of this election cannot be underestimated.”

    Some people think that the race problem in America is basically over given that we now have an African American President. Certainly, the election of an African American as President is historic and has the potential to be a significant source of healing for the nation’s longstanding racial wounds; but we have a long way to go if there is to be total healing, and if we are to fulfill Dr. King’s dream, as David indicates. I welcome people’s feedback on this matter.

  3. Daniel Fan Says:

    David:

    Thank you for your observations on the inauguration.

    I believe I understand your comment that “Surely there is still a long way to go; there is much about Dr King’s dream that needs to be articulated in our day.” However, I hope that the Obama presidency will be perceived as an articulation of that dream, one of many.

    However, therein lies one example that this Presidency is not a proof that all is equal in the nation, but rather evidence that we still judge each other with unbalanced scales.

    We can hear this inequality, even in the voice of Barack Obama’s own children: “First African American president…better be good.” When a ten year old can grasp the difference in standards, we “adults” would be fools to go on claiming that there is no contrast between expectations placed on the first African American president and all the white presidents before him. Inequality in expectations, inequality in consequences.

    If George Washington had failed, people would have judged the presidency, the office, and the form of government. In the deeds of every president since, each has be judged according to perceptions of his character, not the color of his skin. I hope it will be so of Barack Obama as well.

    It is, perhaps, a long way to expect this country to grow in four years and certainly we are not “there” yet, but your description of the inauguration gives me hope that we can enter into at least a part of Dr King’s promised land.

  4. David Swanson Says:

    If President Obama’s election does not signify the end of America’s race problem, then what? Claims that Dr King’s dream had been fulfilled in this election may seem silly, but they may indicate something important. Could it be that many in our nation desire some direction when it comes to issues of race and class division? This election can be seen as a measure of success; it can be observed. Without additional such measurable steps people may be tempted to think the issues have been resolved or to once again be overwhelmed by their immensity.

    Perhaps one way to see the nation’s response to this Presidential Election is to hear a request for more specific and concrete steps towards Dr King’s dream. I’d like to think the Church could provide just such a clear vision.

  5. Daniel Fan Says:

    I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say that Barack Obama’s rise to the presidency signifies the end of racism in America. What defines “the end?”

    Similar statements could be made about every step toward racial equality, from the toothless Emancipation Proclamation, to the nullification of the Chinese Immigration Act, to the civil rights movement and subsequent legislation, to the apology of the US government to Japanese of American descent interned during WWII.

    Racism in the United States is no simple issue. Beating it is like being a man trying to transit a dark room. You are told that the door by which you entered is 3000 feet from the door on the opposite side you must exit out of. Only when you start moving you find that there is no straight-line path to the other door and that the journey to the other side will be convoluted, filled with turns, obstacles and much, much longer than 3000 feet. Each step is a step forward, but each step reveals new challenges or emphasizes old ones.

    Similarly Barack Obama’s presidency is a step forward, but it also illuminates how far we as a nation need to go. Just like the passage of civil right laws in the 60s demonstrated that racism was not a problem that could be solved solely with legislation, Obama’s presidency demonstrates that racism cannot be solved simply by the occupation of political office.

    The same problems that plagued minorities, and African Americans in particular prior to January 20th, 2009 still remain.

    Yes the ascendancy of an African American to the office of President of the United States is a step forward for African Americans, and perhaps for race relations in America. But the same hope threatened in the absence of such achievements is equally threatened by assigning too much expectation to those achievements.

  6. Kelsi Says:

    I am encouraged to hear that people are soberly considering both the victory gained and the victory and challenges that optimistically lie ahead in light of Obama’s inauguration. I resoundingly agree that no, this is not “the end” of race problems in America. We are a long time coming, and this takes much more than voting a black man into office. As far as continuing to transform oppressive structures and the private spheres that uphold these structures, I can only see Obama’s election as a remarkable, hopeful step. I see it as a step that provides us with new challenges, and we must have the cautious understanding that like Daniel said, the scale is unevenly tipped. It is my concern that we as a church and as a nation can hold Barak Obama in a realistic and hopeful light. My hope is that we can honestly say that we are judging him by the content of his character, and not collectively holding our breaths waiting for “the black man” to prove himself.

  7. Paul Louis Metzger Says:

    Thank you for your reflections, David, Daniel, and Kelsi, and for your shared concern that we are to remain diligent in terms of seeking after the realization of Dr. King’s vision in our day. Along these lines, I appreciated what David said toward the end of his blog post: “there is much about Dr King’s dream that needs to be articulated in our day.” David, as a pastor of an intentionally multi-ethnic church with an ethnically diverse staff, and as one who has a passion for King’s values, could you offer us a few concrete suggestions as to how we can articulate Knig’s vision in our church contexts? As you know, King said that the Sunday morning American church service is the most segregated hour of the week in America. He was right then, and his words still hold true today in so many sectors of the Christian community across this land. I welcome your reflections, David, along with those of others who wish to respond. Thank you!

  8. David Swanson Says:

    A few suggestions prompted by Dr Metzger’s question:

    >Choose multi- cultural worship. The more we pursue this value the more expressions of diverse congregations will be found. Here is where individuals can make a difference: we can choose our churches based not on a consumer mentality but from a passion to see the local church express the diversity of God’s Kingdom.

    >Pursue economic justice. Much of what divides the American church can be traced to class. In order to demonstrate true diversity churches will need to welcome people of every economic status. My previous and current churches both have homeless folks who join in worship each Sunday. The church is as much theirs as it is mine. In our neighborhood economic justices means being aware of how gentrification affects those who cannot afford rising property taxes and rent. Will we use our voice to advocate for affordable housing for those unable (because of language, immigration status, or political empowerment) to speak for themselves.

    >Provide space for friendships across economic and racial lines. Many in our churches feel unable to take the first step into a friendship with someone who comes from a very different background. Could a church provide safe places (small groups, Q & A forums, weekend retreats, field trips to civil rights landmarks, etc) for these friendships to begin. Helping people get past the “I just don’t want to say something stupid” phase could be a significant contribution to long-term friendships.

    That’s a start. I too would be interested in others’ responses to this question.

  9. Kelsi Says:

    David,
    I really appreciate hearing about some concrete ways that churches can intentionally work towards in order to achieve King’s vision. I’m often discouraged because I think of the ideal, diverse church, but then feel numb because I have no clue where to start. These are all ways that I can easily see the church I attend put in to practice, and I agree that every single one of these factors greatly affect the voice and spirit of a church. If a church is ignoring the very factors that contribute to division and gentrification, what sort of multi-ethnic and cultural welcoming is that? It is crucial to understand that as consumers, we do play a huge key in to social-economic realities, and this directly affects the lives that we are to love, care for, and worship with. If we are speaking the multi-cultural language (by diverse worship, educational group dialogue, intentional living and advocating for economic justice), I can’t think of a better way that would then encourage a multi-cultural setting. I think that is often what we miss, that we must speak more than just the “middle class white” language if we truly desire all peoples from all backgrounds for Christ’s kingdom.

  10. Bryan Dormaier Says:

    As someone trying to be a church planter in a neighborhood facing gentrification, I’ve tried to think of these as well. Admittedly, my perspective is still an outside of church perspective, as much of my work has and is outside of a church gathering atmosphere.

    I am sitting at a coffee shop that I have “adopted” which continually amazes me at the variety of people who come through here(in both race and class). In many ways, I feel that this place gets something that I miss, and I’m trying to learn from it by spending time here.

    The coffee shop is owned and primarily run by a couple in their 30’s, a white man, and an asian woman. They are incredibly friendly and tend to work to make almost anyone who comes through here feel welcome. They’ve worked to try to make their place have a variety of offerings, but I really think it’s the tendency to really befriend everyone and make them feel welcome that cultivates the culture of this place.

    As I think of how this might apply for a church, there is much to be reflected on how we work to make feel welcome, to embrace each person as unique. I feel like those that we allow to be in front and to speak, that we allow the privilege of being heard from, communicate a lot about our values as a community. Leaving that room to be heard, to communicate to the group as a whole, to show that everyone is valued is part of what it means for us as the church to realize that in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, Slave or Free, Male or Female, Black or White or Yellow or Red.

  11. Daniel Fan Says:

    Bryan, your story saddens me but I have no doubt it’s true.

    The church should look like your neighborhood coffee shop. If not struggling and desperate for customers, then at least conscientiously seeking them.

    Instead, in my opinion, we often operate more like a haute couture boutique. “If you don’t find something that fits you, you’re obviously in the wrong establishment.”

    I feel this kind of conduct is actually in direct violation of Matthew 25:34-46. We try to apply it only in the extremes (panhandlers, homeless, divorcees etc.). To continue the analogy: what we don’t realize is that we often turn Jesus’ “customers” away from the shop he specifically set up to reach them. If you are an extrodinary sinner maybe the church will let you in so we can fix you. If you are an ordinary sinner, but somehow don’t fit into our current homogeneous unit demographic, then a pat on the back and a “good luck finding a church that fits you!” to you. While people are sometimes excluded on the basis of race, they can also be excluded (passively or actively) on the basis of class, profession, education or anything else.

    I’ve been part of fellowships and organizations that have done this very thing (and I’ve had it done to me). It convicts me that Jesus loves those “customers” in his coffee shop far more than his staff does (me/us). I am the clerk that stands by the coffee cake looking up at the ceiling or chatting with my co-workers deperately avoiding eye contact with that somehow unattractive customer that just walked in, hoping he will go away. Other times I’m not paying attention because I think I’m doing what I should be and someone else will get to that person–“it’s not my job today” (diffusion of responsibility). And when the customer finally leaves I turn back towards the kitchen and see Jesus in the back looking back at me. His face looks like my face. But there are tears in his eyes and none in mine. “Daniel, I love you, but I want you to remember how it felt to walk out that door hungry, thirsty, empty-handed, never having been greeted or comforted, feeling alone, now more than ever…”

    It’s true that the church is not a business and we’re not in it solely for ourselves. Maybe if we were, we’d do a better job of being good stewards of the commission that’s been given to us. I won’t go so far as to say that the church should treat people who walk in the door as customers in some capitalistic profiteering venture. However, I will say that we often don’t see them the same as Jesus does. And perhaps we should because we may come to find ourselves judged by our actions, or more significantly, our inactions.

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