I was wondering what in the world to write about in this meditation when my office phone rang. Thinking it could very well be another salesperson, I was pleasantly surprised to hear greetings from someone I’d never met – a woman who serves on a ministerial staff in a Baptist church in the south. I learned that she and her husband preceded my wife and me as students at Southern Seminary, and that they both have served together on the same church staff since their seminary graduation. The conversation that continued was a humbling and amazing reminder of how Pullen’s ways of being and doing church extend far beyond our community and minister to persons we may never know. As the phone call was ending, I asked my new acquaintance for permission to share the gist of our brief conversation in this meditation.
The reason for her call was to ask me several questions about how Pullen views certain aspects related to our worship and ministry. It was apparent from her words and tone of voice that she had recently experienced a very difficult time in trying to persuade members of her congregation to move toward a more inclusive work and worship. She shared with me that there were “four or five loud voices who were holding the church hostage” from moving toward a more open stance in particular areas. She also shared with me how multiple families left her congregation when this church she had served for so many years blessed her with ordination. She loves this church and her work, but many members consider her the wrong gender for her role. She described her church as one that was currently at a crossroads, striving to make important decisions that could determine its future.
With great pride I told her about Pullen’s open and inclusive commitments in ministry, worship and areas such as communion and baptism. I shared with her the benefits of our connection with the Alliance of Baptists and other progressive partners. Then, sensing the very difficult time she was experiencing, I felt an “embarrassment of riches” that we Pullenites enjoy and perhaps take for granted at times: the riches of openness, inclusion, integration, and an expansive, ever-evolving theology. These are a given for us, but I was reminded through this call that there are many committed ministers and other church members “out there” who have great difficulty in moving their congregations toward these things.
The specific reason she thought to call Pullen during this hard time was because of the uplifting experience she had while worshiping at Pullen on our Peace Sunday in February of 2012. She was visiting family in town, and though at the time she needed a break from “all things church,” she came to Pullen for worship. She said: “it was a breath of fresh air – it was like a retreat for me! I went up to take communion grinning like an idiot – I was so happy from the experience that I was smiling from ear to ear. I know the ministers must have thought I was crazy! And I remember the children handing me a peace crane.” As she continued describing her experience with us she said: “and right now I’m holding the worship guide from that day – it has a picture on the front of people who form the image of a dove” (I could see in my mind’s eye the very image from that cover). The words, music, communion, actions, and art from that service had stayed with her. The integration of all persons and all ages in the service of worship was very meaningful to her. The memories of her Pullen experience continue to carry her through difficult days.
To empathize with her a bit, I reminded her that Pullen was still “an institution,” and though we try to be the best institution we can be, we’re not perfect. I also reminded her that our stances and ways of being evolved out of a long history. We both agreed that immediate change in church life can be difficult and often doesn’t happen easily or overnight. As we ended our conversation I offered her additional blessings on behalf of Pullen, with the recognition that she was doing hard but worthy work.
Thanks be to God for Pullen’s witness. Thanks be to Sophia for wise women and others in ministry who struggle for what is right. Thanks be to Ruah for the spiritual retreat that Pullen can be for persons beat down by church. Thanks be to God for strangers who sit beside us in worship – may we always “raise up new hope” for them and “for all who are to come.”