Message from Pastor Jeff and the Racial Justice Task Force
Recommendation to install a banner on our Churchyard that states:
Black Lives Matter to God and to Us, with a brief outdoor worship service on January 31st at 1 pm and a presentation of February as
Racial Justice Challenge month.
Introduction from Rev. Laura Sherwood, Interim Associate Pastor
It has been my privilege to work with the Racial Justice Task Force and the Session in January, while Pastor Jeff has been on family leave. I have been quite moved by the clear dedication and passion for the work of Racial Justice that the Task Force had already been doing for many months and the prayerful consideration given to their recommendations by our Session, all of which were approved on January 11, 2021, as follows:
- First, we recommend the Session approve the purchase and installation of a sign to be placed on the corner of 9th and Greenleaf that states, “Black Lives Matter to God and to Us.” This is a public witness to God’s love for us and our solidarity with our Black sisters and brothers.
- Second, we recommend the Session approve a brief socially distanced, masked, outdoor worship service on January 31 at 1:00 PM. The purpose of the service is to unveil the banner. Rev. Sherwood will officiate.
- Third, we recommend the Session approve a church-wide “Racial Justice Challenge” to be held in the month of February. This is a church-wide effort to engage in the work of dismantling the sin of racism – as prophet Micah called it, “doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with our God.”
These recommendations and decisions stemmed from recent years of growing awareness and study by the congregation in matters of Racial Justice and continued study, conversation, and prayer among the Task Force, the Session, and Pastor Jeff.
Pastor Jeff wrote a letter to the Session with theological support for recommending the installation of this banner along with a personal reflection
on how his own faith and perspective have been impacted in this process. His letter was also intended for the congregation and follows below.
Letter from Rev. Jeff Lehn, Senior Pastor
The two-part question before us as a church is always, “Who is God calling us to be and what is God calling us to do?” Our mission statement captures a partial answer: Experience God. Grow Disciples. Transform Lives. But it intentionally leaves much of the nitty-gritty interpretation to us. What does that actually look like in this time and place?
In recent years, our church has begun conversations about racial justice. In the summer of 2019, we read parts of Jemar Tisby’s book, The Color of Compromise, and two of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches as our Tower youth prepared to go on a Work Trip to Memphis. At Tisby’s recommendation, we put together various resources, now posted on our church website, to engage in the ARC of Racial Justice (Awareness, Relationships, Commitment). Then, in the fall of 2019, we partnered with St. Francis Xavier in hosting a “Faith and Racial Equity” course through Just Faith Ministries.
Then, we all witnessed the video of the tragic death of George Floyd last May. It was a wake-up call to me. I grew up in a suburb about 10 miles north of the 3rd Precinct of Minneapolis. My family attended church a mile away from the corner of 37th and Chicago Avenue. My parents and brother and his family still reside there. Floyd’s repeated cry, “I can’t breathe” and pleas for his mother broke my heart, as they did yours.
As you know, this was not an isolated incident, but the latest episode in a centuries-long saga of oppression and violence that our Black sisters and brothers have endured in our country. As a church, we knew God was calling us to respond. So, in early June I asked the Session to form a Racial Justice Task Force (RJTF) to lead our efforts. They have been hard at work since then, meeting regularly over Zoom, studying, planning, lamenting, praying, connecting, and more. They have organized their work under three categories: education, advocacy, and relationship-building.
In the fall, the RJTF sponsored a four-week class, “Coming to Terms with Race,” led by Rev. Andrew Packman. (You can view the series on YouTube.) Many church and community members attended – we gained new insights and built relationships with neighbors on the North Shore who want to engage in this work together.
The next step in the work of the RJTF was to recommend to Session that we install a banner on our Churchyard that states: “Black Lives Matter to God and to Us” as one of many steps we must take as a faith community.
We are not the first church to make a public witness with a sign using this particular wording. Three other Presbyterian churches in the area, and the Episcopal Church in Wilmette, have done so already: Northminster Presbyterian Church (Evanston); Winnetka Presbyterian Church; St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church (Wilmette); and Fourth Presbyterian Church (Chicago).
We recognize the display of this sign may cause some controversy. In particular, the use of the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” The sign is not an endorsement of the Black Lives Matter organization or its particular platform of its local chapters. Rather the sign is using the language of our culture and infusing it with Christian meaning. That is why we have chosen to add “to God and to Us” to the phrase.
There’s no doubt that all lives matter to God. All are God’s children, created in God’s image, male and female, of every race and people. The problem is that in our world many lives do not matter as much, and God asks us to change that. So that’s why we say, “Black Lives Matter to God and to Us.” It reminds us of God’s dream where all might flourish and our call to realize that in the here and now.
We hope this banner will represent a true, lasting, and tangible commitment that we all strive to live out in faith as a congregation and as members of our broader community. We invite the questions of our congregation and neighbors and humbly ask for your prayers as our collective work continues to live fully into God’s vision for the beloved community in this time and place.
With Epiphany hope,
Pastor Jeff Lehn, on behalf of The Racial Justice Task Force (Bill Bishop, Bob Bobesink, Pete and Carolyn Holtermann, Laura Lyman, Amy Russell, Mary Watt, and Pastor Jeff)
Some Frequently Asked Questions
about our banner that states: Black Lives Matter to God and to Us
Installed on January 31, 2021 - First Presbyterian Church of Wilmette, IL
Is such a public witness necessary right now?
Throughout its history, the church has been called upon to specifically affirm the dignity of people whose lives are threatened by adversity and societal sin. When systemic racism puts into question whether our society truly values Black lives, we believe it is important to affirm the particular dignity, beauty, gifts, and worth of Black children of God.
We are not deceived, however, that hanging a banner represents sufficient action. Rather, a banner is a public commitment to intensify the work of racial justice. A banner acknowledges the validity of the pain and anger that have been expressed in recent months, and it signals solidarity with victims of racism, particularly African Americans. The banner’s full statement (“Black Lives Matter to God and to Us”) goes beyond an organizational identification to express both a theological truth (“Black lives matter to God…”) and an institutional value (“Black lives matter…to us”).
Is this banner an endorsement of the Black Lives Matter organization or Black Lives Matter Chicago?
No. The first three words of “Black Lives Matter to God and to Us” are, of course, also the name of a national organization with local affiliates, and the question may arise as to whether our church is hereby endorsing these organizations. But the banner does not represent the Session’s endorsement of any organization. Though Black Lives Matter and its affiliates express some core values—such as empathy, the necessity of family-friendly spaces, and intergenerational cooperation—that resonate with Christian values, they also advocate for a range of policies on contentious issues, like the funding of police departments, about which we are not expressing a view.
Isn’t it too political?
The message of Christianity has always been political if political means something related to the polis, the common good. Jesus was political, but he was not partisan. No political party has the market cornered on the kingdom of God, and the fact is the Bible is an equal opportunity offender when it comes to the platform of any political party – Democrat, Republican, Green, Libertarian, and so on. Take the earliest Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord.” A simple confession, a mere three words, but also subversive once you unpack it. “Jesus is Lord,” the early Christians would affirm with one another in worship. But, you see, Christians were saying this in a context where everyone else in the Roman Empire was saying “Caesar is Lord.” So “Jesus is Lord” was not just a nice, innocuous thing to say once a week on Sunday morning. It was a risky and life-altering truth to affirm.
Naming that Black lives matter to God and to us uses the language of the culture and infuses it with Christian meaning. God created all of us equally, male and female, of every race and people, but we have fallen from that ideal. This public witness is a small but significant step in naming our commitment to the good news for all of God’s children.
What about other oppressed groups? Don’t all lives matter to God and to Us?
We believe this moment calls for public solidarity and witness with our African-American siblings in particular. Yes, there are many other groups whose lives are also not equally valued. We lament that and ask God for the wisdom and energy to respond faithfully in the right season.
And, yes, there’s no doubt that all lives matter to God. All are God’s children, created in God’s image, male and female, of every race and people. The problem is that in our world many lives do not matter as much, and God asks us to partner with God in changing that. So that’s why we say, “Black Lives Matter to God and to Us.” It reminds us of God’s dream where all might flourish and our call to realize that in the here and now.
Why talk about race at all? What does it have to do with Christianity?
For those of us who are white, we don’t have to think about race most of the time. But, as white Christians, we must think about race. Because anything that harms our neighbor, that separates us from God and one another, must be examined, confessed, and repaired. The apostle Paul was crystal clear in his letter to the Galatians that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male or female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.” In a word, he’s saying “baptismal identity trumps tribal identity.” We belong to one another, as we together belong to God. There is no “us vs. them.” With God, it is just “us.”
As people of faith, our struggle to build God’s kingdom is not against human beings, but “against the rulers and authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” It’s not about being against any one person or institution or demonizing or caricaturing our opponent. It’s about recognizing that the struggle of our faith is against an evil much bigger than any one person or group. And we all have a part to play in building a world that reflects God’s dream, a world where the sin of racism no longer holds sway.