The Charleston Area Justice Ministry (CAJM) leaders of the congregation convened a special meeting on Thursday, October 19. During the meeting, the Community Problems Assembly, groups of about eight participants shared the local issues that worry them. Readers will not be surprised at the community problems raised: difficult access to counseling, easy access to guns, elder housing, limited addiction programs, limited public transportation, schools becoming re-segregated, workforce housing, and more. Conversations were candid, enlightening, and respectful. Other CAJM congregations have been holding similar meetings. Lists of issues will be consolidated and one issue to tackle will be chosen.
Our guest speaker was Rev. Charles Heyward, recently retired Minister of St. James Presbyterian Church on James Island, and charter pastor of CAJM. Rev. Heyward discussed racial injustice in America and in his own life. His remarks included some teaching, some preaching, and some surprises. As he closed, he mused extemporaneously about the blessings he received in his thirty-years of ministry. He spoke of the value of the local congregation and the ways church friendships and involvement can inspire outreach projects and make social justice work more meaningful. What he said was better than the way I’ve described it here but as he spoke Gage Hall was still and he held the audience’s grateful attention.
I recently spoke to newcomers considering church membership. I shared our congregation’s history, some Unitarian background, and something of my story. I stressed the congregational energy and identity present among us, that sense of community I’ve been fortunate to experience in a couple of different faith traditions, and in ten or so churches during most of my life. Rev. Heyward touched on this communal theme as he described how the local congregation can give life a ritual form and spiritual shape. A child is born to parents in the church, is welcomed in a service of dedication, is taught in religious education, is honored when graduating high school and college, is celebrated in a wedding ceremony, and perhaps one day that grown-up child of the church has her own child to be dedicated.
Sometimes the things most cherished are also the things that are easy to take for granted. In the busy weeks of people with busy lives, the bonds that connect us in church can be overlooked and underappreciated. It can happen to clergy too. Our various social justice opportunities remind us of what’s important to us and the values we espouse. Rev. Heyward reminded last Thursday’s audience of how the church can bring us together in relationships that other organizations might approach, but cannot surpass.
As our bicentennial nears, I hope you have occasion to consider your relationship to the church and I trust it will be a positive assessment. We’re an imperfect body but one that has survived many challenges and changes. Likewise, as we enter the season of Thanksgiving, I hope the church’s place in your life gives you cause to be thankful. As I am for you.