I live about a 20 minute walk from the South African embassy, so I went this afternoon to pay my respects following the death of former SA president Nelson Mandela.
My feelings are hard to put into words; he belongs to the ages. The world is so much better for his life and labor. The proof? Those who once denounced now try to claim him as a friend in death.
Walking up Massachusetts Avenue, a.k.a. Embassy Row, I noted how many embassies had their national flags at half-staff. At least a quarter; perhaps a third. I was not alone; there were enough people in foot — there’s no place to park, even if you have a car — to justify crossing guards.
Ongoing construction at the South African embassy made for a tight shrine. I got there just in time to sign the condolance book (inside the lobby) and then joined the small crowd, many of whom took photos or left flowers at the newly-dedicated statue of Mandela out front.
You have to do something when you make what — let’s call it what it is — a pilgrimage. You leave your signature, your thoughts (in the book, or on cards or with gifts) and a tribute of flowers. I brought my prayerbook.
SA embassy lobby, from outside
Nelson Mandela statue and tributes
Nelson Mandela statue and tributes
I’m left thinking of Mandela’s legacy, but also how churches observe something like the death of a great figure, or a great and lamentable disaster for that matter. And what do you do when there’s no obvious focus of the outpouring? The South African embassy is obvious in Washington, but “how does in play in Peoria?”
The interfaith Thanksgiving service was on its last legs more than a decade ago when I was the pastor at Universalist National Memorial Church (UNMC), in Washington, D.C. It was one of those liberal Jewish-Protestant events that was far more common two generations before, but it’s hard to maintain a tradition when that was your sole surviving point of contact.
I hadn’t thought about it in years when, a few months ago while studying the Classical Reform Jewish tradition I ran across a reference to it in the persan of Washington Hebrew Congregation‘s (WHC) then-senior rabbi Norman Gerstenfeld. WHC was traditionally a participant in the Thanksgiving service with UNMC.
Even in 1963. Six days after President Kennedy was killed, the nation celebrated Thanksgiving.
President Johnston attended the morning interfaith Thanksgiving service at Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, which included UNMC (then pastored by the long-tenured Seth Brooks) and WHC.
The other congregations taking place were Congregation Adas Israel, Calvary Baptist Church, and National City Christian Church (Disciples of Christ; President Johnston’s church). All are extant.
For reportage, and notes of Johnston’s participation, see
“Johnson’s Thanksgiving Address Asks Nation to ‘Banish Rancor’ and Move On to ‘New Greatness’” by Tom Wicker (New York Times)
I live in Washington, D.C., and I care deeply about my city. In particular, I hate when it becomes an eponym for political misdeeds or a focus of scorn. Remember: the 600,000-plus people of the District of Columbia don’t even get voting representation in Congress. And the Congress reserves for itself the power of our purse. And one part of one party has made a hostage of the budget, and with it he livelihoods of many friends and neighbors in the greater Washington metropolis and worldwide.
Despite the jokes of the lazy civil servant, many of these workers are not particularly well-paid (even in the Congress staff itself) and furlough days have taken a bite. How long will it be when some of these same civil servants will need food assistance, even as the programs are on ice? That members of military qualify for SNAP (food stamps) is itself a shame, lest anyone forget.
Baked into the conflict is what the proper role of government should be, and even if the current impasse is quickly resolved, it’s hard to imagine a happy outcome when that one part of one party is dedicated no less to anti-government than anything else. Which makes me question the natural churchly impulse to private, charitable solutions to social harms, like hunger. Isn’t that just playing into an anti-government script? Especially since churches can barely keep their doors open. The same can be said of many secular non-profits. There’s just not enough labor, leadership and plain old money to restore public needs to charity.
But there’s also the difference between a regularly-operating government and a crisis. Today we have a crisis and so today we have a responsibility to give more to charities that pick up where government initiatives fail. (Our task tomorrow is to push the vandals out of office.)
OK: let’s look at a couple of good ideas that other places could emulate.
- The DC Food Finder a “project of Healthy Affordable Food For All” maps meal programs, food distribution sites, mutual aid, market alternatives and the like.
- One of the market alternatives is the Healthy Corners program, which supplies produce to corner markets in poorer parts of the District. See the video, too.
- SHARE DC (SHARE Food Network) provides set packages of low-cost groceries; participants subdivide and package the food. It’s managed by Catholic Charities and operated through neighborhood churches.
A fun clip (in English) from a 100-year old issue of Amerika Esperanisto, published here in Washington. The office building has been long replaced, but people still work on that corner, and buses (52,52; 42) still ply the old streetcar routes.
If you come up out the north side of the Dupont Circle Metro station, you are likely to notice (at least part of) an inscription than rings the stone wall at the top. It reads:
Thus in silence in dreams’ projections, Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals;
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night – some are so young;
Some suffer so much – I recall the experience sweet and sad,…
It’s from the last section sometime D.C.-resident Walt Whitman’s “The Wound Dresser” from Leaves of Grass — had there been more room we’d get the end…
(Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested,
Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)
The main reason I’ve not been blogging is that I have the flu. Don’t get if, if you can. I’ve never had one this bad.
But here are two interesting (the first, alarming) resources about the flu. Take care.
Baha’i visitors came to Universalist National Memorial Church this morning, to mark the centennial of the visit of `Abdu’l-Bahá to the United States and to Washington specifically. He was the eldest son of Baha’i Faith’s founder, Bahá’u'lláh.
`Abdu’l-Bahá recited a prayer at the Church of Our Father (Universalist) the predecessor to Universalist National Memorial Church; the building is now demolished, so the Baha’is visits (and repeated the prayer) at UNMC because, as one of their number said, “the spirit” of the old church “is here.”
Following up on the last post. Back in 1939, Universalist National Memorial Church (evidently) used the 1917 Universalist Hymns of the Church — not a well-loved hymnal in its own day if sales figures indicate. (The older Church Harmonies dominated until Hymns of the Spirit.) It was probably too formal for most Universalist churches, so well-pitched for “the Washington parish.”
Here’s what they sung that day. Quite a typical assortment of liberal hymnody.
A few people — including some of my dear readers — know I’ve been attending Universalist National Memorial Church regularly for a few months after having not been after the end of my pastorate (2000-2003) there. It feels good and it feel right; it is also the best church experience I’ve had in Washington in years, and I’m enjoying my time in the pew.
They’re doing some noteworthy things which should bear fruit, but more about that later. Suffice it today to note exterior masonry repairs which (I gather) should put some damage right, both to correct bad past repairs and more recent earthquake damage.
While some of your favorite sites are down — a very severe storm blew through metro Washington, D.C. last night, disabling an Amazon cloud computing center in the ‘burbs — let me ask a question that has been bothering me since the UUA General Assembly: just what do you think the purpose of a church is? Not the UUA, but the particular church. Opinions requested.