A Need to Rest: Our Pastoral Response
Rev. Beth Hoffman Faeth; Rev. Seth Patterson; Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
June 19, 2022
Scripture: Romans 12:9–18
Beth Hoffman Faeth
For several weeks leading up to the Leadership Council’s meeting on Tuesday, June 14, clergy have been asked about our perspectives regarding the summer embroidery. Contrary to what some people believe, clergy have not stated publicly our personal feelings about whether to rest the fall or the summer embroideries. One can certainly make assumptions of our feelings based on the messages we preach and that which we say at board meetings and working groups. Yet, we intentionally did not speak out in a public way during our process in 2019. I am not here to defend or offer regret for that decision. It was not requested of us then. It has been requested of us now. Therefore the three of us all made a statement on Tuesday night—after every Leadership Council member present had been invited to speak and share their feelings. The three of us spoke in the order we are speaking to you today. Following the meeting and the vote, in order to be transparent, we felt it was important for you to hear what fills our hearts over the matter of the embroideries, which is why we pivoted quickly in our plans for today and are standing before you in this way. Our remarks will be brief, and we invite any of you to engage us in respectful conversation about our perspective in the days to come.
The Leadership Council meeting on Tuesday evening opened with our scripture text this morning, followed by a unison reading of the Purposes of the Church. In most Bibles, Romans 12: 9–18 comes with the heading, “Marks of a True Christian” or “Guidelines for Christian Living.” I have always thought these words are a covenant to life together in community: rules for our communal spiritual life and best practices for decision making, conflict mediation, and right relationship:
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal; be ardent in spirit; serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; pursue hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be arrogant, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
I hope it comes as no surprise that I approach the process and decision regarding the embroideries from a pastoral care perspective. You may tire of my mantras: “It’s all about relationship” and “Everyone has a story and every story is sacred,” yet one of the gifts of this discernment process is that we have heard a lot of stories—stories about what it was like to gather weekly and bond with other women over needle and thread. How those times together were life sustaining and the relationships the Needlers built became for many of them a saving grace. We have heard stories of the pride people felt to “show off” these extraordinary pieces of art to family members and guests, knowing that Plymouth women had created these one-of-a-kind pieces. We have heard about how the embroideries were featured in national publications and documentaries, and we have heard that even with all the celebration around each finished embroidery, some of the Needlers felt their work not taken seriously; their artisanship reduced to craft rather than art; their honor, as women, diminished in this congregation and not taken seriously: stories of both pride and pain.
We have also heard from many (not just a few, but many) about how some of the images in the embroidery cause deep visceral pain: representations of people of color inconsistent with reality, caricatures that have been used for centuries to tell an untrue story, reminders (regardless of intention) of slavery and lynchings, capitalist power and manifest destiny—trauma-inducing imagery. And with each of these testimonies comes the overwhelming question about whether one feels safe in a space that proclaims to welcome all and amplify love.
I recently had a conversation with a member of the church, a member this congregation sent out into the world confirming their gifts for ministry and promising their continued support, who hasn’t come back to Plymouth because they are unable to reconcile the embroidery images with the messages of Black Lives Matter and All are Welcome Here that also hang on our walls. “As a person of color,” they said, “I do not know if I am safe at Plymouth anymore.” Instead they feel betrayed and unwelcome.
When people use the word trauma, my ears open and my heart breaks. I trust that none of us take that word lightly. And for me, to know that the images in the summer embroidery induce a traumatic response in some leads my pastoral heart to question, “How do we offer care? How do we begin the necessary work of repair and restoration?”
We offer care by removing hurtful imagery.
We offer care by aligning our purposes with our actions.
We offer care by living into our mission that everyone is welcome here.
We offer care by making tangible change to become a safe space.
I believe we must rest the summer embroidery because to not do so would be contrary to the purposes of the church, and we would therefore become yet another church that cannot be trusted. We must rest the summer embroidery and begin the harder work of repair and restoration. To let our love be genuine, as scripture states, we must be open to change and we must risk loss. Needlers, I will continue to offer care to you, with a heart full of gratitude for your exquisite art and for your devotion to one another. I know many of you do not yet trust this, but resting the summer embroidery is not an indictment of you. Instead it is a necessary action for Plymouth to truly be who we say we are: a spiritual community fueled by love, honoring of each other, a safe space for authentic relationship grounded in God’s grace.
Almost four years ago I stood here and preached a sermon that formally began this church’s conversation about imagery presented in two of the embroideries that were hung in Guild Hall. In that time I have shown up to dozens of hours of conversation, acted as facilitator, teacher, listener, consultant, and pastor. I myself show up multiple times a year with some dedicated volunteers to lead the work of hanging and storing the embroideries. These pieces of art have taken a large piece of my work life in ways that I was not anticipating. And in all of that time, I have never publicly communicated my own thoughts. It feels strange to make that pivot today. This will be necessarily brief and therefore incomplete, so I am happy to talk with anyone about what I say or do not say this morning.
I urge us to support the resting of the summer embroidery indefinitely.
In my own mind, my identity as a theater artist is co-equal with my identity as a minister. As an artist and facilitator of arts, I see as foundational the impact that art can have on individuals and communities. Impact is the goal of art. Art is created to place something before you, inside you, a story or feeling that impacts you in some manner. Therefore, only the impact of art can be evaluated. Intention may be the engine of creation, but once it leaves your hands, voice, or body, all that remains is impact. And the impact of several images in the summer embroidery is to cause hurt, to remind people of their generational or historical traumas. It reminds me of some of the lies that I have been taught to distract me from the genocide, enslavement, and patriarchal colonization that I have inherited. I cannot change what has been done, but I can be responsible for what can be done about it now. Art is not meant to be permanent. Art is meant to tell a story for a purpose, and when that story is no longer helpful, then we begin again and present art that tells the story we wish to tell. That is the gift and the struggle of art-making.
Churches no longer enjoy the privilege of being trusted places in our communities. That is not the default any longer. We must now earn our trust. We must actively and continually work to prove that we are reliable and trustworthy and that this particular community will endeavor to be the kind of place that doesn’t minimize and marginalize and dehumanize. We have to do that work. I am in conversations frequently with potential and active partners in which I am asked to show our trustworthiness, to represent our commitment to abundant love. I do not know how to authentically indicate our trustworthiness if we choose to hang this piece of art while knowing the impacts of several images.
Anytime you put yourself out there and present something boldly, you run the risk that the impact will not be what you intended. This is the inherent risk of art. This is what we do in this pulpit every week and are doing today. This doesn’t mean that we stop being bold or avoid having any impact. Instead it means acting in love, kindness, and compassion, hoping that your impact matches your intention. It means listening when you hear otherwise. It means saying that you are sorry and asking what can we do to make it better.
DeWayne L. Davis
The success of historic firsts has mixed results. To inhabit this position in this body within this space is neither expected nor without risks.
You see, I have been conditioned to see my body as a problem. The Black body is an object of fear and vilification, for it has been a chattel body, an animalized body, a hypersexualized body, a dangerous body, and a criminal body. Accordingly, throughout my life, especially my professional life, I have had to do what many people of color are trained to do: If I wanted to survive or succeed, I had to understand and discern “every mood, manner, and motion of white people.” So, my every instinct in these types of discussions is to try not to upset the majority of people at Plymouth Church, who happen to be white, by parsing my words, trying desperately to know the contours of your interior lives, especially your fears, so that I can be truly accepted as your minister. My instinct is to censor my concerns and misgivings about the summer embroidery so that I won’t be seen as too sensitive or be dismissed as divisive or be seen as a problem. Accordingly, I usually leave the discussions for white people to hash out among themselves so that I can mitigate the risk of being a distraction or potentially a scapegoat.
Black people have paid a heavy price for asking institutions to rid themselves of traditions, practices, and privileges for the sake of making the traditionally excluded, marginalized, and others-not-thought-of truly welcomed into the space. I know from experience that to speak forcefully about changing what is traditional or what has been seen as normal to make room for others is to risk losing the benefit of the doubt that I am acting, above all else, to protect this church and its future.
But that is my first goal: to protect Plymouth Church’s witness, reputation, and moral authority in doing the work of justice.So, if you disagree with where I end up on this question, I pray that you see it through the prism of a minister who wants nothing more than his church to thrive, inspire, and be of service to as many people as we possibly can.
I know that I also stand athwart a powerful national, cultural narrative that privileges the triumphant history of an exceptional nation whose expressed ideals are to be celebrated regardless of its stunning, persistent failure to achieve them. Our public and spiritual imagination has been conditioned by normative constructs of race, gender, history, and sexuality. To center the voices and experiences of those on the margins who have been excluded, unseen, or unheard in our churches, communities, and government often feels like a threat to tradition or a diminution of the contributions of our forebears. Making room for the concerns and sensitivities of the marginalized body is disorienting. Stepping back or aside creates anxiety as well as a deep sense of loss. The world is changing, and I know it looks nothing like the world and community in which you were formed or you joined, when you did not have to care about what Black people thought or make room for others who did not look like you.
Some argue that to rest the summer embroidery is to turn away for the ugliness of history, to seek to hide the shadow periods of history, when we failed to live consistent with our ideals. I am a firm believer that we must face the ugliness and shadow side of history. We must necessarily amplify the silences that allowed us to deny, evade, and avoid the truth of what we have done and unearth the hidden history of all peoples and periods.
I visited the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture a few years back. I saw a display of iron coffles used to shackle the enslaved and horrific images of Emmett Till’s casket and preserved pictures of the burning Greenwood neighborhood in the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921. I visited the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial of Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, where I saw the names of Black Americans lynched in every state in the Union and the soil gathered from the sites of death and violence. My heart was heavy, and I carried the pain and hurt with me when I left. But I did not have to stay in those places. These museums are not my community of faith, and I do not have to see those images day in and day out, week after week in my community
There has been much talk about history. But history is as much the production of history as it is the transmission of knowledge. So, it cannot be denied that history, like theology, with its biases, omissions, and triumphalism, is too often presented as neutral and universal. When privilege and powerful people produce history, or narratives that rely on subjective historical examination, it is likely that that historical production will be in service to a story that inadvertently silence and misrepresent less powerful people. Not to mention that, even in careful production of our particular history, we have yet to lift up the experiences of Black people like Eliza Winston or William R. Morris, who both tell another, admirable side of Plymouth’s story.
Specifically, the summer embroidery celebrates through a particular narrative the First Amendment, but in doing so, it also speaks about and for bodies, especially the enslaved and Indigenous bodies, in ways that reinforce silences and misrepresentations that Black and Indigenous People have been working courageously to correct for years.
These representations in the summer embroidery were produced in a context of deafening silences about white supremacy, genocide and removal of Indigenous people, and persistent violence against women. I do not doubt that the visitors who are not represented in this embroidery, those who are white and American, will be touched by what they see, but will those images move them to interrogate the experience of the real bodies in our current context who continue to suffer from what violence, genocide, and white supremacy have wrought? What happens to the visitor who sees it? What happens to the visitor after they see it? If nothing happens, what can we say has been accomplished by displaying it? It would not be accurate to say that the embroidery as a historical production represents the experiences of Black people, Indigenous people, or women.
But there is another responsibility that Plymouth has that we ignore or deny at our peril: People in this community, institutions with whom we have historically collaborated, and partners in the work of ministry and justice expect us to lead with moral imagination and radical hospitality during a time of deep and destructive division and polarization. At our best, we have excelled in contributing to the needs of others, extending hospitality to strangers, taking thought of what is good and noble in the sight of our neighbors, and living peaceably with all. We run the risk of having our moral imagination co-opted by memories, traditions, and historical narratives that cannot make room for Black and Indigenous bodies and experiences. If we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, if we aspire to be one body in Christ discerning together what is good and acceptable service, we cannot hold onto a history whose very construction is founded upon silenced and misrepresented Black and Indigenous people as irrelevant or incidental to the story of America.
The one big lesson I have learned from Black and Indigenous people since I moved to Minnesota nearly nine years ago is that Minnesota is place smothering under the weight of decades of broken promises to Black and Indigenous communities. Minnesota leaders and institutions have mastered the language of reform, repair, and restitution to historically oppressed and underserved communities only to renege or refuse to make good on it. I do not want Plymouth Church to become one more institution promising to do justice and stand in solidarity with those on the margins but falling short and breaking faith when it interrupts our own comfort. In my time as Lead Minister with you, I have rejoiced with you, and I have wept with you. I believe and choose beloved community. I believe and choose Plymouth. I want the world to see us people of covenant, keeping faith with all God’s children.
Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 242.
From the Plymouth Congregational Church Governing Policies, section 4.6: “The Lead Minister shall not risk the reputation of the Church as an ethical organization of high moral standards within the community.”