“Stopped Into a Church …”

Tomorrow, at a local synagogue, Jeffrey is invited to make a few remarks after the morning service. It’s an opportunity to promote Human Rights First and the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition – that’s why we’re here! – so we’re staying in Knoxville again tonight.

Thus we had a chance to look around Knoxville a little, and for Jeffrey to stay in the shade on a hot afternoon.

We passed hundreds of churches and signs for churches – mostly Baptist – in the past few hundred miles. But we hadn’t yet asked a pastor about what’s on our minds.

Yesterday, Jeffrey was tempted to speak to a pastor attending the Prayer Day rally in Rutledge, but it was not the right moment.

Today, we set out to find a member of the clergy who could explain how Bible-believing folks in Tennessee can reconcile their faith with the mistreatment of foreigners that our government allows – even requires! – in their names.

Before we saw a church, we saw an old cemetery. It’s unclear whether it was sparsely used, or is so old that the open spaces used to be filled with stones that have crumbled or sunken.

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You can make out the name, but the inscriptions below it were impossible to read.

Some of the few legible markers were poignant.

The high point of this man’s life may have been his WWI military service. Almost fifty years later, that’s what his survivors chose to record.

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At best, this woman won’t be remembered much longer. The youngest person who could remember her – not her name, but her – is nearly 50 years old. (Is “Thy” an error or an unusual locution?)

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Thus fortified with anti-hubris medicine, we rode until we came upon Grassy Valley Baptist Church. A few cars were in the lot, but the doors were locked and there were no signs of activity.

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So we looked for another church. This Presbyterian church was open. Jeffrey walked right in.

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Meet Rev. Dr. Augusta B. “Miki” Vanderbilt. No, she’s not one of those Vanderbilts.

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Pastor Vanderbilt was preparing to conduct a funeral. Yet she very kindly took the time to talk about local pastors’ attitudes toward Tennessee’s ongoing “crackdown” on its small number of unauthorized immigrants. (It’s hot news around here. This is the front page of today’s local paper.)

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Pastor Vanderbilt shared a significant insight. She said local people take religion seriously. At the same time, they are intensely patriotic. They are uncomfortable when the demands of religion conflict with the demands of the state. Rev. Vanderbilt pointed out that Jesus often was at odds with secular authorities – but then, Jesus did not try to serve two Masters.

Asked whether local clergy protest national and state anti-immigrant policy as against God’s law, she said many pastors are vocal advocates of human rights and respect for all. But clergy are fallible like the rest of us, and some may fear telling truths their congregations – their employers – don’t want to hear. Some pastors may even support immigration “crackdowns”, although it’s hard to imagine on what basis. Many churches are independent, so there is some of this, some of that.

Pastor Vanderbilt made us a gift of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship. Pastor Bonhoeffer was imprisoned by the Nazis in April 1943 and hanged at Flossenburg concentration camp in April 1945, a few days before the camp was liberated. In 1940, when colleagues proposed that anti-Nazi activity be postponed “to avoid giving Hitler the air of a martyr,” Bonhoeffer said, “If we claim to be Christians, there is no room for expediency.”

One need not be Christian to understand Pastor Bonhoeffer’s remark.

The great USA is not execrable 1940s Germany – absolutely no comparison. But in every time and place, sincere belief must be lived, even at a price.

What we hope to see in this, our country of Believers, is for people of all faiths and philosophies to stand up and say, “We will have the same law for the alien and the citizen. We will not oppress the foreigner. We are better than the cruel laws – that contradict the Bible’s commands – passed by ignorant legislators and enforced by bullying executives.” When we say that, we will be better. And our country will be better too.

One thought on ““Stopped Into a Church …”

  1. Jeffrey, your ride is connecting wonderfully with local people, their beliefs and feelings about immigrants. Thanks so much.
    Ruth Shapiro

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