church, state, excuses and pretenses

Last night, the mayor held a town hall meeting here in Flint, which got ugly. You could argue that it was predestined to get ugly, given that it was about water, that people are still paying high rates for poisonous water, and that there is now an encampment in the city of people from outside the city whose mission has become water protecting/protesting, support/agitation, depending on whom you ask.

But the likelihood of ugly was increased by animosity of police, and by an administration that seems committed to avoiding questions and insisting its judgment be accepted on its face, an administration that doesn’t well countenance dissent.

If you want ugly, turns out, it’s not that hard to manufacture.

Today, in the post-mortem, folks are mostly blaming the venue. The town hall event was held at a church, which has led to cries across the city of “What about church and state?” A church isn’t the place for such a thing, they say. “Why not city hall?”

To be clear, the problem wasn’t that the event was held at a church, but that it was fashioned as church event. Indeed, after what was reported as a prelude of church music, the mayor began by “giving praises to my lord and savior,” by acknowledging all the clergy in attendance, by calling on one pastor to offer a (lengthy and quite sectarian) prayer, followed by a brief announcement from the police chief that un-church-like behaviors such as swearing or men wearing hats would not be permitted, and could in fact lead to expulsion or arrest. Which expulsion and arrests did, in fact, happen. The only thing that could have made it more church-y would have been to take up an offering.

“What about church and state?”

What about it?

The building isn’t the problem. City leadership is the problem.

As pastor of a congregation active in city issues, a congregation at home in a building often used for community events, and as a long-time pastor of churches where community things happen, let me say this: “church and state” is hardly ever about buildings.

Church buildings have a long, long history of usefulness as community venues – health fairs, polling places, town halls such as last night’s, community theatre, “meet the candidate” non-partisan events, “know your rights” forums, voter registrations, food pantries, non-religious day cares, parenting classes.

At Woodside, we have welcomed film-screenings, panel discussions, community forums and festivals, news conferences, protest staging, social service intake interviews, book groups, and a host of other important community events. When the water crisis was just becoming apparent, we invited multiple city and state leaders for conversation, as we tried to understand the situation.

Granted, we choose these community events based on our vision of the common good (so white supremacists, anti-Islam, anti-semitic or anti-LGBT groups would not be allowed to rally in our space), but we do not require folks to adopt a certain set of beliefs or behaviors to attend these vital community functions.

Church buildings are not the problem.

Conversely, I would argue, churches have a responsibility to be available for community events, given the reality that we pay zero property taxes – ZERO property taxes – for the space we take up and the community’s services we use, including the police, the fire and ems, street lights and sidewalks, and clean water (hypothetically). We are exempt from all these costs, and I believe we owe something back to the community that allows us to exist on its dime. Church buildings, then, belong, at least in part, to the commons. If you want to tackle the “church and state” problem, better would be to start with reforming our tax laws so our communities are no longer underwriting our religious existence.

“No hats in church” may be a righteous rule for a church event, depending on the church, but it is not a fair rule – or perhaps even a constitutional one – to impose on folks who just want to hear from their mayor. Why not prohibit tattoos or afros or piercings or leggings or paisley?

“No swearing” may be reasonable for a church, although I’ve been known to swear myself, even from the pulpit, as have some of the most powerful preachers I know; but it is a ridiculous (and, again, perhaps unconstitutional) line to draw when you’re dealing with people who are still, three years later, unable to use their water. We’ve flat run out of nice.

The mayor has a responsibility to be accessible – which means making herself available in the least restrictive environment possible. As soon as she takes her official seat in a public forum, wherever it is located, that space becomes an extension of the mayor’s office, which is itself a public space, a space belonging to all of us, a space where no one set of faith-based sensibilities gets to make the rules.

There is a lot to worry about in Flint, including the state of our water and the state of our democracy. But to lay the blame wholesale at the church door is an utter misdirection and lets our city leaders off the hook.

And, if you think we still need to be respectful of a host congregation’s faith, I’d like to point to the undisputed center of the Church’s faith, the presumed model for Christian living: a man regularly criticized for his manners when what really bothered the authorities was his politics.


About Deb Conrad
I’m Deb Conrad, pastor, teacher, photographer, writer, antique-lover, cat-mom, wine-drinker and old-house-seeker. I have a bike by Burley and knees by Stryker. I play guitar marginally, bowl when I can. I live in Flint, Michigan, with previous lives in SC, NJ, PA, MD, Washington DC, TX, CA and KY. I founded and still help run UrbanSpirit, a poverty education center in Louisville (link below), where I meet interesting people and try to do what I can to change the world. I'm pastor of Woodside Church in Flint, a groovy place if ever there was one.

4 Responses to church, state, excuses and pretenses

  1. douglas jones says:

    I would go a step further and point out that there is frequent invocation of god’s blessings at many public meetings of the ‘common.’ To my way of thinking, this should stop. It implies that all in attendance from the common wish that blessing and nothing could be further from the statistical fact. If the public official, in this case the mayor, wishes a moment with their spiritual leader, then they should do so in private, detached from the common. And, really, does anyone actually believe that god will bless all of America? As many if not all countries, large organized social gatherings in common, must first take responsibility for their own collective actions before turning to any other sources of redemption. Correcting this confusion of “church and state” could conceivably go a long way to improving civic duty and participation.


    • Deb Conrad says:

      Thanks for your thoughts. I think stopping these kinds of “official” prayers would be a good thing, a recognition of the diversity of America. But, sadly, I don’t expect it to happen.

  2. Jackie Pemberton says:

    Very well said, thank you for speaking up!

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