Last Sunday was my church’s annual picnic, a day when worship leans toward the casual. Often on picnic Sundays, rather than preach a sermon themselves, our clergy suggest a topic and invite anyone present to say a few relevant words. This year the congregation was asked to speak a blessing for the children of the parish, or to name a way in which we can support their Christian formation.
The first person to speak was a woman I’ll call Louise. She sits across the aisle from me—both literally and politically. She said her blessing was that she had voted for candidate X because she believed him to be the best person to lead our nation and secure a safe future for our children. She looked a bit smug as she spoke, and perhaps she is entitled to. After all, her candidate won.
But I disagree strenuously with her politics, and her words hit me with the impact of a physical blow. My stomach lurched. My heart pounded. My breath grew tense and shallow. My jumbled thoughts about my reaction went something like this: I’m in church. How on earth can I suddenly feel so enraged by this woman’s words? Is this place not a sanctuary? When she speaks of “our” children, does she mean only the children of this parish, or only white children that look like her? Is she not cognizant of our country’s policy of separating immigrant children from their parents—the way we broke up Native families and slave families during some of the uglier parts of our history? Is she an idiot? Is she a racist? Is she even a Christian? Oh, dear God, help me. Save me from my rush to judgment and from my self-righteousness. Help me understand what to do with this bitterness I am feeling.
And then I found myself praying to be able to forgive her for her vote. I imagined the two of us standing together in the light of God, and I wondered what would happen if, in that light, I said to her, I forgive you for voting for X. How would she respond? Would she say she forgave me, too? Would we each then relax—and maybe even laugh? As I imagined and wondered, my breathing got a little easier.
That was my internal dialogue. What I said aloud, when it was my turn to speak, was that for me, one concrete way to bless the children of our parish was to support the on-going renovation of our youth group’s meeting space. Surely our young people are worthy of a safe and inviting gathering space in which they can explore their faith and deepen their relationships.
And then I said, “But aren’t other children worthy of the same? As much as I want to bless the children of this parish, I can’t do so without confessing how heartbroken I feel for all the children currently being separated from their parents at our southern border. I want to bless and support them, too, however I can.” I still felt angry and upset, but having spoken my truth, I felt a little less like I might keel over right there in the pew.
Then it was time for communion. Perhaps I should not have gone to the altar to receive the sacrament feeling the way I did. On the other hand, perhaps my bitter feelings were exactly why I needed to receive the sacrament. For repentance. For guidance. For help.
When the service was over, and everyone was leaving, Louise and I emerged from our opposite sides into the center aisle at the same time. “How are you this morning?” she said. “I’m struggling,” I responded. “What’s wrong?” she asked. “I’m trying to forgive you for voting for X,” I blurted out. “And I’m trying to forgive you for not voting for him,” she said. Sure enough, we both laughed, if a bit anxiously. After a few more exchanges that did little but point to how very far apart we are in our thinking, we agreed we would be willing to meet for lunch to talk further about our different points of view.
I told her I’d go home, see what the coming week looked like on my calendar, and give her a call. She said she would be out of town all week. Maybe the following week.
We left it at that.