Links: Connect with Rev. Dr. Susie Beil and Deanna Gemmer at Summit Ave Presbyterian Church.
You can read Seattle Presbytery's Rev. Eliana Maxim and their statement about the co-opting of Christian symbol's in Wednesday's attempted coup.
“Happy New Year!” is said with fear and trepidation according to Rev. Dr. Susie Beil.
Danielle acknowledges that we knew 2021 wouldn’t come with bells and whistles, all sparkly and shiny…
Susie jokes there’s a meme circulating around saying, “I’d like to cancel my subscription to 2021. I tried the seven day trial and I’m not interested.”
Maggie asks Susie and Deanna what it has been like as church leaders, watching and witnessing the events of Wednesday Jan 6th and how the local church has responded (or not) to the civil unrest.
Susie said they’ve been asking those questions themselves. In the age of online church, their church had already planned their service for Sunday Jan 10th by Tuesday the 5th and on Wednesday the 6th they were in the process of recording and editing. By Thursday at noon it was “in the can and ready to go” but as she kept checking news feeds and began to feel paralyzed and nauseous. She began checking in with their office manager, their worship leader and Deanna… Feeling numb.
“And we were all in shock. Like, ‘is this really happening?’” Deanna adds. Wednesday was Epiphany, a Christian holiday celebrating the kings/magi visit to baby Jesus, and she had posted on her social media asking what gifts we might bring to the newborn, reflecting on epiphany and what it means,,. And within 20 minutes she felt, “oh my gosh, that feels so not important any more.” She said she couldn’t look away as she watched the events unfold, wondering what was going to happen. “The numbness lingered for a few days.”
Susie said she and her husband watched the Senate debates later that evening. They felt sober and called their teenage boys to watch these historic moments with them. “We were glued to it. And I just felt like it was this moment where everything was on hold and there was nothing more important than paying attention to what was going on.” She said the first day was a rollercoaster of emotions; sorrow and nausea interspersed with moments of hope and inspiration spoken by a few senators and congress men and women.
Danielle gets a sense that as we attempt to talk about and process what has happened, that this is a national, collective and personal trauma. She says one of the first things that happens in a traumatic event is that we lose our ability to speak—there’s a sense of wordlessness and an inability to describe what has happened. We are still figuring out what happened to our bodies and to us as community even a week later.
Susie had a zoom meeting scheduled for 1/13 with local and national faith leaders on racial justice and as she was working with Karen Vargess, an African American Community organizer to help plan this event on 1/6. They just kept checking in with each other as the news unfolded, saying how shaken they felt. Within hours, Karen had been receiving calls from members of the Black community in Kitsap saying they were afraid and asking how they can keep their families safe.
Deanna says “it doesn’t feel like the trauma is over.” She says she hasn’t been able "let down" and doesn’t know when she’ll be able to let down. “I feel on high alert. I don’t believe this insurrection is over… and so I still feel very much on edge.” While in some ways they have begun to process just those few days but the larger themes are hard to process.
Maggie asked what happened as they knew going into Sunday the 10th that they had a pre-recorded message and still somehow it didn’t feel honoring to play it without acknowledging what had happened? What it was like for them as a church to offer space for their congregants to process.
Susie woke up Saturday morning with a sense of urgency in her spirit that they had to do something—they had to somehow gather people. She’d been receiving texts from church members and elders with anxiety and worry. “We need a space" she decided. After connecting with Deanna, she called an emergency “session” of the church elders to meet that night online. They wrestled with the discomfort that some people felt talking about politics as a church / at church. The question became, “How can we do this space well?”
Deanna said people were nervous and afraid. Some of them hadn’t had a chance to process either and so they came to session raw. They set ground rules at the beginning of the conversation and several times had to reinforce them during the session when they were broken. “It was a challenging space. It was not an easy consensus of ‘this is what needs to happen and this is how it needs to happen.’” She said there was a sense that we just need each other. We need to be together even when it’s hard.
Susie named that the verbal processing for the elders was necessary, they needed that for themselves first; "You could see it in their body language, even over zoom," and hear it in their voices. Susie said that as they gave space for the elders she could see that the process was good. They voted for holding a space for congregation on Sunday evening. They created a plan and gave the time structure, having already laid the ground work for the having difficult conversations with their "Church and Politics" class last year where they made rules of dialogue for faithful respectful interactions
Deanna also has been leading a Social Justice book club, spending most of 2020 reading books about racism and racial disparities. There were mostly white people in the book club and Deanna said it was helpful to have set some ground rules.
After agreeing to host space for people to process Wednesday’s events, the church announced it on social media and at the Sunday morning service. That night, 25% of their congregation showed up to this additional hour to engage and process, from ages 10 to 86!
As a local church apart of a larger denomination, they had a structure they leaned into. Susie says she has appreciated this so much about the Presbyterian Church — the process really helps. The denominational body had resources for them to use—the Seattle Presbytery released a statement as did the National denomination body and the National Council of Church.
They asked people to read the documents before coming to the event and said "we’re going to talk about these statements." It gave them something specific to process and not just talk about their feelings “willy nilly.” It was a way for everyone to have equal footing for engagement (helping to level out potential information gaps) and ask how are you feeling about how the church locally and nationally has responded.
Deanna seconded that the structure really helped for processing. When they had met with the elders the night before, they did not have all those pieces but instead just asked how people were doing, how they were feeling in their bodies. She said things went off the rails quick that way, so having the focus, structure and tools of the statements and ground rules made the space on Sunday night run more smoothly. They also had scripture to study in addition to the statements.
Danielle believes that this was very similar to what therapy offers:
Attunement - Attention to what is happening in the world collectively and locally in the community.
Containment - They provided parameters and structure for having hard conversations. These were set up long before in their church and it served them well in this time of crisis.
Repair - When the conversations needed a time out, they called a time out and worked through what happened.
Danielle says this is so much of what Jesus offers to us as well. What Summit did feels so caring and loving, not avoiding conversations but attuning and containing and repairing ruptures. This creates a way to cross the divide we are all feeling right now.
Susie says, “This is spiritual work. This is soul deep.” How are we calibrating to the human frequencies in us and around us?
Maggie asks if Susie and Deanna could share some of the ground rules they have used, not just in this setting, but in some of the other places in their ministry as they have engaged hard conversations.
Deanna said the other piece that helped, even though they did not change their Sunday worship plans because they wanted to honor the guest speaker they recorded, was that Susie recorded an introductory message that stated unequivocally that they things they witnessed on Wednesday were not of Jesus. It was a witness and a truth telling. Because of that, no one showed up to the processing space thinking there would be a debate about whether the insurrection was of Jesus or whether the actions were okay.
Danielle says a lot of what white supremacy wants us to believe is that we have to do it perfectly. And the structure allows you to make mistakes.
Susie noticed in the video footage and images the symbols of christianity were being co-opted. Bible verses, crosses, “Jesus saves.” Eliana Maxim, of the Seattle Presbytery, wrote a response that the symbols of the Christian faith had been desecrated and that we denounce that—that is not the Jesus we follow. The symbols of faith are sacred and important and to use them in defense of violence, “It was so violating.” Susie says “and yet somehow we’ve all been a part of it. We’ve all be complicit in some way” in White Nationalism, White Supremacy, in the idea that White Christianity is America and the best kind of America. “The Great White Christian America.” We have flavors of it in all our churches. It’s built up from years of not naming and denouncing it.
Maggie says it’s good to be speechless and to sit in that space. To process and lament. The Western church has lost the ability to offer communal lament. We somehow think that what Sunday morning church to be this “upper” but there is deep connectedness to lament. It is grieving, sorrow and solidarity. Maggie wonders what could that look like on a larger scale? Even being deeply impacted in Washington State by the events thousands of miles away in Washington DC, what does it look like for the universal church to engage the lament across the distance? How can we come along other church bodies and denominations across the nation who may not have the structure or format for providing space like the Presbyterian church does?
Deanna says most of us in America have been discipled towards an individual faith which makes it easy to put people who we disagree with over there and say, “that’s not me. That’s not us. That’s not our faith.” We need to reckon with ourselves — the first step to lament is repentance. The honesty—"this is me, I have that in me." This is us. We don’t know how to do that well in community. The Hebrew people understood that there was repentance needed not only for themselves but often for their ancestors.
Susie reminds us that it wasn’t JUST in the capitol in DC but also many state capitols across the nation were attacked. It wasn’t far away it was in our states, our communities. Susie shares a story about Deanna’s 11 year old daughter who participated in the processing space on Sunday night. She knows the grandson of Washington's Governor Jay Inslee and she said he was scared for his grandpa knowing that the governor’s mansion was under attack. This statement quieted the “zoom room” and brought tears to people’s eyes. "This is our homes, our children, this is our children’s friends… this is happening here."
Susie shared the ideas of Rev. Dr Denise Graves on apology. “Have people apologized yet?”
Where do we start with apologizing in racial justice work? Rev. Dr. Denise says it has to start with yourself.
I am sorry for ____
Please forgive me.
The impact of my actions / the things I have passed by and said nothing about __
I release myself to my highest and greatest good.
We need both repentance AND apology.
Danielle becomes aware of her own complicity in the empire that killed Jesus. It wasn’t just crucifying him, it was degradation of his body and utter humiliation.
There was real degradation and humiliation at the capitol. A sense of “I will defile you.” Deanna mentions the image of the man sitting in someone else’s desk with his feet on the desk.
Danielle says the temptation is to say “I am far from that. That’s not me.” But “the truth is I don’t want to see that could be me. Or that I have participated in harm towards other people’s bodies. And how that is actually defiling my own body.” It is not honoring the fearful and wonderful bodies that God gave us. It is a harming by ignorance and complicity.
Susie says it wasn’t just the co-opting of Christian Symbols that was disturbing and offensive but also the symbols of intimidation to people of color — the gallows/noose, the nazi shirts, the attack on the African American Museum, the language of white supremacy and white nationalism.
What do we do? We start local. Susie says check in with your people, look to national bodies to see what they are saying, but start with the people that God has put you in community with.
What are the next steps? Is it to issue a statement about stance on white nationalism about who we are? Writing a letter of protest? A letter of love and prayer for our elected representatives? These are tangibles things we can do — we can send cards and we can make phone calls.
Deanna said that at Summit they are starting a Just and Mercy Team for more conversations and actions within the community. Their book club is reading “I think you’re wrong, but I’m listening” on engaging loved ones on political conversations [Join the conversation on Jan 19th at 6:30pm].
Deanna says we must declare unequivocally that nationalism is a sin. Racism is a sin. White Supremacy is a sin. No more skirting around it as a church, people are looking to leaders right now. We need to say outright "These are not the things of Jesus!"
Maggie loves the invitation to start inside first. She says 2020 has brought us to look inward. We were forced slow down and actually be with ourselves; it was an invitation to pause and ask who are we called to be?
Susie leaves us with a meditation from Micah 6:8 God has shown us what to do. To do just, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.
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