“To Walk in Faithfulness and Christian Love”: A Pastoral Letter on the Call to Anti-Racism at Plymouth Church
Grace to you and peace from the ministers of Plymouth Church! We count it a great joy to walk together with the people of Plymouth. And we hope this letter will help all of us find faithful paths as we wrestle with our calling to take up the work of anti-racism.
In November, Plymouth Church’s Board of Christian Social Action recommended to the Church Council that the congregation intensify its focus on systemic racism through enhanced education and public advocacy, including the possibility of displaying a Black Lives Matter banner on the exterior of the church. In January the Board of Christian Social Action will be hosting a series of informational meetings to explain its proposal, respond to questions and receive feedback from the congregation. We hope that all of the people of Plymouth will participate in these discussions.
We believe that this is an important conversation to have. Reasonable people can and will disagree about whether or not to hang a banner. But there are key theological issues at stake. As those who serve as pastors and teachers among you, we feel compelled to articulate some of our own core values. We hope that these principles will guide the conversation to come.
Black Lives Matter. These words are true –literally, factually and theologically true. As people of faith, as ministers of the Gospel, we affirm both the value of Black life and the urgency of proclaiming it.
The Scriptures teach us that human beings bear the image of God (Genesis 1:26) and that God’s love extends to the entire world (John 3:16). So when we have reason to suspect that human life is being devalued, our faith calls us to assert its worth all the more forcefully.
In 2013, George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. In response to yet another instance of our society’s apparent indifference to Black life, the hashtag #blacklivesmatter began to trend on social media. It has become a powerful rallying cry for those who insist on the worth and dignity of Black lives in the face of systemic racism. By systemic racism we mean to underscore the ways in which racist assumptions and practices are woven into our social fabric, including government, churches, schools and other institutions.
Systemic racism hurts people. Right here in Iowa, our Black neighbors are hurting. The median income for African-American households in Iowa is $28,425 (vs. $54,736 for all households). The poverty rate for the African Americans in Iowa is 36.1% (vs. 12.2% overall). According to Des Moines Register columnist Kyle Munson, African Americans are arrested nearly 10 times as often as people of other races in Iowa.
Our African-American neighbors have good reasons for wondering if we in fact value their lives. As a people committed to growing in love of our neighbors, we must insist that Black lives matter.
Plymouth Church Must Maintain its Commitment to Social Justice. From its beginning, Plymouth Church has been deeply engaged in work to make our society fairer and more just. Public advocacy for the common good is hard-wired into our church’s DNA. But every generation of Plymouth people must renew this commitment. As your ministers, we are called to lead you in claiming it as your own.
By social justice, we mean attending to the ways in which society is structured to deliver unequal outcomes: to privilege some and disadvantage others. For thousands of years, the Hebrew and Christian scriptures have declared God’s concern for fair and just dealings in our common life. The first law given to God’s people—the Torah, or first five books of our Bible—included instructions for tending to the well-being of the widow, the orphan and the resident alien. The prophets of the Hebrew Bible condemned wickedness in high places, denounced the exploitation of the poor and demanded just balances and scales in the market place.
This concern for justice has always been at the heart of Plymouth Church. When 10 Iowans made covenant with one another to found Plymouth in 1857, they committed themselves to work for the abolition of human slavery. Those who held slaves “in theory or in practice” were barred from membership in the new congregation. Over the next 160 years, Plymouth would lead the community in advocating for public education, low-income housing, interfaith cooperation, international peace, LGBTQ civil rights and other critical issues.
Our calling as ministers commits us, and our Christian faith compels us, to work with the people of Plymouth for a world in which all people receive fair treatment. Advocating for the worth and dignity of black life is exactly the kind of work that our founders intended Plymouth to do.
Plymouth Church Has a Lot of Work to Do on Racial Justice. Anti-racism can and should become a vital spiritual practice for Plymouth Church. This will cost us something. It will cost us our ignorance. It will cost us our comfort. But we believe the work is worth it.
Our faith teaches us that all of us sin and fall short of God’s glory, that there is no one righteous, not one (Romans 3:9, 23). But in the presence of a gracious God, confessing our very specific sins will help to heal us and set us free.
Plymouth is an overwhelmingly White congregation that is unaccustomed to discussing or acting on questions of racial justice. When faced with the prospect of uncomfortable dialogue, it is all too tempting to deflect, deny or avoid the matter at hand. We urge the people of Plymouth to resist this temptation and join us in the hard work of having difficult conversations. Self-examination and confession will result in real transformation and open up new possibilities. Joy awaits those who are willing to do the work.
Our Covenant Calls Us to On-going Discernment. We rejoice to see Plymouth Church grappling with the call to engage in anti-racist work. But we also admit that the way forward is not entirely clear. As a congregation, we can and we must talk to each other as we seek to discern the shape of our witness. We believe that Plymouth is called to public advocacy for racial justice; faithful people can disagree about whether or not to hang a banner on the exterior of the church. We look forward to further conversation.
Now Is the Time to Re-Commit to The Work of the Church. We have a tremendous opportunity to engage in meaningful work for racial justice, and we pray the people of Plymouth will seize this moment. We invite you, specifically:
- To join the conversation about our public witness. Participate in one of the Board of Christian Social Action’s information sessions. Gather information, ask questions, and share your feedback as we consider specific strategies for effective advocacy.
- To engage in work for social justice. Learn more about, and get involved with, our partners in doing this work: A–Mid-Iowa-Organizing-Strategy (AMOS) and Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ).
- To take on anti-racism as a spiritual practice. Sign-up for the upcoming Sacred Conversations on Race. Be on the lookout for opportunities to learn, read, discuss and grow together. Make a commitment in the New Year to do your own work and to seek racial justice in daily life.
- To show up for hard conversations. The covenant of Plymouth Church commits us to sometimes difficult dialogue: agreeing to differ, resolving to love and uniting to serve. In the spirit of our motto, we urge the people of Plymouth to stay in relationship and keep talking to one another about the things that challenge us.
Our church covenant invites us to walk together in faithfulness and Christian love. The work of walking together can be inspiring, lifting us up to new life, and it can be demanding, requiring that we grow in ways we had not expected. It is always deeply worthwhile. As we try to hear what our still-speaking God is saying, we are confident that the people of Plymouth Church can and will respond to God’s call with new and deeper forms of faithfulness.
We give thanks for the privilege of serving as your ministers and look forward to the work we will do together.
Grace and Peace,
Minister of Discipleship
Minister of Community Engagement
Minister of Care and Welcome
“African-Americans in Iowa: 2017.” Iowa Data Center. February, 2017. Available here: http://www.iowadatacenter.org/Publications/aaprofile2017.pdf
 “Black-White Disparities Persist in Iowa.” The Des Moines Register. July 12, 2015. Available here: https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/local/kyle-munson/2015/07/12/black-iowa-statistics-economics-incarceration/30059517/