I had the experience today of participating in Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church’s dedication of their new building, and then on a whim after that service, my wife and I went to the theater to see Dinesh D’Souza’s film “America.” The first experience was profoundly moving, and the second was very affirming in a powerful way when juxtaposed with the first, for reasons I’ll explain.
Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church is a black church that has met in the facilities of Grace Presbyterian Church, my church, for the past seven years. My church is mostly white, although we have a smattering of other races sporadically represented. During those seven years our church has lived harmoniously with Shiloh, meeting at different times of the day. We’ve had a few events and services together. Of note, we never charged (or even permitted) Shiloh to pay anything for the use of the facilities. There was never any dissension in our fellowship about this, or really ever any discussion: it was assumed to be the right thing to do.
I wept through much of the dedication service today. I wept when Shiloh’s pastor, Dr. Raymond Franklin, thanked Grace for allowing Shiloh to freely use the facilities for seven years. I wept when I heard about Shiloh’s rich 130 year history in Alexandria. I wept when Bob Vincent described how God first bound his heart together with that of one of the other black pastors, Freddie Banks, through a prayer time together where Bob unexpectedly found himself praying like a black preacher and Freddie’s tears covered Bob’s back in a kind of baptism. I wept as our church’s worship team sang two songs and our pastor, Bob Vincent, preached as the guest pastor. As my friend Dirk Margheim said, “our pastor did us proud.” He expounded on Matthew 16:18:
And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.
Bob pointed out that gates are defensive structures. He reminded us that when the church is on the defensive, she tends to lose, but on the offensive, she cannot be resisted. He used this as a charge to Shiloh to not sit back and relax in their new building, but to reach out to the community around them.
Near the end of the service, Pastor Freddie Banks stood up and said, “no other church in Alexandria would have done what Grace did for you.” I can’t remember if he said “no other white church,” but that’s what I thought he meant. I don’t know if he is right or wrong about that, but I think that was how he felt. Black and white churches are very far apart in so many ways; I hope he wasn’t right, but he could be. There were at least 12-15 other black pastors present for this dedication service. Ours was the only white pastor, and we were the only white people.
As we closed out the afternoon with a meal together in their new fellowship hall, I realized how much I was going to miss them. I thought we needed to look for ways to cooperate together in ministry.
Now for the second half of this story. As my wife and I headed home after the service and meal, we decided to see what was at the theater. We ended up going to Dinesh D’Souza’s film, “America,” mainly because it was starting in ten minutes. We knew almost nothing about it. We didn’t know that we were going in to a documentary-style, narrated film with a strong political message. (We had shunned his previous flick, “2016: Obama’s America,” and forgotten all about it.) Basically, this film seeks to refute the growing anti-American movement that has recast our nation’s history as overwhelmingly evil: we stole this country from the Native Americans and the Mexicans, we stole the lives and work product of the slaves, the rich only get rich on the backs of the poor, America is an evil imperialistic nation, etc. He affirms the wisdom of the constitution as providing the basis for the ultimate abolition of slavery, gives a defense of capitalism as the best means of egress from poverty of any secular system ever created, and then gives us some chilling warnings about the threats to our freedoms today.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
So today I experienced a worship service that both demonstrated the ability for the races to reconcile while also demonstrating how far apart the races can still remain, and watched a film that showed our nation’s troubled past, the amazing freedoms and opportunities available in this nation which are unique in the world’s history, and the dangers that still exist to those freedoms. We’ve come very far, yet have so far to go. Both settings served as powerful reminders to me of the grand stage of God’s work in his people: we have been saved by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross for our sins; we have been set free, but we struggle to work out that freedom in the day to day world; we still face great enemies in our own flesh, in the world’s system, and in the Enemy of our souls who would devour us if he could.
I don’t know how much longer our freedoms in this nation will last, or how long prosperity will be the rule rather than the exception. Both seem dangerously precarious. According to some, both are already gone, or perhaps never existed, but I don’t think people who claim such things really know what kind of poverty still prevails throughout most of the rest of the world. I do know the outcome of the spiritual battle: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. But days like today make me say all the more, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”