Kum Ba Ya: A Plea for God’s Presence

We’ve all heard people make fun of a Kum Ba Ya moment—times when somebody thinks a corny little song means we’re glossing over the harsh realities of the world and having a feel-good moment instead of taking real action.

I see that differently after listening, a couple of weeks ago, when Krista Tippett replayed an interview with a former civil rights activist on her NPR show On Being. Tippett, who will speak here at First Presbyterian Church in April as part of our Willard Lecture series, had interviewed Vincent Harding, a leading voice in the civil rights movement of the 1960s and beyond. Krista Tippett describes Mr. Harding, who died in 2014, like this:

He was wise about how the Civil Rights vision might speak to 21st century realities. Vincent Harding pursued this by way of patient yet passionate cross-cultural, cross-generational relationship. The Civil Rights Movement, he reminded us, was spiritually as well as politically vigorous; it aspired to a “beloved community,” not merely a tolerant integrated society.

At one point in the interview, Mr. Harding was talking about some of the songs that were a part of the Civil Rights Movement, songs like We Shall Not Be Moved and This Little Light of Mine. Then he talked about how the experience of singing that song in the African American church had become something people made fun of. He told a story that shed new light on the old song from Africa.

Whenever somebody jokes about Kum Ba Ya, my mind goes back to the Mississippi summer experience where the movement folks in Mississippi were inviting co-workers to come from all over the country, especially student types, to come and help in the process of voter registration, and Freedom School teaching, and taking great risks on behalf of the transformation of that state and of this nation. There were two weeks of orientation. The first week was the week in which (Michael) Schwerner and (Andrew) Goodman and their beloved brother Jimmy (Chaney) were there. And it was during the time that they had left the campus that they were first arrested, then released, and then murdered.

The word came back to us at the orientation that the three of them had not been heard from. Bob Moses, the magnificent leader of so much of the work in Mississippi, got up and told these hundreds of predominantly white young people that, if any of them felt that at this point they needed to return home or to their schools, we would not think less of them at all, but would be grateful to them for how far they had come.

But he said let’s take a couple of hours just for people to spend time talking on the phone with parents or whoever to try to make this decision and make it now. What I found as I moved around among the small groups that began to gather together to help each other was that, in group after group, people were singing Kum Ba Ya. “Come by here, my Lord, somebody’s missing, Lord, come by here. We all need you, Lord, come by here.”

I could never laugh at Kum Ba Ya moments after that because I saw then that almost no one went home from there. They were going to continue on the path that they had committed themselves to. And a great part of the reason why they were able to do that was because of the strength and the power and the commitment that had been gained through that experience of just singing together Kum Ba Ya.

There are so many places in our world and in our lives here in 2016 where we desperately need God’s presence. There are global issues—Syria, Isis. There are national issues—racism, economic inequity, political division. There are local issues—schools, affordable housing. There are personal issues—health, family.

For me, this is one of those times when we need to pray Kum Ba Ya—Come by here, Lord. Take a moment and think about some of those areas when we long for God to be present.

Kum bah ya, my Lord. Kum bah ya.

Someone’s crying, Lord. Kum bah ya.

Someone’s praying, Lord. Kum bah ya.

Someone’s singing, Lord. Kum bah ya.

O Lord, kum bah ya.

– Chuck Williamson

Read more about the history of this song as a plea for God’s intervention  from a generation of African Americans.

Our Letter to First United Presbyterian Church

On Sunday, November 13, First United Presbyterian Church–our sister church in Center City–celebrated its 150th Anniversary with an uplifting service that remembered, rejoiced and rededicated. FUPC traces its roots to the black parishioners who left our church in 1866, after the Civil War. 

Below is a letter written by our Session and read by the Reverend Erika Funk during the service. After you’ve read the letter, you may want to visit our Facebook page and browse through the photo album from the day. Even if you aren’t a member of Facebook, you should be able to follow the link and view the photos.

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

The pastors, officers and members of First Presbyterian Church Charlotte rejoice with the pastors, officers and members of First United Presbyterian Church on the occasion of your 150th anniversary. We recognize the significance of this milestone, and thank God for sustaining you as a congregation. You serve as a shining example of servant leaders in Christ—a beacon of grace, perseverance and warm welcome to those who pass through your doors and enter into worship with you. Despite the many challenges you and your forebears have faced over the past 150 years, you have stood strong in the Lord and in God’s mighty power. You have forged ahead in the face of uncertainty and difficulty. Thank you for being a witness to and for the love, the power and the faithfulness of God. God has been faithful—and so have you.

We are grateful for the growing bonds of friendship and the deepening relationships that are forming between our churches, especially in the past six or seven years. We are hopeful that we can foster deeper connections and strengthen the ties that connect our congregations to each other.

Even as we celebrate the faith, dedication and love that have sustained First United Presbyterian Church for 150 years, we acknowledge that there have been acts of racism, prejudice, indignity and indifference perpetrated by members of our congregation, acts that contributed to the separation of our two congregations. We recognize that the separation still exists in the present day. We apologize for all that we have done, and all that we have not done, that has given rise to and perpetuated division between our two communities of faith. We humbly pray that the Holy Spirit will lead us to true and complete reconciliation.

As you look toward the future God has for you in building God’s kingdom here in Charlotte, we commit ourselves to pray for you and we hope there will be many opportunities for us to work alongside you in your ministry, here in the city and beyond.

May God continue to richly bless and prosper your ministry and your entire congregation, and may you have many more years of worship, growth and service—all for the glory of God and the furtherance of the work of God in the world.

Grace and peace to you all.

– Brent A. Torstrick, Clerk of Session, First Presbyterian Church, Charlotte

The FUPC/FPC Partnership Ministry Team, a group of 16 people from both churches working toward reconciliation between our churches, wishes to thank everyone who participated in this historic event.

 

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From Our Home to Theirs: Trusting that God Provides

Pen mug 7-16I give you a new commandment: that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, so you ought to love one another. (John 13:34)

Our focus and goal in this year’s annual stewardship campaign is to increase our commitment to care for our neighbors:

  • through a commitment to support Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools;
  • providing more affordable housing for families in danger of falling into homelessness;
  • supporting a medical clinic in Bayonnais, Haiti;
  • an investment in the Villa Infantil de Maya in Mexico;
  • sponsorship of mission co-workers in Havana, Cuba;
  • and upgraded infrastructure for Friendship Trays as they provide meals for the homebound in the Charlotte area.

In order for us to meet these goals two things have to happen: you and I need to share our financial resources with the church, and the church needs to trim the amount of money we spend inside our gates.  Our leadership has a plan to achieve the latter (trimming our expenses).  It’s up to you to deliver on the former (by making a pledge).

This Sunday (October 30), you are invited to bring your pledge card with you to worship.  During the final hymn, you’ll be asked to make your financial commitment by placing your pledge card in baskets on the communion table. (We’ll also have I Pledged cards for all who have pledged already by mail or online.)

What I want you to know is that when you make that commitment this Sunday it is about a whole lot more than making sure our church meets its budget for next year. It is even about a whole lot more than our desire to increase our commitment to outreach.

At the core, committing to give your money for ministry in Christ’s name is how you demonstrate your trust that God can and will provide…for you and for your neighbors.

One of my favorite teachers believes the great test of life and of faith is for us to decide what narrative we will believe: a narrative of scarcity—that there’s not enough to go around—or a narrative of abundance—that God provides us with more than enough.

The reason Lindsey and I make it a point to stretch ourselves a little bit more each year around stewardship season is because we have found joy in discovering—again and again—that our God is a God of abundance.

– Pen Peery

A History Nerd Looks at Judgment, Forgiveness and Knocking Down Barriers

chuck-williamsonIt seems that lately I’ve been spending a lot of time in the 1800s.

First, I’m in a book group that just finished reading Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (on which the hit Broadway musical is based). And second, out of curiosity, I’ve been rummaging through our church’s archives, reading Miss Madeline Orr’s history of FPC, as well as our Session minutes from the 1850s.

Yes, I’m a history nerd.

Spoiler alert: Alexander Hamilton dies in the end. Here’s how Chernow describes Hamilton’s last hours. He says that Hamilton, who late in life found faith in God, was “preoccupied with spiritual matters.” From his death bed, he asked that someone call the Rev. Benjamin Moore, rector of Trinity Church, to bring communion. When Rev. Moore arrived, he refused to comply with the request because Hamilton “had not been a regular churchgoer.” In desperation, Hamilton then turned to a friend, John Mason, who was a Presbyterian pastor, and made the same request. Rev. Mason also refused because “private communion” was against Presbyterian polity.

Something about this scene makes me very sad. Here was a man seeking comfort and an experience of God’s grace in his dying hours, and pastors refused because Hamilton did not come up to their standards, didn’t meet their rules.

I would like to think that incidents like this were rare, isolated. But it seems that was not so.

In 1855, the Session of our church called “Mr. _____” to appear before the Session to give answer to a charge of the sin of “intemperance.” The accused appeared and acknowledged the sin, “expressed a deep feeling of sorrow and penitence on account of it, and a firm determination in dependence upon divine aid to abstain from that vice hereafter.”

The minutes of the meeting continue: “The members of the Session urged on him the importance of living a consistent Christian life and attending regularly upon the ordinances of God’s house. The Session then, on account of the recency and notoriety of the offense, advised the accused to absent himself from the communion table on the following Sabbath.”

This member came before the session with a penitent heart, seeking forgiveness. What he got instead was judgment. Apparently, the Session was not willing to forgive the offence because of the “notoriety”, which meant that people might think them soft on sinners. So they temporarily excommunicated him.

There was a time in our church’s life when, in the days before communion was to be celebrated in worship, elders from the church would visit the members and examine them on their faith and practice. Those members who were found worthy would be given a communion token, and on the following Sunday only those with a token were permitted to take communion. No token…no communion.

I’m glad those days are gone. Yet there are still so many times that we let our judgments of others keep us from reaching out to them and welcoming them and caring for them.

I ask God for forgiveness for those times when my judgments of others create a barrier. And I pray that God will show me how to knock those barriers down.

– Chuck Williamson

Discomfort: The Soil from which Transformation Grows

Pen mug 7-16Last week, in the wake of the protests in uptown Charlotte, I’ve never been so clear that our church’s geography plays a big part in our mission. God planted us here in the center of town 195 years ago for a reason.

God needs First Presbyterian Church to be a place of healing and reconciliation. We must be a place where there is honest speech about brokenness and pain. We are called to demonstrate what the good news of the gospel looks like by the ways that we worship with, serve, learn from and provide welcome to all of those who are seeking to connect to God in Jesus Christ.

Many times last week I was uncomfortable. I attended gatherings with other clergy and was uncomfortable with some of the anger I heard and experienced. I met a group of clergy uptown Thursday night to pray at the site where Justin Carr was shot the previous night. The protests were peaceful, but I felt unsettled as I walked the streets that are usually filled with cars and commerce. I was asked by community organizers to open our church up for a city-wide prayer vigil, as well as to provide access to our campus overnight for protestors to rest and re-group. This was a request I declined – it made me uncomfortable to do so, but not as uncomfortable as leaving our church home vulnerable.

Since last week I have both asked and been asked the question “what can we do?” A lot of my discomfort this past week has been not knowing exactly how to answer that question. I am built to try to find quick solutions. Yet the pain we saw on display in our streets last week is not a result of a one-time incident with a police officer and an African American man, nor is it solvable by a few concrete action steps.

Perhaps what we can “do” for the moment is feel uncomfortable. Maybe our discomfort is the soil from which transformation can grow.

One of the reasons I am confident God is at work among us – providing for us, loving us, challenging us – is because a host of events and experiences had already been planned before last week happened. These events will engage us in conversation about race, or difference. They are experiences that connect us with our neighborhood and our community. You can read more about these opportunities online and in this week’s eFirstNEWS.

My invitation to you is to show up at two or three of these events and see how they affect the discomfort you may be feeling at the moment. I suspect that God will use these next few weeks to transform all of our hearts – hopefully to the point that we will be ready to hear where God calls us to go next.

– Pen Peery

This Sunday: Comfort, Hope and a Glimpse of Healing

welcome-sign-croppedAs a church family whose home is in the heart of Charlotte, this has been a heartbreaking week. All of us have hurt and wept and prayed while seeking to understand how God would have us stand for Christ while violence disrupts the streets of our neighborhood.

So many things are unclear, and may continue to be for some time to come.  But this much is clear: The events of the week serve as evidence that there is much for us to do as a church in the center of our city.

Your clergy and staff want you to know that all is well here at the corner of Trade and Church streets. We want you to know that we are eager to gather as a family on Sunday morning, to take comfort in music, to find hope in the liturgy, and to glimpse healing in the warm welcome we always experience from one another.

After our services at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m., we will take time in the chapel for prayer for our city and for our neighbors as we all seek wisdom in answering God’s call to reconcile.

We hope to see you in worship on Sunday.

– Pen Peery, Katherine Kerr, Erika Funk, Katelyn Gordon, Chuck Williamson

aWake

Erika croppedOcean waves are intimidating. Growing up close enough to the Pacific to hear the waves crashing at night, I find the beach is a safe and familiar place. I also developed a healthy fear of the ocean.  Tsunamis, tidal waves, storms at sea filled my nightmares as a child. I will not see movies like The Perfect Storm or Titanic.  Sorry, George and Leo, your beauty is not enough to overcome my fears of giant waves and sinking ships.

But fears are worth confronting. And the sea has long been a symbol in the Judeo Christian faith for God’s mighty hand guiding a chaotic world. So a few years ago I had the word “aWake” tattooed on my wrist as a reminder of this. A “wake” is the joyous bump that comes after a wave.  Picture swimming in the ocean or a lake and the lovely little lift you get when a boat passes nearby. That is a “wake,” but you have to get in the water to enjoy it; in fact you have to get close enough to the larger waves to even feel that lift.

The psalmist sings of this wake in Psalm 57:

“Awake, my soul! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn. I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations. For your steadfast love is as high as the heavens; your faithfulness extends to the clouds. Be exalted, O God, above the heavens. Let your glory be over all the earth.”

When we draw ourselves near to God’s presence, even when it seems frightening or risky, we ride that wake. We receive a lift to our souls. To be awake as a Christian is to stay aware of the risks and dangers of the world but not be intimidated by them. Every week we are called into community worship carrying the burdens of the week and the hopefulness of our faith with us. I have heard people say that often times an hour on Sunday is not enough to sustain us and so FPC offers a second time of worship, every Wednesday at noon. It serves as another “bump”, another opportunity to lift our souls to God and be lifted up in spirit. We read scripture together, we sing songs and we pray for one another and the world.

Wednesday Worship kicks off September 7 and the new series is called Awake my soul. For seven weeks we’ll use a combination of scripture and top 40 songs to lift our spirits and open ourselves to God’s voice. Check out the playlist for the series, Awake my soul, on Spotify. And join us at noon on Wednesday to find out what we might learn from Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah.

– Erika Funk

Getting Hooked on Stories

Kyle Chandler as Coach Eric Taylor

I’m totally hooked on the TV show Friday Night Lights. Yes, I know the show has actually been off the air since 2011; I tend not to catch on to the good stuff until it’s released in box set. Thanks to the convenience of Netflix, I don’t have to wait a week to watch the next episode, so I’ve been watching an episode or two almost every night for the past few weeks.

It’s gotten to the point (the sad point?) where I think of the characters on the show as real people.  I find myself seeking out friends who’ve watched the show and saying things like, “Don’t you just love Matt Saracen?” Or “Buddy Garrity drives me crazy,” and “I can’t believe Lila did that!”  Events in everyday life make me think of something that happened two episodes ago, and I wonder WWCTD (What Would Coach Taylor Do?).  I bring up Friday Night Lights in conversation and encourage people who haven’t seen it to start watching it.

I’m now in the last season of the show, and I’m trying to slow myself down so I don’t get to the finale too soon.  I’m not ready for it to be over.As silly as it may seem to feel so strongly about a TV show and its characters, I’m guessing I’m not the only one.  Maybe for you it’s West Wing, Friends, LOST, Breaking Bad, or The Good Wife.  (If you’re a fellow Friday Night Lights groupie, let me know!)  Our love for these shows and their characters is a testament to the power of stories.  A good story captures our attention and sticks with us even when it’s over.  A good story can challenge us and inspire us to make a change in our lives, to work to heal a relationship, to try again.

This understanding of the power of stories is what’s behind “The Stories We Tell,” our formation theme this year.  As Christians, we learn and study the stories of the Bible, trusting that they help us better understand who we are and who God is.  We share our own stories – stories of success and loss, stories of defining moments in our lives and of mundane daily routines – and we listen to the stories of others.

The more I think about it, the more I think that story may be one of the greatest gifts we share with each other as the church.  This community is one where we practice being honest about our own stories and where we open ourselves to being transformed by the stories of Scripture and our neighbors.

As we begin this new program year at FPC, I hope you’ll find a place to connect with the story of our church and our ministries and a place to share your own story.  Personally, I can’t wait to see what happens next in the story God is telling through the people of First Presbyterian.

– Katelyn Gordon

What’s Up in the Kitchen? More Than Just Food

Nick Kepp cropped

Nick Kepp Chef, Eat@First

As a professional cook, my focus when I’m in the kitchen is constantly changing.

In the beginning, my focus was very narrow, almost as if my white jacket and the bandana I used to wear before I cut my hair so short had come with a pair of blinders. Those blinders directed my view to a very specific spot. Let’s call it the Don’t Screw Up and Get Yelled At spot. I suppose a lot of us focus on that spot early on, no matter what career we’re in.

Once cooks get that down, our focus begins to change as we think about creating new flavors and dishes, being different, having our own style.

Then, as we gain more control over that area, our focus broadens more. The focus may evolve into creating a great experience as a whole, understanding now that the bigger picture includes more than food on a plate. The bigger picture involves how a server interacts with guests, the timing of food coming to the table, the ambiance of the dining room, the music, the temperature and so much more.

After that is locked down, the focus broadens even more. Cooks who really get the power of food begin to focus on how food impacts their community, outside the walls of the kitchen, the dining room, the business.

This is where I am at now. I feel I skipped a few steps as a technician of food because cooking here at First Presbyterian Church challenged me very quickly to broaden my viewpoint and mindset beyond just the food on the plate.  Today I view food as a catalyst to provide fellowship, to help establish relationships with those in need, to support a community, and (most importantly) bring people together.

The impact I wish to make has more to do with people and their stories than it does items on a menu.  My focus as a cook is to use my gift to bring people together, to break bread together, and to impact each other’s lives through our interactions around the table.

I have been passionate about food for many years now.  It has taken this long for me to mature enough to realize that what is on the plate isn’t the most important thing about being a cook; what’s most important is how the food acts as a catalyst to have impact on the community.

– Nick Kepp