I finished my first Boston Marathon in 2002, running with two parishioners to raise funds for our church. The experience was exhilarating, and I’ve run the course six times since, relishing each year the cascade of powerful moments. Speaking as a preacher, the marathon was the sermonic gift that kept giving: the challenge of Heartbreak Hill, the boost even we slow runners get from cheering multitudes, the necessity of water and salty snacks. And Hebrews 12 gives us our text: “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us …”
With last year’s Boston Marathon, however, everything changed. Our church did have a runner in the race — he crossed the finish line six minutes before the first bomb exploded — but any interest in locating metaphorical gems was overshadowed by the real-time incursion of evil. Some parishioners knew victims, others were near the scene, and everybody joined in the immediate grieving of our city.
When we learned later that the perpetrators were Muslim, we felt another round of anguish, fearing that the incident could trigger a wave of religious prejudice and bigotry. Our Presbyterian congregation works closely with other churches, mosques and synagogues in the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) to address public issues like health, housing, and education. Along the way we have built relationships. A group of interfaith Boston clergy, in particular, has made it a priority to know each other, share stories, and build trust. With our congregations, we have worked over the last several years to knit a fabric of civic life.
The tragedy of last year dealt a blow to that fabric, but crucially, it did not rip us apart. In the wake of the marathon bombings we quickly and frequently connected by phone, in person, and through prayer. We attended each other’s services – it was my great privilege to offer a blessing in the city’s largest mosque — and in a remarkable GBIO gathering with two candidates for U.S. Senate in a Catholic church basement, some 300 Jews, Muslims, and Christians prayed one-to-one with and for each other.
Put another way, we “continued to run the race with perseverance.” Our faith-based work of strengthening the civic fabric of this magnificent city will persist. So will the Boston Marathon. For running preachers, the race is still the gift which keeps on giving.
Following that biblical charge in the twelfth chapter to keep running the race, Hebrews 13 spells out what such perseverance entails: “Let mutual love continue, show hospitality to strangers, … do good and share what you have …”
For people of faith, this is The Great Race, and it continues — building relationships, strengthening our city’s health, education and housing, knitting and re-knitting our civic fabric, letting mutual love continue.
I doubt that my aging knees will permit me to run many more marathons; but with my congregation, with my Jewish, Muslim, and Christian colleagues, and with my fellow Bostonians, I fully intend to keep running this greater race that God has set before us. May God guide our feet, our spirits, and our work.
Rev. Burns Stanfield has been the pastor of the Fourth Presbyterian Church in South Boston for the past 20 years while teaching at the Harvard Divinity School and Andover-Newton Theological Seminary. In the days that followed the Boston Marathon bombing Reverend Burns visited the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, the largest mosque in New England, to offer prayers and words of solidarity. Having run the Boston Marathon seven times Reverend Stanfield lives with his wife and three music-loving children in Milton.
This post was published in partnership with Shoulder to Shoulder.
Image: Silhouette of young man running, KieferPix / Shutterstock.com