What we do over and over shapes us in ways deeper than words can capture. Weekly rituals form us, nurture our souls, give rise to how we understand humanity — our own and the humanity of others. We literally become the practices, prayers, and postures our bodies repeatedly engage in.
That is what I kept thinking about as I lay awake in anguish last summer, right after the first round of reporting on family separations at the border. Those chilling images flooded our collective consciousness: toddlers shrieking while horrified parents looked on, close-ups of tiny fingers clinging to the wires of cages, wide-angle shots of little bodies curled up shivering on concrete floors. Night after night these images replayed in my mind making sleep impossible. I know I wasn’t the only one.
But immigration is just one of the crises keeping so many of us awake. For a long time now, respected figures from both political parties have been sounding alarm bells about what’s happening in the U.S. From the corruption to the pathological lying to threats against the free press and so much more, this administration is threatening the very foundations of democracy.
Thankfully, there is no small measure of faith-led resistance taking place. Christians are mobilizing and organizing — visible at the national level and active locally (though we always need more).
But that’s not what I was asking about during those sleepless nights. I was asking, quite literally, about Sundays. I was worrying about that fundamental, formative work. What was happening inside the sanctuaries of predominantly and historically white congregations, in the week-in and week-out, mundane but oh-so-powerful, practices and postures of worship?
The thing was, I already knew the answer. I’ve heard endlessly from clergy and laity in such congregations that collective prayer, preaching, and worship have been difficult since the 2016 election. The difficulty goes all the way back to the vote, of course. We all know by now that whether Catholic, conservative, evangelical, mainline, or somewhere in between — even among the “liberals”— white folks sitting in the pews every Sunday enabled this administration to rise to power. Collectively, a majority of we white Christians voted for this man, this administration, and the agenda about which he was anything but silent before the election.
So now, here the church sits staring in the face of human rights violations being committed in our national name. Here we sit privy to the betrayal of anything we could possibly claim the gospel to be about — from the actual life story of Jesus and his dark-skinned, refugee family to the theological imperative to love one’s neighbor and stand with the most vulnerable. Here we sit bearing witness to breathtaking levels of racialized, religious violence being emboldened by this administration’s rhetoric and policies.
But rather than mounting a full-throttle, collective, and persistent public decrial of all of it, here we sit on Sunday mornings mostly vexed. We’re vexed because inside these same sanctuaries such human rights catastrophes present themselves as difficult political or partisan differences. And while our social justice committees might have permission to take up human rights, we dare not be partisan in worship.
This is a theological and ecclesial catastrophe of epic proportions.
If congregations sit vexed about how worship must change amid this white nationalist civic crisis, then we know the formation being accomplished in the mundane-work of weekly worship is positioning predominantly and historically white congregations to do little better than churches did in Germany in the 1930s.
In response to this crisis, a group of Iowa Christians from across the theological spectrum began to call one another and other Christians who are part of such congregations out of their/our buildings last fall.
We’ve been describing ourselves as We Are Church Confessing.
On the first Sunday each month, regardless of temperature, precipitation, or any other factor, we gather publicly to confess and bear witness. Each service is led by a different congregation or denominationally affiliated group and the liturgy then reflects these diverse traditions. But some elements remain consistent each service. We always begin by acknowledging we gather on land originally inhabited by the Báxoj'e, or Ioway Nation, and the Sauk and Meskwaki peoples. Our communal prayer laments the targeting of immigrant and Latinx communities, black communities, Indigenous/Native communities, religious minorities, and LGBTQ+ peoples even as we pray for these same communities and our fortitude to stand boldly with them. Our offering goes to a local group engaged in front lines work on family reunifications, DACA-renewals, and other forms of sanctuary support.
Fundamentally our worship posture is one of confession. We acknowledge the role of white Christians enabling this administration’s rise to power and the reality that racial, religious harms are being done in our name. But as we confess, we also bear witness to the sacredness of human life our tradition calls us to honor and protect, and against the powers-that-be that daily violate such human life and lives.
We Are Church Confessing isn’t a protest. It’s not partisan. We don’t have a list of specific demands and this crisis goes beyond political parties.
It is also resistance. Rejecting white Christian nationalism with integrity requires us to move outside of our sanctuaries so we can be seen. Because it’s public, our dissent and denouncement as Christians is being made visible to our civic neighbors in a time when white Christianity is far too bound up in and widely seen as complicit in the violence of this administration.
It’s resistance because the repeated practice of making oneself visible is itself spiritually formative. And if we literally become the prayers and postures our bodies repeatedly engage, vexed weekly worship, inside of sanctuaries, simply cannot feed nor form us in the ways we must be fed and re-formed. Rather, we know that publicly moving our bodies in ritual and prayer, putting them in postures of lament and dissent, is essential spiritual work in the context of this crisis. What and whom we center is transformed. Our orientation towards the work of conversion is re-calibrated and re-directed.
Many of us who gather as part We Are Church Confessing are also accompanying asylum seekers to ICE check-ins, fighting for anti-racial profiling legislation, and more. Our worship, then, also further galvanizes that work. It convenes us as praying community to deepen our bonds with one another and our spiritual resolve to live out the gospel call to work with and on behalf of those most at risk and harmed by all of this violence and degradation.
In Des Moines, Iowa, We Are Church Confessing is enabling the spiritual nurture “our souls must have” (to quote the late Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon) and our numbers reflect a local awareness that we really must have it. Such awareness and movement to go with it needs to grow across this nation if Christians in historically and predominantly white congregations are going to be the people we must become for those who are suffering the most.