Recovering an "Older Unity"

"We know that some of you, called by the Pentagon, have opted instead for the Pentateuch." It was a sobering greeting for my incoming class at the Lutheran Seminary at Philadelphia. I was the oddball, straight from a conversion experience during an anti-racism seminar held in the "occupied" Washington, D.C., of 1968. The doyens of Confessionalism welcomed me to privileged 4-D status, higher biblical criticism, and a "professional school" atmosphere more likely to foster debates about clergy salaries than about the connections between institutionalized racism and the war.

By internship time I had serious doubts about God, the institutional church, and my place in it. Pastor Bob Neumeier, founding director of the Center City Lutheran Parish, listened to my story, invited me down to his Center City office, and introduced me to Jim Littrell, a young, bearded Episcopal priest in clerical collar and lumberjack shirt who had received a call from the Diocese of Pennsylvania to start a street ministry. I was granted an internship in the Episcopal Church of anti-war activist Father David Gracie and Bishop Bob Dewitt. While most of the Lutherans I knew were busy debating "situation ethics" in classrooms and pulpits, the Episcopalians I knew were burning draft cards on JFK plaza and building working relationships with activists like Sister Falakah Fatah and the House of Umoja.

Littrell helped me see the biblical narrative on the street. Neumeier taught me how congregations "embody" their ethnically and economically marginalized neighborhoods. DeWitt and Lutheran Bishop Harold Janson showed me that venerated church leaders could "lift high the cross" in the face of monied resistance. Building community with street people taught us middle-class idealists and radical wannabes that our pretensions needed to be crucified alongside the hopelessness of our would-be "clients."

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1998
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