I just spent two remarkable days in Rochester, New York with the grown-ups in and around its institutions of healing and learning. It was cold; the wind off the lakes gave the first early snow of the season. At one time this part of the country had seen such intense revivals that it was referred to as “burned over.” But Colgate Rochester School of Divinity, University of Rochester School of Medicine and its affiliated hospitals, Strong and Rochester General were warming things up and it felt like home. This was the home of my great uncle, Jessie Hurlburt the last ordained family member and the author of Hurlburt’s Stories of the Bible which my mother remembered hearing in draft form sitting on his lap. But I am more influenced by Walter Rauschenbusch who gave voice to the Social Gospel who taught at the Divinity School here.
Rochester knows a lot about how faith can shape politics for good. But it also knows to be suspicious of it and its capacity to make people mean and foolish. Susan B Anthony and Fredrick Douglas are buried here after a life of battle with those who used the language of faith as weapons against the future. Dr. King went to school here and learned much. Dr. Marvin McMiclkle is the new president raising up another generation, hoping for another young Martin.
Rochester was the proud home of Xerox and Kodak and the Erie Canal and remains the home of mystifyingly enduring racial disparities despite the fact the largest employers are some of the finest healthcare organizations in the world. Rev. Wade Norwood led 27 faith and community leaders to ponder how such an array of assets could be mobilized to finish the job Rauschenbusch and his friends started a hundred years ago.
Rev Bobby Baker and I were invited to facilitate conversations about what how the array of health and faith assets could find new energy and vision for what is possible. This city has taught the rest of us so much about what faith can do when organized and aligned with the best of a generations’ science. It is always hardest to remember those lessons in one’s own place, so it was helpful for two visitors from other tough cities to remind them of we learned from them.
They had heard of the hundreds of congregations aligned with the Beloved Community in Memphis. And they had heard about the rising up of the Environmental Services Workers at Wake Forest. So Chaplain Bill Reynolds helped them boldly open up the lecture hall in the heart of medical learning for a panel drawn from the Environmental Workers, interpreters and unit secretaries– for them to serve as faculty. Physicians, executives, brilliant students and community clergy listened, then engaged, the men and women normally only free to be brilliant among themselves.
We gathered in the name of Janice Lynn Cohen who died at 9, but lives through the fidelity of her parents to nurture her memory for 33-years through a lecture series named after her. We also heard the name of 15-year old TeJean Williams who died as he threw his body in the line of fire in front of his grandmother just a couple of days before Bobby and I landed. The room was thick with lament for the two too-short lives. And yet we could see the other grown-ups leaning in, daring to hear. The CEO, Dr. Berk, came briefed to talk, but quietly listened as we all did, letting it in.
Does faith offer up anything of use in such times as these? Does it help grown-ups do our job of creating the structures and systems that give hope a better chance?
Bobby preached at the Colgate Chapel with a new social gospel illuminated by John 9 story of Jesus releasing Lazarus from the tomb. He told the story through the Leading Causes of Life, so we also used them as lens to focus the panel in the medical school. There was a lot of life to hear.
The most basic spiritual competency is the capacity to listen to the whole life of the patient, colleague, friend, community in front of our eyes. We did that together as we listened to each other in the presence of these two children.
We need another competency that is hard and indeed very hard for many of us: to appreciate the limitations of one’s own history. It is a painful path to appreciate one’s own personal path of complicity with the patterns and powers and privileges so woven into the suffering. One would think that over time we would move toward maturity as we learn. But often what we learn is what we have been part of the wrong and the damage along the way. We –I–need to know forgiveness is possible in order for lament to not be the last word. That is not the last thing we need, of course. But it rolls away the stone, so Bobby Baker said in the chapel. It is never too late. Not while the spirit moves.