SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER – C – April 28, 2019

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles 5:12-16
A reading from the Book of Revelation 1:9-11a, 12-13, 17-19
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 20:19-31

 

My dear Friends in Christ,

Isn’t it strange how memories of past events surface?  For me, those memories seem to be triggered by similar events, similar to those in now distant years.  I woke with a start and his name flashed through my mind, a name I hadn’t thought of for over forty years.  I remember the shock I felt when I first heard the news that he had been murdered by a shotgun blast as he peered from his front door on a snowy night in 1969.  He was a black man who lived in a mostly white neighborhood and was an activist for racial equality.  The killers had thrown a snowball against a window.  The sound alarmed his wife.  She peered through the bedroom window and saw the intruders hiding behind her husband’s car in the carport.  He went to the front door to investigate.  She cried out too late to alert him to the danger and heard the blast that killed him instantly.

I think of the historical events of those years and they seem remarkably similar to events in these times.  Violence ran rampant in the country.  Riots and demonstrations on college campuses and in city streets demanded that race relations and war be reconsidered.  John Kennedy’s slaying in Dallas ushered in an era of change the way, in the same year, that Vatican Council II opened windows and let the wind of renewal and change rush through the Church.  Then Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated.  Watts, Detroit, Selma, and other city’s found new fame as places where citizens banded together and stood in the face of police batons, snarling dogs, and the rush of water from fire hoses.  Kent State and other campuses experienced sit-ins.  Student demonstrations led to valence and bloodshed.  Pictures of anguished students crying out in the camera’s eye haunted all who saw them.  So did the picture of the naked and napalm-seared young girl running down a Viet Nam street shriek of the horrors of war.

Those years are distant now.  They were the years of my formation and the beginning of my priestly ministry.  It seemed that the church for which I was prepared in the seminary years ceased to be with the Council’s closing and the issuing of new foundational documents called Constitutions that called the Church as the People of God to a new springtime, a new Pentecost.  Pope Francis renews that call as he urges us to be a servant church, a poor church that ministers to the needs of the poor.  He challenges the bishops to be shepherds in the midst of the sheep.  Bishops and clergy should not see themselves as being over the people, but among them.  It seems to me that the pope is inviting that new Pentecost, that reformation that was proclaimed by the Council.

From this vantage point, Pentecost seems the most apt analogy.  We are used to sanitizing and tranquilizing Scriptural scenes – Pentecost among them.  There was the sound of a violent wind blowing in the place where they were, and over their heads appeared tongues as of fire.  Yet when we see stained glass or holy card representations of the scene, everything looks tranquil and serene without a hint of violence.  Looking back on those years and remembering the violence in the streets and the upheaval in the Church, I believe the world experienced the rush of the Spirit in those winds of change.  The winds continue to blow through the violence of the present times.  

Nothing would ever be the same, following the Council, no matter how nostalgically some would come to think of pre-conciliar days.  Those times may have seemed safer with people kept in their proper places, in an established hierarchy, and with roles carefully defined according to sex and race.  The evils of sexism and racism wore sanitized masks.  But the violence and the wind tore away those masks and Justice and Equality became the new catchwords to define the emerging era, and continue to define.  Pentecost is dangerous, as are hurricanes and forest fires.  We must remember that those who emerged from the first Pentecost could never go back to what they were before.  They had been transformed forever.  So were we who matured in the 1960s and experienced the new Pentecost.

Which brings me back to the man whose name came to me in the night 50 years after his murder.  He and I had appeared on a panel together to address the question of racial equality.  The Council document, The Church in the Modern World, called for us to be involved in societal change and to be engaged in the plea for justice.  To speak as part of that panel before an all white audience seemed like the right thing to do.  It was a packed house.  My co-panelist was the only African-American person in the room.  Several of us spoke in turn of our desire to see this new era of justice emerge and to see the crime of racism cease.  I cannot remember what I said.  I am sure it was safe and sanitized.  I was new to speaking out, new to the Church’s role as an implement of change in society.  I did not want to rankle the assembly.  Polite applause followed my remarks.  Then he spoke last.  I remember sitting in stunned attention as he lashed out at the establishment and at the Church for tolerating the abuses against which he now spoke.  It seemed like a call to anarchy for which I had not been warned.

He finished his speech and called for an intermission.  To this day I do not know what possessed me.  Without forethought, I reached over and pulled the microphone back to myself and asked everyone to wait a moment.  Then I turned to the speaker and acknowledged his pain.  I admitted that I could not understand the pain because I had not experienced it.  But also I said that anarchy was not the answer.  We, he, those like him, and the Church, all of us ought to work together.  Together we could be a leaven for the change he longed for.  Apart and at odds, hostility and chaos would be the only results.  I pledged to work with him and never be complacent with the status quo.

I remember our conversation during the break.  He apologized for what I had taken to be a broadsiding.  I pledged my support of his cause.  We promised each other that we would remain in contact and parted that night as friends.

Three weeks later, Edwin Pratt was shot to death in a snowy night in the neighborhood we shared.  It has been years since I have thought about him.  His name came to me in the night.

Now I remember and wonder how far have we come?

Sincerely yours in the Risen Christ,

 

Didymus  

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