In the Spirit
The Rev. Christopher Ney
---- — Old South Church is one of Boston’s best-known churches. It is a flagship congregation of the United Church of Christ, the denomination that I serve. Founded in 1669, the congregation is proud of its history and its identity that it describes today “as unabashedly Christian and unapologetically progressive.”
Because of its location at Copley Square, Old South Church is known as the church of the finish line for the Boston Marathon. The church has developed a special ministry to those who run the marathon. Each year on the Sunday before the marathon, they invite runners to join them for worship. The Rev. Nancy Taylor, pastor at Old South, reports that the runners come in the hundreds.
During that special worship service they are invited to stand and a sea of hands rise in the air as the congregation blesses them with those ancient words from Isaiah, “May you run and not grow weary. May you walk and not faint.” This year, Old South Church stood vigil over the chaos and confusion and bloodshed after the explosion of two bombs near the marathon’s finish line.
One month has passed since we were shocked by those events. One month since Boston joined the list of locations associated with acts of terror and violence. Many would like to move on and pretend that a month is enough time to mourn the lives lost and heal the wounded bodies and souls. Yet if we’re honest, we recognize that we still have more questions than answers about the events of that day. If we’re honest, we recognize that many of our responses are dominated by anger and a desire for vengeance, rather than justice. Anger has its place as a response to any traumatic event, but it cannot be our destination. Vengeance only leads to more victims.
Recovery is a long-distance journey — more like a marathon than a sprint. We prepare ourselves for that journey through acts of compassion and service. We sustain ourselves by finding travelling companions.
Shortly after the marathon bombing, Rev. Taylor described what she saw from the tower of Old South: people were running toward the chaos and confusion and violence, not away from it. Good Samaritans of all kinds attended to those who were wounded, giving warm coats to runners whose bodies were shivering, offering cellphones to call concerned family members and loved ones. At an Interfaith Service, Rev. Taylor said that we in Boston “are shaken but not forsaken. Another’s hate will not make of us haters. Another’s cruelty will only redouble our mercy.”
Her words have proven true. Old South was soon decorated with a large banner filled with words of support and prayers from the members of the Mayflower Congregational Church. That’s a church in Oklahoma City, not far from the site of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building that was destroyed in the 1995 bombing. These two congregations found a healing bond in their common experience of pain and suffering. People of good will run toward the violence and chaos to offer support and assistance.
After the police completed their investigation and opened the area around the finish line to the public, many interfaith events marked the occasion. One of the most notable was a procession led by leaders of the Central Reformed Temple and Emmanuel Episcopal Church. It included clergy and people of faith from many congregations walking together for the purpose of “reclaiming and reconsecrating the defiled streets of our city.” They walked behind a large brass cross from Emmanuel and the Torah scrolls from the temple. Several clergy reported that they had never before seen a group of religious people walk behind diverse religious symbols. The image of this multi-faith procession is strikingly beautiful and the story was reported by the news outlets around the world.
While there are some in every religious community who seek to erect barriers — or use violence — against things they don’t understand or fear, there are those who are willing to reach out in humility and hope to discover God’s truth revealed in those who are different. They are willing to acknowledge that our particular understanding of God is limited and that God’s love extends to all of creation. The future belongs to them, not to the violent or the vengeful.
In the midst of a violent world, bonds of human solidarity are being formed among people from many different backgrounds who run toward the chaos to serve those in need. Though the future is undetermined, I believe that tomorrow’s historians will look at the traumatic violence of our era and see the birth pangs of a new humanity that crosses the lines of ethnicity, language, location, and religious tradition. We all have a role to play in bringing that new humanity into existence, in serving as its midwives.
The journey of healing is a marathon, not a sprint. But it was well-started by that first responder to run toward the chaos. It continues every time we take the risk of reaching out across the lines that divide the human family, reaching out to those in need.
The Rev. Christopher Ney is pastor of Central Congregational Church in Newburyport.