This Lenten season, when the First United Church of Oak Park, Illinois gathered for Sunday services, the music had all been composed by people of color. They had decided to give up whiteness for Lent. This was consistent with the efforts of the United Church of Christ to take on white privilege in the church and beyond, at least since the election of Rev. Dr. John C. Dorhauer as General Minister and President; and certainly since the publication of White Privilege – Let’s Talk, the UCC’s adult education curriculum on race.
At the beginning of Lent in March, the church staked a banner on the church’s front lawn declaring that they were “Fasting from Whiteness.” It took a month for storm clouds to gather into a national smear campaign against the church during the week before Palm Sunday. Articles and broadcasts in rightist media and blogs have led to more than a thousand voicemails—many vulgar, some threatening—pouring into the church as of publication. The church contacted local and federal law enforcement (who they say have been helpful) and took their Palm Sunday service online.
Rev. John Edgerton told RD,
“Threatening a church because you do not like the way they practice Christianity is a crime. Our Constitution guarantees the right to the free exercise of religion. A campaign of threats like this is intended to do one thing: intimidate us into changing how we practice our faith.”
First United Church of Oak Park, a mostly white, suburban Chicago congregation with more than 600 members, is affiliated with two mainline protestant denominations—the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Church of Christ.
The UCC has been on edge since credible threats against “liberal churches” were picked up by federal law enforcement in the run up to the anniversary of January 6th which prompted a national committee of the UCC to issue an alert. Some were glad for the heads up, but like any such warning, others felt it might be overwrought. The ongoing events at First United Church of Oak Park, of course, places the warning in a new light.
The big smear
The smear began with a report and a related video by Turning Point USA (TPUSA), a Trumpist group founded by Chicago native, Charlie Kirk, who is currently on a national “Saving America Tour” of churches. (Baptist ministers Brian Kaylor and Disciples of Christ minister Beau Underwood, who attended an event, found that “Kirk’s jeremiads are filled with half-truths, indefensible denials, and downright lies.”) Nevertheless, Turning Point’s post was picked up by the kind of national media and blogs that have fueled the MAGA movement—from Fox News and the Sinclair Broadcast Group to The Washington Times and The New York Post.
The church’s materials include an excerpt from a book by Bruce Reyes-Chow, a teaching elder and former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA):
“For many of us, being uncomfortable about public protests or what we perceive as aggressive expressions of frustration simply identifies our privilege and our ability to shield ourselves from the struggles that others are facing.”
According to The New York Post, Turning Point’s interpretation of the excerpt is that those “who oppose violent protests speak from a place of privilege—and should therefore refrain from trying to stop them.”
However, any reasonable person—and certainly any responsible reporter—could see that the excerpt from Reyes-Chow’s book In Defense of Kindness did not in any way condone violence.
The pastor’s point
Rev. John Edgerton, a 2009 graduate of the UCC-affiliated Chicago Divinity School, in many ways epitomizes the history and direction of the UCC. He came to Oak Park from previous pastorates in Minnesota and at Boston’s Old South Church, whose origins date to the early days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. His Old South Church bio reports, “Three of John’s ancestors were tried as witches. Two were hanged. One was acquitted.” Some of the judges were members of the church. Historian Ola Elizabeth Winslow notes how far the church has come regarding “the slow emergence of certain Ideas & Principles upon which this nation is built—Liberty, Freedom of Conscience, Equality.”
Turning Point’s video suggests that the church’s program promotes “disunity” and “segregation.” But here too, there’s no evidence to support the claim, and plenty that refutes it. As Edgerton told the Chicago Sun Times,
“You don’t fast from things that are despicable. … You don’t fast from things that are ugly,” he said. “You fast from those things that do tug at your heart.”
Edgerton told the paper that although they’re celebrating Christian music and composers of color, he still loves Bach, Mozart and other European composers. And always will.
Turning Point, Sinclair, Fox, The New York Post, and the others could have known all that. All they had to do was ask. But that, of course, is not what they do.
Amidst all the hoo-ha generated by the rightwing noise machine, RD wanted to let Edgerton tell his side of the story.
Why did the First United Church of Oak Park decide to change up the music for the Lenten season? How has it been different?
I cannot remember a time when our music has been better at church. We’ve sung Amen Siakudumisa every single week as our prayer response. It’s a joyous piece by a South African composer of Sotho descent named Stephen Cuthbert Molefe. We’ve sung Savior God Above, set to Duke Ellington’s Come Sunday. We’ve sung songs from the Lakota, and from the United Church of the Philippines, and from Mexico and on and on. It’s truly been marvelous.
Because of the history of systemic racism, many of the songs we’ve been singing are in the public domain, meaning that we’re not compensating artists of color fairly for their work the way we do with, say, hymns by Ruth Duck or Marty Haugen. In response to this reality, we’re following a practice started by the United Parish of Brookline [by] paying royalties for this music in the form of financial support of a local non-profit working with young people of color in Chicago.
The threats forced us to take our Palm Sunday service online, but honestly, inside the walls of the church this Lent has been absolutely amazing. Our notoriety came at the very end of Lent. For the first five Sundays what was front and center is the beautiful, joyful, amazing contributions to sacred music that have come from the global majority of Christians, which is people of color. The music has been as good as I can remember it, with the choir having a blast with the new repertoire.
Our congregation has been challenged in the way that a workout can be challenging, so that you know that at the end of it, greater health and strength has come of it. We’ve had more visitors than we have in a long time. The youth of the church have engaged in the anti-racism work with the spirit of this is good, but why aren’t we being bolder?
Our intention in this has been to invite people into the life-changing, ancient Christian practice of fasting. Fasting is a challenge.
This program was announced at the beginning of Lent in March. But the threats didn’t begin until this past week. What happened?
The Tuesday before Palm Sunday, we received our first hate message from an online post by Turning Point USA. The story from Turning Point was then quoted verbatim by dozens of local news stations owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, all published simultaneously. This was the key moment. This was the moment when the words of a fringe organization took on the patina of legitimate journalism. It looked as if many news sites of different stripes—Fox affiliates, ABC affiliates, NBC affiliates, CBS affiliates—were all treating this as legitimate news.
Our messages then skyrocketed. We received dozens of voicemails and hundreds of emails from around the country. That’s also when the threats began. Following that, the New York Post and Daily Mail picked up the story—that turned up the volume even more. Then Fox and Friends covered this in a segment on their morning program. Following Fox and Friends, that’s when things were at their worst. In the hour following that broadcast, we were getting five voicemails per minute, hundreds and hundreds of emails.
For us, this was how the roadmap looked: a far-right organization that’s been under investigation for racial bias and illegal political campaign activity writes a smear piece about a local church. Sinclair Broadcast Group then repeated that smear piece across dozens of local media outlets. Regional but powerful media outlets then repeated the stories from the Sinclair Broadcast Group stories. And Fox and Friends closed it out, taking it up as a piece of news that began “so you gotta hear this,” as if this was a surprise to right wing media and not a story that had been deliberately manufactured in a strategic, coordinated way.
You chair a UCC task force that was established to help prepare for and respond to threats against UCC congregations. Do you feel that your work in this area prepared you at all for the events of this past week?
That is quite a coincidence, isn’t it? As the Chair of the UCC working group on Emergency Communications, I’ve worked with UCC churches that have been the targets of extremism. It’s been extremely helpful. I knew right away to take this very seriously. I knew right away to document every message that came in. I knew right away to contact both our local law enforcement as well as federal law enforcement in the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. I’ve learned a lot from this experience, and our work to help prepare other congregations will be much stronger because of it.
Can you tell us what some of the threatening messages said?
We’ve received a range of messages. Some are thoughtful, faithful criticism from fellow Christians, with the most common critique being that we fail to recognize that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek.” Many more are composed merely of the basest vulgarity and racist and anti-LGBTQ slurs. All of that is fine (though we much prefer the former to the latter!).
However, we also have received dozens of threatening messages. One person with a Joliet, Illinois area code told us that we were scum and that he’s bringing a lot of people to our service on Palm Sunday and that “we should have a real good time together.”
Another message directed at me personally read only “we have your picture.”
Another said “If I ever see you, I’m going to give you a slap. A slap like you wouldn’t believe.” Another person said that if he ever saw me he would “stomp your ass. People like you need to be stopped.” Multiple messages were simply one word: “standby.”
To be clear, threatening people because you don’t like what they have to say is a crime. Threatening a church because you don’t like the way they practice Christianity is a crime. Our Constitution guarantees the right to the free exercise of religion. A campaign of threats like this is intended to do one thing: intimidate us into changing how we practice our faith. This behavior has no place in our country.