Church Marquee Follow Up · Heritage UMC

Church Marquee Follow Up

Wednesday, October 7 2020 by Matt Horan

Response by the Executive Team
As you probably know by now, last week I put “We condemn white supremacy” on our church’s marquee.  Concerns were voiced by church members and neighbors who drove by.  They included:

  • I have an obvious political bias toward one candidate over another.
  • I posted a message on the marquee as if it represents the opinion of the whole congregation when it did not.
  • Posting the message on the marquee right after the Presidential debate was too impulsive.
  • Sharing a picture of the marquee on my Facebook account resulted in other churches posting the same message on their marquees.
  • I dragged the church into a political issue when church members would prefer to keep church and politics separate.
  • I didn’t also condemn Antifa and Black Lives Matter.
  • I used a negative word like “condemn” rather than something more positive.
  • If we condemn this one bad thing, are we going to take turns condemning other bad things on our marquee as well?
  • I may have allowed political divisiveness to chase some members or guests away.
  • I used my position to push my political views on the congregation.

While I asked for complaints about the marquee to be directed to me, I regret that so many staff and volunteer lay leaders were recipients of angry calls, texts, and emails from people who preferred not to talk to me about it, but still wanted to tell someone of their objection.  The preschool staff even heard about it.  I offer sincere apologies to these staff members and volunteers who had to spend time on this rather than the ministry to which you feel called!

On Tuesday night, the marquee was discussed by your Executive Team, and the above concerns were shared with me.  I accepted that I will no longer have authority to approve marquee messages on my own, and will consult with other lay and staff leaders who will approve a schedule of marquee announcements from now on.

The Story of the Church Marquee
In case you’re curious, here’s the story of the church marquee from last Tuesday night.

We had a meeting of the Nominations team that night, which ended a little after 8pm. I came home and sat with Susan to watch the debate.

The two remaining candidates to be President of the United States for the next four years both have multiple episodes in their careers in which they have not been kind to people of color.  However, there was a moment in the debate when there was a chance to affirm the value of people whose value has not been entirely clear over the last year, let alone the last few centuries.  Yet the opportunity to say something that would affirm our diversity and celebrate the value of people of color quickly devolved into one more among many exchanges in which three powerful white men talked over each other like kids in a school cafeteria at lunch time. 

The absurdity of the moment was hard to miss. The President, who, fairly or not, has become a hero of sorts to white supremacist groups, was asked to condemn white supremacy.  Then, his opponent, whose own running mate basically called him a racist during the primaries, gave him a specific group to condemn, which, while they are self-avowed “male chauvinists” and deserve some denunciation, are not actually white supremacists.  One commentator observed, “That debate was a hot mess, inside a dumpster fire, inside a train wreck.”

(Whether an actual condemnation of white supremacy was made by any of these men during the exchange remains a matter of interpretation.)

Like many who watched the debate that night, I sat in my living room afterward trying to process what I’d just seen.  As I did, I observed on social media sites as others processed it as well.  A disturbing element of the back and forth on Facebook and Twitter that night was the recurrence of outspoken white Christians debating with people of color about white supremacy, racism, walls between the U.S. and Mexico, whether or not black or blue lives matter, etc.  

In a recent survey of 440 people aged 16-29 who are not a part of a church, respondents were asked to give their impression of Christians.  75% said that they think we push a political agenda opposed to diversity, and I was watching this statistic play out right before my eyes!  Social media is second nature to young adults–it is where a sizable percentage of their lives happen–and if the Christians they were encountering there after the debate are the people you encounter in churches, I wouldn’t want to go either.

I thought about people of color that I know, watching their value in comparison to white people once again left an unanswered question.  I wished there was a way that people of color could hear the church of Jesus Christ affirm them.  I wished there was a way to let people of color know that not all Christians are like the ones they were encountering on the Internet.  I wished they could meet the people at my church who are kind and friendly and eager to help anyone they can.  I wished there was a way we could talk to them.  Then I realized there was.

It occurred to me that the following morning, many of those people of color would get in their cars and head to work, with the memory of what they heard–or didn’t hear–the night before still on their minds.  I thought about them driving by our church, and seeing our marquee.  Even though they didn’t see anybody condemn white supremacy in the debate, what if they drove past a church of Jesus Christ that did the very next morning?  Would they feel a little better?  Would they feel valued?  Would they feel a little less alone?  Would they perhaps even feel a little bit of hope?

I got in my car at 1:30am, and came back across the bridge to change our marquee, but about halfway across, I got nervous.  What if people get mad?  What if I get angry calls and emails?  What if someone vandalizes the sign?  What if so many people are mad about it that they ask for a new pastor?  This could be a costly marquee message.

In the middle of these sudden fears, I felt God asking me, “Are you willing to pay the cost?”  Was I willing to pay the cost of using my place of power and influence to serve those without the kind of power and influence I have?  

I decided I was willing, and so everyone who drove by our church the next day was told that Heritage United Methodist condemns white supremacy.

I sent an email to the congregation explaining the sign, and replies instantly started coming in.  The vast majority were thankful, positive, and supportive.  Some kindly voiced concerns about politics on the marquee.  Some were less kind.  There was sadness, frustration, and rage.  Some were sarcastic.  Some said they were leaving the church.  

On the way home Wednesday evening, it was hard to get some of the calls and emails out of my head.  I second guessed myself–if I had known how angry people would be, would I still have been willing to pay the cost?  If I knew I’d lose the authority to decide what goes on the marquee?  I don’t know.  I hope so.  But maybe not.

Then, on the same bridge where God met me the night before, he reminded me, “What you experienced today isn’t one ten-zillionth what people of color have experienced.”  I thought “one ten-zillionth” was an interesting number for the Lord to use, but that’s the phrase he dropped into my heart on the way home, and He was right.  In comparison, putting that message on the marquee barely cost me anything.  

Then, as I was walking into my garage (I agree that God chose some random spots to speak up that day), I heard him again, “It’s a privilege to pay the cost.”  He was right again.  The sound of the anger from the day died down in my head, and I felt honored to be chosen to bear a very, very small part of the cost of speaking out for those who don’t have the same platform I do.

No one has asked, but in case you read this far, that’s the story of the marquee.  I guess I share it for two reasons.  First, to make it clear that I didn’t drive back across the bridge at 1:30am for Joe Biden, as many have suspected.  I wouldn’t do that in a million years.  

I would drive back across the bridge at 1:30am for Jesus Christ and his church to be a source of hope for those who need it.  In fact, I would crawl across that bridge at 1:30am for Jesus Christ and his church, because it is through Jesus Christ and His church that the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit are poured out for all humankind.

Second, I’ve been wondering if anybody else might feel privileged to join in paying the cost as well.  Our ministry partners at Mt. Olive African Methodist Episcopal Church do some amazing work helping with needs of all kinds, and I think a great ending to the story of the marquee would be for anyone who feels led to make a financial contribution to Mt. Olive’s ministries.  Click here to make contribution, and type “Paying the cost” in the note section so we’ll know to send it on to Mt. Olive.

As long as I am a shepherd of God’s people, I will ask them to see the world around us through the eyes of Christ.  Every election season we seem to begin finding our identity more through allegiance to a party or candidate than through our commitment to Jesus Christ.  Yet if we can continue to see with the eyes of Christ in every season, we will begin to see those around us, whether we agree with them or not, the way Jesus does–worth loving, no matter the cost.

Journeying with you,

PS.  I’m pleased to report that some of the unhappy responses I received actually became more and more cordial when I replied and found them to be open to some back and forth dialogue.  The most vitriolic email I received was from a neighbor who doesn’t go to Heritage.  Despite it’s many exclamation points and accusations–the exchange evolved into a pleasant interaction that ended with her apologizing for her original tone, wishing our church well, and promising to visit the pumpkin patch.  I’m sure she would have agreed to give Heritage a try on a Sunday morning too, but they already go to another church.  😁

I believe that people with opposing views are capable of understanding each other and building fruitful relationships, and I give thanks that I got to see it happen in person right here at Heritage.

Matt Horan
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Heritage is a United Methodist Church in Clearwater, FL with the goal of loving those around us, equipping leaders with roles that require their unique abilities, and inviting everyone into a life changing relationship with Jesus.

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