Firsts: A Response to Showing Up

By: Meg Jenista Kuykendall

August 29, 2017

Firsthand Reflections on Charlottesville

I was a grown-up—and an ordained grown-up at that—before I really noticed that the line between sheep and goats in Matthew 25 isn’t based on responding to an altar call, praying the sinner’s prayer, refraining from bad behaviors, or being baptized.

These are all fine responses to the Gospel, of course, but Jesus’ invitation into the Kingdom literally hinges on showing up with “food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, shelter for the stranger, clothes for the naked, tending for the sick, and presence to the imprisoned. Whatever you do for the least of these, you have done it to me.” These are not just fine responses, but, according to Jesus’ own teaching, our necessary and grateful responses to the grace we have received.These responses to God’s grace are available to everyone, though perhaps not always in exactly the same way. My necessary and grateful response was made available to me by way of a Charlottesville consortium of faith communities inviting their clergy colleagues from around the country to bear witness, provide direct action, nonviolent counter-protest, or offer physical, emotional, and spiritual support during a rally of white supremacists in their city on August 12, 2017. I showed up on Friday night, not knowing what to expect. The resulting 20 hours were full of firsts for me:

  • First time seeing a torch mob.
  • First time being told to shelter in place in a church.
  • First time writing my husband’s name and number along with the number for legal aid in sharpie on my arm just in case.
  • First time observing clergy and laity opening their facility to serve as home base for roving medics and mental health professionals, also providing prayer, granola bars, and bottled water in abundance.
  • First time seeing a Nazi swastika flag billowing on the wind and men running while waving a Confederate flag.
  • First time encountering young anti-fascists willing to provoke protesting white supremacists and to watch a young white woman berate an elderly African-American clergyman for choosing different, non-violent tactics.
  • First time seeing someone bloodied by fists, lying in the street and being tended by medics.
  • First time seeing self-styled militia kitted out in bulletproof vests, helmets, and automatic weapons holding the perimeter against kneeling, praying, and singing members of the clergy.
  • First time catching a whiff of pepper spray.
  • First time seeing African American police officers defending, with their lives, a white supremacist’s right to chant, threaten, and dismiss the value of that same life.

Friends, these firsts are my privilege. While it is horribly holy to bear witness to a broken world, it is also a privilege. But, more importantly, I’m aware that my privilege is what allows me to opt in. I get to opt in to bear witness to violence and intimidation that is not optional for people of color. I get to opt in to activism that is new to me, but has never been optional for my clergy colleagues of color. As a white, female clergy person, I get to opt in to showing up. To say this is my first time feeling the fear of another person’s hatred—even though it is not directed at me. To say this is my first time gagging for breath on pepper spray and indignation. To say this is my first time worrying about my safety in America, not even because I’m in the line of fire but simply because I’m standing next to someone who might be. That is my privilege.

But, according to Matthew 25, showing up is not an elective in the school of discipleship. According to Matthew 25, choosing to experience a small part of the fear that many feel every day is not an upgrade to the basic model of Christian life. According to Matthew 25, using whatever privilege the accident of birth provides to stand with the weak, the marginalized, and the fearful—wherever we may find them in our homes, churches, cities, and world—is not simply a fine response to the Gospel.

According to Matthew 25, bearing witness, being present, telling the truth, calling out injustice, praying for peace that is more than ignoring the ugly bits of our history and our world, handing out water, walking someone safely to their car, bandaging wounds in the street, opening the doors of your church, resisting the dehumanization of others—these are not just fine responses to the Gospel but, according to Jesus’ own words, our necessary and grateful responses to the grace we have received. “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” (Matthew 25:34)

This reflection was originally published by e-zine Fidelia.

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