I was asked yesterday by a few people in our congregation about my role as co-president of IMPACT, a role I am sharing with Dorothy Jordan, a lay leader from Zion Baptist Church North Garden. A few of our parishioners voiced concern that as a priest I should not be involved in "politics."
I agree with them. I am much suspicious of clerics playing politics.
But please allow me to elaborate by sharing some of my reply:
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I accepted this position as co-president after a great deal of prayer, thought, and talking with people both in our congregation and outside, including other clergy in our community.
I share your concern that religious leaders need to be careful about "political" roles -- we see plenty of demagoguery by religious leaders these days. Nonetheless, all of us are called by our baptismal covenant to work for "justice and peace" and the "dignity of every human being," and that inevitably will lead us into public policy (carefully we pray). That must include me because I share the same baptismal covenant with you and our congregation. One of the reasons I accepted the call to be Rector at St. Paul's is because of the leadership of this parish in IMPACT. My role as a priest will take me to uncomfortable places.
While we spend a great deal of time and resources helping people in needy situations (like with food banks and soup kitchens) we also need to look at the systems that put them there, or keeps them there. There is an old saying: "When we see someone drowning in the river, we need to pull them out. But we also need to walk upstream and see who is throwing them in."
Another thing that is hugely important to me: IMPACT is the only organization that I've seen in Charlottesville that unites very diverse congregations across denominational lines, and even interfaith lines, with Christian, Jewish and Muslims participating. That is truly rare and remarkable, and is perhaps a model for the rest of the world. The issues we work on are derived at a meeting in the fall that all of our congregations are invited to participate in. All of this is done out in the open.
Candidly, the organization needs clergy leadership, and I could find no excuse to avoid that other than the uncomfortable feeling that this is somehow "political." And, candidly, I have spent much of my life involved in public policy and the media, and perhaps God is calling me to share those gifts in a new sphere.
I've written about my role with IMPACT in the latest issue of The Beacon (scroll down and look inside for the article). I elaborated further in a sermon a couple of weeks ago which you can listen to or read HERE.
I must acknowledge that serving as co-president is as much as stretch for me as it might be for you. I am more accustomed to standing in the wings as a reporter with notebook. To be on a stage in front of 1,500 people Monday night was a new experience for me, but I was also thrilled and invigorated to see so many people of so many faiths come together united in their belief we can build a better world together.
Thanks again to one and all for your support of IMPACT and your willingness to consider how my own role as a priest is continues to develop.
By James Richardson, Fiat Lux