The Rev. Dr. Christine Wiley: “Who Is This City For?”
I celebrate with all of you today as we commemorate District of Columbia Day. What an honor that Covenant Baptist Church in Ward 8, in far southwest Washington, is partnered with the Cathedral congregation. And what a blessing and a privilege that my husband and I were given the opportunity to preach here today.
I love Washington, D.C. I came here in 1968 to attend college, and I have been here ever since. What a beautiful city for the world to see and visit; a vibrant place where the leaders of the free world congregate. This is a place where conversations and a signature can change the entire world.
It is in this city that members of the Covenant Church and the Cathedral Congregation have come together for fellowship on a regular basis. We have prayed together, studied the Scriptures together, and worshiped together. We have shared our sense of spirituality with one another as we intentionally determined that we wanted to be in relationship. And we always did this while breaking bread together.
However, one of the first times members from the Cathedral congregation came to Covenant Church was while we were in a time of prayer and fasting and we were only able to eat raw vegetables. So on a cool January evening we offered our guests plain salad with raw celery, carrots, and broccoli—not the most sumptuous meal we have ever had. But we praise God for what God is doing, as we bring together our differences and find that our similarities are numerous and profound.
That’s what the Prophet Isaiah told the people in the fifty-third chapter. He gave a message that was radical to the Isrealites. God’s blessings are for everyone. In ancient times, those who were foreigners and eunuchs were excluded from worship. Isaiah brought an inclusive message that all were God’s people and none should be excluded.
I guess there are times that we need to go back and read Isaiah to remember that regardless of our social status, race, social location, work, or even the history of this great country, we should never exclude anyone that our God chooses to include.
In the fifty-eighth chapter of Isaiah the people had a form of religion. They weren’t even eating celery—they abstained totally from eating and drinking for a period of time. However Isaiah challenged them and said, How can you bring forth such religious practice, and it has no impact on how you live your life, what you do and how you serve God?
As we celebrate DC Day we can ask the same question of ourselves. Houses of worship have thousands and thousands of people in them in this city right now. You would think the $50 million budget cuts for the District of Columbia would be overturned by now with all of the people of faith praying!
Prayer by itself, as wonderful and as contemplative as it can be, as spiritual as we may feel, and even if we add fasting to our spiritual disciplines, is nothing if we do not examine our current life and practice. We must examine ourselves and move proactively to do something forthrightly for the poor, the disenfranchised, the helpless, the hopeless, and the oppressed. If we come to sit in pews and just feel spiritual, when we have the wherewithal to bring forth positive change in this city and in the world, in our families, our schools, and our communities then—if we do not bring forth transformational action then our piety is for naught.
Covenant Baptist Church and the Cathedral Congregation both belong to the Washington Interfaith Network where we come together with a vast diversity of people of different races, faith groups, schools, grassroots organizations, and unions to improve the life of all District of Columbia residents.
I remember when our mayor was running for office, our question to him and those who were running against him was, Who is this city for? And today whether you love this city as a national symbol or as your hometown, either way as people of faith we remember when Jesus wept over Jerusalem, people still did not understand. They thought their personal religious practices would be pleasing to God. But while they were fasting, they gave no health insurance to their employees. If I were to put my imagination into full gear I could say that people are perhaps in positions to bring forth change, but still the District of Columbia has the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS in this country, and Ward 8 where my church sits has the hightest incidence of AIDS in this city. Who is this city for? Could it be for me and you. Could it be for the Cathedral and Covenant? Could it be that our Christian faith could move us to political action?
Our faith can give us the discrimination to ask the question, Who is this city for? It is a question of ethical significance and one in which people of faith who engage the marketplace, can determine what impact they might have.
If you won’t help your families who are in genuine need (meaning you are not enabling), will you address the issue of homelessness and poverty. One out of five DC residents live at or below the poverty line. The District of Columbia has the third highest poverty rate in this country. 33.1% of families and 36% of individuals in Ward 8 live in poverty, the poorest ward in the city, the ward in which my church sits, where for years benign neglect was the mode of operating certain parts of the city.
In 2006 9,369 families and individuals were homeless, up 13.5% from 2004. 48.2% of children in this city are at risk of hunger. Sometimes in my own beloved Ward 8 I find that there is some resistance to improvement and change for fear that gentrification will come and move the working poor out as it did in Georgetown and Capitol Hill.
But we also have at the same time a wonderful town with a diverse mix of cultures, the opera, hip hop, Carribbean festivals, Rock Creek Park, hundreds of volunteers at non profits from every quadrant of the city, and a new emphasis on education and development of our children.
In Israel God told Isaiah to tell the people that religious posturing was worthless. God would not accept the worship or the praise or prayers, if people would not get involved in some way. Systemic oppression and injustice are the same as wickedness. Maybe you want to work with a network of churches in Washington that are mentoring returning ex-offenders; we lead 22 churches in DC just in our part of the city. Maybe you could give out food from a pantry; on any given Thursday we serve 100 families who are in need. Maybe you would like to encourage someone spiritually who is living with AIDS; there are grassroots organizations who are looking for people to pray with and do Bible studies.
So much this city has to offer, monuments, memorials, churches and cathedrals, schools and soap box derbies, graduations and Georgtown. Our Lord’s admonition is to do away with the yoke of oppression.
Jesus who wept over Jerusalem identified his call, as he quoted Isaiah 61:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
When God’s people will focus on how we can work together to bring forth justice, there will be renewal in the land. It will be done by people connecting with each other and moving to action. I’m so glad that God put a call on the Cathedral congregation and Covenant Church to work together. Whom will you work with?
Sometimes we even as God’s people are stubborn. You must be strong and disciplined in discerning. Every now and then you meet some people who are supposed to be part of the team who refuse to cooperate with the Sprit of God to undergo change and fulfill their call.
The work never gets completed because unchanged people are so busy arguing about how they and their theologies are different that they never become a team to get the work done. To work together you have to yield to one another. This means you must desire to understand and meet each other at a point of need. And you serve and love because of the genuine change that is going on inside of you.
The text in the Message says the ruins shall be rebuilt and that God’s people will use the old rubble of past lives to build anew, rebuild the foundations from out of the past. You’ll be known as those who can fix anything, resolve old ruins, rebuild and renovate, make the community livable again.
Who is this city for? Who is this nation for? It’s for you and me and all of God’s people.