IOP Goes to Washington
How can a preacher be faithful to scripture in confronting the critical issues of our time?
What is the role of preaching in a polarized culture?
How does context shape preaching, and preaching impact the context?
What happens after the sermon is preached? What is the role of preaching in disciple formation and congregational leadership?
A Florida Conference clergy covenant group asked the facilitators of the Institute of Preaching to design an experience that would help them wrestle with these questions. As a result, six preachers (Roy Terry, Steve Price, Magrey deVega, Scott Smith, David Williamson and David Miller) and three facilitators (Jim Harnish, Nathan Kirkpatrick, and Christine Parton-Burkett) went on a three-day pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., April 20-22, 2022.
The experience began with reflection on the way the eyes of the disciples were opened to see the Risen Christ walking with them along the Emmaus Road (Luke 24:13-35). The preachers were invited to watch for their own encounter with Christ as they began a walking pilgrimage while listening to moments when public speech at that location had a direct impact on our nation.
Voices on the Mall
Maximizing the location as a learning tool, Nathan Kirkpatrick designed walking experiences during which the preachers listened to examples of public speech that both reflected and shaped the historical moment. The preachers observed the inspiration and emotion in content and delivery.
At the Capitol, they listened to portions of Ronald Reagan’s and Barack Obama’s first inaugural addresses along with Amanda Gorman reading her poem, “The Hill We Climb.”
Walking down the Mall they were reminded of formative voices and events including the AIDS Quilt, Marion Anderson singing at the Lincoln Memorial, and the March on Washington. At the Museum of African American History, they listened to a reading of “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” by Frederick Douglass. At Lafayette Square, they were encouraged to think about the role of the preacher at St. John’s Church, known as the “church of the presidents.”
The next morning the early risers watched the sun rise at the Lincoln Memorial and visited Arlington National Cemetery. The rest of the group joined them to listen to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. They were invited to write their own scripturally-based, theologically-informed, hopeful dream for their congregation, the nation, and the world. Remembering how Mahalia Jackson prompted Dr. King to deviate from his prepared remarks to deliver the refrain she had often heard in his speeches and sermons, they remembered lay people who help them in their preaching and were encouraged to send a word of thanks for their part in proclaiming the gospel.
Walking through the Korean War Veterans Memorial to the King Memorial, they listened to Dr. King’s last sermon, preached from the pulpit of Washington National Cathedral, where they would conclude their pilgrimage. At the World II Memorial, they listened to the CBS broadcast from Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. They thought about the changes in communication from then to now and how this change impacts their preaching.
At the Holocaust Memorial Museum, they reflected on the connection between rhetoric and hate and the failure of the church in Nazi Germany compared to the current increase of anti-Semitism and racist bigotry in public speech today.
Learning from Other Preachers
The group engaged in conversation with three preachers who face the opportunity and challenge of preaching in the heart of the capital while visiting their churches: Donna Claycomb Sokol
(Mount Vernon Place UMC), William J. Lamar (Metropolitan AME Church), and Ginger Gaines-Cirelli (Foundry UMC). In preparation for the conversations, the preachers had read books and listened to sermons by the preachers. A focus of each conversation was the way preaching helps form disciples and shape leadership in the congregation. At Metropolitan AME, the conversation revolved around the witness of the church in our history of racism.
Over meals and at the end of each day, the group spent time discussing what they had experienced and how it might impact their preaching and leadership.
Heading into the Future
The pilgrimage ended at the National Cathedral where they were able to absorb the sacred beauty and history of the place. They shared in a concluding conversation around what’s next and joined in commitment and prayer.
The pilgrimage was made possible by a grant from The Marcy Foundation. The Institute of Preaching supported it as a pilot project with the hope of making it available to a wider diversity of preachers in the future.
-- Jim Harnish is a retired United Methodist pastor, writer and leader of the Institute of Preaching