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After election, faith leaders seek spaces for healing

Bridging divides

This week, both liberal and conservative churches have tried to embrace their role as places for reconciliation. 

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    Sam Nobbs votes at the Dundee Presbyterian Church Tuesday in Omaha, Neb.
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The Rev. Jacqui Lewis was filled with an unexpected emotion when it was her time to address those gathered for a post-election song service in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park last week.

Even before Tuesday, she and her progressive colleagues at Auburn Seminary in New York, a school with a mission to train multifaith leaders, wanted the service to be something simple: a “soulful post-election singing to sustain our spirits,” they called it, and a moment, they hoped, that could help heal and rejuvenate people’s spirits after such a bruising election.

Like many in this corner of the country, however, they had really only imagined one winner, and that was not President-elect Donald Trump. So the song service was filled instead with tears, and many within the gathering – which included around 300 people of the Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, and Christian faiths – were searching for some new center at the “songs for the soul” service.

“This is what love looks like,” said Ms. Lewis, standing in the middle of the crowd and noting that her congregation, Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village, is “left of left of left.” “And I don’t presume that because you are in this circle, I don’t presume that you share my politics. I don’t know who you voted for in the privacy of the booth. What I do know, is that you are what love looks like to me this day.”

Throughout this week, both before and after the election of Mr. Trump as the nation’s 45th president, a number of faith leaders across the country had been planning services of healing and reconciliation, most citing the depth of the rancor and bitterness that had characterized much of the election.

They are in many ways, too, part of a traditional post-election ritual of American democracy: a call for the country to step back from the partisan vitriol and demand the peaceful transition of power, as President Obama and the president-elect did on Thursday, along with words of respect and unity.

In New York and other cities around the nation, however, protests continue to erupt, and despite the rituals of unity, some of the deep tensions within the campaign season have hardly begun to abate.

The song service in Washington Square, too, soon drew a number of students who had been shouting slogans against the newly-elected president. But they were drawn by the singing, and many joined the group to sing along and listen to the multifaith leaders’ words.

“I’m talking about love that takes risks, that speaks truth, that dares to look the other in the eye – love is curious about why, why you voted that way. What’s your dream attached to that? How can we find traction in the in-between spaces?” says Lewis. “This isn’t time for polarities. This a now a both/and situation. We have to be both Republican and Democrat. We’ve got to be both black and white, Latino and Asian, queer and straight. We need to love past our borders and heal ourselves.”

Polarization in the pews

In St. Joseph, Mo., Pastor Derek Vreeland, too, had planned a special election-night communion service to foster reconciliation after one of the most angry and toxic political seasons in recent memory.

His nondenominational fellowship, Word of Life Church, is an eclectic mix of former Baptists, Pentecostals, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, and others – a diversity that can reflect a range of political differences, too, he says.

“We’ve seen the polarization politically in our country, in our town, in our church,” Pastor Vreeland says. “I personally felt grieved at the hate, acrimony, accusations, and scapegoating that has risen to the surface during this election season… And we understand people even among our own church will go their voting booth and will be divided in terms of how they cast their vote.”  

Part of his role as a Christian minister, he says, is to bring a spirit of unity to his congregation after the election, so that people of faith can “model love, peace, and respect for one another.”

This election season, too, saw a number of divisions among Evangelicals and religious conservatives, with a number of prominent leaders both supporting and denouncing Trump during the campaign.  

Even so, nearly 81 percent of those who identified as white Evangelicals voted for Trump, coming out in droves to support him more than they did the previous three Republican nominees. This year, too, white Evangelicals comprised nearly 1 in 4 voters.

And while there is more of a spirit of rejoicing among many members of evangelical congregations, outspoken critics of the president-elect during the campaign, such as Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, urged prayer and reconciliation after Trump’s victory.

“No matter what the racial and ethnic divisions in America, we can be churches that demonstrate and embody the reconciliation of the kingdom of God,” he wrote. “The most important lesson we should learn is that the church must stand against the way politics has become a religion, and religion has become politics,” he continued.

Addressing election fatigue

But for many other ministers, there continued to be a need to address the emotional and spiritual fatigue they perceived after this election, even in deeply conservative areas like Rapid City, S.D.

“I think the anger has resided a bit from the election, and people are just tired and worn out,” says Holly Sortland, pastor of discipleship at Canyon Lake United Methodist Church, who preached a sermon on the power of reconciling through communion. “That’s what we do as Christians, and that rises above any kind of partisan politics.”

On Tuesday, she helped organize a prayer area in Rapid City’s town square, where voters could take a moment before or after voting. And four local United Methodist churches helped lead a communion service, open to all their tradition, as the sun began to set and polling places closed.   

“I was surprised by the number of people who did come, just to pray and be a part of healing,” Pastor Sortland says. “Amazed at how nonpartisan it was – I didn’t hear anyone say who they voted for or discuss politics.”

Lewis, senior pastor at Middle Collegiate Church in Manhattan, doesn’t see her message of love and unity as a call to disengage in politics. In fact, after the election of Trump, “we are now in the resistance movement,” she says.

“We’re going to have to tell the truth, we’re going to have to reach across difference... We even have to reach across the aisle,” she says. “But we’re not going to stop fighting for a different society, and we’re going to have to resist.”

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