A Letter From Senior Pastor Frank Espegren
Dear St. John’s Faith Community,
Since August of last year, a small group of St. John’s members has been meeting as a Racial Justice Group - coalescing as a team and working to discern how St. John’s might more fully engage in racial justice work in our mission to “Live God’s Love in the World.” Given that the Pew Research Center found the ELCA to be the whitest denomination in our country, a most undesirable statistic in the pluralistic context of our country, State, and city, I have been delighted that a small and committed band of us has led the charge in St. John’s becoming a more welcoming place for all people, of every race and ethnicity.
Recently the group has been in conversation with Sacramento ACT (Area Congregations Together), a faith-based community organizing nonprofit of which St. John’s has been a member for many years, about how faith communities might play a role when the District Attorney (DA) releases her report about the killing of Stephon Clark and if charges will be filed against the officers who were involved in his death. It is anticipated that an announcement will be made soon.
Our Racial Justice Group is convinced that St. John’s can no longer stay on the sidelines, uninvolved in this matter, when a segment of our community is experiencing so much pain. With this as motivation, I called a special meeting of the Council to discuss the commitments that St. John’s might make in this moment. The Council agreed that St. John’s has a role to play at this time as the Body of Christ working for healing and wholeness in Sacramento. We have come to this conviction outside of knowing what the decision out of the DA’s office will be. Indeed, our intended action is intentionally independent of taking a “legal” side in this matter that threatens to tear our city apart. However, inaction because we as individuals sympathize with all sides would be the very worst thing we could do. The Church, our church, has an opportunity to participate in this civic work, just as marginalized communities, the police, our city government, and others do.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," talked about his disappointment with those who prefer a "negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice." I pray that St. John’s is a community that longs for a peace that is characterized by justice - peace that comes not just by hoping for it; but peace that comes by our willingness to work for it.
As a congregation, we are called to weep with our fellow brothers and sisters when they are suffering and in pain. Therefore, we commit to being a congregation in solidarity with the people of Sacramento who are not given the privileges many of us hold (myself at the front of the privilege line), who routinely encounter injustice, who grieve and struggle and mourn too often in life. Further, we intend not only to offer our compassion, but also, when able, our resources to address the suffering when it materializes before us.
In this particular instance, we at St. John’s are committing to work with Sacramento ACT in the expected civic response to the DA’s decision by hosting healing circles on our campus, in creating space for confession, lament, and hope to emerge. In addition, because of our proximity to downtown (where the public response to the DA’s announcement is expected most intensely), St. John’s will offer sanctuary and refuge to protesters and community members seeking peace from what will undoubtedly be highly emotionally charged circumstances. As a pastor of St. John’s, I believe these actions as a church will be our small part to play for justice and nonviolent action in the public work before us.
Furthermore, both Pastor Jon and myself will be working with the Racial Justice Group to plan a vigil and time of prayer to which all of you are welcome and encouraged to attend.
In addition to this corporate action we have discerned is St. John's work to do here, each of us must discern how we are called by God into the public sphere, what action we are to take or refrain from. Pastor Jon and I are considering if we might have an additional role in the anticipated protests; that as clergy leaders we could be a visible sign of the church's commitment to walk with marginalized people and work for a peace that is just for all. Specifically, through our affiliation with Sacramento ACT, Pastor Jon and I may choose to extend the healing, pastoral presence that we desire to offer at St. John's down at the site of protests. Each of us has a role to play in a work like this - by this letter, I hope you might pray to discern yours.
These decisions were made by our council, Racial Justice Group, and pastors, through prayer, thoughtful conversation, and deep listening for where God is leading us as a congregation. Furthermore, each of the members of the Racial Justice Group has attended at least one training with Sacramento ACT to prepare for engaging in this work and offering a healing presence to people who may come to our campus seeking a place of refuge and respite. If you have any questions as we continue on this path, please reach out to me, Pastor Jon, Director of Community Organizing, Rebekah Turnbaugh, or any of the members of the Racial Justice Group (Dick & Virginia Appleby, Phoebe DeMund, Matt Galvez, Pastor Jon Haug, Jo Hoffmeier, Joyce Milam, and Carolynn Munson). We welcome your involvement and participation and prayer as we undertake this work together, and learn from it.
Pastor Frank Espegren