Claiming our moral authority

By Richard Helmer

“We have no moral authority in this town,” said a local minister in a closed-door ecumenical meeting shortly after I was called as rector of Church of Our Saviour. What followed were a few knowing chuckles around the table. Spurred on by worried parents in my new parish and a youthful naiveté, I had brought up the subject of sports practices and games pulling our young people away from Sunday morning Christian education and worship, with no clear ecclesiastical remedy in sight. We’d mulled over all the alternatives: Sunday afternoons were for additional games, rest, or homework. Sunday evening was for more homework. Saturday night was preparation for the game, or the ever elusive goal of “family time.” Weeknights were a maze of extracurricular and school-related activities (read: even more homework). Maybe a churchless society becomes an overscheduled society. Maybe an overscheduled society becomes a churchless society. “Should we write a letter together to the local paper?” I wondered aloud, prompting blank stares from my new colleagues.

Another pastor at last responded by noting that the Jewish community had come together a few years before to protest the crowding of sports into the Sabbath. They got some traction, but not much. The local Christian churches, on the other hand, had simply rolled over in reaction to the proliferation of teams and the encroachment on Sunday mornings. We apparently had even less “moral authority” over secular affairs than did our Jewish sisters and brothers.

I chewed on this for quite some time both in prayer and in conversation. Lacking moral authority seems to be the sum of all fears. It smacks of the irrelevancy that every Christian leader dreads, that every struggling faith community must confront in an ostensibly post- or even anti-Christian society. I looked across the yawning chasm between the Gospel and militant secularism and nearly despaired. Not seeing any tenable action to take that would bridge the chasm left me with the gnawing question that often appears from the pens of our harshest critics: If the church, or at least somewhat credible Christians, have no moral authority anymore, what then? Shouldn’t we just throw in the towel? Had we at long last sold our children out to the tide of secularism?

Soon after, our largely affluent, suburban community was gripped by a teenage suicide. A local high school student joined the hundreds of people who, over the course of several decades, had jumped off the Golden Gate bridge. Our small parish youth group spoke about Clive’s death and made mention to our youth minister that his was only one of a series of recent deaths in the local school system – to drinking, drugs, or suicide. One of our youth members opined that there would be a month of triage at school: therapists, counselors, and experts would descend upon the student body for a few weeks. Then the subject of Clive’s death would fade from attention and fall off the priority list…until the next tragedy added to the already overpowering sea of shared pain and bewildered grief.

In the ensuing months, a 19-year-old graduate of the high school, while home from college, overdosed at a party. His non-religious memorial, led by his own parents and teachers, was held a week later in the high school theater, which was jam-packed even in the height of summer vacation season. I was awestruck by the finger-pointing and despair that was given a platform to speak during the memorial. But what utterly silenced me was the rampant co-dependency and addiction evident in the room. This wasn’t the realm of the individual, which I had learned to understand and perhaps fathom. This was corporate, communal, and widespread. Josh was yet another canary in the coal mine, the next in line to go over the edge, which was even celebrated in a letter from one of his teachers that was read to the assembly. His picture and impish eyes in the memorial bulletin haunted me from an office bookshelf for the next month. We at Church of Our Saviour had to act. If not us, who? But how?

“We have no moral authority in this town.” The words stuck in my head, playing over and over like the refrain to a cheap song.

To hell with it, I finally decided both figuratively and literally, and I called the counseling staff at the local high school to discuss the situation. Expecting resistance, I was instead greeted with a surprising “When can we meet?” In a week or so, with a group of parishioners, I sat down with the counseling staff, who welcomed us with open arms. They were practically running an ER on top of the usual academic counseling, with high-powered parents on one side, harried students on the other, no time and scant, mostly gutted state resources at their disposal. Could the church start helping organize the community? Could we step out and begin the hard work of breaking down barriers between institutions? Could we help rebuild a community of support for our youth over and against the isolation and addiction that was consuming so many?

We said yes, and within a year we had gathered together a variety of church leaders, non-profits, and health professionals into a coalition. We were before the city council helping advocate for a social host ordinance, so law enforcement could at last hold parents accountable for serving alcohol at youth parties in their homes. We were setting up community forums for parents and teens to talk about the pressures and dead ends of adolescence and an affluent, success-driven culture gone pathological for its children. We were reopening a conversation that had long been silenced by shame and fear: about the loss of human dignity in our young people that was fueling addiction, depression, and self-destruction.

When a 17-year-old member of a neighboring Episcopal parish jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge this January in an impulse suicide, we joined Casey’s parents and her priest, in witness to the board that oversees the world-renowned landmark. On what began as a recent ho-hum Friday, I found myself present in a history-making meeting that made international headlines. The bridge board, after decades of carnage, finally set aside the laissez-faire myth of “they’ll do it somewhere else,” heeded the pleas of religious leaders, countless family and community victims, and the mounting evidence of the psychological and psychiatric communities, and agreed to seek funding for a suicide barrier. The “silent cult of death,” as a mentor and colleague deemed the pattern of complicity and suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge, was at last starting to break, and the church had played a part in that sea change.

Moral authority is an odd thing. Claim it as an abstraction, and no doubt we’ll be laughed out of the town square in this day and probably in any age. My learning as I dug through the accounts of the New Testament in search of Christ’s example, was that Jesus and his earliest followers never went into a town or village waving their moral authority credentials in people’s faces. They simply began to heal the sick, restore sight to the blind, and proclaim the Good News.

Their example was telling us all we really needed to know: When we respond from the heart of our faith directly to the world’s deep need for healing, we will find all the moral authority we need.

After sharing this with the parish I served, I was awestruck one morning when a parishioner stuck her head in my office door to thank me and say that she and her family had agreed not to sign up for any sports teams that practiced or played on Sundays. Church was that important to them.

The chasm, I realized, between church and secularism, the path to the church’s moral authority, was bridged already…by God’s grace. All we have to do is walk across and invite others along.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer, a priest, pianist, and writer, serves as rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His active leadership in the church includes interfaith, ecumenical, and wider church organizations, especially Episcopal Asiamerica Ministries, stewardship, youth advocacy, and ethnic and multicultural ministries in the Diocese of California. Richard’s sermons and reflections have been published widely online, and he blogs about spirituality, ministry, Anglicanism, church politics, music, and the misadventures of young parenthood at Caught by the Light.

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