Giving Moral Guidance in the Congregation: One Pastor’s Point of View

[1] I serve as pastor of a wonderfully diverse, small (but growing) downtown congregation in Jersey City, New Jersey. Jersey City, for those who may be unaware of our location, is right across the river from lower Manhattan. The magnificence of the World Trade Center had been the primary view from our side of the Hudson River until last September 11th irreparably changed both the landscape of our skyline and of our hearts.

[2] Now, one year later, as we continue to mourn the death of loved ones as well as the loss of jobs, security, and even a sense of geographic orientation, we wonder about the moral issues and questions that have arisen as a result of that day’s tragic events. How do we respond to our neighbors who are increasingly Arab without fear and suspicion? Do we only want God to bless America, as our school children all over Jersey City sang so proudly on the one-year anniversary of this devastating attack? And what about those poor and working class persons who continue to be mostly invisible on our country’s social agenda? How do I as a pastor give moral guidance amidst a swirl of activity and anxiety in these post 9/11 days?

[3] My initial response to such a question is that I always do so within the context of a community of faith that is grounded in a scriptural tradition. I don’t try to “pinch hit” as it were, simply coming up with my own advice for those wrestling with deep spiritual and moral issues. Together, we go to the Word of God-to seek consolation and counsel.

[4] In addition, while my pastoral vocation leads me to speak publicly and sometimes prophetically about our call to be in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, whether they are North American or Afghani, it does not give me license to use the pulpit as a platform for my own socio-political agendas.

[5] Having said that, I must also acknowledge that, as an African-American woman, who grew up within a church context in which it was understood that there was no separation between the gospel and social ministry but that they were integrally connected, it is vital that as a pastor, I lead our congregation outwards, beyond the doors of our congregational comfort zone in both thinking about and responding to the moral issues of our day.

[6] Recently, a member of our parish asked during the prayer of the church, that we pray for his son, who had escaped from prison and was in danger of being re-captured and perhaps killed. This distraught father, an ex-offender himself, had waited a week to share this difficult news because he wasn’t sure how the congregation would respond to him. But his love and concern for his son were more important than how he would be perceived by our congregational members, and he courageously asked for our prayers.

[7] As we prayed within the worship setting, we asked God for guidance for this young man who had managed to escape from jail; for compassion and wisdom for those who were seeking to re-apprehend him; and for comfort for his heartbroken father. But we also prayed for all that are imprisoned, and for those whose lives the growing prison industrial complex throughout this country impacts, either positively or negatively.

[8] One man’s simple prayer request led to continuing conversation about economic injustices in this country, about the underground drug business that employs far too many of our youth and young adults in our urban (and suburban) areas, and about what we as a congregation can do to become better educated about this growing social issue.

[9] While our moral guidance in this instance took the form of a prayer, it was nevertheless one significant means of addressing a crisis within the world to which the Christian community needs to creatively respond. And perhaps this is an example of how we most often seek to provide moral guidance within the congregational and community setting.

[10] When personal or communal crises arise, or when there are continuing unnoted crises like those which have been identified by the congregation-based community organization of which St. Matthew’s is soon to be member, the Jubilee Interfaith Organization (JIO), I believe the church needs to respond.

[11] JIO’s identification of significant issues, including its concern for immigrants, workers’ justice and the increasing disparity between the rich and poor within northern New Jersey, provides the grist for continuing moral deliberation within our congregational setting. Giving moral guidance is part of our process of moral deliberation and includes education, biblical and theological reflection, ecumenical partnerships, and issue research, and action, either personally or within the public arena.

[12] While I would never presume to give moral guidance when unrequested, I do feel that it is part of my calling as a pastor of the church to provide opportunities for reflection and action as we seek to connect our faith practices to our lives in substantive and life-transforming ways.