Rev. Bill Sinkford

I love the winter holiday season and the Christmas traditions in the church. At All Souls, the anticipation seems particularly strong this year when we will be able to experience the Pageant (this coming Sunday) and the Christmas Eve services in person again.

But before the Christmas traditions completely fill the sanctuary, I want to hold up a series of conversations I have been part of following the celebration of Bodhi Day in worship last Sunday. There are some issues raised that I believe should be on our collective agenda, not for now, but as we return to reflection on the identity of this congregation in the New Year. Think of this letter as a kind of bookmarking of spiritual questions for later discernment.

To highlight the issues, I am including much of a response I offered to one congregant who was moved by the Dec. 4 service and hoped Bodhi Day could become a regular part of our winter holiday offering. The questions revolve around what it might look like for All Souls to claim a truly multi-cultural and multi-religious identity as its future.

Blessings and Merry Christmas to you all!

Rev. Bill

Dear Eileen (Eileen Findlay) and Jen (Hayman),

Thank you, Eileen, for prompting an important reflection. Abhi Janamanchi’s message and the service we built around it resonated with so many. It was particularly resonant for the folks of South Asian heritage who are members of the All Souls community. The service was also praised by several folks who told me that they look forward to the unapologetic expression of the Christian Christmas message, even as they appreciated what we offered yesterday morning. Perhaps their affirmation was possible because they could trust that the Christian traditions would be well represented at the church. I am mindful that we celebrated Bodhi Day with a 16′ Christmas tree in the front of the sanctuary.

I also received complaints. Well, that is too strong. Concerns would be more accurate. What about the Jewish tradition and those who identify with that religious tradition? “Will we have a Sunday devoted to Hannukah?” one person asked. 

The All Souls identity seems much organized around the transformation into a truly bi-racial congregation during the ministry of David Eaton. It was during that transformation that the Jubilee Singers were created. The 45th Anniversary of Jubilee on Saturday evening was still living in the Sanctuary yesterday morning. That transformation solidified the identity of All Souls as at least a “Christian-friendly” congregation. Rob Hardies’ love for Christianity and Christmas only deepened that association.

Let me hasten to add that not all Black folks identify with nor grew up in the Christian tradition, though many of us did.

Churches are fundamentally small-c conservative institutions. Honoring the past and the traditions that embody that past is one important thing that the church does. Churches preserve past meaning and wisdom. Churches bring the past forward.

But All Souls also needs to look to the future and recognize the present. The US, the DC in which we minister, and All Souls itself have all become vibrantly multi-cultural communities, broader than bi-racial. It is also now multi-religious. Our members bring backgrounds, and current practice, as Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, followers of Shinto, as well as many who identify with more than one tradition and more folks who do not identify with any religious tradition.

The question I try to lean into is how All Souls might come to embody that multi-cultural and multi-religious future.

If Jubilee (and the Black American Music Sundays All Souls also looks forward to) are an honoring of the Bi-Racial heritage of the congregation,  what will the honoring of a new multi-cultural, multi-religious identity look like? How will that vision for All Souls’ future be embodied?

Will it be an intentional worship focus on each of the many religious traditions, including Humanism. Will “once a year” for Buddhism, Judaism, Vodun, Tao-ism, etc. be enough or would that be to create All Souls as a kind of spiritual Epcot-Center, playing to our privilege as we “consume” the traditions and the wisdom of others?

For me, authenticity is central. Abhi Janamanchi brought a Buddhism that he practices. Beyond just being a wonderful preacher, he presented out of his personal practice. He offered his message as a gift of self. I believe that authenticity should be our goal, mindful of our vision of religious and spiritual diversity. …

Jen, that will challenge you (and all of our worship leaders) to build whole services, as we did yesterday, that reflect religious truth as known through the lenses of various traditions. It is no small challenge.

There is certainly a role for guest preachers in All Souls’ future. Voices that can bring more than my preaching on Diwali or the High Holy Days (I’ve dealt with both in sermons already this fall).

Well, it seems I have much to say. Perhaps I need to translate some of these thoughts into a Leadership Letter for the whole community in this season.

Finally, I want to affirm what I see as the wisdom in both of your notes. Part of the spiritual message and experience I hope All Souls can offer in this season is an alternative to what you describe as a Christian tradition and practice made frenetic. Our commercial culture has not been kind to our spirits in so many ways. Honoring the Solstice is part of this, as well as the quieter and more reflective parts of the Christian tradition that I hope will be very present for, especially,  the 10PM service on Christmas Eve. I hope we can bring authenticity to our embrace of the many Christian traditions as well.

Thank you both for prompting this message and calling for deeper reflection.

Rev. Bill

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Dianne Lang Brown

    A thoughtful response, Rev. Bill, with which I agree. And I would like to be able to share it with other area churches who are striving to become multi-cultural. I believe All Souls is on the correct path in our multi-cultural world and we’re all the better for it.

  2. Lucia Savage

    This was truly excellent rev Bill. I am a jewnitarian, and I always missed an acknowledgment of chanukah in December. although it is a minor holiday in the Jewish liturgical calendar, it, like the birth of Jesus, represents yearning for liberation, justice, and freedom from Roman tyrrany. There is much to be said metaphorically and actually about December’s return to light and its miracles. Say all of it, for All Souls

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