You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
This last week I was shocked twice.
The first shock came on Tuesday, through a short message from Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson II, our Stated Clerk:
It is with a heavy heart that I share the news that Robina Winbush died today in New York. Robina, who served as Associate Stated Clerk and Director of Ecumenical Relations with the Office of the General Assembly, was traveling with a PC(USA) delegation to the middle east when she collapsed while deplaning a flight. Emergency personnel were unable to revive her.
I knew that Robina was out of the country, because as recently as a week ago, I had written her asking for advice. Robina was a very wise woman who somehow managed to connect with the world, as a big part of her job was maintaining relationships with our sister Presbyterian churches in all the countries around the globe. She was also one of the core leaders of the World Council of Churches, and she was a gracious and helpful guide for myself and others when we attended the Evangelism Conference in Tanzania last year.
My personal favorite memory of Robina was a major “aha!” moment she gave me a few years ago. I served for a short time on the GA Committee on Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, and we were discussing how the PC(USA)’s pronounced distaste for bishops was a hindrance in our work with Churches Uniting In Christ, a major ecumenical movement that grew out of the initiative of then-Stated Clerk Eugene Carson Blake. All the other partner churches accepted an episcopal structure for CUIC, even those churches that did not have bishops. But the Presbyterians could not imagine participating in any organization that would require us naming any individual as a “bishop.”
I knew that there are other Reformed churches, even some called Presbyterian, that have bishops, so I wondered aloud why we have such a negative reaction to them. Robina suggested that it grew out of our roots in the Church of Scotland, whose violent rejection of bishops stemmed from the role of bishops as agents of the Church of England, and of the English king. That clicked for me with the importance of the cause of freedom—and freedom of religion—that our Scots-Irish forebears brought as a foundational value for the United States, and the PC(USA).
This belief in religious freedom has been sorely wounded by the second shock, the anti-Muslim terrorist attack on two mosques in New Zealand. The thought that people could be gunned down as they gathered for prayer is almost beyond my imagination, and yet it has happened too many times these recent years—in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and now this.
As horrifying as this action was, I was able to find hope in the swift and strong response of the people of New Zealand and around the world, offering love to drown out the hate. New Zealand’s Prime Minister expressed her solidarity with the Muslim community, many of whom had come to New Zealand to escape violence in their homelands, declaring that the Muslims are integral and beloved citizens of New Zealand: “they are us.”
Closer to home, the first email I saw regarding this shooting was from Benjamin Ross, a Jewish rabbi in Los Angeles, sending his love to the leaders of the Islamic Center of Southern California. Rabbi Sharon Brous then shared the following:
My heart hurts for my Muslim brothers and sisters. You have been targeted with a crude and shameless bigotry . . . Your faith has been desecrated for political gain, your bodies and holy sites threatened by an unapologetic hatred. I am a Jew and a rabbi. I reach out to you with love and in solidarity.
I also found that within a few hours, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh set up an emergency fund for the victims of the New Zealand attack—if you’d like to give, you can find them at jewishpgh.org. And New Zealand Jewish synagogues closed their services, in solidarity with the mosques that were told to stay closed out of concerns for their security.
I was struck with the speed and strength of the Jewish community’s response to this attack on Muslims. But, just as God told their ancient forebears, they know what it is like to be oppressed as the “stranger,” and from that history comes compassion. As they were once strangers in the land of Egypt, Jews—and, later, Christians—are called to welcome the stranger in our midst. As they have suffered attacks for their faith, Jews step forward to support Muslim victims of hatred. As they know what it feels like to be unsafe in their own place of worship, Jews and Christians in Los Angeles and elsewhere went to local mosques, showing with their presence their support and concern for their Muslim neighbors’ safety.
And just as we give thanks this Lenten season for Jesus’ sacrifice for us, and just as we take comfort that in Jesus, God has chosen to feel our pain, may we be moved to show compassion to others—not just those who are like us, but even those who are not. If nothing else, let us all pray for comfort and safety for those who are being treated as strangers. Let us pray for Christ’s peace for Robina’s family and friends. Let us pray that again God would stay the hand of tyrants and abusers, here and around the world.
Blessings to you and yours. I am in Georgia this week, and may be hard to reach for some days, but Twila knows how to reach me, and I will be back on Monday March 25.