Faith can unite or divide, even in the Capitol

The controversy in the Capitol over Rev. Ralph Drollinger, his Capitol Ministries group, and another spiritual fellowship group was reported after the Sunday in which the Gospel lesson, read as part of the common lectionary in thousands of Christian churches around the country, featured the story of Jesus crossing faith, gender, ethnic and cultural boundaries to have a conversation with a Samaritan woman at the well.

The flap brought to mind a startling image of two very different books next to each other on a table in the lobby of the Redmont Hotel in Birmingham, Ala., were I spent a couple of days in February.

"Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63," won a Pulitzer Prize for Taylor Branch. The other book was the first in the bestselling series on the rapture and apocalypse, "Left Behind: A Novel of the Earth's Last Days," by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. Its interpretation of end times is debatable, to say the least, and many Christians do not embrace it.

I noticed these books upon returning from a visit to the Civil Rights Institute. As I went into the institute gift shop, I saw a large group of high school youth, who did not look like they were from around there, crowding up the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church across the street. Later in the morning I talked with an archivist about the Rev. Joseph Ellwanger, the pastor of a black Lutheran church in Birmingham in the 1960s who led the Concerned White Citizens of Alabama.

The archivist mentioned that a group of about 80 youths from California had been there earlier in the day. I asked if their leader was Jeff Steinberg, and she said yes. I have never met Jeff, but I informed her that his brother Darrell had been chosen to be the next president pro tem of the California Senate. I hurried out to find them, but they were already on their buses headed to Hattiesburg on their Sojourn to the Past tour of civil rights sites in the South. I came home to read about Sen. Steinberg's response to Rev. Drollinger's judgment that "although they are pleasant men in their personal demeanor, (the other) group is more than disgusting to our Lord and Savior."

According to the account in Branch's "At Canaan's Edge, America in the King Years 1965-1968," the Rev. Ellwanger had participated in the funeral of three of the four girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church on Sept. 15, 1963. The father of one of the girls was a parishioner in his church. Ellwanger had been served notice by the regional Lutheran leader that his presence at a Baptist service would violate the ban on "unionism," or joint worship with those outside of Lutheran doctrine. Syncretism, the combination of different forms of belief or practice, is a term used in Rev. Drollinger's blog critical of Capitol fellowship across lines of faith and doctrine. Charges of syncretism also got the New York area leader of the same Lutheran body (a different denomination than mine) into what became public trouble with higher church authorities. His misdeed was participation with other faith leaders in an event in Yankee Stadium after the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center.

On March 6, 1965, the day before Bloody Sunday at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Ellwanger led a modest Concerned White Citizens group on a walk from a Presbyterian church to the Dallas County Courthouse in Selma, where he was met by the chief deputy sheriff, who read a telegram from the regional Lutheran leader, which said that "in no way does Rev. Ellwanger represent the church." The press reported that it was the first time an all-white group of Southerners had marched in favor of equality. On March 6, and again on Sept. 15, I will be saying a prayer of thanks for the witness of Rev. Ellwanger and the others, and when the next hate crime or terrorist attack happens, I will be watching to see who helps to part the sea of tears, who helps to build bridges of understanding, and who, because of fear, prejudice, distorted piety, or deep but exclusive conviction, is left behind.

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