Sam Smith, 1999 – Three unusual things happened yesterday. (1) I went to church, (2) I did so as a political act, and (3) the church service was held in a synagogue.
The proximate cause of this curious triptych of events was the Rev. Daniel Webster Aldridge, who was launching an all new All People’s Congregation. Rev. Aldridge had been minister of Washington’s All Soul’s Unitarian Church, once a major source of much political and social activism in our city, but more recently divided between those (mostly black) who wished to continue this tradition and those (mostly white) who didn’t. In the course of this dispute, deeply reflective of things happening that too few want to address, Aldridge lost his job.
Aldridge and his flock were given shelter in the basement of a church run by another black pastor who had also been threatened with dismissal because of his activism, and subsequently Rabbi Ethan Seidel of Tifereth Israel Congregation offered them space.
And so it was on a spring Sunday afternoon that Rabbi Seidel found himself singing a welcome in Hebrew to a largely black congregation and declaring that the “mixing of traditions is crucial to heal the wounds of this city.” A black, latina, and white minister joined in the welcome.
Aldridge told his new congregation that “dreams seem to be getting more difficult to hold on to,” and quoted Langston Hughes: “If dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.” And he cited Nelson Mandela as saying that people’s biggest fear is that they have power, for with power comes responsibility. We need, the Reverend Graylon Hagler said, “people of faith who will address the needs of the community. What we do not need is a faith that looks only at its navel.” This, one speaker said, would be a prophetic ministry, not afraid to address the evil of bombing Belgrade or of social injustice in Washington or of the need for those who consider themselves religious to do something about it all. “Kindness,” said Aldridge is the “ultimate act of faith.”
The unabashedly socially conscious church has been missing in action for a long time. It is hard to imagine meaningful change without it. As this Seventh Day Agonistic stood singing “This Little Light of Mine,” remembering a time when you didn’t have to form a whole new church just to get something done, it felt like a long extinguished flame had been relit.