Ocean Springs, Mississippi

A Pastoral Message from Pastor Cuttino

Hi friends, Pastor Cuttino here and I want to talk with you a little bit more about what is going on in our country right now and what our role as Christians, as Lutherans, as members of Christus Victor, is in all of this.

Now, in my sermon last week, I talked about how all the demonstrations and uprisings that we are seeing right now is the result of pain and anger that has gone unheard for centuries really–the legacy of slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, systemic racism and abuse. And I think it’s easy for us, myself included, who have not experienced and lived with that pain and anger to dismiss this as just chaos or mindless violence and anarchy. 

But I think that would be a mistake. Because I think what we are seeing right now is what we in the church sometimes call a kairos moment. That is, the opportune moment, God’s moment. Like Pentecost, it is a moment where the Holy Spirit swoops in and changes everything. 

Let me share a story with you that illustrates this: Last Sunday, I was invited to say a prayer at a peaceful demonstration in Biloxi. And we were gathered, about a hundred of us, in Lighthouse Park across from Highway 90. We were spaced apart and everyone had masks on for safety, of course. And there, people shared stories, shared their hopes and dreams for the future. Black speakers shared their pain, shared their anger, and I tried to listen deeply to every word. White speakers shared words of solidarity and words of repentance. And it was a busy Sunday on the highway and on the beach because it was the weekend and the weather was beautiful. People were honking to us, waving, showing signs of support: old people, young people, black people, white people, people in fancy cars, people in not-so-fancy cars.

After all the horrible images I’d seen on TV and online, this filled me with hope. This, I believe, was a little glimpse of God’s kingdom. And it occurred to me, standing there, that the beach just across the highway, sixty years ago was segregated. And when demonstrators tried to change that by simply wading into the water, they were met with violence. There’s not just one kairos moment, but a string of kairos moments, an arc through our history. God calls us in our own time and place. 

God is calling us now to prayer and to action. This moment, this kairos moment, is an opportunity to show that we hear the cries of our black neighbors and that their lives do indeed matter to us. Since our founding as a congregation in the 1960s, Christus Victor has played a role in racial healing and reconciliation. We opened the area’s first integrated kindergarten. Our pastors and our members have been outspoken in the community and have built alliances between churches and community groups. Just last year, we hosted for the Gulf Coast an interfaith prayer vigil for racial healing. So this is part of our story. We’ve been here before. But how do we go farther? How do we go deeper? How do we meet this particular moment.

And look, there’s something else that challenges us: We’re still in a pandemic. We can’t gather like we normally do–at least not in our church building. We have to be creative and use the opportunities that are in front of us.

So one of the things that we need to do is to educate ourselves. To learn more about the systems that perpetrate and sustain racism (the powers and the principalities, as the Bible would say). By learning more about the problems we can better understand what needs to happen to address them. Fortunately, there are a lot of resources out there–things that our church and others have made–books, videos, statements. So over the course of the next few days and weeks, I’m going to try to share some of those that I think would be particularly helpful.

I’m also going to invite us all to watch a film together. The film “Just Mercy” came out last year and it tells the story of Bryan Stevenson, who has made it his life’s work to dismantle racism. He was also one of the featured speakers at the 2018 ELCA Youth Gathering in Houston. I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m told by lots of people that it’s very good, and it’s being offered free across a lot of different platforms this month. So there will be more details on that to come, but we’ll watch it on our own time and then pick a date to have a discussion on Zoom about what we’ve learned. And I hope that discussion might lead us to want to learn more and go further.

Secondly, we can support peaceful demonstrations, marches, and prayer vigils in our community. Back in 1991, the ELCA put out a social statement called “Church and Society: A Lutheran Perspective.” This is one of the things it said:

An important way that Christians carry out their citizenship is through participation in voluntary associations and movements, both religious and secular. At times, these groups may serve a prophetic function as they protest particular evils, question unexamined assumptions, challenge unjust or immoral practices, and organize for structural changes in the work place, local community, and wider world.

Church and Society: A Lutheran Perspective (1991)

The right to assemble peacefully and to petition our government is enshrined in the First Amendment–the same amendment that guarantees our freedom of worship. And so the two have always been linked in US history, the church has played a public role in the Civil Rights Movement, women’s suffrage, slavery abolition, and the list goes on and on. 

Now, as your pastor, I know that when I go out and speak publicly, when I wear that collar or appear on the news, that carries a burden and a responsibility. And so, when I speak or act in my public role as pastor, I do it within the bounds of what our church teaches–through our social statements and teachings, our bishops, our confessions and scripture. In the case of racial justice and healing, the church’s teachings are quite clear and quite extensive. By relying on the teaching documents of our church, we can address these issues faithful in a way that transcends partisan politics.

Over the past week, we’ve seen demonstrations popping up in all 50 states, in big cities and even small towns. And the purposes of these are to memorialize the victims of racist violence and to call for reforms in public policy. And, despite what’s being shown in the media, the vast majority of these have been peaceful.

That’s been true in our area. There are two being planned in Gulfport on Saturday: A Unity March at 9 am, organized by the City of Gulfport and a Demonstration for Peace organized by other community organizations at 6 pm. I can’t make it to the morning march, but I plan to attend in the evening.  I know that is not possible for everyone, but even if you can’t leave your home, perhaps you might pray on that day for peace in our community and our country. 

Now, if you do attend one of these or one in the future, here’s a little guidance: I always check beforehand with organizers that I trust to make sure that whatever I attend is legitimate and that there are steps taken to ensure safety and order. These types of gatherings are diverse–there are people of every stripe there–and so it’s important to understand that not everything that you see or hear, you’re going to agree with. In fact, it may sometimes be offensive. So it’s important to know beforehand what your boundaries are. And it’s always okay to walk away or just not attend if you’re feeling uncomfortable. And remember, again, we’re still in a pandemic, so make sure to wear a mask and keep distance. Fortunately, it appears that outdoor activity is less risky than indoor, but we need to be safe.

So I know this is a lot to take in, if there’s anything that you want to talk to me directly about, even something that you disagree with me on, please reach out. I’m happy to walk with you on this. The work ahead of us will be challenging, but I always trust that God is there guiding us along the way. Christ is with all who suffer and mourn or live in fear. And the Spirit gives us the courage to go out and work for change.

And so as we close, I ask that you pray with me:

O God, where hearts are fearful and constricted, grant courage and hope. Where anxiety is infectious and widening, grant peace and reassurance. Where impossibilities close every door and window, grant imagination and resistance. Where distrust twists our thinking, grant healing and illumination. Where spirits are daunted and weakened, grant soaring wings and strengthened dreams. All these things we ask in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.