The Rev. Dr. Richard L. Tolliver preached the following sermon at St. Edmund’s Episcopal Church, Chicago, Illinois on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 21, 2002.


“Spiritual Leadership During Times of Controversy”

Acts 6:1-9; 7:2a, 51-60


            Are you aware that since 1965, the United States has become the most religiously diverse country in the world? Yes, the religious landscape of America has changed radically in the past thirty years, but most of us have not yet begun to see the dimensions and scope of that change, so gradual has it been and yet so colossal. It began with the “new immigration,” spurred by the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, as people from all over the world came to America and have become citizens. With them have come the religious traditions of the world----Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Sikh, Zoroastrian, African, and Afro-Caribbean. The people of these living traditions of faith have moved into American neighborhoods, tentatively at first, their altars and prayer rooms in storefronts and office buildings, basements and garages, recreation rooms and coat closets, nearly invisible to the rest of us. But in the past decade, we have begun to see their visible presence.

            President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the new immigration act into law on July 4, 1965, at the base of the Statue of Liberty, America’s doors were opened once again to immigrants from all over the world. Since 1924 an extremely restrictive quota system had virtually cut off all immigration. Entry from Asia had always been extremely limited, beginning with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. The scope of Asian exclusion expanded decade after decade to exclude Japanese, Koreans, and other “Asiatics” as well. Asian-born immigrants could not become citizens, argued the Supreme Court in the case of Bhgat Singh Thind. Thind was a Sikh, a naturalized citizen, who had served in World War I. Drawing on a 1790 statute, the court declared Asians to be outside the range of “free white men” who could become citizens. In 1923 he was stripped of his citizenship. The 1924 immigration law then barred from immigration anyone ineligible for citizenship, and that meant all Asians.

            The 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act was linked in spirit to the Civil Rights Act passed just a year earlier. As Americans became critically aware of our nation’s deep structures of racism, we also saw that race discrimination continued to shape immigration law, excluding people from what was then called the Asia-Pacific triangle. Robert Kennedy in supporting the act before the U.S. Congress, said, “Everywhere else in our national life, we have eliminated discrimination based on national origins. Yet, this system is still the foundation of our immigration law.”

 The arrival of this new religious diversity has not escaped Chicago. It’s reality is well documented in a book titled, Public Religion: Faith in the City and Urban Transformation, published in 2000 by The Religion in Urban America Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

            There is no sector of American society that hasn’t been touched by this new phenomenon. For example, the front page of the Metro Section of Monday, April 15, 2002’s edition of The Washington Post features an article titled, “Chaplain Stretched Beyond Sermons: Prison’s Diversity of Faiths Also Requires Coordinating Ministries, Weighing Inmate Requests.” The article describes some of the challenges of Baptist Chaplain, Rev. Elwood Gray. The article states that Chaplain Gray and other prison chaplains often find themselves mired in research on the Internet, studying the tenets of unfamiliar faiths so they can rule on an ever-wider range of prisoners’ requests.

            The issues vary among prisons. At the Lino Lakes Correctional Facility outside Minneapolis, where many of the 1,000 inmates are Native American, Chaplain Steve Hokonson has allowed animal claws, herbs and smoking pipes to be taken in as religious artifacts. But Hokonson turned down a Sikh inmate’s request to carry a sword after determining that under their own religious laws, Sikhs forfeit the right to a sword if they commit a crime.

            We read the newspaper daily and are reminded of controversies in other parts of the world that are raging between people who embrace different religious. Dr. Diana Eck says that some of the tension existing in the United States today among groups, is due to the presence of the new religious diversity. She chronicles many instances of vandalism in this country perpetrated against religious houses of worship of people embracing non-Christian religions in her recently published book, A New Religious America. For example, in May 1999 huge chunks of concrete were used to shatter windows of the newly constructed $3.6 million dollar Mosque in the Chicago suburb, Villa Park. The largest, a concrete block weighing some fifty pounds, was found in the foyer amid shards of glass.

The most highly publicized case in recent memory in the metropolitan Chicago area occurred in the summer of 2000 when the city council of Palo Heights offered to pay a Muslim group $200,000 to walk away from the offer they had made on a Reformed Church building. The prospective buyers had planned to convert the space into an Islamic Center.

            Writing in a chapter titled, “Building Bridges,” Dr. Eck challenges spiritual leaders to become involved in providing solutions to settle these controversies being generated because of animosity being expressed toward people who embrace other religions. What can we do as spiritual people? We can take the lead by the example of how we live our own lives.

            One of the main reasons I chose the topic, “Understanding Diverse Religions” as the theme for our five week Lenten series this year, was to help us learn more about people who embrace religious traditions other than our own. Although the attendance at the forms was respectable, it wasn’t as high as in past years when we have discussed other topics. Several parishioners who faithfully attended, made note of that fact to me. One of the least attended forms was the night the speaker spoke on the topic, “Understanding Islam.” One of our parishioner’s said to me following the presentation, “Father, I’m surprised that given all the controversy in the world today involving people of the Muslim faith, you would have thought that more of our parishioners would have wanted to better understand that religious tradition.” I concurred. After all, of the six million members of the Orthodox Muslim faith in the United States today, it’s a documented fact that between 25% and 40% are African Americans. Allan D. Austin, writing in a book he titles, African Muslims in Antebellum America, documents that the first members of the Islamic faith to arrive in America were African slaves. The book includes several personal narratives of some of those slaves.

            Let us not pretend that some tension doesn’t exist between black Americans who are Christian and Muslim. In the summer of 1998, I attended a two-week seminar at the Harvard Divinity School at which some other Chicago African-American clergy were in attendance. One of the attendees from another state was a Muslim cleric. He subsequently visited our city and spent some time with me and another local clergyman who had participated in the seminar. I later chatted with that local clergyman. He acknowledged that the Muslim cleric had visited his church.  He said to me, “I even let him speak from my pulpit and you know how I feel about Muslims.” I inferred that he doesn’t fell very positive about them.

            I agree with Dr. Eck, we as spiritual leaders must lead by the example of our own lives, and venture into these controversies and begin to break down the walls that divide us because of religious diversity. I am very much involved in activities intended to break down these barriers and I challenge you to do the same.

            Indeed, I am increasingly haunted and inspired by a statement a former seminary professor made one day to our social ethics class at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Dr. Joseph Fletcher was Professor of Social Ethics. One day he said to the class, “You know, I have decided at my age, I no longer have time to be involved in non-controversial activities. We sit here and bemoan a fallen world and when we leave here, nothing better seems to happen in the world as a result of anything we do. With what days I have left on this earth, I no longer have time to be involved in non-controversial activities.” My brothers and sisters in Christ, I have appropriated Dr. Fletcher’s statement of commitment as my own.

            One of the actions I have recently personally taken is accepted membership on the Steering Committee of the Progressive Religious Partnership. We have established a network around the country of significant clergy, both Jewish and Christian, and a few Muslims and now one Zen Buddhist. After 25 years of the Religious Right being the sole definition of religion in the public arena, there is an urgent need for a strong progressive religious voice that is organized to speak to both economic and racial justice as well as dealing with gender equality, gay justice and reproductive choice. We are also discerning ways to speak prophetically and effectively on peacemaking around the theme “Faith, Patriotism and the Next America: Religious Terror and War.” This past Monday we held a town hall meeting in Washington, D.C. The topic was, “Spiritual Crisis in America: Seeking a Prophetic Response to 9/11 and its Aftermath.” On Tuesday we held a press conference in the nation’s capital to speak out against the violence in the Middle East and call for a solution that will be just to both Palestinians and Jews, recognizing that any resolution of the crisis will be less than perfect.

            Are there others present this morning who are prepared to make that same commitment to become spiritual leaders during times of controversy?  President Clinton said on the occasion of his 50th birthday, “I have seen more yesterdays than tomorrows.” Most of us sitting here today have seen more yesterday’s than tomorrows. Will the world be any less tense when we leave here, because of some controversy we have tried to alleviate while we were alive? That’s the question I ask you to ponder.

            Where do those of us who have decided to no longer involve ourselves in non-controversial activities get our marching orders from?  The Chinese probably invented the compass at least 150 years before it began to be used in Europe around A.D. 1200. Before the compass, sailors relied on the skies for information about their location; in cloudy and stormy weather they were clueless. The compass changed all that and made shipping faster and safer, allowing for busy trading routes to develop, linking the world together in the first phase of what we now call the “death of distance.”

            About a thousand years before the compass was invented, however, the appearance of Christ, the True Compass, introduced a new way to navigate spiritual waters and the treacherous shoals of life. In Acts 6-7 we see how influential the Christ as Compass was in the life of the early church. These chapters do not contain the stories of Jesus, of course, but they illustrate just how transformative his example and guidance proved to be in the lives of the first Christians. What we see in Acts is a picture of a completely new way of life, one based entirely on the direction provided by Jesus Christ.

            The changes begin in chapter 6, with the selection of seven souls to serve as deacons to ensure that the needy in their communities are properly served. So the 12 apostles call a meeting, and ask the group to select “seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (v.3). The community chooses Stephen and six others, and the apostles ordain them to the ministry of serving the needs of the fellowship. Stephen becomes a world-changer, the first martyr of the Christian Church because he set his sail according to the Christ Compass. And, as such, he is a prototype, a model, a compass, for each of us. Stephen shows us how to navigate by the compass of Christ and to see Jesus as the directional signal that we follow in life and in death. That’s what it means to follow the Christ-compass. That’s what it means to be a spiritual leader during times of controversy.

            Martin Luther King, Jr. was a spiritual leader during times of controversy. On one occasion he preached a sermon against the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. He titled that sermon, “A Time to Break Silence.” In its final paragraph he states, “Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”

            My brothers and sisters in Christ, as that noble bard of yesterday, James Russell Lowell, eloquently stated:

            Once to every man and nation

            Comes the moment to decide

            In the strife of truth and falsehood

            For the good or evil side;

            Some great cause God’s new Messiah

            Offering each the gloom or blight

            And the choice goes by forever

            Twixt that darkness and that light.


            Though the cause of evil prosper

            Yet ‘tis truth along is strong

            Though her portion be the scaffold

            And upon the throne be wrong

            Yet that scaffold sways the future

            And behind the dim unknown

            Standeth God within the shadow

            Keeping watch above his own.


            Who will join me this morning in becoming spiritual leaders during times of controversy?



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