We Gather Here Today–Local religious leaders address current affairs
While the origin of the phrase “May you live in interesting times” may be in question, the current state of affairs is nothing, if not lively. A number of area religious leaders are finding their congregations are looking for—and coming up with—concrete responses to the challenges and concerns of our times.
“People still have their normal-life concerns, such as desiring to improve personal relationships or challenges with finances; but now they’re also making more of a concerted effort to learn about other people’s situations and act based off careful thoughts and planning,” says Pastor Merle McJunkin of Antioch Baptist Church, Bedford Hills. He notes his congregation is doing more to address the issues of food insecurity and stand in solidarity on issues of immigration. And McJunkin notes the church enjoys “solid relationships” with two area synagogues.
“We’re doubling down on building relationships with other communities in order to create a greater sense of support and partnership,” says Rabbi Aaron Brusso, Temple Bet Torah, Mount Kisco. He says although members of the congregation are troubled regarding the rise of anti-Semitism in the area and beyond, they’re also heartened by what they see as a strengthening of relationships with allies. “I think that is the beauty of America,” Brusso says.
Becoming more welcoming has been on the minds of both Brusso and Pastor Melissa Boyer, United Methodist Church, Katonah. Says Boyer: “Our church has become more intentionally welcome to the LGBTQ community.” She notes many in that community have moved away from churches in general. Overall, Boyer has noticed two things happening with her congregation—attendance for Sunday services has been declining (she notes that is true for institutional religion overall) while people “still have that deep hunger for connection to the divine and connection for community.” To meet that need she started Katonah Space (Spirituality, Arts & Community for Everyone). The monthly small group setting “provides a different way for people to plug in.” Boyer says the meetings draw from people of different faiths or those who don’t identify with any faith.
“The message I’ve sent is that if we feel unwelcome we should ask ourselves who else is feeling that way and how can we can address that,” Brusso says. The synagogue has partnered with Neighbors Link to make a “commitment to the local immigrant population.” McJunkin says, “Part of my role is to help cast current issues, situations, or challenges into a wider perspective.” He notes that when people come to services they’re looking to put aside differences and celebrate their faith and what brings them together. “People are looking to not feel isolated—to share the positivity of being around good people.”
McJunkin also has seen a slight decline in Sunday morning service attendance, which he says has been on the mind of other area religious leaders. “We hear that people are unfortunately concerned with safety and security issues,” he notes. Both he and Brusso have made concrete changes in how security is addressed. But McJunkin notes, “We want to make sure we still have a welcoming and inviting congregation.” At Bet Torah, Brusso is finding that members of the congregation want to get involved in addressing issues of security and has not seen a decline in attendance at services.
Brusso, as well as McJunkin and Boyer, note the impacts of increased social media usage and polarization, and they are taking steps to address that. “People seem overwhelmed by their inability to wrap their arms around the size of an issue,” Brusso says. He counsels the best thing to do is make “small differences every day.” He notes people have also become “self-selecting” in their beliefs both online and in physical places as to who they spend time with. “Synagogues, churches, and other houses of worship are one of the last places to practice being part of a civil society,” Brusso says.
“I see Sunday services as grounding,” Boyer notes. She says people are trying to put the outside world in perspective, “by getting in touch with wise traditions which allow them to go back into the world with more clarity and inner peace.” She notes that she will talk about an issue such as immigration, recognizing that people in the pews may have differing opinions. “I make a distinction between being political and being partisan.” And McJunkin quotes Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability but comes through continuous struggle.”