Bear One Another’s BurdensBlog / Produced by The High Calling
I want to make a simple request of those who read this piece. I am going to mention Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, but I will not offer an opinion on whether or not the Park 51 Community Center should be built. The debates on this subject are now generating more heat than light, I fear. Let’s not do that here. I would be interested in comments from you about something else, though. Having been a clergyman for many years, I can’t help but watch the drama of Park 51 unfold with a different perspective. Because I know what it’s like to carry someone else's reputation.
When I was a Baptist minister, I could never get comfortable with the fact that Fred Phelps was a colleague. Whenever the people from Westboro Baptist Church were on the news with their hateful signs, I knew that some of Fred’s reputation was going to rub off on me. Whether it’s fair or not, clergy share their reputations. Many people in our culture have never met, much less befriended a preacher. What little experience they have with ministers comes from television and the occasional wedding or funeral. When someone meets a Baptist preacher for the first time, they often have some preconceived notions. That’s just the way it is. Every minister has to find a graceful way to bear the burden of other ministers’ reputations. After a few years, I learned that it’s not helpful to spend much time explaining yourself. You hope that people will give you a chance to earn your own reputation with honest, faithful, and authentic living. Most people will give you that chance, but not all will. Some cling to their stereotypes of ministers for their own reasons. Maybe believing that all ministers are judgmental hypocrites is a good excuse for not going to church. Who knows? I do know that preserving the comfort of our familiar myths can be a powerful motivation for maintaining stereotypes. When I was a minister and someone asked me what I did for a living, I said, “I’m a Baptist pastor,” and left it at that. I never elaborated. They would either give me a chance to show them what that meant or they wouldn’t. Not everyone is going to like you in this life, and it’s a waste of time to try and earn the respect of someone who is determined not to give it to you. In Galatians chapter six, Paul tells us to “carry one another’s burdens.” I think helping to redeem the reputation of Christianity is part of that sacred calling. If a Christian - minister or other - has wounded someone in the name of Christ, then you and I are called to carry the burden of that bad reputation with patience and grace. Instead of becoming angry or defensive when confronted with a stereotype, we should be resolved to earn our own reputations with faith and goodness. I think my own experience of sharing the Baptist label and reputation with Fred Phelps has caused me to react a little differently to the current controversy that is surrounding Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. He shares a religion (and therefore a reputation) with Osama Bin Laden and the Muslim extremists who destroyed the Twin Towers. Rightly or wrongly, he does. I don’t know this man from Adam. I don’t know anything about his motives for building a community center. I just know what it feels like to carry the reputation of a terrible person. I know that it can be hard to swallow your pride and go about your business, doing what you think it right, and hoping you get the chance to earn your own reputation. Like I said, I don’t know Imam Rauf. But I feel for the man. I really do. Humbly offered… Gordon Atkinson
Photograph by Cowbark