Why the Supreme Court Ruling Is an Opportunity for NYC Christians
On Sunday mornings in the heart of Park Slope, Brooklyn, a small yet bustling farmers' market draws shoppers to the sidewalk outside of William Alexander Middle School (MS 51) on 5th Avenue. Even on a cold winter morning, as the browsing patrons move a little more slowly around the wooden tables, the vegetables sit vibrant in the morning light. You can taste free samples of several varieties of the best apples from Upstate New York.
Halfway down the block, near the side entrance of the school, you can hear the squeak of shoes stopping fast on the basketball court of the school gym. The youth basketball league of the 78th Precinct uses the gym when it is too cold to play outside.
If you are there at the right time, you may also hear the strains of a cello or piano drifting out from the school auditorium. Give it a few more minutes and you will faintly hear voices singing. It is the sound of a church preparing for worship. This is my church, where I am a pastor and where my family attends. By 10:30 a.m. all three groups are using the school's property. Families and friends fill the church, the gym, and the sidewalk outside of MS 51 for weekly sustenance of mind, body, and soul. It is a peaceful coexistence, each group quietly acknowledging the other, asking questions, slowly getting to know each other's stories.
Last Monday morning, December 5th, word spread quickly, especially in the circles of New York City clergy, that the Supreme Court had decided not to the hear the case of Bronx Household of Faith vs. New York City Department of Education. By letting the appellate court's ruling stand, the Court ensured that in early 2012, over sixty churches that rent space for their weekly worship gatherings in public schools will have to move. One of them is ours.
MS 51 has hosted our church at a crucial time in its growth. What began as a small home group five years ago grew into a larger Wednesday night prayer and worship evening, and then blossomed into a Sunday worship service two years ago. I remember walking the neighborhood looking for space until my feet ached. As a new church with a small budget, we quickly learned just how high a premium is charged for meeting spaces large enough for a growing congregation. Our options were very limited. When we learned we were going to be able to meet in the school auditorium, it was an answer to prayer.
My first thoughts when I heard the news were a jumbled rush of questions. How many families would this affect? How many people had found a place to belong in churches in the city that year? Who really was on the other side of this case, pushing for the churches to be removed? Our neighbors had welcomed us. Members of our church bought pickles from the gourmet stand at the famers market. My son will soon be old enough for the basketball league. Why would the Court not hear this case when it has heard similar ones and ruled in favor of religious groups? Did the Justices believe that renting to churches is so patently discriminatory that they didn't even need to hear the case? With education dollars regularly getting cut, wouldn't this mean the loss of thousands of dollars in revenue for schools? If the church and the school have a good relationship, shouldn't the decision be up to the school itself? The custodial staff at MS 51 has been very kind to us, as has the principal. Am I just feeling sorry for myself?
As this anger and frustration welled up, the group I was with turned to prayer, and my heart began to shift. Someone brought up the words of Jesus—things are going to be difficult when you follow him. It helped to think about Jesus. He was regularly asked to leave and chased out of town. He was also pretty stubborn in his love and forgiveness. The legal fight, which had started before our church and many others affected had even begun, was over. Now a new kind of struggle would begin—a struggle to love.
The Christian church in New York City has a great opportunity right now. For years, schools all over the city have graciously hosted us. This has given us a wonderful opportunity. We need to be grateful for that hospitality. In these final months as tenants, we need to show our gratitude, and the love of Jesus. The truth is that the schools in our neighborhoods did not make this choice. We have built strong friendships serving them, and them serving us, for years. We must find ways to keep showing them love in this new season as well. This is the way of Jesus.
One other thing about Jesus—he is not just a gentle savior. He is also a provocateur against injustice. I think it is possible to keep a loving posture and still offer a sincere challenge to our culture. Our country was founded on the right of its citizenry to make free and informed decisions. Yet it seems that more and more decisions of conscience are being made for us by high-level policymakers and by judicial fiat. Is this what we actually want for our city, and our nation? If MS 51 can choose to host the basketball league and the farmers' market and the theatre troupe and the voting stations, why can't they choose to host the church as well? I haven't yet heard a compelling answer to that question.
Nothing will stop the church from meeting, and growing, certainly not just ruling out one kind of venue for its public meetings. In fact, Jesus was pretty clear that nothing at all will stop the church. It has often thrived most in the most challenging conditions. Yet those of us who elect our representatives, pay our taxes, and support our local pickle stands need to decide how much longer we will allow decisions that used to be ours and our neighbors' to be made for us.
Meanwhile, our church in Brooklyn will go on, and when our worship service is over on Sunday mornings some of us will still be lingering on the sidewalks outside MS 51—even if we have to walk many blocks to sample those heirloom apples from Upstate.
Caleb Clardy is pastor of Trinity Grace Church Brooklyn.
Christianity Today magazine has reported on the recent Supreme Court ruling elsewhere.