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Newsflash: Reading Robert E. Lee Passages does not Build Unity

We attended a prayer breakfast this morning. We'd wanted to go but didn't pursue it due to the tightness of our purse strings, and so when we got an invitation from our church to be their guests, we were excited, and recognized the blessing.

The keynote speaker was a white male executive of a regional not-for-profit Catholic healthcare system, who explained that this year's theme was unity. He told stories of several people he'd seen touched by loving interactions with others, and talked about how badly empathy is needed, and how much we need to listen to the stories of others. He did a good job. His message was well delivered, and important.

I was psyched to see a fair amount of ethnic diversity given that our town isn't huge and is relatively rural. The emcee was a black preacher, as was a woman who woke the bacon-and-eggs-stuffed crowd by opening her talk with a series of hallelujahs, which she expected to receive in return. And we complied.

We listened as a number of people in varying clerical roles took the podium to offer brief thoughts and lead us in prayer for a variety of focus areas such as the government, media, and business. Our pastor's focus was on education, and she did a great job of recognizing the importance of all those who contribute to raising our children.

Near the end of this section of the program came prayer for the church. I'd looked forward to that section, given that my wife and I are called to be part of the contemporary reformation. An extra bonus (I thought) was that the speaker was a Roman Catholic deacon, because I'd studied Catholicism pretty extensively some years back, and love much of it's teaching.

It didn't take long for that hopeful anticipation to dissipate. Here's why:

The middle-aged, white, male deacon thought reading a passage written by Robert E. Lee was a good idea.

As I said, his prayer focus area was "church." The passage he read talked about the need for us to pray for country, the military, and a few other issues, but had pretty much nothing to do with the church. After reading it, he did offer a brief prayer for the church, which had pretty much nothing to do with Robert E. Lee's words. The two things were not discernibly connected.

Remember: the focus of this year's National Day of Prayer is unity.

If there was a hall of fame for Americans who represent disunity and divisiveness in our nation's history, Robert E. Lee would perhaps hold the first seat. The man is a symbol for what was arguably the most tragic season of disruption and dissension in the life of our country. It doesn't take a whole lot of digging in social media to hear rumbles and threats of a new civil war to be waged in the event that the current presidential administration collapses. Given this reality, why on earth would a deacon, a servant of God, deliberately choose a passage written by someone who led our nation to split?

Robert E. Lee is also a symbol of the desire to retain a system in which the rights of men are dictated by the color of their skin. Regardless of whether you believe the Civil War was about slavery or not, many people do, and many of those people are the great grandchildren of people who survived slavery. The impact of slavery on African Americans is still in play today. We live in an era where it has become vital to proclaim the reality that black lives actually do matter, and where injustices against people based on skin color is alive and thriving.

Why on earth would a deacon, a servant of God, deliberately choose a passage written by someone who fought to allow states to decide that slavery was okay? What did his decision say to the African American people in the crowd? What did it do to the unity within that room, within Christ's church as reflected in that collected body, and within our city?

The more I think about this, the more outraged and sickened I become. I am trying not to make assumptions about this man, though it seems obvious he had some sort of ungodly agenda. I can't wrap my brain around the possibility that unity was in any way part of his goal.

I'm trying to pray for him as a response. He obviously needs it, and it's a helpful spiritual discipline for me to pray for those who's actions make me angry.

But I'm also calling his church, and talking to the priest who presides over him. Then I'm calling the Bishop.

I just wish I could do more. I wish I could apologize to every African American person who was in that crowd, and to every citizen who, like me, has fears about the future of our country. I have no way of reaching them, however. Filing a formal complaint, and writing this, is all I can do.

It is frustrating, but it will have to be enough.

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