During Lent, the period leading up to Easter, many Christians give up personal luxuries like watching television or eating chocolate. But this year, Linda Stephan, the pastor at the Williamston United Methodist Church near Lansing, took a different approach.
She gave up her pulpit.
The traditions of Lent are based on the 40 days of personal sacrifice and reflection Jesus spent in the desert, as described in the Bible.
Stephan says her decision to give up her time to preach each week came out of a discussion with other leaders at her church.
"They decided that they want to be a force against racism and they made specific goals about that. And as I thought about how a largely white church in a largely white community could do that, the idea was born that we really need to start with listening," Stephan told Michigan Radio's Morning Edition.
The church's services are still all virtual because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Stephan invited several African-American pastors from around the country to be guest preachers.
"Because of racist policies that were there before we were born, and because of the scourge of racism that entered our churches all the way back in the 1700s, a lot of us have no strong ties to people of color," she said. "So, if we really want to be a voice against racism, it has to start with us, and recognizing what voices are missing in our lives. In the Christian tradition, the best way to honor other strong leaders is to offer them our pulpit."
Reverend Tavares Stephens delivered the sermon for Stephan’s church on Palm Sunday. Stephens is an associate pastor at the St. James United Methodist Church in Alpahretta, Georgia. He and Stephan became friends during seminary at Emory University in Atlanta.
Stephens loved Stephan's idea of addressing another congregation.
"She has an incredible gift for listening, and also recognizing the urgency of the need that's right before her," he said. "One of the things we talk about in our Methodist walk is the world is our parish, and understanding that she's connected to other pastors who would see the world as their parish, and see her church family as their church family."
Here's some of what Stephens told the church members in Michigan.
For we are in a season of discontent where the health of our physical and emotional and psychological and spiritual bodies is being challenged by inordinate amounts of trauma, loss, and disappointment. For every mass shooting, every loved one lost due to the pandemic, every sting of economic pain due to real time financial challenges that come as we simply attempt to provide for our families, survive and thrive on a daily basis, and learn to love ourselves and neighbors with a Christ-like sense of compassion.
Stephens also spoke about the issue of racism and policy brutality in the sermon. It's a topic that's been a point of focus for his own church in Georgia.
"Right after the George Floyd incident, I convened a three-part series entitled 'The Race Forward.' I reached out to friends from across the country in different sectors. So, bringing in family therapists, educators, political activists, other pastors [to] think about how the church could respond to it," he said. "How can the love of God, the light of Christ, the compassion of being Christian community, help us to confront these problems, but confront them in ways where we can we can bring people together?"
In the Palm Sunday sermon, Stephan heard that desire to find a bridge.
"We're in a time where all of us are really struggling [during the pandemic]. What often happens is in hard times like this, we push off the issues that affect those most marginalized to deal with [our own] big issues," Stephan said.
"For a white church like ours, that might be really easy for us, to focus on our own needs. And Reverend Tavares named our own needs, connected those with his community as well, and then helped us also to see how that is ratcheted up when you add a layer of racism."
Stephan says she realized her congregation needed to find the capacity to face both.
"Now is the time to address racism even as we address real, present physical needs for ourselves. That's what I heard in that," she said. "He over and over again addressed us as family. And my people felt that so keenly, and appreciated that connection, and that sense of dignity, and the olive branch that he presented to us, that we could be part of the healing."
Lent is not just a time of self-sacrifice. It's also a time of reflection and reconnecting to faith.
"The whole point of giving anything up ... is so that you can be filled by the spirit and filled with a new sense of connection, and also that you can purge yourself of any habits that are separating you from God," Stephan said. "I've had a chance to step away from the pulpit and listen to others. I've been reading from Black church traditions, as well, just [to] grow in my own sense of place and identity as a person who can be a force against racism."
And yes, Stephan will be back to deliver a sermon on Easter Sunday.
"It's really scary. I've got some great acts to follow."
Featured music: "We Rise" by Tavares Stephens (feat. Cleveland Jones and Karen Bryant)
Lauren Talley contributed to this story.
Editor's note: Quotes in this story have been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.