Crossing lines of faith, race and … dancing on Sunday

This week, we welcome Rabbi Jennifer Kaluzny with a story about an unlikely friendship she has formed through the years with a Baptist pastor in a historic Detroit church. Their friendship builds on the wisdom they have shared with each other—serving as shepherds. We call today’s story …

The Dreams of Shepherds

By Rabbi Jennifer Kaluzny

“Let me deposit something in your spirit.”

I heard these words for the first time when I was visiting a church to celebrate the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. The pastor of Greater New Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, the Rev. Ken Flowers, is as much the leader of his congregation as he is a member. He speaks to people as he would his friends with respect and a level of warmth and sincerity that makes the distance between the pulpit and the pews disappear.

He had an abundance of spiritual currency to deposit in the souls of his congregants that day. He spoke about love of God, the importance of working against injustice—and our need to keep an eye on one another to make sure everyone is taken care of and accounted for. One member of his congregation hadn’t been attending services as regularly as she was accustomed to, so someone went to her house to check on her. They found that she had died in her home—she had frozen to death. Before the congregation prayed for her soul to rest in peace, Rev. Flowers told everyone to look to their right, and look to their left. Next week, he urged, make sure those people around you have returned and, if not, pay them a visit, or at least, make a phone call.

Rev. Flowers told about helping a man in his congregation who wanted to work, but said he couldn’t find a job because he didn’t have transportation. Rev Flowers refused to take that as an excuse. He didn’t want to hand the man money, not knowing what he would do with it, but he was happy to buy him a bus pass. So—between his 7:45am service and his 10:45am service—he bought and delivered a bus pass to the man so he could look for a job.

As Rev. Flowers reached the end of his message, he sang and danced with the men and women who gathered with him that morning—including me and three families I brought with me representing our 8th-grade class. He lifted our hearts and souls to a point I hadn’t reached through worship in a very long time. It was as though he took our spirits on a journey of the spirit. Like Dr. King, who reached the mountaintop and saw the promised land, Rev. Flowers gave us a glimpse of a world that could be filled with mountaintops, if we would hearken to Dr. King’s words.

Like Dr. King before him, Rev Flowers preached justice, humanity, and above all love for your friend, your neighbor—and even your enemy. I left the church that morning feeling inspired, spiritually full, and wrapped in love and light. He definitely deposited quite a bit in the spirits of everyone who was with him that Sunday.

In the Torah, we read about Yitro, Moses’ father in law. (Some pronounce his name Jethro.) He was a priest of Midian, not an Israelite. Yitro is highly regarded in Jewish tradition, praised for his leadership skills, his knowledge, and his great concern for Moses. Our Torah tells us that after leaving Egypt, the people were coming to Moses in droves to have him solve disputes. They were coming to him from sunrise to sunset, and Moses was exhausted—burning out. Yitro suggested that he appoint elders to help him adjudicate disputes between the people, to give him some relief, rest and a modicum of self preservation.

Yitro was a shepherd in Midian. He became a shepherd to Moses as well. It was from Yitro that Moses learned to be a shepherd. Both men tended a flock—meeting their needs, keeping them safe, and caring for the animals like children. It was from Yitro that Moses would learn how to shepherd our people. He would learn how best to meet their ever-changing, ever-increasing needs, how to raise them like children, and how to protect them from enemies from without, and from their own discontent. Moses, the leader of the Israelites, learned leadership from Yitro, a Midianite priest.

Sometimes, we find our shepherds in the most unlikely places. I have known Rev Flowers for about four years now, and I am proud to say that I count myself as one of his flock. We are as unlikely a pair as any. He is a Baptist Minister, serving a congregation in the city of Detroit, and I am a Reform Jew, toiling in the suburbs. But we never cease to learn from each other’s experiences, challenges, and visions. There are many shepherds in my life—some I look to for an example of parenting, others for an example of selfless giving, and even others for examples of strength and perseverance. I look to Reverend Flowers for an example of how to bring people together, how to teach, how to work for peace and how to reach out to those around us in creative ways.

Shepherds might be born. They might be made. They might be a bit of both. But we must always remember to keep our eyes out for such leaders everywhere we look, no matter how unlikely the place or situation. We don’t have to share the same skin color, the same religion, or even the same language. But we must keep our hearts and minds open to recognize who is standing right there before us.

As “Amen!” and “Preach it!” echoed around us in the big Detroit church, it didn’t matter that I don’t pray in Jesus’ name. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t hoping to be touched by the Holy Ghost. What mattered was that we were all praying for peace, for justice, and for the brotherhood and sisterhood of all humanity. What mattered was that we were on the same journey towards the same mountaintop, the same promised land, following the same dream.

I pray that we all find shepherds in our lives and with them, build friendships, build bridges, and realize the dreams of shepherds around the world.

RABBI JENNIFER KALUZNY serves at Temple Israel, a large Reform congregation in West Bloomfield, Michigan. She also serves as a rabbi for the Jewish Hospice and Chaplaincy Network. Her congregation hosted the World Sabbath celebration on Sunday, January 30, 2011.Today’s photos illustrate the kind of worship you’ll find in thousands of African American congregations nationwide. If you visit Detroit, the Rev. Ken Flowers and his congregation at Greater New Mount Moriah Baptist Church are, indeed, as welcoming as Rabbi Kaluzny describes.

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