Sharissa Hawkins hadn’t warned Pastor Walter Mitty that she was going to drop a bombshell at last night’s Poplar Park Community Church council meeting.
“I move,” she said when it came time for new business, “that we remove the American flag from alongside the altar and put it in the social hall.”
A loud silence hung like an ominous cloud over the meeting, like everyone was just waiting for thunder and lightning to strike at any moment.
Gerhardt Aschenbrenner reacted by fingering the American flag pin in his sport coat lapel, closing his eyes, bowing his head and thinking, “Here we go again. Sharissa is on her idealistic high horse. First it was the environment. Then Black Lives Matter. Then it was separating children from their refugee parents.”
Sharissa pulled Asch out of his emotional retreat by saying, “Asch, I know what you’re thinking. This is not about football players kneeling during the national anthem.”
The social worker couldn’t repress a smile as she watched the man sitting across the table startled into awareness of the group.
“What’s going on,” she continued, “is that I’ve been thinking about that hymn we sang last week.”
“You mean um …” Eric Anderson paused to search his memory, “that one that begins with ‘This is my song O God of all the nations’?”
The social worker smiled at the man who looked like he walked straight out of an Eddie Bauer catalogue.
“That’s the one,” she said. “And what really hit me were those lines that went ‘here’ — meaning America — ‘are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine. But other hearts in other lands are beating with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.'”
Asch was shaking his head as he asked, “So are you putting our country down again, Sharissa?”
“C’mon Asch, you know better than most people that I love this country and that’s why I work for low wages as a social worker on the South Side. I work to …” she said, pausing to find the words to finish her sentence, “to enlarge the tent, to make it big enough so everyone in this country can be blessed.”
Another pause. Most of the people sitting around the table were afraid of open conflict and had retreated into their emotional shells.
Pastor Mitty finally decided to say something.
“Sharissa, are you saying the flag should not be respected, that it stands for something you are not proud of?”
“No, Pastor,” Sharissa replied. “I understand how people can interpret what I’m saying that way, but that’s not what I mean. Let me put it this way. Jesus was not an American, right?”
The council members, even Asch, slowly, one by one, nodded their heads in agreement.
“OK, so what I’m saying is that this whole kneeling during the national anthem has become a fashionable bandwagon for some folks to jump on, and for other people it’s a sign that those kneeling don’t love America.
“I don’t want to wave that red flag. What I’m saying is that the American flag is a symbol. A symbol of this country. And the cross is a symbol for us Christians of the love of God. Jesus commanded us to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength.”
She paused again to let that sink in, knowing that the council was now at least partly with her.
“And Jesus added that we should love everyone and everything else — not with our whole heart — but ‘as ourselves’. I’m not asking us to burn the flag or disrespect it. I’m just asking us to take it away from next to the altar and put it another prominent place, in the social hall … to kind of symbolically say that we know who is God and what or who is not.”
To everyone’s surprise, and relief, Asch responded with a quiet, almost affectionate tone, saying, “I think I get what you are saying, Sharissa, and it doesn’t bother me as much as it did a few minutes ago. You know I don’t agree with you and that I will vote ‘no’ when it comes to a vote. But the reason I’m not angry now is that I heard you acknowledging that you respected how I feel about the flag, partly by offering to move to the social hall instead of getting rid of it altogether.”
The first reaction of those sitting around the table was a sigh of relief.
But almost immediately, the whole tone of the meeting changed from defensiveness to a feeling that no one could put into words. It was sort of a feeling of belonging. Or perhaps it was more of a feeling of safety, a belief that unity did not require uniformity.
And after the meeting was adjourned, everyone — coincidentally perhaps — left thinking about John McCain.