Reverend and congressman speaks about anger at North United Methodist Church
In the first of what he promised would be a series, Rev. Emanuel Cleaver II visited North Street United Methodist Church Sunday, Aug. 30, to consult with church leaders about the direction of the little church in Marshall.
And to preach.
Cleaver, a Democrat and U.S. representative for Missouri's Fifth District, was in Marshall not as a Congressman but in his capacity as assistant to the bishop for African American congregations.
The new role comes after more than three decades as pastor of one church, St. James United Methodist Church of Kansas City.
"I reached a point where I felt I could be of more value in another area," Cleaver said after the evening service. "The bishop tried to talk me out of it. My family tried to talk me out of it. My congregation tried to talk me out of it. But I decided it was important for me to do. I'm hoping to be in small congregations to help them figure out what they want to do."
His presence at North Street Church certainly generated community interest. The church that usually has about 15-20 people attend services was full Sunday evening.
"I'm going to be coming back," Cleaver said.
He indicated that one goal he wants to help the church pursue is attracting more young people. He said future visits would include other special guests who will help accomplish that goal.
Church members have reported that ConAgra Foods is interested in purchasing the church. Asked whether he had discussed that issue with church leaders, Cleaver said, "That's what brought me here."
"This church is one of the oldest churches in the state. Certainly one of the oldest black churches," he said.
Cleaver's sermon Sunday focused not on new directions for the church but on an issue that has received attention nationwide in recent weeks: anger.
"I'm not going to do a sermon based on the news or based on any political position, but you've seen a lot of TV clips of people yelling and screaming at townhall meetings. And it seems to me that those of us who believe in the words of the Lord Jesus should look at anger, or at least struggle to look at it, from a theological point of view."
In his message, Cleaver referred to the Bible to distinguish between destructive anger and righteous anger.
He said that during a recent townhall meeting he held, he was able to set a tone of civility, and he did so by recognizing the validity of participants' views.
"I'm not one of those who will say that you have no right to come to a meeting angry," he said. "I used to organize sit-ins and demonstrations. I appreciate people who organize. I certainly can't condemn somebody for doing what I have done."
But he cautioned that anger unmitigated by courtesy can undermine the mission of those who wield it.
"You never ever try to push a noble cause with nastiness. The nastiness cancels out the nobility," he said.
The central Biblical example Cleaver referred to was Jesus' healing on the Sabbath of a man with a withered hand.
With the Pharisees looking on, determined to catch him in the act of violating the Sabbath, Jesus defied convention and healed the man, Cleaver said.
"There is an anger that is virtuous. And if you are angry and if it is compatible with the word of God, it is righteous anger," he said. "Every Christian ought have some righteous anger inside him or her. Paul writes: Be angry, but sin not."
He noted the role the media play in fueling public anger, saying even the best television talk shows these days allow participants to interrupt each other and raise their voices to the level of shouts and screams.
"This is the leading nation on the planet and we cannot even have a civil discourse without people screaming at each other," he said. "This is a disgust and a shame to democracy."
Cleaver, who founded the House of Representatives Caucus on Civility, spoke after the service about his efforts, with Republican colleague, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, to model civil debate and encourage the nation's legislators to serve as better examples.
"She and I have had debates for the purpose of showing people how they could actually argue over something that they feel passionate about and still maintain the highest level of decorum," he said. "We debated tort reform, which is a toxic issue, but we did it for one hour. After, we shook hands. We are continuing to encourage others to do that."
The often raucus townhall meetings during the August congressional recess have not helped the situation, he said.
"I think people are going to come back angry because of the anger they have had thrown on them," he said. "It's a shame that we'll go back in the fall and continue the nasty tone that has become part of the political process, which I find appalling."