3 July 2012
Tomorrow is Independence Day. All across America people will celebrate, with parades and fireworks, concerts on the Esplanade and in Central Park and on the Mall in DC, with cookouts and family reunions, at cabins in Maine and in backyards everywhere. The traditional New England feast for the day, salmon and peas, has long since given way to burgers and dogs on the barbecue. The task of declaring our independence is never finished, and we continue to define and refine what it means, as States and the Courts grapple with issues of rights and citizenship, and we listen to politicians argue about whether newly declared rights are chains or freedom for us.
On Saturday, the Confirmation class and Jen Daysa and I went to Boston, to visit the church where it all began, the Old South Meetinghouse, a Congregational Church which is now a museum. In this church, a few blocks from the State House, people gathered to express outrage and to listen to orators after the Boston Massacre of civilians by British soldiers, and then they gathered again over a cargo of newly taxed tea that was on a ship in the harbor. Samuel Adams wrote that 5000 folks gathered there, in a church that held at most a few hundred, so they must have come in shifts for the 24 hours of that debate. When the war started, the British chopped up the pews and turned the church into a horse stable, so incensed were they about those meetings. But after the war the church was restored by the premier architect of the day, in recognition of the role it had played in helping people discern their direction, which led them to act out the Tea Party protest. And a century later, when the great Boston fire broke out, fire trucks from as far away as Maine circled the church to defend it with their hoses, the people crying out, “Save the Old South!”
The legacy of all this that the Museum honors is free speech. The Museum understands the Tea Party to have been about freedom for more and more people to participate in public conversation, at a time when the British government was trying to limit public talk and public opinion to landholders, to men only, to white men only, and to the upper classes. All kinds of controversial issues have been addressed in the Old South over the centuries. Margaret Sanger spoke there for women’s reproductive freedom in the early 1940s, when the idea was shocking. Nelson Mandela spoke there when he first got out of prison in South Africa after 27 years behind bars. Those old walls have heard endless cries for freedom.
We also went to King’s Chapel, the loyalists’ church, so resented by the colonists that they constantly threw stones through its windows. And we went up Beacon Hill to the St. Gaudens monument to the black regiment that fought in the Civil War, the first allowed to fight for the US, commissioned on that spot by Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists. Across the street, on the lawn of the State House stands a statue of Anne Hutchinson, sister-in-law of our founding pastor Jonathan Wheelwright, who was condemned for her views. Her statue, and the St. Gaudens’ monument proclaim unforgettable moments in the story of our defining of freedom, and how free speech is part of that.
On the back side of Beacon Hill we visited the first black church in America, built by and for escaped slaves and free African Americans, in the early 1800s. Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglas all spoke there in its pulpit. And a few blocks away we visited the Vilna Shul, an early 20th c. congregation of poor Jewish people from Lithuania who lived in tenements without running water on the back of Beacon Hill.
Everywhere we went there were costumed interpreters and docents who are researching the past and presenting it to the present. Despite the 97 degree heat, we had a wonderful day.
We ended up in Copley Square, visiting the modern day Old South UCC Church and Trinity Episcopal Church, and learning what vision and mission these congregations uphold in our time. Both congregations are Open and Affirming, both work hard on social justice and issues of poverty in the city, and both care about the earth. As do we, here. And our kids, who were just terrific on this trip, learned a lot about how faith has kept people going in tough times, here in America, and how faith has set people free.