“A Vital Christianity”–Waldensian Moderator visits the US

“A Vital Christianity”–Waldensian Moderator visits the US

The Moderator of the Waldensian Church recently visited the US where he visited congregations. He reports finding a “Vital Christianity.”

Eugenio Bernardini, the Moderator of the Waldensian Church in Italy, recently visited the United States. He visited congregations in New York City, Schenectady, Chicago and Valdese, North Carolina, and reports that everywhere he found a “Vital Christianity.”

The vitality of the churches in the United States is very evident to European visitors. American society strikes us as very religious even as ours is becoming increasingly secularized.  We recognize the multiethnic and multicultural pluralism of American society even as we still live with the limitations of the principle cuius regio eius religio, formulated in 1555 after years of religious wars, which effectively guaranteed centuries of religious and cultural homogeneity on the European mainland. 

Our old continent of Europe is still struggling to accept its increasingly multicultural and multi-religious identity. Moreover, even when we can accept that we are becoming religiously heterogeneous, legally we still give preference to those religious groups that have deep roots in our soil. The result is that religion in America is much more alive than in old Europe.

In New York City, I visited the Riverside Church, the imposing, even beautiful result of a donation given in the early 1930’s by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. In those years, Riverside Church sat astride an informal border between the mostly white and affluent parts of Manhattan south of Riverside Church and the mostly African-American sections of Manhattan to its north.  A missional congregation, Riverside Church maintains its “borderline” identity today by its openness to gay and lesbian unions and its programs for the neediest New Yorkers. Since 1989 it has been led by black pastors. Riverside Church is bi-denominational because it is affiliated with the two denominations to which John D, Jr. and his wife, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, belonged: The American Baptist Churches USA (which is not the same as the much larger and much more conservative Southern Baptist Convention) and the United Church of Christ (UCC), which is probably the most liberal Protestant church in the historic American religious landscape.

Riverside Church, like other American congregations of its size, is almost a medium-sized company in its own right. At least it has the many activities and the budget of a small company. When you enter Riverside Church, you are greeted by receptionists sitting behind elegant desks equipped with telephones and cameras that watch the entrance.

It was the same kind of welcome I received a couple days later at the legendary Trinity Church on Chicago’s South Side. Trinity Church is where a brilliant but religiously confused community organizer named Barack Obama listened to the passionate and prophetic sermons of African American pastor Jeremiah Wright with the result that he became a devout Christian and an active member of Trinity Church.  En route to the pastor’s office, we see stained glass windows which depict the long and arduous journey from slavery to freedom. We walk by a classroom in which representatives of rival black gangs are agreeing on a ceasefire with the help of a mediator from the congregation.  Just as it was during the life time of Martin Luther King, Jr., African American churches in the USA possess a great moral authority.  

We meet the young pastor of Trinity Church, Otis Moss III. He is the latest in a dynasty of preachers and is considered by some to be one of the best preachers in America. Otis Moss III is the successor of Jeremiah Wright, the pastor whose prophetic preaching became a major liability for Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential election forcing Obama to give up his membership in the congregation. Otis Moss III and the other pastors we met with (there are altogether almost a dozen pastors at Trinity Church) wanted to be sure we understood that the struggle of blacks in America for real recognition has not yet ended, despite the fact that an African American now lives in the White House.

Completely different, and closer to our ‘normal’ in Italy, is the First Reformed Church of Schenectady in upstate New York, where I gave the sermon. I feel at home partly because the worship service lasted (only!) 62 minutes.  Some of the hymns were set to music we also use. At the beginning of the service, one of the pastors gave a brief message to the eight children in the congregation at which point he explained he would be leaving to join them in the Sunday School. There are also many young families and teenagers. Theologically and politically the congregation counts as moderately progressive. It’s mostly white with only two or three black families.  In short, it’s a good church in a post-industrial town a half hour’s drive from the State Capital, Albany. But as I write now, a couple weeks after my visit, I still think with envy about the more than 200 people they have each Sunday in worship

Also more “normal,” at least by our Italian standards, is the church situation in Valdese, a town of 5000 inhabitants of North Carolina that was founded by Waldensian immigrants in 1893. Valdese is an American counterpart to Torre Pellice. These descendents of the Italian emigration of the late 1880’s have remained committed to their heritage (they have a wonderful Waldensian Museum).  But all in all they are thoroughly American. Even the way they pronounce their typically Waldensian last names is American.  Also here religion is a living faith, a fact which is shown in the great number of churches they have in such a small geographic area.

At the end of this quick and intense trip, there are many things to think about.  However, I have one very clear impression, namely that mainline Protestant Christianity in the United States is being reshaped by the broader society’s increasing secularism on the one hand and by the criticism and increasing competition from evangelical churches, on the other.  Mainline Protestant Christianity in the United States knows that its overall influence in American life is diminishing but it also knows that Christian witness requires courage and risk taking as well as coherent and creative preaching. For mainline Protestantism in the United States managing the changes ahead will require an even deeper social engagement and a deep and renewed Reformed spirituality. 

This report from the Waldensian Moderator, which has been translated and edited for length, was written for an Italian audience.