You can always depend on a Unitarian minister and former country music disc jockey to bail you out of a tough spot. Well, I’m not sure about “always,” but it sure worked for me in Oklahoma City recently. Here’s what happened.
At the invitation of Bruce Prescott, head of Mainstream Baptists of Oklahoma, I was a participant in a May 5 event titled “Let Freedom Ring: A Celebration of Freedom of Conscience.”
Not coincidentally, this observance took place on the first Thursday in May, officially designated as “National Day of Prayer” by none other than the U.S. Congress back in l988.
Over the past few years, the official prayer day has been increasingly monopolized by the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a private group headed by Shirley Dobson, spouse of Colorado Springs’ most famous citizen, Dr. James Dobson. I criticize the Task Force every year for making the day into an official propaganda campaign for “Christian nation” enthusiasts and for excluding everyone who fails to conform to the tenets of fundamentalist Christianity.
For years, the Oklahoma wing of the Dobsons’ Task Force had commandeered the south steps of the state capitol for a fundamentalist-oriented worship service around the lunch hour. Last year, a group opposed to the political goals of the Religious Right put in an application for a permit to use the steps before the Task Force did and worked with AU’s Oklahoma Chapter to turn an exclusive event into an inclusive one.
Bruce’s first effort in 2004 drew a small but energetic crowd to hear from a variety of speakers from different religious and philosophical traditions. The event received mentions in the national press for its creativity.
I was unable to attend last year but promised Bruce I’d be there this year. Joining me on the steps was Muhammed Selcuk Cetin of the Institute of Interfaith Dialog in Houston; Oklahoma City’s newest rabbi, Barry Cohen of Temple B’nai Israel; Stephanie Urquhart of the Military Pagan Network; Matt McNeil of Oklahoma Atheists; the Rev. Jeff Hamilton of First Christian Church; and gospel singer Velina Davenport of Holy Temple Baptist Church.
Each speaker made important points about the diversity and freedom of conscience that were integral to the founding of both Oklahoma and the nation. I contributed this thought: “What an embarrassment that any person of faith finds it necessary or useful to be told by 535 elected officials in Washington that this is the day we should pray harder, or longer, or with hands folded tighter than on any other day of the year.”
Now, back to my need for a Unitarian country music fan. One of the other events on my schedule that day was a lecture rather innocuously entitled, “What Place Does Religion Have In the Public Square?” It was designed for folks who couldn’t take off in the middle of the day to go to the Capitol but who might have an interest in these issues.
The speech was to be held in a Sunday school room of First Baptist Church. A few days before I was due to fly out, however, Bruce sent me a story from the local paper headlined, “Church Asks Group To Find Alternate Meeting Space.” The church was First Baptist, and the group was Americans United.
In a press release, the church said it would not want the public to “infer a tie” between itself and me. It also complained that “recent promotional materials and news accounts” suggested support for Americans United by the church. In fact, the news accounts merely noted the location of the lecture. One wonders how First Baptist gets people to church if it never communicates the location of the services.
After failed negotiations for a Baptist reconciliation, the Rev. Mark W. Christian of First Unitarian Church of Oklahoma City stepped up and offered his sanctuary (and a coffee reception to boot!). Bruce and I had dinner at a place called “Crabtown” before the meeting. And as I was walking back to the car, I noticed that a club on the same street was having a concert in a few weeks with Pat Green and Kevin Deal, two singers of the “new country” (also known as Americana) genre.
Bruce conceded he was not familiar with this style of music, but when we got to the church he mentioned the singers to Mark. Mark not only started talking about country music but actually began quoting lyrics from some classic songs. That’s when he noted that when you play music on the radio for 20 years, you get a lot of melodies stuck in your head.
More good news: being evicted from First Baptist dramatically increased the size of the crowd. Several attendees told me they came out to show support. Some folks even came over from First Baptist. The crowd was enthusiastic, and a spirited question-and-answer session followed.
I get a lot out of going to events like these. I meet great people who aren’t going to let their friends and neighbors jump off the cliff like lemmings into a sea where the First Amendment isn’t there to protect them at least not without a very loud holler to warn them before it’s too late.
Barry W. Lynn is executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.