By: Rev. Stephen Herr
The crossroads town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, became the site of the largest battle in the American Civil War when the network of ten roads that lead into its town center, known today as Lincoln Square, brought together Union and Confederate armies on July 1-3, 1863. These three fateful days of fierce combat resulted in more than 51,000 casualties and the first major Southern defeat in the East. President Abraham Lincoln came to Gettysburg later that year to dedicate a final resting place for the Union soldiers who had died during the battle. The 16th President of these United States would walk and ride along those same streets, ending at the apex of Cemetery Hill to deliver what is now known throughout the world as the Gettysburg Address. In his speech, Lincoln reminded the nation of America’s founding ideal that all persons are created equal. He then challenged Americans to complete the unfinished work of the founders.
This summer marked the 157th anniversary of the battle, the town would have normally been abuzz with tourists, students, and history enthusiasts. The streets of Gettysburg, however, have been largely quiet in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Just as in 1863, the nation is at a crossroads. This year has brought a pandemic, racial unrest, anti-racism protests, and calls for reform and change. The same thoroughfares that opposing armies traversed in 1863 have been filled with people standing in unity amidst a new crossroads in history. They have come to remember, lament, repent, and pray.
The Lament and Repent Prayer Vigil sponsored by the Gettysburg Area Ministerium corresponded with the commemoration of the 5th anniversary of the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. On June 17, 2015, Clementa C. Pinckney, Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Lee Simmons, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson were murdered when a self-professed white supremacist entered the church where they were conducting a Bible study and opened fire. Last summer the Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) adopted a resolution to commemorate June 17 as a day of repentance for the martyrdom of the Emanuel Nine.
Gettysburg is home to a number of Lutheran institutions, including two congregations— Christ Lutheran and St. James Lutheran—United Lutheran Seminary, Gettysburg College, and SpiriTrust Lutheran, a social ministry organization. In the wake of national unrest and protests calling for racial justice and an end to racism, the local Lutheran congregations began to consider how they might provide opportunities for prayer, conversation, education, and action. At the same time, the Gettysburg Area Ministerium, an ecumenical gathering of religious leaders, discussed how it might best address racial injustice and racism. The Reverend Dr. Fred Young, Ministerium chair, highlighted the group’s more than seventy-year history of ecumenical collaboration for worship, social action, and outreach. With that history of a vibrant ecumenical spirit, discussions were underway for the Ministerium to host a community-wide event to emphasize unity while also providing opportunities for lamentation and repentance for racism still prevalent in churches and throughout the nation. Young declared, “There is an energy that clearly suggests we are in this pandemic of illness and social injustice, together.”
Pastor Jay Eckman from Christ Lutheran Church invited the planning group to consider holding the event in conjunction with the commemoration of the Emanuel Nine. Eckman shared the ELCA resolution with his ecumenical colleagues and the planners spent considerable time processing their emotions surrounding the myriad of issues facing the community and nation. Together the planners joined in prayerful consideration, seeking to discern what God was calling people of faith to do in this moment. Eckman noted that the group decided that the way to begin was to come before God in prayer on June 17 and invite the community to participate.
The Ministerium resolved to hold small outdoor gatherings throughout the downtown area. Each congregation was assigned a location along the four main streets emanating from Lincoln Square. Organizers structured the gathering sites such that they formed a cross with the town square in the center. At each location, one of the pastors led a brief prayer service of remembrance, lament, and repentance with the goal of fostering unity and hope. Ministerium Secretary Jenn Vintigni requested participants to wear masks and observe social distancing in accordance with guidelines from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the Center for Disease Control. Fourteen different congregations participated in the event—including both ELCA Lutheran congregations in Gettysburg along with representatives from the seminary and college. “It was a wonderful public witness,” commented Eckman, who joined with Pastor Stephen Herr in leading a service from the historic front steps of Christ Lutheran Church. There, on July 1, 1863, Army Chaplain Horatio Howell, a Presbyterian minister and chaplain of the 90th Pennsylvania Volunteers, had been shot and killed as he emerged from Christ Lutheran where he was tending to the needs of wounded Union soldiers. On June 17, participants gathered in front of the church with its memorial tablet to Howell in remembrance of the deaths of those who were killed at Emanuel AME Church.
The same streets that witnessed bloodshed, suffering, and grief in 1863 served as a meeting place for church goers, community members, clergy, seminarians, and visitors from a wide array of Christian traditions. They came together in a socially distanced manner to remember the Emanuel Nine, pray for racial justice, stand against racism, and call for unity and peace. The Reverend James Dunlop, who serves as bishop of the Lower Susquehanna Synod, indicated it was “deeply moving being with a group of people to lament and repent in prayer.” He went on to share how significant it was to stand in a cruciform way across the town to witness and remember. Jeremiah Herbert, the lead pastor at the Intersection Church—an Assembly of God congregation—expressed how grateful he was for the diversity of ecumenical partners. Participating churches included four congregations from the ELCA’s full communion partners: The Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Methodist Church, as well as congregations from the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, The Assemblies of God, Foursquare Church, the Baptist Church, the Church of God, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Almost three hundred people, positioned at twelve different locations, participated in the event. Motorists slowed and engaged the group, with some offering support and others expressing disfavor. Those encounters led Pastor Andrew Geib from St. James Lutheran Church to observe how much anti-racism work is needed in Gettysburg and around the nation. Community and faith leaders echoed his thoughts. Local activist groups have held protests in Lincoln Square to raise awareness. Gettysburg officials, including the mayor and chief of police, recently joined with faith and community leaders on Lincoln Square to pray together and commit to working towards greater racial justice in Gettysburg. Pastor Michael Stanley from St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Gettysburg helped lead that gathering in prayer. Gettysburg area churches, community officials and leaders, and activist groups are all exploring ways to raise awareness concerning racism, facilitate conversations, educate, and take action. While this unfinished work looms large, Geib appreciated this meaningful beginning. “Standing with members of the congregation and community, reflecting on words from Psalm 42, and listening to the church bell toll in remembrance of the Emanuel Nine was one of the most powerful moments of my pastoral ministry.”
Most historians consider the battle of Gettysburg to be a significant turning point in the American Civil War. While the war would continue for two more years, Gettysburg marked the beginning of the decline and eventual fall of the Confederacy. Here in this pivotal place, those gathering to commemorate the Emanuel Nine expressed a hope that America would seize this moment as an opportunity to confront its past and embrace a future dedicated to the eradication of racism. Following the service in front of Christ Lutheran, Elizabeth Peter found herself reflecting on the gathering taking place in Gettysburg and those around the nation. “This is the first time in my lifetime that I’ve seen this much attention to the pain and grief of black people and an actual desire to address systemic racism in all spectrums of our lives.” This recent graduate from United Lutheran Seminary cast a hopeful vision of what could emerge: “I do believe this can be a turning point if people lean into the challenge of learning, growing, and putting aside what you think you may know and really dig into the trauma caused by the history of racism in this country.” Julie Jackson, who began her internship at Christ Lutheran in August, attended with a number of seminarians hoping that the commemoration service ignites a fire in the ELCA. “I pray that this fire for justice burns and spreads throughout our congregations to end the uncomfortable silence that surrounds talking about racial justice and understanding.” For Jackson, who has an interracial family, the commemoration and anti-racism work are never far from her mind. “I am exhausted from bearing the burden of trying to explain why I am so disgusted by the racial injustice in this country.” Jackson’s exhaustion and perspective further highlights the sense of urgency and necessity for communities around the nation to commit themselves to the important work of racial justice.
On that Dedication Day of November 19, 1863, Lincoln stood over the graves of soldiers who gave their lives fighting to preserve the Union and to bring an end to slavery. “It is rather for us,” proclaimed Lincoln, “to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us.” And so, on this, the 157th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, a great task remains before the nation and the church today. The unfinished work of dismantling systemic racism and ensuring racial equality throughout this nation and within the churches of Jesus Christ endures. The American republic finds itself at a crossroads. Gettysburg’s prayerful commemoration of the Emanuel Nine bore witness to the continuing necessary struggle to address the unfinished work of racial justice with humility, hopefulness, and a prayerful openness and commitment to learn, grow, and unite.