When Martin Luther King Jr. Day was first observed in 1986, there was resistance and uproar from the KKK and other assorted racists. As a spiritual counter to that bigotry, two San Francisco spiritual leaders — Rev. Amos Brown of Third Baptist Church and Rabbi Robert Kirschner, then of Congregation Emanu-El — hatched a plan: a pulpit swap.
That year, and every year since, Third Baptist and Emanu-El have marked MLK weekend with a two-part event. On Friday night, Brown delivers a sermon at Emanu-El, and Sunday morning, a rabbi from Emanu-El delivers the sermon at Third Baptist.
So it was this past weekend at the 31st annual observance of this beautiful tradition.
As a mixed Third Baptist/Emanu-El crowd milled around the shul enjoying a taco bar before Shabbat services, Rabbi Beth Singer, co-senior rabbi of Emanu-El, underlined the service’s popularity in her congregation, telling me, “Some people come for Yom Kippur, Kaddish, and this.”
Anticipating a potential critique of the event, she added, “It isn’t just a yearly feel-good service.” As I later learned, the two congregations engage year-round on racial justice, focusing over the last year on reforming California’s unjust cash bail system.
With the sanctuary about two thirds full, the service began with Shlomo Carlebach’s “The Whole World Is Waiting [to sing the song of Shabbat].” It’s a great sing-along, and it’s heavy on the English — a good tune to begin this service.
As the song amped up, led by Emanu-El Cantors Marsha Attie and Arik Luck, a section of Third Baptist choir members seated near them were grooving in their seats and starting to get up and move.
Any time a black church group visits a synagogue, the Jewish clergy seem to develop an inferiority complex about the musicality of their congregation. Luck, during an early song, egged the Jews on to sing louder and move around, something that doesn’t come naturally to them. But by the end of the service, everyone had loosened up quite a bit.
“Third Baptist already made this service better,” Singer proclaimed. “It’s difficult for Jews to stand up like that!”
A little joke about a cultural difference paves the way for getting closer.
In this week’s parashah, she told the congregation, Jacob and Esau encounter each other for the first time in years and prove that two peoples can look each other in the eye and see the face of God. She told us all to turn and look into the eyes of someone we didn’t know. I managed it briefly. It’s difficult.
Rabbi Jason Rodich introduced Mi Chamocha as a “freedom song,” saying that we sing it because “we know that Pharaoh can be overthrown… and that Black Lives Matter.” It has become essential at racial justice events for someone white to officially utter that phrase. I heard a couple of women from the church call out: “Yes!”
We sang just a brief bit of Mi Chamocha before a woman with incredible church pipes came up to sing “Wade in the Water.”
It’s wonderful to see two different worship cultures come together like this. It’s Mi Chamocha — but it’s also church ladies shouting “Amen!” And Mi Chamocha is a great place for it — the scene of the Israelites crossing the sea to freedom is essential to both of these communities.
Shortly before Brown’s sermon, Rabbi Sydney Mintz made everyone raise their hands and promise to come to the MLK march on Monday — “because it’s not enough that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Dr. King in Selma! You have to march, too!”
Brown’s attire matched the grandiosity of Emanu-El’s immense sanctuary. He wore a brilliantly blue robe — the same blue that is featured on the doors of Emanu-El’s ark — with gold piping and stripes of African textile patterns.
His sermon centered on the parable of the field from the Christian biblical book of Matthew, in which “the Kingdom of Heaven is likened unto a man who sowed good seed in his field.” But another man comes along and sows weeds, and the crop is ruined.
In Brown’s telling, the field is America. The likes of Barack Obama and Martin Luther King Jr. and other people of goodwill and conscience have been sowing good seeds, he said, but Donald Trump and his supporters and their predecessors have sown weeds. And now, Brown told us, America is reaping what it has sown.
For a long time, “there has been in the DNA of this country an evil seed!” he exclaimed. “There is no such thing as a depraved state of human nature. The Bible in Genesis said after God created the world, he said it’s good; when he created humankind, he said it’s very good. God didn’t make no junk when he made you and me!”
Referring to a certain recent comment from the president, Brown talked about a time when U.S. policy restricted Jewish immigration from Europe, calling out even liberal heroes like FDR as offenders. Just as Singer would do on Sunday, he reflected on the historical trauma of the host congregation, speaking about European Jews who died in the Holocaust because they were turned away from America.
He concluded by highlighting the shared culture of justice between the two congregations: “I’m simply saying, thank God for Temple Emanu-El, thank God for Third Baptist. Because we know how to do the right thing. … We are fighting so it doesn’t matter your color or your gender or your sexual orientation or where you came from. Where you’re going is what matters.”
We all sat facing forward, looking at the church altar. As the procession of rabbis, ministers and choir members came down the aisle, Brown’s voice boomed unseen: “Abraham had many children. I’m one and so are you.”
The opening song was “Holy, Holy, Holy” — the kedushah! (It’s quite common in Christian liturgy, actually.)
Officially opening the service, which seemed to happen several times, Brown declared: “We are hyena happy, elephant elated and peacock proud that for 31 years, these two great congregations have come together to celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King.”
The highlight of the service was the awarding of $1,500 scholarships to two young members of Third Baptist. One was a Moroccan Muslim man who joined the Western Addition church because he felt loved there and is now a student at Morehouse College, MLK’s alma mater. The other was a young woman headed soon to Haiti to do relief work.
An important reminder of how long-term poverty works on a day devoted to racial justice, she said: “The reason Haiti is so poor is that they’re the only country that overthrew slavery.” They paid back all the debts that funded their revolution, and have never recovered.
While ushers moved around collecting donations to the church, Attie led the combined congregation in “Olam Chesed Yibaneh” by Rabbi Menachem Creditor (of Netivot Shalom in Berkeley). Appropriate to the theme of the day, the words promise: “We will build this world from love.”
Rabbi Singer’s sermon was about the meaning of home. She explained the word beit/bayit (house/home), noting that it’s also the “beth” in so many synagogue names — “so happy to be at Beth Third Baptist today,” she said to hearty laughter.
She grew up in Ventura, she said, not a very Jewish area of California at the time. Some neighbors taught their children to hate Jews. One night, a burning rag was stuffed into the opening of the gas tank of their family car. A crisis was averted when a neighbor pulled the rag out and woke up the family. Though he saw the teenager who did it, the police refused to act.
“I’m telling you this because I bet you can relate,” she said, “when police protect some citizens but not others.” From the reactions of Third Baptist members, they could indeed relate.
Referring to Jacob’s revelation in this week’s Torah portion that “God was in this place, and I didn’t know it,” Singer said: “God is in this place, in this city — but so is systematic racial injustice.”
Singer acknowledged that many Jews have benefited from white privilege, but also emphasized a shared history “of not being protected by those in power.”
There is much to be done, she acknowledged, and closed with a quotation from the talmudic Rabbi Tarfon: “The day is short, the work is much, the workers are lazy, the reward is great, and the Master is pressing.”
There was one thing that nagged at me a few times during the service. I, like many Jews, have an aversion to Jesus talk — though I know from their words and values that the Jesus of Third Baptist is hardly the same vision of Jesus that has been used to bludgeon Jews for centuries. I had a great time singing along with all the church songs, as did the rabbis seated on the altar. But they, like me, politely skipped over phrases that included the word “Christ.”
It’s a reminder that difference is still difference, that not every inch of every gap can be bridged. But events like this pulpit swap show that, out of those differences, we can build something bigger with a more positive effect on the world. That’s how we will build the world (and the America) for which we yearn.