Is Love the Way? Essays from America's Pope
Love Is the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times
Bishop Michael Curry, Sara Grace
As a religious skeptic, I tend to look at preachers, bishops, and popes with caution. They are both politicians and healers, salesmen and counselors, interpreters of the words of Jesus Christ yet bound by the expectations of the people who pay their salaries. These men see us at our best during weddings, and at our worst during funerals and hospital visits. We count on them to both inspire and comfort us, but they are human beings just like us, and far from heavenly ambassadors.
So it was with great caution that I took on Bishop Curry's new book, Love is the Way. I have seen him on television, and he has become a celebrity as the first black head of the Episcopal Church, presiding over the wedding of prince Harry and Megan Markle, as well as the funerals of John McCain and George Bush. Curry has a way with words, and this book on the power of love shows me that his heart is in the right place.
The Episcopal Church is far from America's biggest church, currently ranking at 14th with maybe 1% of the population. Mainline Protestant churches have taken a beating over the past few decades, as has the Catholic Church, and it was nice to see something different than the typical entreaties to give your life over to someone who died 2000 years ago while giving your money to people who are very much still alive.
Love is the Way is sort of an autobiography, detailing personal stories from Bishop Curry on how he lost his mother at a young age, and how the community came to help his family in that difficult time. He tells of his days in a small, mostly black church in Ohio, moving to an inner city church in Baltimore, and then to a larger responsibility as bishop of North Carolina. His churches, especially the one in Baltimore, were in poor areas, and he tells of efforts he and his flock made to reach out to the community at large. He is now the chief presiding officer over the entire American church, and has a unique perch as a religious leader.
This book is mostly about love- specifically agape love, which is the love for others, society, and the world. He brings in stories about how love has transformed other lives, referencing John Lewis, Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, and Dolly Parton. Love builds and hate destroys, and he devotes several chapters to the second theme of his book- holding on to hope in difficult times. He uses King's words especially to describe the hope that comes to us through our dreams during the darkest times of history. With those dreams we can move onward in dark times towards love and justice. We may not live to see the fruits of all our efforts, but by planting seeds of love early and often, progress is inevitable.
The two most fascinating stories he tells involve the 2003 split in the church on gay marriage, and the 2016 uprising by the Sioux nation in Standing Rock, North Dakota. The idea of gay marriage had been opposed by the Episcopal Church and its parent organization, the Anglican Communion, since their inception. Marriage was between a man and a woman, period. But starting in 2000, an Episcopal Bishop in New Hampshire broke with tradition and came out as gay, wanting to perform same-sex marriages. For nearly a decade this change threatened to split up the church, and Bishop Curry tells of his own personal transformation on the issue, and how he was able to use love, foot washing, and understanding to get the rest of his church to come around.
Foot washing, it turns out, is an effective way to get people on your side. Jesus used it with his disciples, and it has been used famously by Gandhi, Mister Rogers, and religious people of all types. Apparently the skin-on-skin contact, combined with the healing properties of water transform human relationships and make possible love, humility, and communication.
The Standing Rock Reservation in the Dakotas is one of the largest in America and was the site of a huge protest in 2016 over the Dakota Access Pipeline. The pipeline was opposed by Native Americans because it crossed into their sacred lands and also threatened their water supply. Bishop Curry was one of many religious leaders who came to the reservation that year to join in the protests, and his descriptions of the event show how loving and respectful the Native Americans were during the entire standoff. "Water is Life", was their motto, and even though they lost and the pipeline eventually went through when President Trump took office, they were able to bring together a large network of people from remote tribes and religious traditions to spread love and ideas.
The best idea from the book has to do with something called truth force and deep listening. Bishop Curry worries a lot about how polarized America has become, and encourages people to build bridges, not walls, because at our core we are all decent, loving children of God. To get to that core and away from the things that divides us, he proposes beginning every debate with the following question:
"For this issue, what is the story of your life that brought you to that conclusion?"
By focusing on personal stories, and not rumors, social media, or talking points, we can get to the heart of what is bothering people and find more common ground.
Love is the Way meanders a bit and doesn't always come to the point, but it's an interesting point of view from someone who has seen a lot, and reflected deeply on all of it. I am hoping that Bishop Curry's newly found celebrity status doesn't ruin his spirit, but we shall see. I take the words of religious leaders with a grain of salt, and judge them more by their actions than their interpretations of ancient scriptures. To me, love is what life is about, and God is a concept that our tiny minds can't properly understand. Unfortunately, we live in troubling times, and any reminders to love our neighbors are always welcome.