Working for Reconciliation on Election Day

Fairfax Presbyterian Church is both a Christian community and Precinct 1 for the City of Fairfax, Va. Those of us in church leadership know that this year's Election Day will be particularly contentious, with Virginia being a battleground state for the presidency as well as the site of a heated race for the U.S. Senate.

In an attempt to be a place of peace and reconciliation on Election Day, we will be offering a Hospitality Tent outside the exit of the polling place, where voters will be offered hot drinks and snacks after they have cast their ballot in our social hall. They will also be invited to stop by our sanctuary for private prayer and meditation, in front of our signature Scripture verse written across the front wall: "My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples" (Isaiah 56:7).

Why is this important? I'm convinced that the world needs welcoming congregations that are focused on the work of reconciliation -- now more than ever. Three years ago, I visited a church called Reconciliation Parish in Berlin, Germany. Its pastor, Manfred Fischer, told me that during the Second World War, some people in the parish supported Hitler while others did not. The unity of the parish was barely preserved, and two of the clergy who spoke against the Nazis were put under house arrest and transferred to remote villages. The story of his church puts our current political divisions into much-needed perspective!

When the war ended, the parish was rocked again by the invasion of the Soviets, the division of the city by the Berlin Wall, and the destruction of their church building by the East Germans. When the wall fell, the congregation built a small chapel in the Death Strip between East and West -- a chapel dedicated to making peace, to reconciliation. It is a beautiful expression of Christian hospitality, open to hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.

But reconciliation is about relationships, not just buildings, so a significant part of the church's work has been to bring former enemies into dialogue with one another. Reconciliation Parish has hosted conversations between former members of the East German Secret Police and their victims. Pastor Fischer has found that "victims are keen to forgive, and willing." But first there needs to be an honest and open word, such as "I am sorry. I acted in a wrong way."

Fischer knows that there can be no reconciliation -- with God or with other people -- without an honest and open word. Establishing new and peaceful relationships is best done through conversation, confession and forgiveness in a safe and hospitable Christian community -- one that is grounded in the reconciling work of God.

So how can we do this? At Fairfax Presbyterian, we are hoping that some peaceful conversations will happen in our Hospitality Tent on Election Day. Earlier this year, we invited an imam to teach us about Islam in an adult education class. Then a group of us visited a mosque in Fairfax to enjoy a fast-breaking dinner during Ramadan. We discovered that a shared meal can unite people and build friendships across religious and cultural divides.

At Saddleback Church in California, a series of "bridge events" called Civil Forums are offered to reach the larger community and enable members to invite friends who might not otherwise come to church. In September 2009, a Civil Forum on Reconciliation featured the president of the Republic of Rwanda and a Yale theologian. They talked about the transformational power of reconciliation and how it reunited the people of Rwanda after its 1994 genocide.

Hospitality can bridge different generations as well. Within our church, we make a point of having our youths join our senior citizens for their annual afternoon of board games, and then we invite the senior citizens to attend the variety show sponsored by the youths. Along with Manfred Fisher of Reconciliation Parish in Berlin, we have discovered that "knowledge about how to live is not taught in schools, it is taught in community." In both Germany and in the United States, important knowledge is shared when different generations are brought together.

Welcoming congregations that want to do the work of reconciliation can open themselves for community discussions, as Reconciliation Parish has done in Berlin. They can build bridges with outsiders, as Saddleback Church has done with its Civil Forums. Hospitable churches can offer classes on other religions, as Fairfax Presbyterian has done, and develop relationships with Jews, Muslims and members of other faith groups.

"Reconciliation Parish" should not be a name attached only to a congregation in Berlin -- instead, I hope it will describe our church on Election Day, as we offer hospitality to voters and attempt to make peace in our community.