11/29/2012 02:01 pm ET Updated Jan 29, 2013

Putting Ourselves in the Line of Fire

Throughout our history, All Saints has often been in the line of fire -- and we're proud of that. Let me explain.

Between 1957 and 1967, when America was roiled by racial strife, the rector of All Saints was a pioneer of equality for all races. While Dr. John Burt's interfaith work and involvement in social action issues was truly legendary, mostly he is remembered for his groundbreaking advocacy of racial equality.

Not content merely to speak about racial injustice, he both preached and organized for human rights for all. It got him in some trouble.

When the "Rally for Freedom" was held in South Los Angeles in 1963, Dr. Burt was the only white minister in Pasadena to share the stage with Dr. King. At the time, that gathering was Los Angeles's largest civil rights rally ever. That day, Dr. King looked out over a huge crowd of 35,000. The people were all there to support the Freedom Fighters.

But the night before, things had not gone quite so smoothly. Dr. Burt had convened a "Town Meeting for Democracy" with Dr. King at the Shrine Auditorium. That evening, a stranger called his house. This is the same home where my wife and I now live.

Dr. Burt's 8-year-old daughter Emily picked up the phone.

"I'm going to kill your daddy, little girl," the voice said on the other end of the line. Fortunately, there was no bomb, and Dr. Burt and his family stayed safe even though fear was pervasive. But fear did not stop him.

That incident and that rector were not exceptions to our life as a church.  We have a passion for what I call "political spirituality." Before Dr. Burt, there was Dr. Frank Scott. In 1942, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt ordered Japanese-Americans confined to internment camps, Dr. Scott criticized this policy from All Saints' pulpit.

Roosevelt had uttered the famous line: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" in his very first inaugural address in the depths of the Depression in 1933. He was revered for this statement, yet a few years later he enacted a racially discriminatory policy against one class of people.

Dr. Scott took a stand against this policy of internment. Our perspective at All Saints is that bigotry in any form dehumanizes both the victims and the perpetrators. When the trains left the station to cart off Japanese Americans, our rector took his place along the rails in protest.

My immediate predecessor, Dr. George Regas, is well known for preaching a sermon entitled "Mr. President, The Jury Is In." It was a stinging criticism of the Vietnam War. President Nixon, who was then in stubborn denial of both the war's failure and its immorality, had just come out in defense of continued warfare.

Dr. Regas also helped lead the fight in the Episcopal Church for the ordination of women. He was one of the first Episcopal priests in the country to bless same-sex partnerships, a practice we continue. In his day, Dr. Regas was revolutionary.

On the Sunday before the 2004 presidential election, I invited the then-retired Dr. Regas to return to All Saints to preach a guest sermon.

It was a rousing sermon. Dr. Regas imagined a dialogue between Jesus, Senator John Kerry and President George W. Bush. He emphasized that he was not urging worshipers to vote for any particular candidate and stressed that people of good faith could vote for either candidate. Then he proceeded to criticize the campaigns of both candidates about war and poverty, two of the issues this church has fought against for decades.

Soon thereafter, the IRS had us in its sights.

Between 2005 and 2007, the IRS investigated All Saints for "campaign intervention." This means taking a partisan stand for or against a candidate during an election cycle. In my next post, I'll explain why they were wrong, and where they were right.

And most importantly, why we were -- and still are -- right where we want to be: in the line of fire on important issues.