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Two Valley churches plan Election Day observances

  • JERREY ROBERTS<br/>Vicki Kemper is the new minister of First Congregational Church in Amherst.

Two churches in Amherst and Northampton will hold nonpartisan services on Election Day to counter the divisiveness of the campaign and remind Christians that their ultimate allegiance should not be to a political party or candidate.

The Rev. Vicki Kemper, pastor of First Congregational Church of Amherst, said she learned on Facebook about a nationwide movement to hold Election Day services. As of Thursday more than 700 churches and other groups were planning to hold services on Tuesday, according to electiondaycommunion.org.

She sent an email message to other religious leaders in Hampshire County last week, asking them to invite their members to participate in her church’s services. In response, the Rev. Todd Weir, pastor of First Churches in Northampton, decided to hold his own Election Day services.

“Our identity should not be in the things of this world but in God,” Kemper said. “We shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking any candidate is our savior. We have a savior. We are followers of Jesus, and that’s where we need to put our hopes and faith.”

The services with be low-key and meditative, with prayers, hymns and communion — and no politicking. “It will be a time of forgiveness and reconciliation,” Kemper said.

First Congregational is at 165 Main St. in downtown Amherst, and the services Tuesday will be at noon and 6:30 p.m. In addition, there will be a post-election prayer service Wednesday at 6 p.m.

“We will all have to live together as Americans,” Kemper said. “(The Wednesday service) will focus on moving forward and praying for the nation and the president-elect.”

First Churches, at 129 Main St. in Northampton, will hold services on Election Day Tuesday, at noon and 6 p.m.

Kemper and her church holds progressive positions on social issues, but she grew up as a fundamentalist. Her father, grandfather and great-grandfather were fundamentalist preachers in Texas, and before becoming a minister, she worked on an evangelical magazine in Washington, D.C. On a recent visit with relatives in Texas, she said, she stayed in a house with signs endorsing presidential candidate Mitt Romney on the lawn.

“It’s important for me to remember that most Romney supporters are good people and are children of God,” she said.

Kemper has placed on the table outside the church sanctuary copies of “Values of a Public Faith” by Miroslav Volf of Yale Divinity School. In it, he lists 20 Christian values — such as education, employment, care for the poor, elderly and unborn, hunger and war — and provides relevant Bible passages and questions voters should ask candidates about each.

“It’s not my job as a pastor to tell people how to vote, but to encourage and teach them how to see the world, to see elections, through the eyes of faith,” Kemper said.

Many progressive Christians got so excited about Barack Obama in 2008 that they treated him as if he were the nation’s savior, she said.

“In his first year, many were disappointed,” she said. “My hope is that brought us to remember that our salvation is not in the money-influenced, pragmatic, compromising world of politics. We need to be something different. (The Apostle) Paul says we must not conform to the ways of the world but be transformed by the spirit of God.”

Churches are exempt from property taxes, and one condition of that status is that they must not endorse political candidates. On Oct. 7, 1,477 churches challenged that regulation in what was called Pulpit Freedom Sunday.

Although First Churches members are involved in a lot of political activity, Weir said he believes that pastors should not tell their congregations who to vote for or work on behalf of candidates.

“If we endorse parties or candidates, we’re limiting ourselves to a narrow range of dialogue,” he said. “The government has never limited my pulpit freedom. The only people who do that are the people who hire me.”

Weir sees himself as an activist pastor and said he always speaks his mind, but tries to find ways to keep the dialogue respectful when talking with those who disagree with him.

“We’re involved with issues, but at the same time politics is a very imperfect, flawed process because of all the money poured into it,” he said. “We’re an imperfect people. We need to remember that we want to love our neighbor. We should always speak for reconciliation and healing and how God loves all people, even those we strongly disagree with. That’s part of our distinctive voice.”

By next Tuesday, Weir said he thinks most people will have had enough of political posturing and be ready to think about where the country goes from here.

“We may vote differently, but at the communion table we’re sharing the same bread and cup,” he said. “Yes, we have to make choices, and we often disagree, sometimes strenuously, but in the end we’re eating the same bread.”

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