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Physically distant, but spiritually close

Pastor, professor and singer the Rev. Dr. Derrick McQueen talks about the arc of worship

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

the Rev. Dr. Derrick McQueen (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — “We may be physically distant,” the Rev. Dr. Derrick McQueen said at the opening of his Facebook Live appearance Wednesday with the Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty, “but we’re always spiritually close.”

McQueen, pastor of historic St. James Presbyterian Church in Harlem in the City of New York and the associate director of the Center on African American Religion, Sexual Politics & Social Justice at Columbia University who teaches New Testament, worship and homiletics at Union Theological Seminary as well, was the guest of Hinson-Hasty, senior director of Theological Education Funds Development for the Committee on Theological Education of the Presbyterian Foundation.

Asked by Hinson-Hasty what brings him life and joy these days, McQueen discussed his recent work with a Jewish congregation as a ritual leader. In the weeks before and throughout High Holy Days, McQueen is teaching a nine-week series on ritual that takes participants from separation to reparation and, finally, embrace. “We are engaging in how we can be a community and heal from isolation” during the pandemic, he said. Each week he and the congregation recite The Mourner’s Prayer together. “My Hebrew,” he said, “is coming in handy.”

Putting the course together and then sharing it has helped him further understand “what it means to celebrate atonement,” McQueen said. “Sometimes we talk about it in our belief systems, but we don’t take time to give it that sense of awe … It’s not just, ‘I’m sorry and I ask for forgiveness.’ We claim God’s grace and ask how God is asking us to make a difference in the world.”

“That,” McQueen told Hinson-Hasty with a smile, “is what’s bringing me life.”

Wednesday’s discussion topic was “Liturgical Arc of Worship in a Pandemic,” which made McQueen think back two years when he was teaching a seminary class on worship. Even during the pandemic as worship is held online, the service should be designed to allow worshipers plenty of points of entry during the arc of the worship experience, he said. “Maybe it’s the call to confession,” he said. “Maybe the assurance of pardon is what I need to hear on this particular Sunday.”

At St. James Presbyterian Church, every prayer is immediately followed by a song or hymn. “It’s very important to think about those moments and how they’re connected,” McQueen said.

He recalled his time serving First Presbyterian Church of the City of Cape May in New Jersey, a church with two services each Sunday — one contemporary, one traditional. McQueen said he used to scan the congregation, searching for signs of “an encounter with the divine.” Most often he saw it during what he called “Coffee Hour Magic”: that time between services when the two worshiping bodies would come together and discuss, among other things, what moves them during worship. “That space is respected and not judged,” he said.

He’s taken to offering an online Bible study every Monday during which participants study the lectionary passages for the coming Sunday. “Those conversations very often write my sermons,” he told Hinson-Hasty. “I see how the service needs to be molded to address the needs.”

The sharing of prayer concerns during worship “is an opportunity for us as a local community and world community to address the secret things in our hearts,” McQueen said. He said he tries not to be political when praying on behalf of those assembled, “but I think about the politics that are going on, about how we react to our politics and how that diminishes us. That speaks to the hurt and pain of some of the rhetoric we are hearing, regardless of where it’s coming from.” After times of confession and prayer, “the exhale of the congregation echoes in the church building and online,” he said.

Hinson-Hasty noted that four historic Harlem churches, including St. James Presbyterian Church, join together for worship around Christmas. McQueen said the practice goes back to 1906, when President Theodore Roosevelt ordered 167 Buffalo Soldiers dishonorably discharged as a result of the Brownsville (Texas) Affair. It wasn’t until 1972 that the government pardoned those members of the 25th Infantry Regiment. That pardon came with no offer of compensation for the soldiers or their descendants.

“As four churches, we lift up our voice to cry out, in joy or in righteous indignation,” McQueen said of the combined holiday worship. “These episodes carry us through our ecumenical and theological understandings.”

McQueen told Hinson-Hasty he has practiced self-care in recent weeks by cooking and by engaging in city hiking. Just a little detour “and you’ll find yourself in nature for 10 minutes,” even in New York City, he said. “That solitude is incredibly self-caring.”

“Brothers and sisters, family and friends: You have been blessed by your engagement in caring for each other’s souls and spirits by engaging in liturgy,” McQueen said when Hinson-Hasty asked him to offer a benediction. “Go from this space and take what you have been blessed with. Share it with an open heart and an open mind. In doing so, know that the Spirit will find ways for you to take care of yourselves — even in isolation, because as you give to God, it will be given to you.”

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