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Agency And Perseverance: Pastor Reflects On New Year's Eve Watch Night Services

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

People - in a non-COVID year, anyway - mark the transition into a new year in all kinds of ways - with fireworks, fancy parties, special foods. But many African Americans also celebrate in their churches in a tradition called Watch Night. The late-night worship on New Year's Eve dates back to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. On the first day of January in 1863, the night before its signing, Black congregations held overnight vigils of reflection and prayer. This year, Watch Night services held special significance after an especially challenging year. That was particularly true for one of Washington D.C.'s oldest Black churches, Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Just last month, Metropolitan, along with Asbury United Methodist, was the target of a violent pro-Trump rally affiliated with the Proud Boys. The two churches' Black Lives Matter signs were torn down and destroyed. The Reverend William H. Lamar IV is the pastor at Metropolitan AME Church, and we invited him to give us his reflections on this year's Watch Night and the year we've just experienced. And he's with us now. Pastor Lamar, thank you so much for talking with us. And happy new year.

WILLIAM H LAMAR IV: Thank you. Happy new year. It's an honor. We spend a lot of weekends listening to your program, so thank you.

MARTIN: Oh, well, thank you for that. Well, what was your Watch Night message? And was it - I was just wondering what your process was in developing it this year. I'm imagining that you had a lot on your mind.

LAMAR: You know, I did. And I began the message by talking about the fact that what was most important for us to consider was scripture's understanding of what God wants from us. A lot of Watch Night services really, in my opinion, have been commercialized and commodified, and there are a lot of cliches. So people would say back in the early 2000s, God is going to set you free in 2003. God's going to give you more in 2004. God's going to make you more alive in 2005, these types of things that I think don't prepare us for the difficulties that come our way.

And so, you know, a lot of people talk about 2020, how awful it was as if 2020 had agency. But 2020 did nothing to us. The most egregious things that happened were because of our own systemic racism, because of our own refusal to challenge capitalism, because of our own refusal to grant universal health care. 2020 did not do that to us; the American refusal to treat human beings as human beings did that to us. So I tried to frame that and to say this is God's vision, and we have agency. We can make the new world if we move in this direction.

MARTIN: Of all the things that your congregations lived through, that the city has lived through, what do you think was kind of top of the mind for them? And what do you think your most important message was in preparing for Watch Night?

LAMAR: So top of the mind for the congregants is always - and I think especially on New Year's Eve is give us a word from God. One of the things that I've been struggling with is the language of hope. And I think that many of us - we perceive hope as waiting for God to do something for us. But hope is always an enlistment of human beings to co-create the new world alongside God. Anthony Pinn talks about the grammar of hope needing to be replaced with the language of perseverance. I don't know that I want to completely remove hope, but perseverance calls us into the fight, into the beautiful struggle.

MARTIN: A lot of people say they're exhausted by this year.

LAMAR: Yes.

MARTIN: And I hear - you know, I hear what you're saying. You're saying get ready. Be ready to continue the struggle. And do you think that people feel ready? They feel exhausted. A lot of people say they're exhausted by just trying to deal with the day-to-day after everything that's happened this year.

LAMAR: No, I really appreciate the question. And, you know, the rabbis have said that when Sabbath is truly kept, Messiah will come. And I think about that a lot. I think that you're exactly right. One of the most radical things for us to do is also to be drawn into self-care, into spiritual development and maturity. And you're right. People are exhausted. I feel the exhaustion. And one of the radical things about the Hebrew understanding of creation - it says something extraordinarily radical. Then on the seventh day, the divine one, the holy one rested. And so we, too, must rest. We must remember that we are human beings. And if we become human doings without the being, then there will be a lot that we don't accomplish. So you're exactly right. The rhythm of rest is quite extraordinarily revolutionary.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, there is not much moment for rest here.

LAMAR: (Laughter).

MARTIN: We are told that there are yet more Proud Boys demonstrations planned...

LAMAR: Yes.

MARTIN: ...For the coming week as the electors certify President-elect Joe Biden's victory and then the inauguration. And there's yet more street demonstrations expected around that. What are your thoughts about that? And how do you - are you going to replace the sign that was destroyed by that group? What are your thoughts about the next coming weeks and how you and the congregation will respond to that?

LAMAR: Well, to your question about replacing the sign, yes, it will be bigger and blacker and bolder. And as you talk about those people returning, I mean, I always try my best to remember the historical context. They have always come. They will not stop coming. I believe Derrick Bell (ph). They won't stop coming. And so what we have to do, in the words of Sterling Brown (ph) is we, too, must keep coming, not with hate or destruction but with love, with a true vision for a multicultural, multiracial, multireligious democracy, where all of us can participate at the table of abundance with universal health care, with living wages, with an end to voter suppression and end to the racialized prison industrial complex.

And we must know that bending the world - the universe toward justice, that word bend is important because that lays forth in language the muscularity necessary, the effort, the sweat. And we have seen some progress. It is not enough. So we continue to work toward that grand vision, which in and of itself gives us so much energy and joy about what is possible in human community.

MARTIN: That's the Reverend William H. Lamar IV. He's the pastor of Metropolitan AME Church in Washington, D.C. We've been talking with him about Watch Night. Pastor Lamar, thank you so much for talking with us. And happy new year.

LAMAR: Happy New Year. It's been a great honor. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.