The Next Faithful Step
Episode 13: Public Debate
Almond Springs (Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary)
Charlotte Robinson had hoped to take a few days off in the week between Christmas and New Year's Day. She felt the need for a break after her first six months as the pastor of the First Church of Almond Springs, California. But her son, Daniel, was playing in a holiday basketball tournament. So the family stayed in town and Charlotte simply canceled her appointments whenever possible. If she could not take a vacation, she could at least lay low for a couple of days.
After the second game of the three game tournament, Charlotte's friend Laura Webber, the vice-principal, approached her. "Do you think we could have breakfast tomorrow? I think I need to talk to you," Laura said. Laura had become Charlotte's closest friend in town, so she agreed to get together. "Good," said Laura, "Why don't you come to my place and I'll make something?" Charlotte immediately knew something was afoot; Laura hated to cook.
"I want to ask a very big favor," Laura said the next morning over bagels and cream cheese. "You know as well as I do that January is going to be a particularly important month for this community," she began. "The Town Council is scheduled to vote on the housing development and tensions are running high. Everyone knows that I have the swing vote. Ansel and Morris are dead-set against the project because they believe it is a sin against the environment and a poison to our community. Louis and Doc are just as adamant that growth is the only way to bring economic security. Louis went out and got the new highway funded as a remedy to those boarded up storefronts downtown. So the decision is left to me. And that's a lot of responsibility. So I want you to do something for me." Charlotte waited with apprehension for her friend to finish.
"I want you to moderate the public meetings on the housing project." Laura continued. "Normally, the mayor would chair the meetings. But Louis is just too much of an advocate. He could never be fair. And the only way that we are ever going to come to a decision about this without ripping apart the community is if we have genuinely open debate. People are already lobbying me in private. And I want to get it out in the open." She paused, "Will you moderate the public meetings?"
Charlotte was clearly uncomfortable with the idea. "Laura, you know I'd do anything for you and that I want to help the town. But I don't think I am the person to moderate the meetings. I am too much an outsider. I wasn't born and raised here like you were. And, well, let me be blunt. Stuart Dolman explained to me a couple of weeks ago that I have a financial stake myself in this development. I'd hate to be in a position where I thought my friendship with you was swaying your decision. I respect you too much to do that."
"I appreciate your integrity," Laura said. "But don't think for a minute that there are any unaffected parties in this town. Everyone has a stake in the project. Yes, the church will grow if more people move here. But I also know that the increased tax base would mean that my school's budget would soar if the project is approved. I just have to put all that aside and try to make the right decision—the one that's best for the community." Laura paused before going on. "If you can be blunt so can I," she said quietly.
"Don't tell anyone this, but I've already decided how I am going to vote. Take a walk downtown. Look at the old movie theater or the vacant buildings on Lincoln Street. Our kids are moving away, never to return. We don't have the option of shutting people out. We need to grow or we will die."
"Then why the charade of a public debate?" Charlotte asked.
"Oh, it is no charade." Laura said, "You know me better than that. I may have made up my mind. But holding a 3-2 advantage on a Town Council vote will not bring this town any closer to accepting the changes that are necessary."
"I want the public debate for two reasons. First, I want Ansel and Morris to have their say where everyone can hear them. They deserve it—and I don't want anyone to say that we did not follow the legal processes that require a public hearing. Remember, a lawsuit is not out of the question. But, second, I also want this to be the beginning of the change process. There will be a lot of new situations for people around here if the development goes through. That kind of change is particularly hard for a small town like ours to accept. How long do you think it will take Ansel to mention Wal-Mart in the public hearing? Now, we don't have any more stores for Wal-Mart to put out of business if they ever did come here. But the point is that the fear runs very deep."
Charlotte agreed. "Fear. Anxiety about the future," she to her friend, "These are spiritual categories. How can I say that our church's mission is to proclaim 'GOD'S HOPE FOR OUR FUTURE' if I am going to remain on the sidelines when the community is dealing with its fear."
"My only hesitation concerns my preaching." Charlotte said. "I need to be able to preach about hope without coming off as a political organ. I'll tell you what. I will agree to moderate the meetings if you will wait until after this Sunday to broach the idea with the other council members. I think I just decided that we are going to start a four-week sermon series on "GOD'S HOPE IN OUR UNCERTAIN FUTURE." And if I have already begun the series before I become the public moderator, then perhaps I can deal with the spiritual anxieties that uncertainty brings—and do it without coming off as a shill for the development project." Laura nodded agreement. But they both knew that the difficult part was just beginning.