Photo: Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: A Walk to Respect

The Power of Preaching to the Choir

Posted on October 13, 2023 by Andrew Spector, TPF Fellow 2023/24
On September 30, I viewed a recording of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: A Walk to Respect at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Sarasota.

Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: A Walk to Respect is a one-act play by The Patterson Foundation's award-winning playwright Beth Duda, with original spoken word poetry by Cedric Hameed. The recording is from the live performance at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. The play is a powerful illustration of how two men confronted their differences with courage and compassion at a time when our divided nation faced annihilation, forging a friendship that helped to end the Civil War and reunite our nation.

During the Q&A following the play, one person asked about the value of bringing us all together to view the screening. "Isn't it just preaching to the choir?" they asked. In other words, other people, not us, need to hear this historical example of overcoming differences to come together around shared aspirations.

My mind immediately went to "The Art of Interfaith Leadership" chapter in Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America, a book written in 2012 by Eboo Patel, president and founder of Interfaith America.

In the chapter, Eboo uses several examples to illustrate the necessity of preaching to the choir to achieve social change. Referencing one example of a movement, he writes: "They sang the song the preachers taught them. Some people who heard the song found the music compelling and joined the choir, so the choir got larger, and the song…got louder. The choir members with the most dedication and best voices were picked out and given special preacher training. They were sent on the road to start new choirs—more preachers, new choirs, louder song, repeat cycle."

The "lyrics" of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: A Walk to Respect are actual words written or spoken by Lincoln and Douglass while they were alive. They are arranged into a "song" that tells us a story of what's possible when we cultivate mutual respect despite fundamental differences. The job of the "choir," or those that attend Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: A Walk to Respect, is to engage with the lyrics critically, reflect on how the song can show up in their lives, and consider how they can become a "preacher" for the message.

Alas, the reality is that it can be just "preaching to the choir," but that's only if we don't move from passive recipients of the "sermon" to active participants. In the case of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass: A Walk to Respect, how can the play deepen and nuance our understanding of the song of mutual respect and collaboration across differences? How can we sing that song better and louder in our daily lives and in our communities? Who else can we invite to sing with us? What kind of world would all this create?

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