A Letter from Bishop Timothy Smith Regarding the Events at Lenoir-Rhyne University

14:30 16 March in News

ncsynod-lru-trumpAllow me to catch you up on presidential candidate Trump’s visit to Lenoir-Rhyne University (LRU), one of our ELCA universities, in Hickory, NC yesterday, March 14. We had about 100 clergy and at least that many more lay people from as far away as Atlanta and Nashville who came to join us. Our presence was less a “protest”–really not a protest at all–and more of a “demonstration,” a demonstration of the love and peace of Christ.

There were about 5,000 people lined up to get into the auditorium which seats only 1400, and Trump was almost 2 hours late due to fog. In addition to ELCA groups, there were groups of students (it was spring break on campus), a faculty demonstration group, a Latino group waving Mexican flags, and a large African American group that for unknown reasons was denied entrance to the auditorium even though they had tickets. The Lutheran group, by choice, did not try to go inside the rally.

Because we got there about 8 a.m. and Trump didn’t speak until almost noon, there was a 4-hour period with thousands of people standing together. The Lutherans sang hymns constantly, and at one point when one group of protesters and a pod of Trump supporters started screaming, shouting obscenities, and making obscene gestures and finally rushing toward each other, spontaneously the Lutheran clergy linked arms and got between the screaming groups and sang “Jesus Loves Me”…second verse, “Jesus loves you.” It was a sight to behold. Clearly, our presence, at least in that moment, kept things civil. One reporter near me who was running with a camera to film the altercation was clearly disappointed. Thwarted violence and “Jesus Loves Me” are not news. I’m pretty sure she was miffed that we had spoiled her “scoop” sensationalist story.

There are, understandably and justifiably in a “separation of church and state” perspective, many who are upset with me for speaking out. So why did I do this? Given that on Friday it was announced that candidate Trump was coming, a done deal, and LRU is one of our synod’s affiliated institutions, suddenly ignoring the event or the candidate’s controversial platform didn’t seem an option to me any longer, or at least the less desirable of the options. To say nothing would have been interpreted by the public as assent to Trump’s candidacy or, even worse, endorsement. (This is what happened at Liberty University when Trump attended and Falwell, Jr. endorsed him.)
My initial Facebook post, which surprisingly went viral with over 1500 shares, was admittedly more scathing and personally attacking of the person than befits this office, and for that I apologized both in my second Facebook post and at the event Monday. I also invited people who wanted to “protest” at LRU to join me not in attacking a candidate or even a platform but in lifting up the values that we believe are the core values of living as disciples of Jesus in response to God’s grace: peace, love, justice, welcoming the stranger, non-violence, and so on. That is what we did.

At the end, we gathered in Grace Chapel for worship, prayer, laying at the foot of the cross the deep polarizations that seem to have a grip on our country, our culture, and our church. We prayed that we might be vessels of the values to which the Gospel calls us: that same peace, love, justice, welcome. I was extremely moved by the number of people who came and how they provided a peaceful, calming witness to the love of Jesus to and for all.

Your partner in ministry,
bishop-tim-smith
Bishop Timothy Smith
North Carolina Synod

From the LRU news release announcing the event:

Republican candidate and Presidential hopeful Donald Trump will speak at Lenoir-Rhyne University on Monday, March 14 at 10 a.m. in P.E. Monroe Auditorium. The event will take the form of a town hall meeting, open to approximately 1,450 guests. Seats are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Doors will open at 7 a.m. All those planning to attend must register at https://trumphickory.eventbrite.com. A voucher from this site does not guarantee access to the event.

“As part of our commitment to the American political process, we welcome all major presidential candidates to speak at Lenoir-Rhyne University,” said Dr. Wayne B. Powell, University President.
“Being a leading candidate in the Republican primary, it is important for our community to hear Mr. Trump’s opinions and engage in constructive discussions. We hope other candidates will also consider speaking to the public here in Hickory.”

Dr. Powell stressed that hosting this event is not an indication of an endorsement of any kind. “Lenoir-Rhyne University does not endorse any political candidates, but does encourage open discourse and the free exchange of ideas. We hope the event will inspire respectful dialog on the issues facing not only our community, but also our nation.”

From message Bishop Smith sent, based on Dr. Powell’s message, to NC Synod prior to the event:

Republican candidate and Presidential hopeful Donald Trump will speak at Lenoir-Rhyne University on Monday, March 14 at 10 a.m. in P.E. Monroe Auditorium. The event will take the form of a town hall meeting, open to approximately 1,450 guests. A limited number of tickets are available on a first-come, first-serve basis through Mr. Trump’s website via Eventbrite.

“As part of our commitment to the American political process, we welcome all major presidential candidates to speak at Lenoir-Rhyne University,” said Dr. Wayne B. Powell, University President.

“Being a leading candidate in the Republican primary, it is important for our community to hear Mr. Trump’s opinions and engage in constructive discussions. We hope other candidates will also consider speaking to the public here in Hickory”

Dr. Powell stressed that hosting this event is not an indication of an endorsement of any kind. “Lenoir-Rhyne University does not endorse any political candidates, but does encourage open discourse and the free exchange of ideas. We hope the event will inspire respectful dialog on the issues facing not only our community, but also our nation.”

Bishop Smith, along with a number of other NC Synod members and clergy, will be on hand outside the event to pray for the election process and to lift up the biblical values of love, justice, peace, welcome, and inclusion. A Service of Healing will be held in Grace Chapel at 11:30 a.m.

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