Welcoming the Elephants to Tampa

It's not very often that you see a church newsletter issued with the image of a GOP elephant holding a pirate flag, but that's what one of Tampa's Episcopal churches, St. Andrew's, published last week to indicate its welcome of the Republican National Convention to Tampa, Fla.

Perhaps it's not that odd. The Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida does have some experience with elephants; for decades we were chaplains to the wintering Ringling Brothers circus community, each year blessing a menagerie worthy of Noah's Ark and serving as blesser, counselor and prayer partner to clowns, sword swallowers, acrobats, lion tamers and elephant riders. As a church, we took that role seriously; the circus was in town, and we supported and welcomed that community when it came home each season.

St. Andrew's, since 1871 a fixture in downtown Tampa, will literally ring in the G.O.P. convention Aug. 27 as its bells, along with other Tampa churches, will toll for 15 minutes to welcome visitors from across the U.S. and world.

It's a non-partisan welcome, and non-controversial in our diocese of 76 congregations along the Gulf of Mexico. St. Andrew's, one of the oldest churches in Tampa, occupies a well-known corner of downtown at Madison and Marion Streets. For the Republican National Convention, the church has offered its parish hall to Tampa police, who will use it for a break spot for officers responsible for keeping order downtown. Right across the street is a designated protest area. Through the convention, our churches will be open to all for regular worship services and private prayer.

A common misconception of the separation of church and state is that we are often at odds. However, what we take for granted (and forget because it is so much the norm) is the role of our churches in holding our republic together. As Jesus taught his disciples that they were the "salt of the earth" and "light of the world," the challenge is to make a living difference in the environment where we exist. Like any other part of America, our churches occupy the best corners of downtowns and serve as convenient polling places, civic meeting halls, food distribution centers, homeless feeding cafeterias, preschools and all manner of other activities. Churches are a common ground where red-state and blue-state people come together, put away differences and literally drink out of the same cup, sacramentally and literally.

It's this non-partisan role where the church needs to continue to assert itself, and remind the national community that the church is needed to do the work of Christ, which includes prayer and protection for our government and people. Our being together in community, in the church, is proof that this ideal is not lost, but is instead lived in the midst of different vastly different political opinions and expressions.

The Episcopal Church, in particular, has the tradition of transcending politics through our Book of Common Prayer. Our politics are in the pulpit every Sunday as we pray for our elected officials by name. In Florida we have both parties covered as we pray for "our President, Barack" and "our Governor, Rick."

As a host of big conventions and Super Bowls, Tampa knows how to welcome visitors. But unlike the Super Bowl crowds that sometimes are in Tampa, the Republican National Convention promises to be a different type of event, with both the encouragement of party platforms and protest. Locally, not all residents are happy with closed streets and waterways. Some worry about safety, or the practical issues of getting to work that week.

But across all denominations, the churches of the Tampa area will be welcoming visitors who are participating in the convention along with vendors, guests, opponents and local residents.

Clergy from St. Andrew's and nearby St. John's have signed onto a common prayer document that was drafted in the cities of Charlotte and Tampa. This "Common Witness" not only welcomes guests for both parties' conventions, but asks for prayers for a safe and productive political year. The document, published in leading newspapers and in our churches, encourages prayers for citizens in Tampa and Charlotte, that they may be hospitable, and not allow cynicism to balloon into bitterness. It includes the line: "We pray for our country, that we might be a nation where goodness matters, where justice and kindness are our passions, where truth matters, and is told."

St. John's pre-convention newsletter stated that the common prayer would ensure that the churches of Tampa and Charlotte would "serve as a beacon of democracy and hope for the whole world."

We pray to serve as that beacon for but a few days in Charlotte and Tampa, and hope to live into that calling to be salt and light as expressed in this common prayer.