We are in a one-of-a-kind “in-between time” as we approach Inauguration Day. The citizens of the U.S. know that we have done something new in electing an African American as our 44th president. The world senses it, too, and watches with us to see what this unprecedented choice means.

It is less than 200 miles from the White House to the Virginia riverbank where the first slaves entered the American story in 1619. Yet the journey for African Americans to move those few miles took almost 400 years, and it was filled with unfathomable oppression and suffering. With President-elect Barack Obama’s election our nation does not undo all the damage of that tragic journey, but it does step into a new chapter, one in which a new American character can emerge.

As the countdown to the inauguration proceeds, our hopes are high—and so are our anxieties. So we scrutinize every move that Obama makes, looking for signals about our future in each presidential appointment and in every utterance of his advisors. Each day that passes lengthens the new president’s to-do list. There is a world economy to energize, schools to be reformed, a health care system to be healed, a national infrastructure to be repaired. Wars must be ended, diseases cured, and the starving fed. The conditions that fuel terrorism around the world must be changed, and our national reputation and role in the global community must be refashioned.

In this odd transition period, a number of remarkable things happen. Most obvious are the preparations made for a peaceful handing over of power. Another process that takes place (one could sense it already on Election Night as a noticeably more somber Barack Obama spoke to the throngs in Chicago’s Grant Park) is transference of people’s expectations. From that moment, the hopes and needs of people around the world were pushed toward his slim shoulders. The new president seems very aware that one of his most important tasks in the coming months, indeed throughout his presidency, will be managing the sea of expectations that carried him into office and can all too quickly turn into
an angry tsunami.

What does all of this have to do with American congregations? Everything. Many of the people who lead and who belong to the churches and synagogues of our land voted for Mr. Obama. Others did not, but now must learn to live with him. All of us contributed to his infinite to-do list. In fact, the first thing we must do is own that the new president’s to-do list is not just his; it is our own.

His famous campaign slogan, “Yes we can,” is an important message to our congregations. The complex, risky, but inescapable items on our nation’s to-do list will be accomplished only if there is a strong “we” supporting and leading our new president. Instead of settling back into patterns of apathy or special-interest politics, we must find ways to come together for the sake of an endangered common good. Instead of piling on with our complaints or pressure tactics, we should be finding new ways to shoulder our collective burdens.

There are many ways that congregations already do this, from operating food pantries to offering pastoral care. In this in-between period, I suggest that each congregation take an audit of the ways that it is working at our national/global to-do list. In addition, this is a time to ask if there are new burdens we can take on, if there are assets that we have not tapped fully, if there are new opportunities to heal the world.

The kind of work that we are talking about here requires us to go deeper. So many of the great challenges we face—an inadequate health care system, the energy crisis, an economy fueled by a society living beyond its means or needs—are deeply spiritual matters. As I observed the presidential campaigns, I listened for the word “sacrifice” and heard it only rarely. But the kinds of changes we must make if we are really to make progress as a nation and as a global community require transformations of behavior and attitude. Learning to live with less and to see the redistribution of wealth not as a violation of American capitalism but as a way to truly love our neighbor are, first of all, matters of spirit and faith. So is the task of shaping a revitalized national community that makes Barack Obama’s breakthrough real for all of those within our borders who have not yet realized our country’s ideals of equality, freedom, and justice.

Several times in the past few weeks I have seen this deeper work going on. In a forum at Washington National Cathedral, historian Thomas Cahill said that because of his Christian faith, he believed there might be a silver lining to the dark cloud of financial crisis hovering over all of us. He said this might be an opportunity for the people of our nation to discover that they are more than shoppers. Later that morning, in his sermon, the Cathedral’s Dean, The Very Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd, III, dusted off the 23rd Psalm and offered it to his congregation as a declaration of independence from all that frightens us these days. In both cases, spirit and faith stirred. We need hundreds of thousands of such moments. If our congregations dare to open up their most precious treasures again and release the energy waiting within them, the change we need may come a little closer.

Rev. Dr. James P. Wind is president of the Alban Institute