For 21 years the Rev. Ed Bacon presided over All Saints Church in Pasadena as its rector, leading the charge on myriad social and religious issues as it became perhaps the most influential progressive force in American Christianity. Performing same-sex commitment ceremonies long before the US Supreme Court legalized gay marriages, battling the IRS over the right to free speech at the pulpit, protesting the death penalty and US policy in the Middle East, in addition to leading a massive interfaith outreach movement, the 69-year-old Bacon was a tireless fighter for an open-minded approach to faith.
But last April, the Georgia native stepped down from All Saints to head into pseudo-retirement, returning to his Southern roots by moving with his wife, Hope Hendricks-Bacon, to Birmingham, Alabama, in order to be near most of their grandkids. His idea of retirement keeps him pretty active, as he has worked as a “freelance priest” for a slew of major nonprofits, including Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the NAACP and the Equal Justice Initiative.
Bacon will be returning to Pasadena this weekend, and will return to the All Saints pulpit at the 9 and 11 a.m. services Sunday to deliver what promises to be a memorable sermon.
Bacon spoke with the Pasadena Weekly at length last week about his opinions on life in the age of Trump.
Pasadena Weekly: You’ve been gone almost a year and a half. What’s your life been like?
Ed Bacon: I’ve been focusing on a lot of guest teaching and preaching and retreat leading, which was a surprise for me. I didn’t know that I would get as many invitations to travel and speak as I am, so it’s quite thrilling. I’ve been to places from Vancouver to Jamaica, and led a retreat two weeks ago in the Hudson Valley in New York. I’m really delighted, I must say, at the fact that people want to engage in my core passions and to talk about them in light of the cultural, political and religious polarization that is ripping apart the country right now.
You’re from Georgia originally, and race is a big issue again. How are things going on that front there?
I think that race relations on a personal level have improved. I’ve noticed a lot more diversity, not just black and white. There are a lot of Latino people, a lot of Muslims, which was not the case when I grew up in the South. There’s a great deal of personal kindness, gentility and integration, but I keep emphasizing on a personal level because at the institutional level, I have some questions and I want to note that I’m back only for a year and a half.
I’m not an expert at this point, but it does seem like some of the old white privilege is still very much in place and we do have a problem with a large number of people of color imprisoned and the presence of the death penalty, which I think is a racist institution. And there’s a lot of hate. Obviously, the South doesn’t have a monopoly on that.
Are there signs of hope?
It’s a mixed picture. Birmingham has just elected a very progressive young, black mayor, same with Jackson, Mississippi. There are changes under way, no doubt about that. And clearly the December election about who’s going to be in the Senate representing Alabama will be a huge referendum on Trump, the Republican Party and whether the Democrats have any strength and persuasion in the state.
It’s really up for grabs between [Republican] Roy Moore and [Democrat] Doug Jones. The whole nation will be looking at that on Dec. 15. Roy Moore has been thrown off the court twice, the first time for putting up a granite marker for the Ten Commandments on state property and refusing to take it down. The second was telling people they didn’t have to enforce the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage.
So what’s the overall trend, then?
I think that’s a great question and what the election will be about in December. A lot will be about voter turnout and voter suppression. If there’s great voter turnout across all voter categories, I think Doug Jones can win. I think there are so many mainline Republicans and certainly Democrats embarrassed by the thinking of Moore.
I think there’s a danger Moore will be elected again, after all, he was elected over Luther Strange (appointed to the junior senator’s seat with former Sen. Jeff Sessions’ move to attorney general) in the state’s primary, and Strange was the establishment’s GOP candidate. Moore is representative of the thinking of [conservative extremist] Steve Bannon than the mainline GOP.
I think that one of the points of learning about Trump’s victory is I think it points us to ask some very deep questions about the polarization of the country and even tribalistic polarization, and also that grievance politics really reverberate with 40 percent of the electorate.
Haven’t we always faced huge divisions?
Trump is literally the divider in chief, when the president has a calling to put the “unum” in “e pluribus unum.” I think responsible leadership have to ask themselves if our responses are a further act of division, and is there a further way to respond to Trump and what he symbolizes in such a way that unites rather than perpetuates the division? While we hate the division are we responding in a way that heals it or deepens it, and I think that’s the question.
Is there a risk of dividing further?
That’s a call I feel, and it’s very, very deep. On one of the trips my wife and I have been on in southern Utah, we came across a grove of quaking aspens called pando and in the 1960s scientists proved that this 106 acres of what appeared to be trees was actually not just individual trees but shared from the same root ball. Those trees were not individual separate trees, but actually one tree, so it’s a one-tree forest if you can get your mind around that.
It’s the largest organism on the face of the planet. It’s at least 80,000 years old and just thousands of trees or apparent trees in this one tree forest. I learned about it in 2014 from an essay that Professor John Cobb out of Claremont Colleges wrote. It became my favorite symbol for our interconnectedness and our oneness.
Dr. Martin Luther King said we’re caught in a network of mutuality so that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. He goes on to say this is the way the universe is constructed.
It’s a pretty amazing metaphor.
Yes! Here in southern Utah is this wonderful physical example and symbol of what Dr. King is talking about. The reality is that you and I are one, our adversaries are one with us, and this is central to Jesus’ teaching: if you do it to the least of these, you do it to me. What I keep in my mind in all my activism, preaching and teaching, is that we’re all part of one pando.
How do we carry on this debate that has to be engaged in this country about Trump the divider and understand it at a deeper level that he has a base of people who truly feel aggrieved and he’s carrying on the politics of grievance? How can we show that that is wrong, not sustainable and at the same time not add to the division. I think the answer to that is to have a pando/oneness/interconnectedness mentality.
What were your thoughts on the white supremacist rally and riots in Charlottesville?
If you’re talking about the moral failure in Donald Trump, we saw it in gross proportions in his response to Charlottesville. The idea that he wanted to claim there were fine people who were shouting Nazi slogans against Jews and people of color while carrying torches was a huge embarrassment and moral failure and pointed out the moral bankruptcy in his leadership.
God is always doing good in the face of evil, taking evil and transforming it into good. If Charlottesville on top of Charleston on top of many other injustices causes us to remove Confederate monuments from places that look like we’re endorsing them and move them into museums and use them as education rather than endorsements, that’s going to be a good thing.
All Saints Church is located at 132 N. Euclid Ave., Pasadena. Call (626) 796-1172 or visit allsaints-pas.org.