As I finish my time with the Marin Foundation, I’ll be writing posts based on chapters from Unexpected Gifts: Discovering the Way of Community by Christopher Heuertz, a friend of mine and of the foundation.
Too often, like little Grace, our communities are missing something vital. We're fractured and divided. But unlike Grace's, the losses we experience aren't something visited upon us. The sad truth is that we are the ones cutting off needed parts of the body of community, leaving us unable to participate in many of the activities community was designed for
Grace is the daughter of a woman, Sophia, who Chris met in Sierra Leone towards the end of the country's civil war. Sophia was raped in front of her husband, forced to watch him die, and then made to watch as her attackers took Grace, three months old at the time, and chopped her arm off above the elbow. When Chris first met Grace, she was attempting to crack open a peanut and not having any luck.
This is what is happening to the church right now. As Chris says, unlike Grace whose loss was caused by outsiders, the church is doing this to itself. It's doing it to the poor. It's doing it to the homeless. It's doing it to individuals with physical, emotional, and intellectual disabilities. It's doing it to people of different skin tone and to people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and queer. The church is cutting off its own limbs, crippling itself, making it next to impossible to do and be what and who it was called to do and be. We're bleeding profusely, and instead of re-attaching the limbs we've severed from ourselves, we continue to leak out the vital life force needed to be whole.
Many of us have a homogenized circle of friends who live like us, look like us, and probably even worship like us. Our [cell phone] history is often a mirror of who we are. And, as a consequence, of who our community is
Until high school, I did not really have any friends who were all that different from me. When I was younger, I went to the daycare where my grandma worked, and though I was in classrooms with kids of different races and economic backgrounds, I wouldn't have called us friends. In high school, I finally started to build friendships with people different from me, at least racially and economically. Finally, after venturing out into the real world, my circle of friends began to diversity religiously and spiritually as well. Still, most of my friends share more in common with me than uncommon. I try to build a diverse world around me, but it's not easy.
Most of our churches are the same way. It's rare to find a faith community that has more than a handful of persons of color. The same goes for sexuality. And let's be honest, how many interfaith communities do we see around? Not many.
Being married to a person of a different faith (neo-pagan), my world has definitely shifted in terms of how my friends practice and understand faith and spirituality. It's beautiful, even in the midst of heated debates over life, the universe, and everything (no, the answer is not always 42). But as a person who identifies as a follower of Jesus (I'm struggling to call myself a "Christian" right now, but that's a topic for another day, I find that people who share my faith beliefs and backgrounds are not often prone to having communities that are religiously varied. Like attracts like, right? But is this the best, healthiest, most beautiful kind fo community that exists? I don't think so.
Until we confess the poverty of our friendships, many of our attempts to foster inclusion run the risk of becoming awkward and inappropriate attempts of tokenism. It doesn't feel good to be the "token" anything in any community. It diminishes everyone's humanity to be misled by communities that appear to be inclusive but are actually using minority members for cosmetic purposes
There are a lot of buzzwords running around Christian circles right now. Inclusion. Hospitality. Diversity. What do we mean when we use these words? More often than not, at least in my own experience, it's all about the bottom line. Numbers. Attendance. Growth. Money. Finances. Wealth. Programs. The list can go on and on. With these things as our focus, we'd be better off if the signs in front of our buildings read more like "First Baptist Country Club" or "United Methodist Community Center" or "Presbyterian Rotary." We build buildings (or purchase already existing ones) that hold two to three times our current membership in hopes of reaching full capacity. But at what cost? What happens when attendance goes down instead of up, when people lose jobs or the stock market crashes? I'll tell you what happens. People get angry. Worried. Anxious. Conflict happens. People are hurt. Pastors burn out. Volunteers feel used.
The body becomes wounded, battered, and starts to bleed as if a vital artery has just been sliced open with a straight razor
Chris addresses several other vital issues in the life of the church today, one of which is ecumenism. There are tens of thousands of Christian denominations in existence today, proving that we are becoming more and more divided. We're divided over issues of doctrine and theology. We can't agree on whether our focus should be on personal holiness or acts of charity, justice, and mercy. We're spit on sexuality. Our churches are separated by race. We're overwhelmed by the presence of greed, both for money and for power. As Chris says, how can we expect the world to know us by our love when this love is either non-existent or completely overshadowed by our division?
Every church, every community, cannot be expected to meet every single need of every single person. In this sense, exclusion takes place based on discernment of what a community can and cannot do.
The real danger of exclusion isn't when we're struggling to make stabilizing commitments based on our limitations but when we exclude the so-called other based on the fact that he or she is different
Personally, the amount of division and isolation that exists in the body of Christ today saddens me. It hurts physically, not only because I've experienced exclusion but also because how many other people I know personally who have shared that experience. I long for the day that we can find ourselves truly united, a day I know will not take place in my own lifetime. In the meantime, all I can do is try. All I can do is live my own life focused on love, on inclusion, on living into what it means for me to be a person who loves Jesus and who wants others to know that love.