How to be the church today: Connect, build community
The peace of Christ is always about engagement with the neighbor
As I write this, it is late July, and while it’s very peaceful where I sit, the news is far from peaceful. The conflict in Ukraine is heating up, and while we mourn the downing of a commercial airplane over that war zone, the death toll in Gaza rises every day. Thousands of Central American children risk death in the deserts of northern Mexico to escape violence and trafficking at home. Here in southern Ohio we are seeing the effects of the worst heroin epidemic ever to hit this region. I cannot predict what will have happened by the time you read these words, but I fear things won’t have gotten better.
What does it mean to be the church in times like this? Sometimes we see church as a place of refuge. That is not entirely wrong. When we are true to our calling as followers of Jesus, we become communities that practice peace – all the more so when we learn to voice disagreement with respect and try to learn from one another as we differ. In that sense, the church should always be a zone of peace. But we actually disrupt that peace when we turn our backs on the troubles that surround us. That’s because the peace of Christ is always about engagement with the neighbor, beginning with whoever crosses our path or lives close by, and working out from there. So the zone of peace we establish with one another as communities of Christian practice should push us outward into our neighborhood and beyond. Who are the teachers that work in the elementary school across the street? Who are the elders down the block in assisted living? Who worships at the Baptist church around the corner?
Finding the answers to such questions is easier said than done. For many of us, talking to people we don’t know feels awkward. Someone once told me her church decided to go door to door introducing themselves to neighbors. That would be very difficult for me! But there are ways we can structure our engagement with strangers so that it doesn’t feel artificial or exposing. Here’s one example. St. James Church in Cincinnati sits in the heart of Westwood, an old neighborhood that has seen huge demographic changes over the last forty years. Hardly anyone in the parish lives in the neighborhood. Recently, they have discerned a call to reconnect with their surroundings. How were they to do that? Long story short, they figured out how to host a weekly farmer’s market on their grounds. Now their neighbors show up on a regular basis, and the conversations that make for friendship have begun to happen. Around the diocese, congregations are finding creative ways to make connections: movies for kids at St. Luke’s, Marietta; arts camp at St. Margaret’s in Dayton; Latino homework club at St. Edward’s in Columbus, and many others. In each case, the object is not to get people into church, but simply to connect, and in so doing to partner with others in building community, fostering peace, and tilling the soil for Christ.
That is how we are to be the church in a world oppressed by violence, alienation, and loss of faith. We are to follow Jesus into that world, finding creative ways to do this that honor our own gifts and challenge us without paralyzing us. The first step may be to acknowledge the extent to which we ourselves have been touched by violence, alienation or loss of faith. Each of us can face that in the privacy of his or her heart, but we will never be able to act collectively in our neighborhoods until we have begun to talk with each other about our faith and our doubt. As fellow parishioners we have many faith-and-doubt stories to tell that seldom get shared. But the simple act of sharing how we experience God, or wish we did, can be like the splitting of a spiritual atom, releasing spiritual energy we never dreamed was there.
At our last two diocesan conventions we set aside significant time for table conversation about our walk with God and with the church. I’ll never forget the buzz – then the roar – of conversation that ensued as five hundred people shared things about their spiritual experience many had never talked about before. Since that time, I’ve heard a lot of positive feedback about that exercise, as well as many requests for help in getting such conversations going back home in the local congregation. At our next convention, which will take place Nov. 14-15 in Chillicothe, delegates and guests will be introduced to a wonderful method for inviting and leading conversation about faith and faithful action. This method is called “The Art of Hospitality.” Stay tuned.
The theme of our convention will be “bread and yeast.” Jesus calls us to be yeast in a world crying out to be transformed. This is a very organic image, reminding us that there is nothing abstract or remote about our mission. Real conversations and neighborly engagement are where the work gets done.