Word of the Week

I hear it from clergy all the time: it's hard to worship when you are leading others.

One of the joys of my Sabbatical time so far has been the opportunity to visit to other churches and consider again what church means to me as a participating worshipper.

But learning how to be a worshipper is harder than it might seem.

On this past Sunday morning I found myself at a big steeple church with a friend in my hometown in Tennessee. It was her home church and for this reason I was glad to go alongside.

But, when we pulled up to the congregation sometimes known in the community as "fortress," I was a little afraid.

And rightfully so. I was back in church compound land. Such a big model of doing ministry is not what I believe the church is nor is how I've I practiced it in years.

Was I going to have to make small church talk with strangers around the coffee pot before church? Was I going to have to sit in a classroom circle staring at other well-dressed folks who appeared to be more excited about study than they actually were? Was I going to want to pull my hair out at the fluffy theology coming forth from the lips of leaders? None of these are my favorite things, as you might imagine.

Furthermore, fear came up in me because I'm not a fan of churches without a lot of racial diversity. (We need our churches to LOOK like the Body of Christ.) I'm not a fan of churches that don't include voices of the poor (I mean, what is a good service without a distraction from a homeless person coming in?). And, I know a church is not for me if the American and Christian flag are proudly displayed in the sanctuary (Can I say idolatry of nationalism has no place in God's house?). Most of all, I want to know that when a church says, "We welcome all" they really mean it. I want to know that a church's doctrine doesn't hurt people.

But, then we arrived. Ready or not, I went.

Getting out of our car, I gazed up at a large dark stoned building that takes up several blocks in the neighborhood. It almost felt like something out of one of the Harry Potter movies as I walked through wood carved archways inside to get take a flight of stairs down to a well-kept Sunday School classroom. Asking questions on the way in, I learned that the membership is mostly made up of those who would be named as upper middle to upper class folks-- at least 2,000 in worship on Sunday. And most of it members are white-- even though some of the young families have adopted church from other countries. And there is one paid African-American soloist in the choir. Need I say more?

I could have easily spent the next two hours rolling my eyes and thinking "better than" thoughts in my head.

But, I have to confess-- I was wonderfully surprised.

Walking into Sunday School-- a room filled with well-dressed, well-to-do looking folks, about 20 of them in all, with a woman in a black sweater, red beaded necklace, pencil length grey skirt, and black boots standing behind a pulpit on a desk, I found an open mind. We sat in rows not a circle. And then, what came forth from this teacher's mouth was well-prepared, engaging truth from the Word.

I almost had tears well up in my eyes at several points as we discussed the passage from John 5 about the man whom Jesus asked, "Do you want to get well?" (Have there been spaces in my life the past six years when someone has taught me on a regular basis? No. Man, this has got to change, I thought. ) As I continued to listen, the teacher read commentaries from some of my favorite Biblical scholars, one in which I'd even known in seminary. The class members shared a richer theological discussed than I'd experienced in such a church in years. I found myself saying in the midst of the discussion, "I guess this is why people actually come to church-- they're hungry too to learn about their relationship with Christ." Because I did. I left refreshed.

Later in the service of worship, though the number of white faces were many and the flags hung beside the steps up to the altar, I tried again to not be so snobby. And, tears found me again. We sang robustly the great hymns of faith with the kind of full voices only a full sanctuary with pipe organ can. I found beauty in the liturgy of the prayers. The choir proclaimed a sacred piece that stilled any unsettling in me. The preacher, though an older white man, read and proclaimed the Word with jewels of encouragement. And, throughout the service, I felt the warmth of those around me-- many of whom I'd met before while visiting once before-- folks who remembered me, asked genuine questions, and talked to me about their prayer life.

I left with a conviction of my heart. One I'd been thinking about for a long while-- we've got to be less judgmental of each other in the Church. Pastors like me need to stop being church snobs. The Spirit of the Lord is not always in the places we expect. God's presence is in all black churches and all white churches and rich churches and poor churches. Church doesn't always have to be just the way we like it for worship to happen. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

I know this again full well.

Does the church still need prophets? Does the church need voiced raised that say, "Stop building altars to yourself and start serving?" Does the church need radical changes in its institutional life so that it can look more like the radical message of Jesus? Does the church need more integration and more theologically sound teachers? Sure it does. It really, really really it does.

But, in the meantime, can the church be the place where God's presence dwells, where lives are transformed and where individual faith can be nourished? To all of this, I say yes.

I confess, I've been judgmental a long time. This Sabbatical time is asking this ugliness in me to change. And, most of all this Sabbath is asking me to worship from the pews. And most of all to listen.

I was raised in the South. I went to college in Alabama. I attended seminary in North Carolina. I learned to eat fried chicken at church potlucks and hymn sings. I was given pearls for my high school graduation. I studied BBQ in its various forms in my Southern History class in college.  I learned "cola" as "Coke" for it was the only soft drink that you ever drank. I was as Southern as you come . . . accent included.

The pace of life, the readiness of religious opportunities, and the cheap cost of living make the southern part of the United States a wonderful place to grow up and to settle down. I always thought I would attend seminary and return to Alabama to live for the rest of my life.

But, not until I left the South via my first job posting in Maryland (and I know several of you would argue that Maryland is still the South, but for argument sake it isn't Mississippi), did I begin to realize the deep tensions remaining in this part of the country: how broken this region still is over race in more ways than just having "bad sides of town" and "low-income schools." Racial stereotypes are woven in how everyone seems to relate to one another. And, I knew that the life I wanted for myself-- rich in diversity-- would be easier to establish in an area of the country like Washington DC.

How easy I forget, though, how spoiled I have become until I make journeys down south to catch up with friends and family from time to time.  Not that the Mid-Atlantic region is perfect, by any means, but it is easier to make friends here of different cultures, races, and traditions as if it is no big deal. Easily I can begin to think that race and nationality are descriptors that just don't apply anymore. Yet, last week, I learned again in Georgia and Tennessee, that our DC life is not the norm.

When folks are described in every day conversation it seems that no one is described without referring to the color of their skin.

When folks of a different color of skin are mentioned, there is a change in facial expression, body language and tone of voice when speaking of this person.

Certain activities are associated with racial groups. I heard it said in the line in at the movie theater by a Caucasian child talking to her Caucasian mother, "I don't want to see that movie. It's a black person film."  I heard it said, "That mall is so ghetto. If you drive by that part of town keep your doors locked."

In all of this, I was sobered to think about the world view of  my nieces and nephews have and will continue to have are based on unfair biases. Thinking that ALL persons of certain racial groups are somehow less than them because their skin is darker.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the real issue in rural southern USA is not race, but what race has meant for the lack of educational and economic opportunities. And, these lack of opportunities continue to oppress.

While interacting with several of Kevin's former high school classmates at his reunion party, I realized that the persons from his class who had been "more successful" in moving away to bigger cities, receiving high education, and maintaining well-paid jobs were Caucasian. I don't think that this is because color of skin has anything to do with intelligence, but  because of how environmental factors have diminished opportunities for those with darker skin, Hispanic and African-American alike. And, as a result of these lack of educational and economic opportunities, social tensions were created in an multi-racial gathering of this particular party i.e. the African-American persons had more things in common to talk to one another about not because of their "blackness" but because of their type of jobs, housing and life ambitions.

And so at this particular party, the social dynamics were less about desire to get to know someone who shared different physical features from you (because this didn't seem to be the issue)  and more about not having anything to talk about with someone who was from a different racial group.  Segregation occurred in more complex ways than first observed.

Do you see how this cycle of racism lives? It overwhelms and frightens me.  And, I understand how easily these social patterns of relating to one another will continue and continue for a very long time unless the church both in the South and in other parts of the country, among other social justice groups, seek to address the disparity of this issue right on. Saying, it is not ok to identify your neighbor on the bus, in the grocery store, or who fixes your tv, by their race. It's just not ok, ever. And, it is not ok for my child to go to school with books that are new and your child not to simply because of the part of town in which they live. It's not ok for the church to sit on the sidelines and do nothing to speak of the segregation race still seeks to cause.

Of course it is easier to speak of the disparities of lifestyle by race, saying, "It's what the Mexicans do" or "It's where the black people hang out" or "Our town is so white" but really in the end, it's not about race as much as it about what life has offered us. This fact, I believe needs to be more clearly understood.

I for, one, was glad to be back on my street of diversity a couple of days ago, to be in conversations where the fact that a family is Indian or Asian or whatever doesn't really matter. But, I came back with eyes open to new prayers I have for the great human family and the children who grow up not being taught by their parents, teachers and pastors any better. Praying as Jesus did on the night before his death: "Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name-- so that they may be one as I am one with you."