Tears have been following me around lately. They show up at work, at home, and often when I’m just walking through my neighborhood listening to Derek Webb or Jon Foreman on Pandora. They appear over a shared meal, or in a phone call. Last night they were present during my dreams – I willed myself awake to end the incessant tears!
Yesterday I knew I needed to mix words with those tears, so when I got home from work I began to dip into the streams that were converging to cause such constant emotion in me with a courageous housemate. What I was able to pull out was scary and I feel the need to confess it publicly.
But first – a story that has been on my mind the last few weeks.**
Several years ago I led a group of young adults and young couples on a trip to California to help a friend plant a church. We were only there for a few days, so our main task was to hand out flyers at the train stations and up and down the streets. The flyers were really cool! They had cartoon images of painful human interactions (a father ignoring a child, parents fighting etc) with a word like “love” or “peace”. They were really cool. However, what I remember more about these cards was the invitation on the back. There was a sentence of invitation that described the faith community they hoped to set up. The description included words like “young professionals” and “families”.
I remember clearly the struggle I had handing these post cards out in the city that week. As men and women exited the train platform and walked past me, I had a serious dilemma. If they look like they might fit the list of subtle qualifiers on the back, I can give them a post card, but… but… what if they don’t? Do I give a postcard and risk being the person to put an invitation to a faith community that clearly leaves out their demographic on their description? Or… do I intentionally overlook them and risk them finding a discarded post card and discovering the source as a community of Christ-followers? I can’t really express clearly enough how this impacted me. To this day, I feel tormented by the faces that passed me in those times of handing out post cards. I see them still.
Before we came back to Chicago, we were present for one of their preview services. That was our last day, and my ability to control my pain was weak. I remember walking towards the venue where the service would be held, and passing a group of homeless men sitting in a courtyard steps from the church – playing chess and enjoying the sunny morning. I spoke to them, partly because that’s what I do, and partly because I had a reputation as “the homeless whisperer” I had to live up to in my group. I was the girl who knew how to talk to “those people.” I had a “gift.” I remember the final blow of realization – I could talk to them, but I couldn’t invite them to church with us. They were not the target audience.
That was it for me, I couldn’t handle it any longer and, the first moment I got alone I escaped down the alley the church’s front door was actually located in. As everyone mingled inside, I found a utility doorway to sit down in and I cried my eyes out. I remember being afraid my howls would be heard, but I couldn’t stop the torrent. My heart broke and I sobbed. I wept over all the exclusion I’d participated in that week, and I grieved the realities of the Church.
As I sat there sobbing, an unclean, rough-looking man approached me cautiously; “Sweetie, are you OK?” “Yes sir. I just need to cry.” I staggered words out between sobs that even the presence of a stranger couldn’t subdue.
“Well, you should go somewhere else. Do you know where you are?”
I thought; “Sure, I’m just a few doors down from the church I just attended? I didn’t stray far, I’m not stupid.” but I said, “no, sir?”
He said as he referenced further down the alley to the adjacent street; “That’s the Tenderloin and you don’t want to be near there.”
Whatever momentum my tears had lost during the conversation came rushing back with even more gusto!
There had been one area of the city we were told to avoid during our canvasing. We were told about the bold crime, the prostitution and violence. We were told not to go there for our own safety. Sounded smart to me – I wasn’t in a hurry to lead a group of people into a dangerous part of town. What no one told us was this part of town was only steps from the church. It wasn’t until I was already sobbing in the alley that I found out the most broken part of the city was on the doorstep of the church, yet the church was intentionally avoiding it.
Last weekend we hosted a gathering of folks from our small group and two new church plants in our neighborhood to discuss starting a weekly “Open House” at JUSTembrace. I cast vision for a consistent place for people to meet without power dynamics disrupting the building of authentic relationships. I shared my experiences of gaining favor and trust by taking a seat at the local soup kitchens. I shared my hope that our home can become a place for the powerful to embrace and be embraced by the poor in Uptown. To “live with” rather than “do for.”
While this idea is really good, it IS the right next step, taking this step is throwing me into a terrifying reality. What could be worse than creating an exclusive community? Creating an inclusive community that you then pimp out for the approval of the powerful. This is what has me a wreck.
I’m terrified of selling Christ for a bag of silver.
Until recently, I’ve felt pretty alone in my desire to find Christ on the streets of Uptown. While I’ve basked in the presence of Christ at soup kitchens or in conversations on the street, or in any number of miraculous gifts of intimacy and authenticity I’ve been gifted among the poor in my neighborhood over the years, I have found comfort and community in books and articles and videos by The Work of the People. I have felt more or less alone and isolated. This isolation has had its perks. I haven’t had to wrestle too much with my deep brokenness that lends itself to feasting on the approval of others. My housemate called me an approval addict. Indeed.
As I venture out of my prophet’s cave of ideology and anger; as I begin to trust and find trust among the affluent, educated and powerful in my neighborhood, I am being forced to get re-acquainted with my false self – the part of me that desperately wants to be accepted, approved of and included among the exclusive.
Here is the confession: I am not only afraid of, but coming to terms with my sinful bent to be drawn more to the approval of the powerful than the fellowship of the weak.
However, if JUSTembrace is going to have a prophetic voice in the Church, we must enter this tension and serve all our neighbors. I must pray for the grace to battle my inner demons of pride and ego and insecurity. We must take every opportunity to be a home of true inclusivity, hospitality and generosity – and not just when it’s easy.
To do that, I cannot hide this battle. I need to air my sin. I need my public confession to serve to hold me accountable to a Gospel that inspires me and gives me hope to live: a Gospel of absolute power becoming powerless to give His life for us to receive life.
The Sher who was hiding in that doorway in CA so many years ago, sobbing over the injustices of well-meaning Christians, needs to mourn her own inability to get it right and the horrible realities of what that means. Like Peter, after hearing the rooster crowing, I need to weep bitterly over my ability to deny my Lord, and then allow Him to cook me breakfast and remind me of His love and mission.
Friends, weep with me. Allow your brokenness to break you. Join me on the beach over some fresh fish cooked by our Lord. Be reminded with me of His love that never waivers.
** I have a tremendous amount of love and respect for the team that planted this faith expression, and I know they learned a LOT in the process. I believe God was present and that His grace abounded then and abounds now.