Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Where Are You in the Pain, Church?

 I've spent most of August as a pilgrim in South Africa. It was on a Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope to South Africa in 2004 when I experienced a new call upon my life. I was in what some would say the height of my career as the Director of Admissions at Duke Divinity School at the time when I journeyed around the world to allow my eyes to see more pain, racism and poverty than they had ever seen before. I returned home from that journey with a very specific prayer on my lips - one I would never have had the courage to form on my own. "God, take me out of my place of comfort and success. Give me a heart for hurting and broken people. Make me more prophetic."

After praying this prayer for a few days, I found myself making an appointment with the Dean of the school and letting him know that I knew God was leading me back into the local church. God then answered my prayer with a call to come to Washington in 2005 and enter a new wilderness that was pregnant with possibility.

I've now returned home from South Africa with a different prayer on my lips and a myriad of thoughts to ponder. I realize more than ever that my relationship with the church is a mixed bag. I adore the church for who she can be when she really is living, loving and speaking like Jesus. I can hardly stand the church when she is failing to show up where needed or pushing people outside by condemning some, particularly for who they love. There's little about me that is lukewarm when it comes to the church. I'm either hot or cold.

Once again, a portion of our time in South Africa was spent in the margins with people who have so little that I'm not sure I can even begin to understand or relate to their lives. We passed dozens of informal settlements like the one pictured here. We stopped to journey and spend time with people in two of them, opening conversations that provided two of the most meaningful days in the country. And one question kept emerging. It's a question we asked. It's a question the person we were journeying with asked. It's a question we both asked of a current bishop in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa.

Tell me, where is the church in the midst of informal settlements?

What kinds of ministries are emerging through the church in the midst of so much dire poverty?

Where is the church when it comes to communities that are emerging because they have nowhere else to go?

We never got a satisfactory answer from anyone though it was a courageous pastor who led us into an informal settlement with a church member who lives on the edge one day and a courageous woman whose ministry is part of a Methodist Church who took us on another day to see a school that ministry is leading in another settlement. (Yes, the picture above of the one building with the door open is a preschool where kids are learning from a remarkably gifted teacher who is funded by the UMC).

But I wonder what kind of a response my own church would offer today if people came from far off lands to ask similar questions in Washington or North Carolina, Texas or California?

Tell me, where is the church when it comes to pain, poverty and brokenness?

Why can we not see more of the church at work in these places?

When I arrived downtown to worship last Sunday morning at a nearby church, I arrived early enough that I did not want to go in quite yet so I sat in my car and looked around. I was next to a park where some eight people were still covered in grey blankets distributed by the city. I had already passed dozens of additional people sleeping outside including a child lined up on a sidewalk.

Two days later I heard a news story with interviews of teachers and principals sharing how many of their students are coming to school hungry. The majority of our teachers in this city have at least one student who is hungry when she or he arrives to learn. Many children have lost a significant amount of weight during the summer because they have not had access to school provided meals.

Where is the church in these places?

What are we doing to end homelessness in Washington?

What are we doing to feed hungry kids?

The congregation of which I am privileged to be a part has done some amazing work this summer. I've just received a final report from a task force that was established to think and discern what our response should be when we have so many people sleeping on our porches at night, using the corners of the buildings for bathrooms, and storing loads of stuff on the edge of the property during the day. There are no easy answers. The group has dreamed big about adding lockers and portable potties to the property while also thinking about what it would take for us to start providing some shelter and hiring a staff person to help people get out of homelessness. The report even includes a statement about how our Stewardship of Resources Committee is committed to funding these things.

But I wonder if we as individuals are committed to making these things happen.

If the church is merely a body composed of many members, what role are we as individual members willing to play? Are we willing to give up more of our wealth and allow it to be redistributed through the church? Are we willing to mentor someone in resume writing, interview skills or basic life skills? Are we willing to open a spare bedroom in our home for a week or a month or a year at a time to allow someone to have a good night's rest and a warm shower every day of the week? Are we as individuals willing to let go of some of our abundance in hopes that others will finally be able to live more abundantly?

It's easy to critique the church while ignoring our own commitment or lack of commitment. It's easy to point fingers while failing to show up ourselves. It's easy to say we believe in something while failing to really get behind something with those things we prize most - our money and/or our time. But it takes  all that we have been given to make a difference. And every single one of us can make a difference - a big and needed difference.

As I prepare to come back a week from today, one thing is for certain. The church does not exist in order to get as many people as possible to worship on Sunday. The church does not exist in order to maintain beautiful buildings where space sits empty most of the week. The church does not exist for the world to constantly have a voice of judgment. The church exists because we are God's best, last chance at healing a broken world - at providing food for those who are hungry, a place to live for those who are homeless, freedom for those who are held captive, justice for those who are oppressed, peace in the midst of war and violence, and love for those who have been led to believe that they are unlovable.

Perhaps I have a dream, too.

1 comment:

Bill said...

Clearly your summer of learning brings new gifts and passions to you, Donna. I look forward to seeing how we in our community can do our share to help those in need. We can't fix the world, yet we can work more to fix our piece of it at MVPUMC.

I was compelled to keep coming to MVPUMC by your passion and your strong views on social justice. I want to hear more about your journey and your vision.