I was at a series of meetings in the past three weeks in three cities. In Houston I met with leaders from around the country who serve Latino and Spanish-speaking churches about how to make the Montessori-based children’s religious education approach we use here at New Life, Godly Play, available to more of their congregations, who are eager for it. We talked about money for materials and training, and translating the books. We talked about how church systems sometimes make it hard for marginalized communities to access the support they could use.
Then I was in New York for a week, meeting with pastors and other church leaders from around the country about how we talk about the gospel and the ecological crisis of our times. How we talk about the way we are mis-using God’s creation. We were mostly African American and anglo pastors, and we talked about how white churches have groups that work on environmental issues, and Black churches work on racial issues, and those two things are separated, but really all of those issues belong to all of us and need all of us to solve them.
And then I went to San Antonio with a group of pastors of all denominations in Central Texas to talk about immigration and family detention and the abysmal state of those systems in our country.
And it was overwhelming. The information and the problems were overwhelming, but even more overwhelming to me this past couple of weeks was what seems to me to be our complete lack of skills to actually talk with our neighbors about all of these issues. In our lives today, Americans tend to socialize with people who think similarly about political and social issues. But in order to love our neighbor, we need to know our neighbor. And that is hard work.
I was feeling heavy-hearted about our inability to discuss so many issues: there seem so many language landmines that derail us and prevent us from hearing and knowing each other. We can’t talk about so much of these big topics without buzz words that shut us down: “climate change,” “racism,” and “immigration” for instance.
And then came Orlando - a massacre—in a gay bar, by a Muslim. And now at the top of news are three more of our polarizing words: “gay/GLBTQ,” “Muslim” and “guns.” And then came the anniversary of the Charleston shooting- in a church, by a Christian, a boy raised Lutheran, in fact.
And I clung again to this genuine work of loving and knowing each other. Because behind those buzz words are people, and Jesus told us to love them. This faith community at New Life is one of the things I cling to for hope when I despair about not being able to really talk in this country. Because here at New Life, we are diverse politically and socially and economically. We really do practice talking across lines and really engaging, assuming that the big issues really are bigger than our current politics. This is unusual. We do by not shying aways from these hard things, but actually listening to each other even when it is painful, staying in that pain together; and I sometimes joke that this is practice for going home for Thanksgiving—we practice on each other for the family version of these conversations, which is more layered with our histories and therefore even more difficult.
This country is in desperate need of places to have hard conversations IN LOVE. And I think New Life is called to be one of those places. Trusting in Jesus, we step out in faith. And I think in this time, these times to which we have been called as Christians, that stepping out might mean crossing seas into foreign territories, in the rest of our world as well, outside of church.
We are all culpable, and we are all capable: we are challenged by this story and by Jesus to seek out the stranger and the enemy. We cannot love our neighbor without knowing them first. Who is our stranger, our enemy? In trust, we row our boats right over there. And we get to know and love some one who doesn’t think and act like us. We don’t start by engaging in political debate. We start by getting to know each other. Going to a kid’s soccer game, having dinner together. And hopefully by the time we get to the politics, we’ll already love each other. And we will understand each other’s hearts, just a little.
We pray for strength to reach out, and God will find a way.