This is Not a Soup Kitchen

So we’ve been attending The Crossing for nearly half a year now.  I’m a people watcher by nature, so it’s always fascinating watching the dance of getting to know one another.   As church should be, there’s an interesting confluence of race and class each week.  Each Sunday night gather ends with Communion and then sharing a meal together.  And each week there are lessons learned in the partaking of Communion and the community meals together.

If the sacrament of Baptism is like entering  into family—entering into community and pledging to be a part of it—the Communion meal is part act of living up to the pledge.  Reflecting on what it means to be a part of that community, how easy it is to damage that community, what it means to reconcile with one another and with God.  I’m reminded of the apostle Paul’s words in I Corinthians 11:20-26:

When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

Again, it’s funny how you can read something and yet see it in an entirely new light when you see it play out in front of you.   In Paul’s day, too many people saw the ritual of the Lord’s Supper strictly as dinner time.  For a few weeks in a row, we had a number of attendants see our community meal that way.  Don’t get me wrong, we’re perfectly cognizant that some of the homeless in our congregation are there just for the free meal, and for many, it might be the only good meal they get that week.  So nothing is begrudged there.  The problem was in the selfishness of piling up one’s plate with no regard to other’s who hadn’t eaten yet.  Which caused our pastor to exclaim that “This is not a soup kitchen”  and we were reminded that this meal is no different than a family dinner.  And while everyone is welcome, each person should be aware that they aren’t the only person in the family or in need.

Now, I’ve done my time in soup kitchens.  I used to get together with friends, go down to Wheeler Missions and serve food to the homeless men there.  It was a great time of fellowship for us workers.  We’d prepare the food, serve the food, and clean up afterwards.  Now that I think back on the time, us volunteers largely spent out time in the kitchen, rarely interacting with the men, while the men waited about like patient children.  In that scenario, I think the experience was more about “us” as workers, learning to be servants, than it was about reaching out to the men and building relationships with them.

If the meals were to be more about the men, we would have had them help plan or prepare meals, asking their opinions, and working and talking alongside one another*.  It’s  the difference of having dinner with them as opposed to giving dinner to them.  It’s not until you’re around people who are real all the time that you realize our  comfort level with fakeness.  Eating alongside one another means that one has to put to death any germ-o-phobe notions:  during communion, we pull bread from a common loaf.  Anyone afraid of homeless hands obviously assumes they know where my hands have been.

I also wonder about how much we take the idea of family for granted.  I wonder what it must be like to have never been in a home with meal shared with family.  Or not having learned how to have conversations.  To have no relational connection to people, or being so focused on self and simple survival for the niceties of what we call politeness.  So without lowering the standard for what it means, I try to increase my understanding and perspective.   Just like others will have to learn to be patient with me for being … me.

People like the idea of community, but people don’t want community. People like thinking of church as a family reunion or get-together, then they remember how much their family sometimes annoys them. People like the idea of eating a meal together, but are too busy to sit down with folks. We like the idea of community, we hate the effort it takes to build and maintain it (“I want community but I don’t want to have to get out of my comfort zone”).  We just need to remember that we’re all created in God’s image, we’re all broken, and we’re all capable of experiencing Christ’s reconciliation.

*It’s funny that even while writing this blog, I defaulted to an “us” and “them” language which I had to go back and edit.

Our Church Stinks

So we’ve been consigned to the basement. It’s not as bad as it sounds. The Crossing meets in the basement of Redeemer Presbyterian (a church we were familiar with since it hosts many First Friday events as it shares space with the Harrison Center for the Arts) on Sunday nights. Each week, round tables, lit with candles, are set up around the periphery of rows of chairs. Nothing glamorous, no power points, barely a sound system, it’s small enough that it’s difficult to hide from one another. The pastor has a conversational style with plenty of interaction between him and the congregation.

I love the reaction folks have when we tell them that we’re going to The Crossing. It’s typically something along the lines of “oh, you’d fit in well there.” I can’t tell if it’s because I’m an artist or if it’s because it’s become known as the church for people with issues.

There’s almost an anti-growth program with its “we’re a screwed up place, you sure you want to be here?” vibe. I remember the Sunday evening gathering which sold me on the place. The couple next to us was high and/or drunk. If we couldn’t tell from the smell the alcohol was wafting off them, their attempt to keep beat to the music would have clued us in. Then during the meal afterward, me and a homeless gentlemen was discussing my unemployment:

“What do you do?”
“I’m a writer.”
“You can do that anytime.” At which point, he pulled out his cell phone and gave me numbers to call for job leads.

Oh yeah, did I mention that about a third of the congregation is homeless? For those not used to it, there’s a smell to homelessness. Unwashed bodies, unwashed clothes. One of those things that sounds good in theory. I know that Sally is being stretched as she told me early on that “I’ve always believed church should be a place where people should come as they are: high, drunk, homeless, dirty. I’m just not sure I’m ready to at that church. Or sitting next to them.”

Which is completely honest, though most folks wouldn’t admit to such sentiments. Let’s face it, we talk a pretty good game about social justice, reaching out to the poor, and dealing with homelessness, but we tend to think of that as one of those “over there” ministries. Something that’s done away from the comfort of our suburban castles. It’s also made me realize how much we’ve come to value smooth running services. There is an element of show or production to our church services that we’ve come to expect. A trains running on time veneer of professionalism done in the name of running on/respecting people’s time. And there’s nothing wrong with that, unless we’ve made an idol of that; our need for control superseding the role of the Holy Spirit in a service or the needs of the group. The meal time afterwards is always an adventure.

We tend to want to be with people who are like us, either by race or by class. People who are different will interrupt. People who are quirky aren’t as concerned about appearances. And people aren’t easy to know, assuming they let you get to know them. It’s difficult to embrace the awkwardness of relationships and encounters with people not like us, to allow them to stretch us out of our comfort zones.

We want to go in and fix, that’s our modern American way. But what does it mean to truly love others. What does it mean to be in relationship with them? We don’t give others a chance to let people in or let them in to love us. It’s risky to let people in on our struggles, our shame. We risked being misunderstood, rejected, or not liked. So it’s easier to cling to our addictions and self-protection. The work of building community is hard. It’s one thing to talk about it, another to live it out. To not only walk beside people, but be willing to go after them. To be willing to walk into another person’s pain, their hard reality, even entering into their suffering. That’s how community is forged.

Yes our church stinks. Stripped of the façade, it smells of brokenness and sweat. It’s the smell of community.

Friday Night Date Place: Looking for Communitas?

A friend of mine engaged me in a discussion about the nature of the group of friends that she was currently hanging out with. The group met her companionship needs, a group of people her age in the same life situation. They got together to kill time together, watching television, going out to eat, and in general, enjoying one another’s company. In other words, it was basically a singles group.

Singles groups are singles groups first and part of the church in the secondary. Sometimes VERY secondarily. Your typical church singles group has a few key characteristics: 1) the average stay of the typical member is five years and 2) about every three years, the group has gone through a cycle of turnover. Why? Because it is one of the few ministries where the object is to get out of it. People date, and if they marry, they leave. People date, and if it doesn’t work out, they leave. People hang out, and if there are no prospects, they leave.

Some communities exist for their own sake, but can’t sustain themselves over the long haul. Even in my own experience in singles groups, a few true friendships were forged, but the group on the whole couldn’t sustain itself. I’m not talking about the relationships per se because those interested in true friendship built those relationships. But the group on the whole, if it were just about killing time, got old. Especially since the “mission” of the group was to get out of the group.

Michael Frost in his book Exiles discusses the commendable desire for Christian community, how it has become a buzzword, but how it has gone often unfulfilled. Frost’s contention is that the problem begins when we make community our end goal, how “aiming for community is a bit like aiming for happiness. It’s not a goal in itself. We find happiness as an incedental by-product of pursuing love, justice, hospitality, and generosity. When you aim for happiness, you are bound to miss it. Likewise with community. It’s not our goal. It emerges as a by-product of pursuing something else.”

There comes a point where you want to go deeper with a group, where you want to move from community to communitas. With communitas, you buy into a mission or vision and that mission sustains the group because not only do the activities stem from that sense of mission, but there is a sense of purpose about them. The group becomes united behind the feeling that they have banded together at this time for this reason. Whether to join in with what God is already doing (to put it in spiritual language) or simply to better the world them; either way, they become a part of something greater than themselves and turning outwards, rather than continually focused inward.

This part of a hermeneutic of communitas I can buy into. People will want to go to the next level, deepen the roots of the friendships in any group, moving from a sense of a group of casual acquaintances to real friends, because we are relational beings and long for that sense of connection. If we don’t share a committed pursuit of a greater goal, we often will succumb to being a short term, unsustainable mission of hanging out. Until we leave.

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