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.