Arms laden with file folders, I made my way toward the library’s study room to sort three years’ worth of church after school program materials and plan for an upcoming meeting. Another young woman arrived at the same time, her smile framed by an elegantly draped hijab. We said hello and sat next to each other at adjacent desks, blessed with the luxury of having the room all to ourselves. Neither felt inclined to play that awkward game of social space musical chairs, guessing the polite distance between you and a stranger, but rather a natural sense of companionship rested between us. Anyone could tell at a glance through the glass walls we inhabited different religious camps – her swathed head to toe in richly colored fabric, me bare-headed, -legged, and -armed in shorts and a t-shirt with a spray of bible verses across the desk in front of me – but it didn’t matter. We were just two open people with conflicting beliefs sharing common ground.
Though we spoke little over the hour or so we worked side by side, I left the library with heart uplifted. On a planet plagued with vitriolic rhetoric, war, and strife, we shared an effortless moment of peace. The experience encourages me still. And it got me thinking: Why don’t I come away from time with my church community with a similar sense? Why was communing with a stranger opposed to my core philosophy more enriching than weekly encounters with fellow Christians?
The habit of assuming you know a person without investing quality time in genuine relationship building is an irritating one not at all uncommon within church societies. Since adolescence, and especially after graduating college, church on the local level has provided a steady source of frustration, judgement, and drain on that account. I’m not guiltless in this. When reaching out to individuals in effort to develop authentic relationships, I’ve met mockery and brush-asides. Attempts at facilitating discipleship partners, teaching series on biblical community, and implementing multiple relationship-encouraging projects fell flat. Eventually I gave up, believing my efforts would get nowhere instead of trying a different tack. In assuming small-mindedness and complacency of my community, I contributed to the problem. Church then became territory in which to remain on guard.
I can’t help but wonder if the people whose actions exasperate me feel the same angst. Maybe they’re closed off because they’ve met with similar subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, rejections. Perhaps we lack diversity and fail at reaching the surrounding community of people different from us not because of disapproval, but because we fear their rebuffs. If believers can’t trust one another not to gossip, minimize each other and our problems, and self-appoint as judge and jury, then why expect those who haven’t yet met the grace of God to respond any better?
Pastor Timothy Keller explains the inner conflict at the center of this matter:
“To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us” (The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God, 2011).
I believe we crave church as a safe space for our hearts to know and be known without condemnation. If we collectively prioritize being a “safe people” – trading gossip for respect, unwarranted advice for humble prayer, assumptions for open-mindedness – what nourishing moments of peace might we share week after week? How strong a draw might that culture have on the hurting world around us?
Somewhere near, maybe just a couple houses down, is a Syrian refugee who’s been cursed at and maybe even spat upon in the grocery store parking lot. In the same neighborhood is a woman and children isolated by domestic abuse. And not far from them lives an atheist teenager contemplating self-harm to relieve the pain of being bullied day after day. I would love to meet them at the church door and fall into natural companionship, knowing this is a safe place filled with safe people who won’t make a show of differences, but rather welcome without question. I want to see a church community so unified in love that individuals from different faiths and backgrounds, with different questions and wounds and struggles, feel secure enough to sit side by side with us and find peace.
While I know we’ll always have disagreements and love imperfectly because we are, after all, human, I believe this dream of a local meeting thriving with diversity is possible. I believe if we scrap our assumptions and do the brave work of exposing our bruised hearts to one another again, then the Holy Spirit will reconcile us first between ourselves, and then with the surrounding community. It starts with me. It starts with us. It starts with peaceful openness to finding common ground. And who knows? That ground we stand upon with the “other” may turn out to be holy.