I had lunch recently with a lovely friend who goes to our church and is in a minority. Ours is an international church so in many ways we’re so wonderfully diverse. But we’re also mostly white, mostly straight and mostly well-off.
And so I sat and listened hard. Because I wanted to hear what it was like from her perspective. I want to know what we’re doing well and where we’re failing.
It was humbling to listen, to hear stories of her experience, those of friends of hers. It was humbling because too often I assume we’re doing a good job of being inclusive without ever asking the people on the margins whether they actually feel included, accepted, seen, heard.
No church is perfect, and over all I think ours does okay, but there’s always room for improvement and if we ever start not wanting to have these honest conversations, not wanting to hear where we can be better, then we might as well pack it all up now.
Last month, the book club I am in read Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It’s a fascinating book and its themes have kept rolling around my mind these last weeks since I finished it in one weekend.
It’s the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, two Nigerians who fall in love as teenagers, and the journeys they take, the struggles they go through in the countries they try to make their home in. The book spoke about race and identity, as it’s perceived and understood in Nigeria, in the USA, in the UK.
In some ways, I could identify with the characters, that search for identity in a country that’s not your own – the way you try and juggle aspects of who you are to fit in to this new place, how uncomfortably the new identities can fit sometimes. But also that sense that you won’t go home the same, that perhaps “home” is no longer the same concept it was before.
And then there was the rest of the book, where I felt like I was soaking in every word, every conversation, every thought, trying to understand an experience I have never had, trying to understand better how I contribute to a world which is still unbelievably racist.
It’s uncomfortable reading at times. Both this book and the blog posts I’ve started reading when they appear on twitter – those that call out aspects of our society, aspects of our churches that perpetuate privilege and protect those in power. I’m implicated.
But I can’t stop reading because if I ever start not wanting to have these honest conversations, not wanting to hear where I can be better, then I might as well pack it all up now.
At one point in the novel, the character Ifemelu writes a blog post addressed to the American Non-Black. She wrote this:
“…So after this listing of don’ts, what’s the do? I’m not sure. Try listening, maybe. Hear what is being said. And remember that it’s not about you. American Blacks are not telling you that you are to blame. They are just telling you what is. I you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding.” (p318 in my ebook)
A few weeks ago I preached at my church. I chose the Epiphany text even though it was two weeks late, because there’s something about that story that fascinates and draws me – God calling the pagan astrologers to come and worship the new God-child.
It is wonderful to me that the two groups who visit Jesus after his birth are the shepherds and the Magi – two groups of men that no first century Jewish father would have wanted his daughter bringing home. There’s a powerful message here for us, if we throw out the Christmas nativity cliches and see the story for what it is – God surprising everyone with his first choice of worshipper. He picked those on the margins. He picked those who weren’t acceptable at the time. He picked those who were foreign, culturally out of place.
And the religious leaders at the time missed it completely, because they were so sure that this was not the way that God would chose to engage with them.
Oh that I would not be like them, so sure of my own convictions and beliefs, and missing the point entirely.
I mentioned the word gay in my sermon. Once. In passing. It was in a paragraph on the God who welcomes everyone, no matter who we are, no matter what labels we’re assigned, what culture we belong to, what path of life we’re walking. I made no statement of right or wrong. I did not expand on any of the categories I mentioned in that long paragraph.
And yet the most common feedback I’ve heard from that sermon? My use of that one little word is causing waves of conversation to ripple. There are those who were gravely concerned about my theological position on this issue.
And there are also those who were so relieved. Who found in my words that day, the assurance they needed that they would not be turned away, that their friends would not be turned away, when they came seeking the God who was born a poor child in a manger in a small town in Judea. That child who grew into a man of such wisdom, who was so attractive, and who welcomed all who would come and hear his words of life.
Jesus said, “I’ve yet to come across this kind of simple trust in Israel, the very people who are supposed to know all about God and how he works. This man is the vanguard of many outsiders who will soon be coming from all directions—streaming in from the east, pouring in from the west, sitting down at God’s kingdom banquet alongside Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Then those who grew up ‘in the faith’ but had no faith will find themselves out in the cold, outsiders to grace and wondering what happened.” Matthew 8:10-12, The Message
I’ll not stop saying that all are welcome. I’ll never stop. Love and Grace are the foundations of my faith, my whole world view, and I will fight to keep a firm grip on them.
And in the meantime, I’ll endeavour to keep listening, to keep hearing how I have been part of building walls where they should not be walls, of keeping people out when I should be throwing open the doors, demolishing the whole building stone by stone, until we’re left standing in a wide open field under the wide sky, together proclaiming that the earth is the Lord’s, and everything, everyone, in it.
We need to keep having these honest conversations, wanting to hear where we can be better. Otherwise we might as well pack it all up now.