[This post is part of our Blogger Roundtable on the new book Letters to a Future Church, edited by Chris Lewis, and now featured at the Patheos Book Club.]
I want to tell a story I once heard about my current church, St. David’s Episcopal in downtown Austin, Texas. It’s the story, actually, that made me want to serve there when I graduated from seminary. It all has to do with that downtown location, one block from Austin’s bustling Sixth Street, one block from Austin’s primary homeless shelter. It’s a complicated and difficult address, there on the hill at Seventh and San Jacinto, but it also offers an opportunity to be a city on a hill, shining a light for the world to see.
Unlike some other Austin churches in the 1950s and 1960s, St. David’s chose not to flee downtown for the suburbs. Instead, it chose to embrace what we call our homeless neighbors, to open Trinity Center, one of the largest downtown resources for the homeless, and to welcome our neighbors—all our neighbors—to worship with us and to be a part of our community.
The last, as you might expect, is the hardest part. As several writers in Letters to a Future Church point out, it is always easier to love “the poor” than it is to love someone who is poor, always easier to love and serve in the abstract rather than the concrete.
And yet, as Andy Crouch points out in the book’s introduction and Jon Wilson-Hartgrove in his letter, one can’t even write a letter without having a specific address. Christian love—as opposed to “Christian charity”—happens in a particular place, in a particular time, with particular people. It’s not about the general and abstract; it is about the very particular. Rachel Held Evans notes in her own letter to the church the difference between feeding the poor and dining together: “Dining together isn’t charity,” she says. “It’s friendship.” (142)
So it is that love for our neighbors—even our poorest neighbors, our bad-smelling neighbors, our neighbors with mood disorders or dementia or delusions or paranoia—can only happen in relationship at a particular address, and the Church with a capital “C” can only be lived out in churches with the small “c,” individual ecclesias where the people of God live out God’s call to peace, justice, and mercy on the ground.
And so, my story.
Some people think of the Episcopal Church as a church of influence and affluence, a church with an inflexible liturgy laid out in a Book of Common Prayer. There is admittedly truth to both ideas. Episcopal churches often house the rich and powerful, and often they dislike interruption or any breach of decorum. St. David’s is one of the oldest churches in Texas, and our Historic Sanctuary (to differentiate it from our contemporary worship space) has beautiful stained glass, a painted altar after Perugino, sparkling brass candlesticks, a pipe organ.
Worship there is formal, and beautiful. Stately, even.
And yet, our homeless neighbors often come from other faith traditions—or no tradition at all. They don’t know that we don’t say “Amen” during a sermon. They don’t know that we don’t raise our hands in praise when we pray or sing. They don’t know that we don’t offer long extemporaneous intercessions during the Prayers of the People. Without meaning to, they transgress our Episcopal boundaries.
And those are our well-meaning and chemically-balanced homeless neighbors.
On the occasion that I am remembering with you here, one of our neighbors did something during worship in the Historic Sanctuary that was shocking and offensive. I’m told that parishioners expected the police to be called, some punishment to be meted out. Maybe they thought lightning was going to flash from heaven and strike the offender down.
But the rector or head priest of the parish, my friend David Boyd, led him gently out of the sanctuary.
And then—although you wouldn’t find it in the Book of Common Prayer—he departed from our liturgy to remind the gathered worshipers what the church—the Church—is supposed to do.
I’m sorry about what just happened, he told them. Our neighbor has gone off his meds, and that’s why he did what he just did. But our neighbor is—all our neighbors are—always welcome in God’s house. Even the ones that make us uncomfortable. Even the ones who offend us. We are all God’s children. And our job as a church—as the Church—is to love and welcome and forgive each other, over and over and over again.
As Walter Brueggemann says in his magisterial letter, the obedient church has a mandate to practice hospitality, generosity, and forgiveness. These, he notes, “are perhaps the oldest disciplines of the church and . . . now the most urgent and most contemporary.” (46) Without them, the Church cannot be the Church.
And yet, these are the things that we often do not see carried out, lost as the Church sometimes gets in its own institutional practices, its conventions and disputations, lost as we sometimes get in our own individual spirituality, salvation, daily lives. There is, as Nathan Colquhoun notes in his letter, a disconnect between what we believe—or, at least, say we believe, and what we do. (84-85) We call ourselves the Church, we claim individual Christianity, and yet our lives often don’t demonstrate those claims.
There is a disconnect between our professed love and care for the poor—and our willingness to talk to a destitute individual, to sit down with a homeless woman or man, to share a meal—or an altar—with those who have none.
When I heard the story of how the Rev. David Boyd handled a breach of the peace during a formal Episcopal worship service, I knew that St. David’s—while surely an imperfect community, like all the rest of the Church—was a community that understood at least this much about the Christian call.
Shane Claiborne rails against our culture’s current tendency toward virtual community in his letter to the Church, and we might apply what he says to all of our tendencies to treat our fellow human beings as both present and yet removed from us, whether they are Facebook friends on another continent or “the poor” we talk about and pray for continuously but do not know as individuals. “There is a word,” Shane says, “for intimacy that comes without any obligations or responsibilities—infidelity.” (147)
It is a mistake—a sin—to replace real community with imagined community.
A mistake—a sin, if you will—to imagine that we can live out our call to Christian love without loving actual people in an actual place.
And the sooner the Church understands that, the better off all of us—in the Church and out—will be.
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