I grew up in suburban America, right outside the chaos of the Dallas metropolis. I am a product of “white flight,” of a fear of “those people” and “those places.” We locked the car doors when driving through certain parts of town, not because we felt threatened first-hand, but because we were told every night on the ten o’clock news that we were threatened. I never considered myself a racist growing up; in fact, that kind of behavior and speech toward others upset me as a child, but I still locked my doors. “They” were still “those people.”
My perspective shifted during my freshman year of college when I started working in the music ministry of a inner-city church. When I say that it is the oddest church that I have ever worked in, I say so with joy and amazement as opposed to judgment. If you were to take the 100 people from the recent survey of the city of Dallas and put them in a church, we had them all. Richer, poorer, sicker, healthier, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, starving artists, retired oil tycoons, young, old, the joyful, and the grumpy: a great swath of humanity on display before a Creator with a stupendous sense of humor.
Life was not perfect; the building was old and something always seemed to be cracking, falling, or flooding. There were financial difficulties that came with having a congregation from a myriad of economic situations. With such diversity, we did not see eye to eye most of the time on any given subject. We had bricks thrown through our 1915 leaded stained glass windows on separate occasions and were broken into more times than I could count. There were pressures to be bigger and better, because in the city of Dallas if you are not a 1,000+ member monolith, it is tempting to consider yourself a failure.
But, for the most part, it was beautiful. Money was always found somewhere and resources were used creatively. We struggled together, we cried together, and we prayed together. We were cracked, imperfect Christ-bearers, leaky vessels providing each other with the wine of life. We were a community, a family. “In Christ, there is no east or west,” the Apostle Paul writes, and it rang true in that place.
Community does something odd; it humanizes us. It brings to bear what God had in mind for us all along. When God says aloud to Adam “it is not good for man to be alone,” he means it. When faced with a human being as opposed to a label, we begin to see clearly what we have in common. It is harder to make excuses based on fear and misconception. As conversation and relationships unfold, we gain understanding of one another. We become more empathetic and less defensive. While, yes, we open the door for hostility by being vulnerable, we also open the door for conversation and the potential for peace. Peace begins with openness.
Community shapes our ideas (for good or bad); it holds us accountable. In the church, our families of faith call us to lead a cross-shaped life: a life that connects both vertically and horizontally. Christ models this in his ministry on earth by being both one with God and one with the people. It is tenuous balance; often we do well with one or the other, but we need both. We need to keep in mind who made us and whose we are. We need to keep in mind that we share humanity; it isn’t ours to hoard. In Christ, there is no “them,” just “us.”
Who is my mother? Who is my brother?
All those who gather round Jesus Christ.
Spirit-blown people, born of the Gospel
sit at the table, round Jesus Christ.
Differently abled, differently labeled,
widen the circle round Jesus Christ,
crutches and stigmas, culture’s enigmas,
all come together round Jesus Christ.
Love will relate us- color or status
can’t segregate us, round Jesus Christ:
family failings, human derailings-
all are accepted, round Jesus Christ.
– Shirley Erena Murray