It started at the table . . .
It started at a service of Holy Communion at Stony Creek UMC, a church that I had attended for 19 years. In the United Methodist version of the liturgy, the minister issues an invitation:
Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him,
who earnestly repent of their sin
and seek to live in peace with one another.
As I had done each time, I watched the line form as my fellow congregants went forward to once again announce by their action “Christ crucified” (I Cor. 11:26), and that, as the liturgy says, we were made “One” in Christ. The Church teaches that what goes on at our table here on earth is a mirror image of what happens at the great feasting table of heaven. Our table is an intimation of the world to come where “[His} will is done on earth just as it’s done in heaven”. This, for me, is the high point of worship.
But that Sunday was different. I had watched a summer full of news about dead black kids, white police, demonstrations and rebellions. I heard the frustrated, sad and angry chants of “Black Lives Matter” answered by folks objecting: “No. All lives Matter”. The dreams of a post-racial America following the election of the first Black President were well and truly shattered. It did not seem that “they were always bringing up race”. No, it seemed more like men and women were being shot down because of race, and these were the screams that the rest of us should pay attention to this horrible, unjust, tragedy.
So that Sunday, what I noticed was all the faces of these people I had come to love over 19 years looked just like my face. I couldn’t imagine that the holy feasting table in heaven was only occupied by folks that looked like us. Yet stubbornly, for complicated, and some awful and not complicated at all, reasons, what Rev. Dr. King said so long ago is still true: “it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning."
Awakened from my self-assured liberal pieties finally, I was stirred by a summer of dread and convicted by the Spirit. It is so easy to just talk and talk about racism in America. It is much more to actually do something that might heal this wound in the world. If the Church is not in the healing up things business, it has no business being in business. I lacked the imagination to see a way for making the communion service at my little country church look more like the feast table of heaven. Despite the cost in losing close touch with those who had nurtured my faith for so long, I looked for a racially mixed Methodist church in driving distance. It was deeply disappointing to find, in my lifelong denomination, there was none nearby.
Because the pastor was away I preached one last sermon at Stony Creek on July 17. The text was story of Mary listening and learning like a rabbinic student at Jesus’s feet, Martha objecting, and Jesus’ pronouncing that the walls that kept women out of teaching and leadership were being broken down. I said then
“Friends in the day to come, when we come to the feast table of heaven united to earth, it will be filled with folks whose faces don’t look like mine, who grew up in houses where a different language was spoken, and where different bedtime stories were told. I don’t know how the walls between us will fall before that day, but we see Jesus breaking walls: walls between Samaritans and Jews, between the righteous and the not so righteous at all, between men and women. We to are to be part of the breaking of walls. And I do know that kind of remodeling can a mess. It can be painful and hard to get through.”
So I left Stony Creek and started to attend Bethel African-Methodist Episcopal church. The average worship attendance looks to be between 120 to 200. The congregation is a lively mixture of university folk, doctors, engineers and accountants, bricklayers, bakers, and contractors. Like most churches, the average age is probably higher than the population (but it is lower, much lower, than Stony Creek). The congregation is 98% black. I sometimes squirm because this is a place where I don’t know all the norms and folkways. It is a place where the sermon illustrations are sometimes unfamiliar for they arise out of a culture I only partly share and often out of experience I’ll never have. There are a lot less of the liturgical trappings of worship I so love: few 'smells and bells' here. It is also a church where the oftentimes uncomfortable truths about race in America are a normal part of the conversation. I sometimes feel an intruder into one of the safe places where folks feel free to speak and express themselves unfettered by the tortuous need to be ‘presentable’ to white majority norms.
Yet and all I am lifted up. The prayers of longing, the exuberant songs, and passionate sermons of worship are filled with a desire to praise and to follow the Crucified and Risen Lord. There is an urgent and authentic edge to the prayerful pleas “Lord help us” “Lord deliver us”. The adult Sunday School class examines, quite deeply and quite personally, the scriptures week after week. Folks share from the heart, and class members have welcomed me with arms open wide. When I tearfully shared my cancer diagnosis, soon after beginning to attend, I was fussed over by “church ladies” in that way that expresses love and compassion so clearly for all to see. One younger woman on hearing of my cancer put her hand on me and cried, “Begone.” Men who seriously try to follow Jesus in daily devotions and daily service to others came to me and prayed on me. When I was hospitalized the cards came, sent by people who had known me less than 3 months: church as tender loving family just like it should be. Now that I am clear of cancer, I hope to explore the ministries of the church to find an opportunity and a place to serve.
It all started at the communion table, the place where we kneel and are made one with each other and one with the Crucified and Risen Lord. I was invited, I came and ate and drank my fill. Now, at Bethel, the table is set as well. I am invited forward to come and share. I go, along with all the faithful, and partake of the greatest gift. I’ve been invited to come, to learn, to change, and perhaps to begin to be healed. That’s what that table will do: bring healing to me, and to the nations and with the promise that we will one day "live in peace with one another.” It is well and truly, Buen Camino.