I have recently signed onto a couple of blogs by black women and in a recent one Ebony Johanna writes about diversity in the church and how white churches can attract people of color. The author of the blog wrote that we had a long way to go to acknowledge all that black people had suffered at the hands of the church, before white churches could attract people of color. As I mulled over my reaction to the blog, I realized that underlying the lack of diversity in our churches is the lack of love. I do not in any way want to belittle or to ignore what she wrote about the experience of black Americans in the church, but I’d like to point to how the deeper issue creates this effect…
Here’s how I think about this: We are commanded to love God with all of ourselves and then to love our neighbor as we love our self. [Matthew 22:36-40] We are to bring all of our selves—body, heart, mind and soul– our total presence to God who will meet us with his presence and in that meeting we are deeply touched. It is the same with our neighbor who is everyone else, we are to bring all of ourselves to the encounter with another in love—body, mind, heart and soul–our fully-engaged presence to our encounters with God and others.
Let’s explore what we have to let go of when we are present to another person. Our bodies register a reading of that person and how we are reacting to them—any emotions, discomfort with who they are or what they are saying, noticing any disconnect between what they say and who they are. In the mind, of course, are the thoughts that are running through our heads while another is talking, maybe holding a different opinion or agreeing, often formulating our own response before the person is done. In our heart is another kind of litmus test—are we neutral or not or loving towards this person? And the soul always wants to engage with the other.
In order to be truly present to another we have to acknowledge to ourselves, to God, what is going on within us, and that it is our “stuff;” then we set it aside in favor of really listening to the other. When our own “stuff” is quiet, then we can be fully present to another.
It is when we are fully present to the person before us that we are loving the person, forgiving him, being patient with her, being at peace with who he is, taking joy in who she is. It is in bringing all of ourselves to another that we affirm the other and all of his or her experience. It is when we listen with all of ourselves to the other’s story, that we love another. It is when we are willing to share ourselves and our story with the other that we are trusting, loving, having faith in him or her.
Our presence is the most powerful, wonderful gift we can give to another, to anyone whom God puts in our path. We are, through our very presence, bringing God’s love to that person. It doesn’t matter if its five minutes or five hours. We are loving that person in a way very few people ever experience. And that love, God’s love, is the one and only change agent in this world: it is that powerful. And we can be a part of that love by serving it up to everyone we meet.
I think that we Christians must learn how to love, to love God with all of ourselves, to bring that same love to all that we are and then to extend that love to everyone no matter who they are. I long to have the hymn be true: “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love, they will know we are Christians by our love.”
I don’t think we Christians are known by our love, unless it is tough love: you must agree with me or you are condemned to hell. Or you can’t have an abortion because it’s against my religion. Or you are welcome here if you are like us. Or there is only one way to believe if you’re going to be saved. If that is all we are known for, if we think that Jesus was only about turning over the money changing tables in the temple, his only act of anger in the whole New Testament, then we have totally missed how he was present to everyone from the Roman official, to the rich young man, to the stranger, the prostitute, the Canaanite woman, to the tax collectors, to the lepers and the blind and deaf, to the woman who was bleeding, to the dregs of his society. He preached love and service. He didn’t preach beliefs; he taught and modeled for us a life of love and service.
So if we can be a loving presence to the rich, to the poor, the homeless, the disorderly, the worker, the disabled person, and everyone in between, no matter their race or status or any other criterion that seems to be important in our world, then we are living the life that Jesus modeled for us. Then and only then, I think, we Christians would be known by our love.
To return to the issue of diversity and a true welcome for black people in our white churches: it is the same with everyone we meet: we are called to listen to their story/pain, to love, forgive, be patient with them, and to acknowledge our part in it, even if it is about enjoying the privilege of our own position in life; we’d have to embrace him/her as a person made in the image of God and ourselves as human and fallible, both of us forgiven and loved. We’d have to see Christ in the other. We’d have to share our own stories and to bring them into our circle.
We’d have to go beyond tokenism to real inclusion in the whole life of the church. We’d have to go beyond what seems to me to be apple-polishing, gussying up our image so we can compete with other churches that seem to have the formula for multiculturalism. We’d have to be real and true and have integrity, far beyond the desire to look good and attract new members.
For what good are great numbers of members and all the tithing they’ll bring to our worship or to our image, if there is no love or inclusion or vitality in the church? The real Christian is looking to be love in this world, not to look good. That’s what the church should be all about. And we’re all in that together.
Questions to ponder over the week: Am I withholding love from certain people or groups of people? Am I welcoming to all races, religions, nations of people? Or do I always stay with my own kind, never bridging the gap between us all. Do I see Christ in every other human being?
Check out my new posting on youtube: “We Aren’t Terrible People”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tPe-EMPdAxo
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