“Where is Your Church?

Is it the one at the corner of Olive and Prast?”

The question took me by surprise, coming as it did from a staff member at the rehab. facility—way on the other side of town—where I was visiting one of our parishioners. The woman had been coming up the hallway down which Pat and I were making our slow and careful way. Fixing me with an intense stare, she crossed to our side of the hallway and presented her question. Swallowing my shock, I nodded towards Pat and stammered,

“Yes, we are at the Church of the Holy Trinity, at the corner of Olive and Prast.”

She nodded in satisfaction.

I thought so. I live just down the street from there, and I’ve seen you going around Aspergillumand blessing the neighborhood!

She then went on to tell me that the pastor of her neighborhood church was ill and asked me to pray for him. I took down his name and said I would both pray for him and put him on the parish prayer list.

From where she said she lived, I’m guessing that she saw us last September, when we went around on the feast of St. Michael and All Angels, blessing our neighbors and asking the angels to exercise God’s protection over them. In other words, even though it was seven months later and clear across town, this neighbor remembered us well enough to ask for our prayers.

Tomorrow is another opportunity to make such memories. It will be Tuesday in Rogation week, and for the third year in a row, we will be processing around, blessing the labor of our neighbors. This year’s focus will be on the corner of Bendix and Lincoln Way West. In order to preserve energy, we will meet up in the parking lot of Faith Apostolic Ministries () rather than at Holy Trinity. After blessing our fellow “laborers in the harvest,” we will cross Bendix and bless our way up the east side of the street, veering east onto Ardmore and blessing all the workplaces on the corners before heading south again on the west side of Bendix. On our way back, we will swing west to bless the LaSalle Library and the other businesses of LaSalle Square before getting in our cars to go to Holy Trinity, where we will bless the convenience store across the street and our Unity Garden before heading inside for Eucharist.

Unless it’s raining, in which case we will bless all the same businesses from inside the church!

Our blessings are another way of answering the question “where is your church?”.  Jesus calls us to be salt and light to the world, starting with that part of the world that bumps up against us. To be the church in a neighborhood is to extend God’s peace to that neighborhood.

You never know what an impression that might make.

Gleaning

Looking out my living room window this morning, I spied some prairie grass sticking up out of the snow. I had planted the grass in the flower bed around the corner from my window, in a place too sheltered from summer rains to grow much of anything else.  The window angle doesn’t give me much of a view of the grass, except for some stalks that have been beaten down and broken by the snowfall. I keep thinking I should go out and remove those stalks to create a tidier clump, but the desire to wade through the snow has evaded me, so so the broken stalks remain.

wildgrass

The view from my window.

As I sat there next to the window this morning, praying the daily office, I was distracted by watching a small black and white bird hop over from my neighbor’s nearby bushes and try to eat the grass seeds. This dark-eyed junco would fly up and try to settle onto a stalk so that she could edge out towards the seed heads. Not strong enough to support her weight, the stalks kept dumping her back into the snow. After several tries, she got the idea of hopping up at the broken stalks from the ground in order to strip the seeds from underneath. Success!

This got me thinking about church. How often do we look at our congregations and see broken stalks? How often do we fantasize about shutting down ministries that cannot sustain themselves in the style to which we have become accustomed. How often are we only prevented from pruning away our brokenness by the prospect of cold feet?

Dark-eyed Junco in the snow

Dark-eyed Junco, photographed by Leora Wenger. This is a photo of a New Jersey Junco rather than of my Indiana friend, who turned out to be a bit camera shy.

And what if, instead, we looked at our situation from below? What if we asked how our brokenness might make us more accessible to folks on the ground? Not everyone can afford to live in up-and-coming neighborhoods. Not everyone can enter the church with self-confidence. Some folks may even need to be told that they are needed to help support a church that cannot support folks on its own.

In my attempt to get you a picture of my feathered friend (who flew away every time I tried to photograph her), I landed on Leora Wenger’s blog, where I found out that “junco” means “bird of bushes or reeds,” in honor of the bird’s preferred habitat. In other words, my scrappy little clump of prairie grass was the conveniently-located cafe for a bush-dweller  rather than the last resort of a frustrated gardener.

Likewise, we at Holy Trinity have been learning to stop bemoaning our location on a tough corner in a tough neighborhood. God has put us at the corner of Olive and Prast so that we can be conveniently reached by the folks in our neighborhood who don’t have cars to drive out to the suburbs and wouldn’t fit in there once they arrived. At Holy Trinity, you don’t have to look hard to find a place to sit awhile and some work to be done. Our brokenness puts us within everybody’s reach.

Crossing Boundaries

In this weekend’s New York Times, Daryl Cameron, Michael Inzlicht, William A. Cunningham have an opinion piece on empathy and why it can be dangerous to think of empathy as something over which we have no control, something that just happens or doesn’t. If we have no control over empathy, the argument goes, and we “just happen” to feel more empathy for people who are like us, we will have to set empathy aside if we are going to behave well towards people who are different from us. Cameron, Inzlicht and Cunningham respond:

While we concede that the exercise of empathy is, in practice, often far too limited in scope, we dispute the idea that this shortcoming is inherent, a permanent flaw in the emotion itself. Inspired by a competing body of recent research, we believe that empathy is a choice that we make whether to extend ourselves to others. The “limits” to our empathy are merely apparent, and can change, sometimes drastically, depending on what we want to feel.

In terms of our practice here at Holy Trinity, we have to choose to “reach across all boundaries” before we will “just feel like it.” When we promise “to seek and serve Christ in every human being,” we are committing ourselves to a course of action. Cameron, Inzlicht and Cunningham go on:

Likewise, in another recent study, the psychologists Karina Schumann, Jamil Zaki and Carol S. Dweck found that when people learned that empathy was a skill that could be improved — as opposed to a fixed personality trait — they engaged in more effort to experience empathy for racial groups other than their own. Empathy for people unlike us can be expanded, it seems, just by modifying our views about empathy.

In other words, if we have faith, if we trust God to help us to love our neighbor as ourselves (even when we don’t spontaneously feel like it), we will have the courage to do those works—sitting down for a shared meal and conversation, greeting strangers—that will help us develop empathy. Then, the next time, we will be more likely to spontaneously feel like reaching out. Faith and works go hand in hand!

Take some baby steps. Find someone who is different from you in some way and reach out. Don’t be surprised and hurt if they don’t receive you warmly. After all, you are as different from them as they are from you, and they might not feel like responding positively.  They may even have very good reason to suspect your motives. So remind yourself that getting a positive response is not the point. Your empathy is the issue, not theirs.