Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Frightened Church

     A few weeks ago I told a story that was part of my life-education while living in Chicago in the mid-80's.  I used it as an introduction to the message I shared about what happens to the church when we look at our world through fear-tinted glasses. The story goes like this...

     I was a tad behind schedule that morning, riding the bicycle I had borrowed from the pastor’s daughter (a girl's bike, complete with a white-woven basket in front, ornamented with flowers around the upper rim) down Damen Avenue on my way to work at the Boy’s club. Switching over to a side street to avoid traffic I was finally making some good time, but after hopping the bike over a curb, I felt the back end hit the pavement with a thud, braked the bike and looked down at the hind wheel. The tire was quickly going flat. I bent down and got a closer look. There was a roofing tack stuck in the tire.
     I pushed the bike over to the curb and began looking for a pay phone. I couldn’t see one anywhere. Then, kitty-corner from where I was, my eyes were drawn upward to a beautiful cross that was attached to the top of an ornately decorated church facility surrounded by a black, wrought-iron fence. A beautiful cross, shining in the morning light, above stained glass and spired window settings. I rolled the bicycle toward the front steps and set the kickstand.
    Walking around the bike, I reached to open the front door, but both sides of the double-entry were locked. I rapped my knuckle against the hand-carved wood, backed away a step and waited. Nothing. I tried again. Same result. I peered through the small inset window in the upper half of the door. I couldn’t see any activity in the hallway that stretched out several yards behind the door. Yet there was a light on in the corridor that intersected the entryway hall. I backed up again and noticed an intercom box to the right of the door and stepped over to it. I pushed the button marked “talk” and said,

Hello!?” then released the button.
A voice crackled over the speaker, “May I help you?”
A sense of relief swept over me.
You sure can help me,” I said.
You see, my bike tire went flat just around the corner, if you can come and open the door, I’ll just make a quick phone call...let the Boy’s Club know that I will be a little late and get a friend of mine to come pick up the bike on his way to work...”
There was no response.
Hello...Is there anyone there!?”
I’m sorry sir, I’ll have to check and see if it’s O.K. to open the door.”
I have to check with one of the sisters to find out if I can open the door.”
You’re kidding...right!?”
I’ll be right back.”
Wait a minute. I just want to use the phone. You can call the church where I live, they’ll vouch for me. It will only take a minute.”
I’ll be right back sir.”

    I stepped away from the speaker, shaking my head in disbelief. I waited. I waited some more. I watched the traffic run past the well- manicured front lawn of the church. I squinted a look into that little window one more time. Nothing. I felt like I was waiting on the wizard of OZ to give me some gift from behind the curtain. Finally the voice came back to the speaker.

Sir...Are you still there?”
I talked with a sister.”
She said that we couldn’t really help you.”
You can’t help me?”
I’m sorry sir.”
I wanted to tell her just how “sorry” she was. 
My throat was suddenly dry, but I still tried to speak, “There’s nothing...I mean...can I leave the bike here and walk to the club?...pick it up later? I’ll back away from the door and leave it on the stoop.”
I’ll have to check with the sister. Just a moment.”
No wait...just forget it. I can’t believe this...I just need to use the phone.”
I’m sorry sir.”
“Sister said that there is probably a pay phone in the tavern across the street.”
Thanks...I’m sure there is.” I turned away from the doors and started down the steps, then stopped and walked back to the speaker and pushed the talk button one more time.
Are you still there.”
Yes,” she said.
Do me a favor please. Tell your sister to take down the cross from the top of the building, it’s false advertising.”

    When I re-live this story in my mind, it's hard for me to believe I delivered the last line.  It doesn't really sound like me; at least the 54-year-old me.  Maybe it was more like the 21 year-old me than I recall. 
    Thirty-plus years later...
    The church we worship in is located in a very diverse area.  
    We have regular challenges with theft and vandalism on and around our property.  
   Part of our parking area is away from view of the church; hidden by a hillside.  We are aware of fairly continual drug sales and other activities that take place there.  
   The police have used our kid's playground as a stake-out location in attempt to catch some of the local suppliers.  
   Transients often sleep in our entryways.  Occasionally, they will find an unlocked door in one of our vehicles and fend off the cold there.  
    There is a weariness that creeps in when trying to be compassionate in this kind of environment.  That's just the truth.  
     That being said, I can understand some of the sheltered-ness that key characters in the story above were creating for "the sisters".  To me, this is not a story about a denominational stance.  It's easy to point at another faith group and expose their shortcomings. What's harder is to take the opportunity for me to address my own fear-based responses to what's happening in the world around me.  
    My worries.  My stereotypes.  My fears.  My church.  Where am I in all of this?  
    Faith only breathes in the realm of risk. 
  I can't retreat from view of what's outside my door; only address the completely comfortable situations that come my way and truly stay in step with Jesus.  That's a place too safe for faith to grow.  
    So, what is the line between faith and recklessness?  I don't always know.  I'm not sure that the line is so certain that policy statements can always define it.  Though I am generally in favor of policy statements, God seems to operate outside church policies with great effectiveness.
    I guess that in the immediate sense, the only thing I know for sure is that pointing across the street to the bar when someone with a need appears before me, is not the response of faith.


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