At church a couple of weeks ago, instead of a sermon, some people were invited to take part in a kind of interview about their lives, their involvement in the church and what God has been teaching them. I was one of those who got to join our pastor on the sofa before the congregation and attempt to condense into ten brief minutes simple questions about how my time the US has impacted me and what my hopes for the future of the church are.
Colin had sent me the questions he planned to ask earlier in the week so I had a rough idea what I would talk about. I wanted to attempt to explain that it was the people in San Francisco – the outcast, broken, lost and forgotten – who had transformed my understanding of so much, not least that we are all outcast, lost and broken but never forgotten by the Lord. I wanted to convey that the “us” and “them” attitude of the world was irrelevant and that breaking it down had brought freedom and new understanding. How ironic it would be, I thought, if one of “them” was to come to church that day. Wouldn’t it be just my luck.
I was the last person to be interviewed. Everyone else had done a fantastic job and shared wonderfully. It was all going very smoothly. But, in the thirty seconds that it took for me to walk from the sound desk at the back of the hall to the sofa on the stage at the front, a man came in and sat down in the back. I didn’t notice, I hadn’t seen him, not until I began to speak and he began to shout over me.
I was trying to explain the work I had been doing in San Francisco and he was trying to explain that “those people” lived real close by too. Some people from the congregation moved pretty quickly to try and get him to be quiet. I froze. I was torn between wanting to continue speaking and realising this as an opportunity to practice what I was talking about. I wanted to engage with him; I wanted to hear what he had to say and show him that someone was willing to listen. My pastor, sat beside me, said to keep going. So I did.
Afterwards, people kept coming to tell me that I had done well despite the heckling. I wanted to shout that this heckler had a name and a story and wan’t someone we should just try to quiet down.
I went and spoke to him. He actually apologised for interrupting me before going on to say that if “those” people were to come into the church there would be a divide, like the red sea, between “us” and “them”. He said that unless you had a degree in anthropology (his actual words, I promise) you couldn’t fit in at CCE. He said we were too comfortable and afraid of having that comfort disturbed.
The whole experience really got to me. A week and half later and I still can’t quite believe that he came in at that moment in that service. And I can’t shake off what he said either because I’m inclined to believe him.
Some of what I shared that morning were plans that we have in the pipeline to engage the church in more work with those in particularly difficult physical/practical circumstances near by. My dream, our dream, is that these practical measures will lead to discipleship relationships within the church community. I wonder if this encounter was a reminder that that is going to be no easy task, on either side. That it is going to be messy; that we’re going to get it wrong; and that it’s perhaps going to bring more change than we are currently okay with.