I was recently blessed to be able to preach to my church, Circle of Hope. You can see that talk below, and then what follows in this post is an expanded version of that sermon. I hope for more dialogue in what I offer here, so please contribute to it in the comments if you’d like. Here’s the talk as I delivered it:
And now let’s go a little deeper with it. I start this conversation at a place I turn to often for inspiration and grounding in how I work at following Jesus, and that’s with Circle of Hope’s proverbs. These are sayings that we’ve collected over 25 years of being a church together that reflect the wisdom of our lived experience. One of them goes like this:
“We are diverse in many ways and we will cross boundaries to become more so.”
In this season of Sunday Meetings in our church we’ve been working with questions that defy easy answers. Our pastor Julie really helped my thinking about this in an episode of the Resist and Restore Podcast where she was wrestling with questions raised by the Bible, and she said that “sometimes it’s okay to not try to answer the question” right away. “Sometimes,” she said, “it’s okay to simply agree with the question.” So today I hope we can wrestle with a two-part question: “What boundaries are we being called to cross right now, and how do we cross them?” I think this is probably one of those questions that we wind up agreeing with for a while because the answers are elusive or complex. That doesn’t mean we simply stay where we are, never moving toward any sort of resolution, but it might mean staying where we are long enough to really listen to each other so that we can discern together where God’s Spirit might be calling us next. So let’s try it out.
When I wonder what boundaries God might be calling us to cross right now, here are some that come to mind for me. Feel free to comment with any that come to mind for you. As I name each one, I’ll say a few words about it. Here we go.
We’re Called to Cross the Boundary of Racism and White Supremacy and Move Into Beloved Community and the New Humanity.
I can’t say what crossing this boundary means for Black and Brown and Indigenous people. I’m obviously a European-American steeped in whiteness and unearned privilege. So, I’ll just talk about myself. For me, crossing this boundary might look like reorienting my life so that I and my family can move more fully toward making reparations for all that we’ve been given as a result of racism. It might mean re-learning American and world history. Especially as someone born in the land that settlers call Texas, I now know that almost everything I learned in school as a child came from a point of view that was meant to justify colonization, subjugation, and exploitation. Even more, though, I think crossing the boundary of white supremacy culture might mean dying to my precious memories of church. That’s another one of our proverbs in Circle of Hope, by the way. We say that “those among us from ‘traditional’ Christian backgrounds are dying to our precious memories of ‘church’ in order to bring the gospel into the present with great flexibility.” But what if the so-called Christian background you grew up in was rooted in a tradition steeped in white supremacy? I remember looking around on Sunday mornings as I was growing up at a sea of people who looked just like me, who usually thought like me and talked like me. In my traditional Christian background, white preachers gave sermons that they prepared for by reading the commentaries of other white preachers and theologians. The church I grew up in as a child took for granted that America was not only the greatest country in the world but was beyond reproach. It would have been unconscionable in that church to wonder out loud why so few Black or brown folks found their way into our midst. Poverty was regarded as a problem, but one removed the experience of almost everyone in that church. I’m not here to bash them, but I want to make clear that racism and white supremacy are embedded in everything in our society, including the church, even Circle of Hope. I can’t help but wonder, then- are there precious memories of Circle of Hope that we need to die of in order to bring the gospel into the present with great flexibility?
I’m so grateful that our church has begun talking about reparations, about how to redistribute the unearned privilege and economic security of our white covenant members to Black covenant members. We’ve only just begun really thinking and talking about this, but I think it’s holy work. And I’m especially grateful that we’re being led in this by BIPOC members of our church. I think this work is so very important because we can’t cross the boundary of racism and white supremacy without taking a hard look at what that boundary looks like in real life. I write to you now from the “safety” and comfort of a fairly middle-class neighborhood in an inner ring suburb of Minneapolis/St. Paul. But speaking of the so-called safety of middle-class neighborhoods like mine begs the question- safe from what, and at what cost? The fact that so many people like me live in places like this is not an accident. So I hope you’ll bear with me as I spend a few minutes talking about how this happens.
There’s a great resource here in MN called the Mapping Prejudice Project. Volunteers spent thousands of hours researching house deeds, looking for what’s called racial covenants. Mapping Prejudice says that:
Racial covenants were tools used by real estate developers to prevent people of color from buying or occupying property. Often just a few lines of text, these covenants were inserted into warranty deeds across the country. These real estate contracts were powerful tools for segregationists. Real estate developers and public officials used private property transactions to build a hidden system of American apartheid during the twentieth century.
Mapping Prejudice has a devastating timelapse map that shows the explosion of racial covenants in the Minneapolis area from 0 such covenants in 1910 to 22,331 of them by 1955. As you watch the number of covenants represented by blue dots on the map multiply over time, by 1955 you see a sea of blue surrounding the urban core. To learn more, check out the short video from TPT (Twin Cities Public Television) below, which is part of a longer documentary about this.
So it only makes sense, then, that today Minneapolis has the lowest African-American homeownership rate in the country. Mapping Prejudice adds that:
…since most families amass wealth through property ownership, this homeownership gap continues to feed our contemporary racial wealth gap. Wealth is built through generations, with one generation passing resources to another. Thanks in part to the racial biases that have been baked into the real estate market over the last century, the average white household in the United States has ten times as much wealth as the average black household.The racial wealth gap makes it hard to erode residential segregation. And it contributes in every way to the racial disparities in education, health outcomes and employment facing our community today.
Ironically, the segregated neighborhood in TX I grew up in was poor. But because of disparities in educational access and employment that worked in our favor, my wife and I found the middle-class easily within our reach. So for European-Americans like us, even when our parents’ generation didn’t pass on much wealth to us, racism and white supremacy still gave us opportunities that are reserved for us through a process of exclusion. And this exclusion is embedded in everything, including the church, and again that includes Circle of Hope.
So I and so many others like me are called to cross this boundary, to die of our precious memories of “church.” I’m reminded again that Sunday morning in America is still regarded as the most segregated hour in the week. What does this mean for us as Circle of Hope? We’re a majority white church committed to the work of antiracism. We’re doing that work too, but it’s so very hard. Racism is about systems and laws and policies. It’s about the economy and education and the so-called criminal justice system. It’s written into the very foundation of this country. This systemic power isn’t just “out there,” in society, though. If racism equals prejudice + power, it continues to be animated by the prejudice in human hearts, hearts like mine. So combating it in order to bring God’s justice and shalom to the whole world means doing all the work to fight these system of injustice as we encounter them in society, but probably more importantly it means doing the work to root out white supremacy as it’s internalized in my own mind and heart, and maybe yours too. How to cross that boundary is a question I agree with, and it’s urgent work. Lives and livelihoods depend on it. I should add, it’s work that I’m eager to do. Being ensconced in a white-washed world means missing out on the vibrancy of God’s creation. So I don’t want to participate, for example, in capitalism’s consumption of Black culture. I want to be in relationship with people who don’t look like me because in Genesis 1 God speaks of creating humankind in God’s image. We modern Westerners usually talk about this just like we talk about everything else, individually. But as I read the text that just doesn’t make any sense. If we bear the image of God at all, it is only together that we do so. There is only one single person in which the fullness of God is revealed, and that’s Jesus. But together, we are his body. So I must repent of trying to do alone what is only possible together. I must repent of thinking that anything less than beloved community and the new humanity Jesus calls us to could ever hope to encompass the love that Jesus said would mark our identity as his followers.
We’re Called to Cross the Boundary of Ableism.
I’ve had the privilege recently of helping to make Circle of Hope’s At-Home Sunday Meeting. It’s a meeting I hope really is being made in real time each time we have it. The folks on screen in the YouTube part of the meeting are participating with anyone viewing each Sunday though the chat, and that real-time interaction continues in part 2 of each meeting over Zoom where we interact “face to face.” That said, whether someone participates in the meeting live or comes to it on YouTube at some point later on, there’s still opportunity for connection and relationship. Go to circleofhope.church/community and check out the list of cells. Mine is on that list if you want to come check out the primary way that we work at being the church together. But what I’m talking about now is the team of people all over the country who are committed to creating the content that gets shown on YouTube and who are working at building the community that gathers on Zoom. One of those people on the team is our friend Dani, who is disabled. She’s been instrumental in helping our church discover and root out all the ways that ableism has infected so much of what we do, just as racism has. Dani was featured in a couple of our podcasts recently, both the pastors’ Resist and Restore podcast and our Color Correction podcast, hosted by the Circle Mobilizing Because Black Live Matters team. She talks I think in both of them about how, for example, the disabled community has been pleading for years for the ability to work from home, to have widespread food and grocery delivery, to have churches hold space for meeting online like we’re doing right now, to have virtual medical appointments available, and for widespread and easy access to video conferencing tools. She says the disabled community was always told “no,” that it was too expensive or the technology wasn’t available. And then she adds with great poignancy and just a touch of appropriately righteous anger that after only two weeks at the start of the pandemic of able-bodied individuals having to stay home, all of a sudden all those tools that disabled individuals had been begging for were suddenly available. Dani talks too about being in a wheelchair in the grocery store and having people bump into her and be surprised that she was there because they literally didn’t see her.
So how do we expand our gaze to see everyone who is around us? How do we cross that boundary? I talked before about prejudice in the context of racism, and it certainly exists in the context of ableism too, and in many of the same ways. Ableism is likewise built into laws and policies and procedures, into the way we talk and think, and in the church, likewise in the theology we read and in our understanding of how to include just as we’re included. Dani talks about how the Americans with Disabilities Act, the ADA, often doesn’t apply to church buildings because churches successfully lobbied to be exempt from it. Churches wanted to be exempt from it in order to preserve an aesthetic for their buildings that doesn’t include ramps and chair lifts, for example. I can’t help but think here of Jesus’ words in Matthew, when he pronounced woe on hypocrites that Jesus said wanted to “look beautiful on the outside but on the inside (we)re full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” So crossing the boundary of ableism for those of us who are more able-bodied probably means allowing God’s spirit to breathe life into our dry bones so that we can follow the Spirit into new spaces that we build together with everyone around us, and which everyone around us can access fully. And discerning how we can best do this together is another question I agree with.
We’re Called to Cross the Boundary of Homophobia and Transphobia.
Just as we so often approach Scripture and read capitalism, whiteness, and ableism into it, for far too long we’ve done the same regarding homophobia and transphobia. I want to be careful here not to speak for anyone else, however. And I want to be honest too. Due to the circumstances of where, when, and to whom I was born, I’m aware that just as I internalized white supremacy culture as I was growing up, I also internalized homo- and trans- phobia. I was raised in an environment in which I constantly heard that tired phrase that we should “love the sinner, but hate the sin.” It’s taken me decades to see that to the extent that ever I saw my trans and queer siblings in the faith as anything other than beloved children of God, actually I was the sinner, and it was my sin that needed repenting of, if not hate. I’m so grateful, then, that our community is committed to the work of overcoming homophobia and transphobia just as we are committed to the work of antiracism. More than that, I’m so grateful for the trans and queer friends in our body that I’m privileged to know. I see you, and I’m glad to be in community with you. Still, we have a long way to go. The space we hold together is undoubtedly not as welcoming as we would want it to be. Some of us still have a lot of work to do in our own hearts as we repent of what we were taught in the churches of our youth and keep learning how to love like Jesus does. So if we want to keep up with him, we simply must meet him outside the bounds of our own narrow thinking and experience. We must follow him into the wide open spaces where we too can be included rather than fencing off territory that we keep trying to control.
We’re Called to Cross the Boundary Caused by Physical Distance and Keep Learning How to Be One Church Together, Wherever We May Be.
The boundary caused by not being in a shared physical space together- whether that distance is marked by streets, zip codes, or state lines- involves a question I suspect we’ll agree with because any answer to it lies at the end of a road we’ve only just started down. That question is, “How can we be one church with cells and congregations up and down the Delaware River watershed but also made up of people across the country?“ This question is near and dear to my heart because as I said at the beginning I’m a member of the covenant Circle of Hope shares together who happens to live in MN. If it weren’t for the At-Home Sunday Meeting and the work being done to include me and others like me in all kinds of meetings and events over Zoom, for example, I don’t know that I’d feel very much like a part of our church. Look, I know the impact of this pandemic has been devastating. More than 600,000 lives have been lost in the U.S. alone. Many are grappling with the now chronic effects of long COVID. Jobs have been lost and many small businesses especially in the restaurant industry have succumbed to the economic effect of the pandemic. Many are grieving; many more are struggling, and even as vaccination rates slowly rise and society in rich countries like ours try to turn the corner, hoping to return to some semblance of “normal,” it’s increasingly apparent that whatever kind of so-called “normal” we eventually get to, it won’t be the same as it was before. Some things have changed in ways that I at least hope will endure.
We simply must not go back to a normal in which voices like mine are centered and preferred.
We must not go back to a normal in which the feelings of European-Americans and especially cisgender, heterosexual European-American males are protected at all costs. The costs are too great.
We must not go back to a normal in which our gaze remains constricted and we fail to see our disabled siblings. We can no longer center the needs of the able-bodied among us as if they’re the only needs worth considering. The disability community is working for justice and building bonds of kinship even as we speak, and we’re missing our chance to join them in this beautiful and holy work if we leave them to labor in the shadow of our exclusion.
We must not go back to a normal in which queer and trans folk find some of us open, but not terribly affirming, especially in the church. People are really just people, aren’t they? Aren’t we? The drive to control, to label some as sinners so that others can be saints, to draw lines around our community in order to protect whatever good we think we have, does not come from God. Some of us are so desperate to be “in” that we will ruthlessly leave others “out.” We are all God’s children, all beloved, all bearing the image of God together. If God is in us and with us, we fail to fully see God if our gaze doesn’t encompass everyone.
And we must not go back to a normal in which we hold space for community and connection only for those who can show up in person at one of our meetings. When I talked before about the devastating impact of the pandemic, I know of course that my description of the devastation was incomplete. The truth is the pandemic has had a devastating impact on the church too, including Circle of Hope. In some ways the pandemic has revealed the best of Circle of Hope, the living, breathing heart of us- Jesus at the center of our cell multiplication movement. Our cells have been remarkably resilient, transitioning to Zoom as needed and continuing to hold space for connection there, and now many of them transitioning back to in-person meetings in as safe a way as possible. I’m continually reminded of how our church was really built for such a time as this. We have buildings and we use them well as blessings to the neighborhoods they’re located in, but we do not need them. Our church is a people, not a place. Be that as it may, when the doors of our buildings closed because of COVID, some of us were left out. Of course I know that online meetings have very real drawbacks. I know making eye contact through a screen is hard. Until we have webcams positioned in the middle of our screens, it seems like we can either give eye contact, or we can get it, but we can’t do both at the same time very well. So I understand why some don’t connect in this way; I really do. It’s unfortunately kind of inevitable that when in person meetings don’t happen, some folks drift away.
So I’m very, very grateful that vaccines and the tools we’ve learned during the pandemic like mask-wearing and social distancing now make it possible for in-person meetings to resume. And my deepest, sincerest prayer is that the Delta or other variants do not force new lockdowns due to the high percentage of people that still remain unvaccinated. The disruption the pandemic caused gives us an opportunity, though, and we simply must not miss it. Our church is being re-planted, and our roots in the Delaware River watershed are deep, and will remain as we bloom again in Philly and S. Jersey. But the Spirit is wild! And though we may plant the seed, God makes it grow. It’s growing in unexpected places. It’s growing in Minnesota, Virginia, Delaware, and Maryland. It’s growing in Texas and Illinois. Who knows where we might bloom next?
So let’s continue to be the church together, but let’s continue to reimagine what togetherness can look like. Online connection is hard for some and may cause them to drift away, but it’s a lifeblood for others, including me. I’m not just trying to soak up Jesus through a screen. I’m forging new relationships and making new friends. I talk to some of these friends on a near weekly basis. I think and pray about them constantly. I belt out our songs during our At-Home Sunday Meeting and throughout the week really. When the weather’s nice I do so outside or with the window open, and I wonder who among my Minnesota neighbors might hear me. I wonder if they might strike up a conversation with me someday because of the way they hear me live my life with our church. My cell is made up of people all over the country, including in the greater Philly region. We hold space online because that’s the territory God has led us into. But we’re not disembodied. And I can imagine a future in which we have herd immunity and my cell continues to meet online, but some of my neighbors on my block join my wife and I in our living room to participate in our life together. Can you imagine it? We’ve always done our best as a church to move with what the Spirit is doing next. Let’s not stop now.
An Afterword: Crossing Boundaries in Search of Diversity Might Miss the Point
I want to revisit briefly the proverb that started me thinking about all these boundaries. I said it goes:
“We are diverse in many ways and we will cross boundaries to become more so.”
Of course that’s not entirely true, though. That’s not the whole proverb. It has another sentence, which is:
“Don’t bean count us.”
So the whole proverb is: “We are diverse in many ways and we will cross boundaries to become more so. Don’t bean count us.” I’m revisiting it because I started reading Dear White Peacemakers by Osheta Moore. I only made it into the beginning of the preface before something Osheta said struck me. She’s writing about an intentional community her friend is a part of that includes disabled people. She says:
“They decided early on to be intentionally diverse not for diversity’s sake but because living with each other in their distinct differences teaches them how to be human. Fully.”
Read that again if you need to. I had to. This statement suggests that crossing boundaries in search of diversity might miss the point. Diversity and inclusion (not to mention equity) may be virtuous and worthy of seeking not for their own sake, but because “living with each other in (our) distinct differences teaches (us) how to be human. Fully.” Fortunately in Circle of Hope we have a couple of other proverbs that I think get at this a little better. We say:
A gospel that does not reconcile is no gospel at all.
We will do what it takes to be an anti-racist, diverse community that represents the new humanity.
So let us be a reconciling community and an anti-racist one that therefore represents the new humanity. We do this as we learn how to live with each other in our distinct differences, but we won’t get there without crossing boundaries. Thanks be to God that if we do this, the good news is that in the end it won’t matter what the bean counters think.