Saturday, July 08, 2006

Strangers, Church-goers, and Demented Scary-Ass Saints

Last Sunday I checked out some "emerging" churches in Vancouver on the web and found one that seemed decent enough. I arrived at the church with some hopeful expectations and immediately sensed that this might be a somewhat decent gathering. The people seemed fun and vibrant - they were of all ages, some from different ethnic backgrounds, they wore shorts, drank coffee, and seemed to smile rather genuinely.

During the service there was a man who recounted the events of his recent missionary journey to Africa (cool), the music - though typical evangelical praise choruses ala Matt Redman and Chris Tomlin - was played well enough and not intrusive or overly emotional, and it was an affable if somewhat predictable sermon on the story of the talents in Matthew . . .
And so because no one knew me I decided to run a bit of an experiment. Rather than being my extroverted self I played the role of a somewhat quiet stranger during the service.

The question I had was, would anyone approach the anonymous-me (without me taking any verbal initiative)? Would anyone say more than hello to me, or give me more than the Christian nod, or would anyone truly offer me a hand in welcome instead of just handing out a program to me, or do more than smile at me? Would someone simply welcome me in to their gathering?

And I have to tell you that I didn't play the role of an asshole either. I didn't paste some pissed off look on my face. I sat up front, I smiled a bit but not too much (so as to not look like an overly joyful Christian dork who listened to too much Petra in the 80's), nodded at the woman who handed out the collection bag, nodded at the other woman who handed out the elements for communion, stood when I was told, and sat when I was told . . . The service ended and I knew that these next minutes would be crucial minutes of whether I would be welcomed or implicitly rejected.

I made my way to the "fellowship" area with coffee in my hands and a smile on my face wondering whom would I meet first? I walked around the fellowship area a bit and made eye contact with a few people and I made sure to nod the good Christian nod.

After about ten seconds this whole routine became really lame. I looked and felt like a complete dork watching others in the "fellowship" area laugh and hug and say dumb and profound things to one another (not unlike we do at Sunday PM). So I made the next best move I could think of - I pretended I was interested at what was posted on their bulletin boards. And anyone looking at a bulletin board is someone who is in desparate need of a conversation.

I felt the seconds crawl by into painful minutes . . . waiting, hoping for someone to say something.

Finally, I decided I'd take a bathroom break from being the lame loner in the fellowship hall and re-gather my hope and my resolve. But when I emerged from the bathroom with a renewed confidence in meeting a new friend I beheld in front of me huddles of four and five people. And everyone knows that strangers never get invited into huddles of friends.

So in the end, it was to no avail. Not one person offered a hand of welcome. Not one person said one word to me. I left feeling more than just a loner and a loser - I left feeling cheated.

And I'm a minister.

It's my profession - I know how churches work. I don't need to hammer the obvious point - but I will.

If I, a minister, felt so utterly unwelcomed - imagine the stranger who has never been to a church before; the stranger looking for something new, looking for hope, looking for a new friend, looking for the reality of Jesus' love enacted in front of them. But not getting an ounce of it. Not receiving any warmth of human affection from anyone in the congregation. Hearing a nice sermon and singing decent music maybe but not receiving Christ's love through simple words of welcome. Not receiving the incarnation of Christ's love through the living body of Christ.

And this is not a bad church as churches go - If I went back tomorrow I'm sure my experience might be different.

But truthfully it's easy for pastors and ministers to go to church every Sunday or so.

Not so the stranger.

But the story doesn't end there. The mysterious relentless Kingdom of God moves on irregardless of my vain desires.

Truly, the only live conversation I had that day was a reluctant one with a homeless guy in his forties in downtown Vancouver named "Dog" while awaiting my bus to the University of BC. He sat next to me and started talking about how hot the day had been. I nodded and smiled and politely agreed - but really hoping he would move away from me.

Then he tells me that he'd been shot in the shoulder by teenage punks this last October. And before I could stop him he took off his shirt and showed me his mangled upper arm - the skin in a strange way had the reslemblance of a greasy fried egg. "Can't trust nobody no more," he said.

Dog had no teeth, had dementia and told me so, was as ugly and brown-baked-faced from the sun as homeless people come, and would not shut up. I noticed that the other would-be passengers did not sit next to us on the benches.

Dog had been run over by a bus. Twice. The doc who took care of him in the ER told him that he's either really lucky or that maybe he has a good guardian angel. The second visit to the ER the doc told Dog that he's not lucky he's simply a wingless angel. That's when I dug my right hand into my pocket and gave him change.

Dog also writes poems for men dying of AIDS at the homeless shelter so he can "bring out their hidden talents and think about something better" (I'm not kidding - if you're not the literary type remember that the topic of the sermon at the church I visited that morning was talents). The book he's currently working on is entitled, "In Dog's House." I thought he said, "In God's House," - but he corrected me. His previous collection is entitled - "Heartbreaker at the Hampton Hotel."

Dog's dad died in '97 from cancer. He has no family left. He also told me he doesn't know why God keeps him around - "but for thum reason," he said through his gums. "For thum reason."

Bus 4 came and he ran to get on the bus. But before he stepped into the bus he stopped for a moment and turned to me with a smile and said, "thanks for lithening." Then he waved as he hobbled to some back seat.

If this were an opening to a mystery novel (and I suppose in some ways it is) it would begin like this: I was all alone at the bus stop (like I'd been at church that morning) awaiting bus 17 after having just read a WH Auden poem (which I'll post at the end of this). . . When lo, a homeless wingless angel stumbled and weaved across the street like a three-legged mongrel and sat his dirty ass next to me to tell me how hot the day had been . . . and then he said to me, "They call me Dog."

After Dog's bus pulled away I somehow felt that an angel or perhaps Christ himself - as a pathetic broken toothless demented stranger, had just welcomed me to his Kingdom in Vancouver. I smiled knowing that in Christ's own mysterious way he had let me know that all is not lost . . .

. . . and that all manner of things shall be well.

Here's the poem I finished reading right before Dog stumbled into my line of sight:

He watched the stars and noted birds in flight;
The rivers flooded or the Empire fell:
He made predictions and was sometimes right;
His lucky guesses were rewarded well.

And fell in love with Truth before he knew her,
And rode into imaginary lands,
With solitude and fasting hoped to woo her,
And mocked at those who served her with their hands.

But her he never wanted to despise,
But listened always for her voice;
and when She beckoned to him,
he obeyed in meekness,

And followed her
and looked into her eyes;
Saw there reflected every human weakness,
And saw himself as one of many men.

Yeah, I kid you not.


Blogger Erica Murray Wright said...

Looking for God in all the wrong a pew or at a bus stop among the poor in spirit! God is close to those who are close to the streets...the great mystery continues!

4:35 PM  

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