Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Two Churches

This is not a parable. It's a true anecdote. 

When I was first married I moved to Maryland. Andrews Air Force Base (now "Joint Base Andrews") was my very first duty station in the US Air Force. Once we had taken care of the little necessities of buying a car and renting an apartment, the very next thing we did was look for a church.

We found one really close by. It was a a big church, solidly built, and packed with well-scrubbed, well-dressed people. It was just the sort of vibrant, exciting place that this young couple just starting out wanted. 

We started attending services, and it quickly turned... well, not sour, but weird. You see, on the walls of the nave there were large maps and charts with tiny lights on them denoting the locations of missions around the world that were funded by this congregation. And there were a lot of them. These little colored lights denoted their location and status. And there were a number of thermometers on the walls that were marked at the top with monetary goals. The thermometers were painted in red to show how close to that goal they were.

They were exceptional fundraisers, and they were enthusiastic about it. There was a rock band and the preacher shouted excitedly. But it was very much like a business meeting. They talked about the missions. They talked about the places. They talked about goals and sales and outreach. They talked about stuff. And all of this was very worthwhile, necessary stuff, I'm sure. But this church, located near the Capitol Beltway, was one exit away from the poverty-stricken south DC minority neighborhood where I lived. After the service we would get in the car, drive one exit away, home to an apartment building where three murders were committed in the space of a few months... where the ice cream truck that visited was covered in spray-painted pot leaves and graffiti. That ice cream truck still made rounds in February, and grown Black men would line up in the snow. It didn't just sell ice cream. 

But with all of those lights in all of those maps indicating missions all over the world, this church didn't have one for the poor neighborhood in their own back yard in Washington, DC.

And of all the things that they talked about, they didn't talk about the people who were sitting in the pews of that nave. One Sunday, after a particularly rousing meeting, I got in the car with my wife and realized that they hadn't even mentioned the Bible that day.

We never went back. It's not that they were bad people or the things they did were wrong. But I think that as a congregation they got so caught up in the nice-to-haves that they forgot the must-haves entirely.


Later, we moved out of that neighborhood and into a trailer on the Air Force base. We started looking for a new church. And we found one.

I don't remember how we found this place. I think it was by word-of-mouth from another serviceman. I'm not sure I would have recognized this little building as a church otherwise. It looked like a converted house. It was non-denominational: they were just Christians. There were no pews... there were straight-backed wooden chairs of the sort you might find in a school. I think they actually were school chairs, purchased at auction. They had enough seating for maybe forty or fifty people, tops. There were no charts, graphs, or maps on the walls. There was a cross.

There was no choir. The preacher's son played the piano when the congregation sang. The preacher's wife greeted everyone personally while he was preparing for the service. Everyone there (except us) seemed to know everyone else. When the preacher spoke, he didn't say a word about missions. He talked about God, and love, and the kind of people we should aspire to be. And after he had delivered the lesson and the sermon and the prayers, then he mentioned that one of the church members, who couldn't be there, had taken ill and was now in a wheelchair. She had need of a wheelchair ramp for her house. But he didn't ask for money for that ramp, and the congregation didn't offer it.

Instead, they set a date. That very afternoon. One of them spoke up to donate 2x4 lumber. Another donated plywood and hardware: nails and screws. There were a couple of builders in the congregation, and they said they'd bring tools. There was some passing discussion of whether they'd need a permit, and they decided that they'd conform to the city building code and trust that they could get a permit waived or paid after the fact. They left the service, got their stuff, gathered at that woman's house, and built a ramp. That very day. I offered to help, but there were enough people working, and not much I could do except watch. 

It's a fashionable Christian meme to ask, "What would Jesus do?".  Well... Jesus was a carpenter. What do you think he'd do?  I think these people understood God in a way that right up until then, I did not, though I was looking for it. They didn't have a lot of money to spend, but they had talents and skills that they could employ. They thought of those talents and skills as gifts from God and they used them to better the lives of the people around them. They thought immediately about what they could do before considering what they could pay other people to do. And it's a good thing they did, because the folks in the immediate area got no love from some big, self-important, "successful" organizations. 


Despite colloquial use, the word "church" isn't intended to describe the building so much as the congregation it holds. And in my eyes that little wooden used-to-be-a-house was built on a much firmer foundation than the huge white stone building we'd left. 


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