On my ride aboard the Long Island Rail Road returning from a trip to New Jersey this weekend, I thought a lot about a course I took at Vanderbilt Divinity where we were discussing racial reconciliation, and on the table was a really tough question about whether black congregations and white congregations should be worshiping together. That may seem like it deserves an obvious answer in 2015. Of course they should, right? But we arrived at that question by first asking why our churches – unlike our schools, unlike most of society since the 1960s – had remained mostly segregated. Was that evidence of our inherent prejudices? The ones we seem still so stubborn to admit we have? Was it simply the reality that different experiences had created different cultures? One black student remarked that she feared if she were to worship in a white church, her cultural history would be washed away. Would a white church with a white pastor focus as much on the story of the Exodus where Moses leads God’s people out of Egypt like those slaves seeking freedom along the underground railroad? Would that sense of liberation – still so crucial to black churches – be as important to white churches? Moreover, what does it mean for a white church to have been “free” for so many generations that we can no longer conceive of the need for liberation for others? Have we lost the ability to relate? Must we experience oppression to see the need for calling the oppressors into question? If we think we have no need of this, do we lack empathy for those who still very much relate to the need to be liberated? That day in that classroom opened my eyes in a way I don’t think I’ve realized until recent events, really, that whether or not black churches and white churches should worship together is a deeply complicated question with a deeply complicated past, present, and future. What I came to terms with at the time was this: maybe we need to be segregated in our worship, but we still have to find some way to work together for the betterment of everyone. Separate in worship, together in mission could be a solution. But I’m not so sure I’m as satisfied with that answer anymore.
This morning, I attended my first church service north of the Mason-Dixon, and it drew an incredibly incriminating picture on the almost insular way of the church in the South. Sure, up here, the church may be dying in numbers, but what I saw this morning drew a picture of a church that is, in my mind, thriving. On the wooden pews in an ark-shaped sanctuary in Bloomfield, New Jersey, there are members from four continents and twenty countries. Every color. Gay. Straight. Female. Male. Transgender. Hurting. Joyful. Family. The lot of them: family. And you could feel it. Something that was in the air, like a kind of earnestness that the people there wanted to be there. No – that the people there were there because they needed to be. That they were honest about their brokenness and joyful to be made whole together. Outside of camp, I’m not sure I’ve seen so many different people made into one family in a church. And for most of the service, I was just overcome with sadness for my home state, for the South, for the reality not that it’s broken but that it’s so gosh-darn unaware of just how broken and pathetic it is. No, more than that: that down south it’s in-your-face adamant about how it carries the one-and-only capital “T” truth when the church in the South as I experienced was driven too-often instead by staged ostentation and a smug need to grab and maintain control and power in a world where people of privilege fear losing it.
Eh, I should come down off my high-horse long enough to say that my own disdain for those kinds of churches or even for the South at times isn’t lacking its own arrogance. Nor am I naive enough to imagine that every church up here is like the one I went to today. Or that this particular church isn’t without its own members who are there for the wrong reasons: to gossip and grasp power when and where they can. That’s just all too human to be confined solely to one region of the country. And yet, having seen what church could be is to know what so many congregations are lacking, and frankly, I’d take a small church with a healthy soul over a large soulless church any day. But I can’t seem to shake the question over what’s the difference between here and there, between this church or that one? Maybe it’s tied to the urban nature of a church that’s only a twenty-minute train ride to New York City. More exposure to diversity is bound to breed world-centric behaviors as opposed to the more insular, isolated rural communities of the South. Or maybe it has something to do with southern culture’s tie to social traditions. If you were born into a world where people go to church because “that’s just what you’re supposed to do,” you’re bound to find people who are there to maintain “polite social behaviors,” or niceties rather than to claim with honest self-awareness their own struggles in an effort to find sacred wholeness like that preached about in our holy texts, or y’know, to do church.
Of course, the deeper question underlying much of this is to ask, “What is church?” It’s become trite to say it’s when “two or three are gathered” in God’s name. I’m not sure I really know what that means anymore. Plenty of awful people gather themselves invoking the name of God or Jesus or Allah, after all. But I’d be willing to bet that, even if we remain segregated in the here-and-now, what church – what all of religion – is meant to be is to provide a space where “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28), nor gay nor straight nor conservative nor liberal nor rural nor urban. If religion can’t be what breaks down the barriers that are the sources of our strife and violence, what good is it doing us? I, for one, want to seek out and hold up those places where that’s actually happening, where those boundaries fall away, because it is happening. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. It may happen in a place where the church is dying, but on this road, we are well on our way to something good, to something better, and we will keep moving forward as best we can.