A community church in North Andover, Massachusetts

Part II: Walking Side-by-Side

Humbly Keeping Up with God’s Call to Disciples
Meeting New Peoples and Opening to New Ideas
Part II: Walking Side-by-Side

Once we have broadened our understanding of belonging enough to comfortably include newcomers different from ourselves in many ways, we can be far more welcoming of them and the differences they bring from God to us. It helps for us to remember that this church community we enjoy at First-Calvary Baptist Church is not actually ours; it is a gift from God to us. Once we understand this, and recognize Jesus as the head of all Christian churches, we find ourselves freed from tightly controlling this church. We become far more open to all the gifts those from different backgrounds, different traditions, and different parts of the world bring with them to us. We become a far more interesting, dynamic, and healthy community capable of having a far greater positive impact on the community around us.

This is dealing with diversity (which is seen as a hot button term these days, but needn’t be). Actually, in any church with more than one member we have to deal with diversity of age, gender, worship tastes, understanding, and much more. We are going to discard past cultural attempts to deal with diversity either by avoiding it or by assimilating it (“Resistance is futile”) and can instead learn to live with it equally.

God welcomes everyone equally into full status as heirs to the kingdom. If God does this, we should try to do so as well. As Douglas Avilesbernal points out in his book Welcoming Community, when Peter found himself in the house of a Roman centurion, Peter was impressed by just how broad God’s welcoming really is. All distinctions we use to separate ourselves from each other are shattered in the face of God’s call for equality, as read in Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Jesus Christ.”

Walking in solidarity with each other means we become more important parts of each other’s lives. We walk, suffer, and risk together. We do this out of love for one another, not because we are somehow required to do so. That love expands our sense of belonging in ways that allow our differences to become assets and not difficulties as we walk together.

We soon discover there is strength in our growing diversity. We are no longer all trying to be best at just one thing. Instead we all benefit from all those marvelously different skill sets with which God has gifted various people in our growing church.

Scripture tells us we cannot live without each other. The Bible also makes clear that there are no exceptions to this rule. That’s challenging for sure, when we really think about it. Just like Jesus using a Samaritan, a traditional enemy of the Israelites, as a good example in his parable. The dreaded Samaritan was the truly neighborly person.

With a broadening sense of who we are, we are able to make room for more and more people who are different from us without risking losing our identities in the process. We enter a new and stronger faith world together, just as God intends. We begin to realize there is no us versus them, only us, all of us. We enter a wonderfully rich multicultural life together because that’s the life Jesus wants for us all; that is the life of joy together we were created for.

Of course it is a more complicated life, one that is far from pain-free … like learning to walk and gathering a collection of bruises. In loving our neighbors as ourselves, we are giving up some comfort in order to sacrifice for each other. To be inclusive in our services, we have to make sure those services reflect the diversity of our growing church community. We need to make sure we have a wide range of officers and committee members Scripture readers, event organizers, worship leaders, and more, all of whom are reflective of the diversity of the congregation. We also have to challenge ourselves as a community to make sure we spend significant time with those people who are different from ourselves in any number of ways. How often do we socialize across generations, cultures, and people of different life experiences? Do we have diverse small groups? When we have events together, do we all comingle together or do we divide into separate groups?

Walking together in solidarity in all of these ways allows our hearts to enter into each other’s worlds and our minds into different understandings of the world we share. We learn from different perspectives and experiences. We lose a little clarity; the world seems a little less black and white. We gain a lot of understanding and empathy.

Jesus used the good Samaritan to challenge his Jewish listeners, his disciples from Israel, to step past their firmly and faithfully held biases and see a supposed enemy anew. Jesus intends for us to feel love even for those we thought we despised! Jesus desires us to overcome our anxiety, our fear, and our disgust harbored (consciously or unconsciously) toward strangers who need our help.

Something we have to avoid to reach this walking side-by-side inclusion is the urge to scapegoat some group or other when times get tough. We generally scapegoat people or groups of people we really don’t like … as the Israelites did with the Samaritans. Various media outlets, especially on cable, are happy to help us find stories of individuals of these groups doing shady things to confirm our scapegoating bias against them. We need to be wise to these tricks. Often, worst of all, we end up scapegoating the people God most intends us to help. This can be tricky business indeed.

In Part III we’ll explore the hard job of letting some things go to successfully and humbly move forward and accept others into our churches.

Text references Douglas Avilesbernal’s book Welcoming Community.