By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Cascades Presbytery
Eek! That language needs to be changed!
I was having a conversation during the fellowship time after worship with one of our more involved ruling elders in the presbytery. In the middle of the conversation, she quickly apologized and abruptly left saying, “I am kind of a stickler for language. I need to catch this man while he is here.” Five minutes later she came back and showed me what had felt so urgent. She was holding the draft of a brochure that had on the front in bold letters, “Serving the Community.” She had crossed out the words “Serving” and had inserted “Engaging with…”
She went on to explain that the word serving carried with it a subtle patronizing attitude. We in the educated, mainline Protestant, middle to upper middle-income churches just assume that we are the ones who should be serving as if we have something that those “less fortunate” than us desire, yearn for and even deserve.
This is tricky business. Because the truth is most of us in our Presbyterian churches have been blessed out of proportion to the rest of our society and certainly our world when it comes to material security and educational opportunities. I am reminded of the statistic that even the poorest Americans are still richer than about 90% of the rest of the world. Which means the typical Presbyterian is sinfully rich by world standards.
So I understand this almost automatic assumption that it is our duty, our obligation, our Christian calling to “serve and not to be served.” To be as well-off as we are without a sense that we owe some of our time, a portion of our resources and our compassion for others less well-off would be sinful and shameful.
But I think my friend, our faithful ruling elder, is on to something. This issue was important enough to her that she almost ran away from our conversation mid-sentence to make sure that she made the point that her church’s messaging to the community was not about “serving,” but “engaging with the community.”
I immediately got what she was saying. The night before I was participating in the Annual Spring Concert of the Portland Peace Choir, a group I joined this last November. Our theme this year was “Home.” One of our members staffs the Sunnyside Warming Shelter in SE Portland and she suggested that with the theme of home we should consider partnering with the Sunnyside Community House (A United Methodist Ministry). Look at the language that she used. Not serving the clients of Sunnyside, but partnering with.
Last Saturday the Portland Peace Choir and the Sunnyside Community House performed together a repertoire of songs about home and belonging. PPC sang a set, then four of the houseless Sunnyside clients performed solo pieces on various instruments, and PPC sang another set of songs like “You Inspire Me” and “Show Me Love.”
Then came the finale.
The Sunnyside clients joined us up front as we sang together “Home” by Greg Holden and Drew Pearson—the thirty members of the PPC choir rocking and singing on risers and the four Sunnyside clients accompanying us on piano, guitar and drums (or should I say that they were playing and the choir provided the back up voices!). There it was, “engaging WITH the community.” I know our choir was served just as much as we served them. Together, the housed and houseless, performed a concert about what it meant to “be home.”
It was especially poignant for me because a few days before our performance I was forced to accept what a gift we had been given by the Sunnyside Community House clients. “Matt” was one of the guitarists who accompanied us at our Wednesday night dress rehearsal. It was clear that given his circumstances that getting to a rehearsal was no easy task. He came in on a bike with a guitar over his shoulder and a little ragged from making the transition from street life to starring musician.
The next night I was on my way to a meeting when I came around a corner and saw a tent tucked neatly into the side entryway of a NE Portland business just a few feet from a busy thoroughfare. Next to the tent was a guitar in its protective black case. And emerging from the tent was “Matt” preparing his space for another night hidden in the shadows of Portland’s urban landscape.
Two nights later “Matt” and his friends and the Portland Peace Choir were singing together in a performance dedicated to the theme of home, belonging, connection, justice, and love.
Here is what I want to say.
That night we all became preachers. We all became bearers of the message of home and belonging. That night we were all equals. That night no one was more fortunate or less fortunate. That night we were all brothers and sisters trying to find our way in this crazy, screwed up world. That night we all sang about home—some of us who live comfortably in our 4-bedroom houses and some of us who emerged from tents only hours before. We were a community—if only for a night.
I love that I am in a denomination committed to serving the community. But serving the community often carries with it an attitude of who is in and who is out, of who has all the goodies and who doesn’t, of who should be serving and who needs to be served.
Serving the community is wonderfully honorable.
Engaging with the community is a sign of God’s radically inclusive kingdom.
We are all God’s people whether we live in houses or tents.
We often serve out of our excess and abundance. We engage when we are ready to share our common humanity.
We are all in this together–everyone! I mean EVERYONE!