I was at a party, holding my plastic cup of beer and talking to a stranger in a crowded house. She was in thirties, like I was. "So, what do you do?" she asked. "Where do you work?"
I smiled because this part of the conversation can become really interesting. I'm a five-foot tall woman who's part of a generation that considers itself "spiritual but not religious," so people don't usually expect my answer: "I'm a pastor."
"Oh my God," she responded. "I never knew why anyone would go to church. But last year, my mom got sick. She's divorced, and I'm living hundreds of miles away from her, so I didn't know what we were going to do. And her church totally took care of her. They brought her meals. They drove her to the doctor. They called me when anything out of the ordinary happened."
"Yeah. That's what the good churches do."
"Really?" She looked completely confused as she continued, "I had no idea. You should really advertise that." I laughed, and we talked for a bit more about her career. But, her initial comments stuck with me as I walked away and snagged a rare empty space on the couch. I looked at the crowd of mingling people, and the loud music triggered my thoughts. It never occurred to me that people wouldn't know that churches care for the sick. What had church become in the minds of most people?
I wondered as I traced the condensation drops on the side of my cup. Do people only know our faith by what they see on Fox News? Has church become synonymous with the Religious Right? Has Christianity become known as a "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" kind of religion? What about our progressive congregations who are serving the poor, caring for the environment, and helping each other out? What about those who love our neighbors, even when they're going through difficulties? Do people even know we exist? And how would we advertise that, anyway? It's not like we are an elderly care service, someplace where you can drop your parents off so that we can take care of them and you don't have to worry. No, it's different from that. We're a community, which, I suppose, can be an alien concept in itself these days.
Our society rewards autonomy. In our educational system, the most important tests are the ones we take alone. We move away from our hometowns in order to get an education or a job. Then we keep relocating for every career opportunity. People would rather rely on high-interest credit cards than borrow money from their own family. Young men and women who are trying to enter an extremely difficult job market are considered losers if they live with their parents while they pay off their student loans. People put off marriage and parenthood, because there is a societal expectation that we must be financially independent before we become married (which is increasingly difficult when it takes two incomes to maintain household stability). In these days of economic turmoil, the young have been hit with student loans, high housing costs, and stagnant salaries. Older people have been smacked with increased medical costs, prolonged retirement plans, and diminished savings. As we realize how threadbare our societal safety net has become, it is becoming clear how faulty our notions of financial and emotional independence are. We need each other. We need communities.
While many civic organizations have become relics of the past, spiritual communities still thrive in our society, as a place of solidarity in all stages in life. In our sanctuary, there is a space where CEOs and homeless people sit together in the same pew. We're a gathering where people from diverse ethnicities work with one another. It is a setting where the young and the old support each other when we're in spiritual, emotional, or physical need. It is a place I can go to in times of faith or in doubt. When I'm too weak to hold any belief in God or myself, I know that a community holds it for me. And I can be strong for others when they falter. It is a sanctuary, in a broad sense of the term, where people can question and work to make the world a better place.
I don't mean to say that our community of faith is perfect in any sense. None of them are. We fight over silly things and we have expectations that far exceed our human capacities. There are some churches where people can just be downright nasty to one another. But in the right space, it is a place to build community, with all of our human messiness. It is a place where we can struggle alongside one another, helping one another in times of strength and weakness.
In this society where we are becoming weary, anxious and depressed with our struggle for autonomy and independence, there is a place where we still gather. We take each other to the doctor. We make food for one another. We care for each other. We see each other as neighbors and we still create community.