How can it already be March? We’ve made it almost through the first week and I haven’t posted anything about my habit change for the month. This is because I haven’t really made one – I’ve been trying to keep up with sleep and real dinners and all the other changes I’ve made since November. Now it’s March 6 and I should probably make another change. In thinking about what I most want to change this month, I realized that the answer lies with my semester long ethnography project, which happens to be with a church. We haven’t talked about religion on Project Minify before, have we? That’s because it’s an often divisive and deeply private subject that I haven’t felt the need to ramble about on the internet. This ain’t the Bible Prophecy Corner. But last month was all about acceptance, and I think it kind of worked – I’ve got nothing to hide. So let’s talk faith for a minute (or 10. This post is a long one). I promise there will be no evangelism, altar calls or requests for an offering. Those are fine and dandy, I suppose, for those who practice them – this blog most definitely does not. It’s got a religiously diverse readership and I like it that way, so don’t run away at the first mention of faith, because mostly, I want to talk about community, and social justice, and the role of faith groups within them.
I picked this church in particular to spend a semester with because of their interest in social justice, which I share. Spending time with them has been remarkable. I had burned out on church a while back, because of the infighting and judgmental attitudes that I had started to see as endemic to most religious practice and discourse, Christianity in particular. I say this as a deeply committed Christian: I was, for quite a while, very afraid of church. I was afraid of joining one more church where I heard people spouting off hard and hateful things. I found a denomination that felt safe, where that stuff didn’t really happen, but I remained cautious about most other churches. So I must say this: I’ve been hanging out with a new church for two months now, and I haven’t heard anyone say anything of the kind, because that’s not what they’re about. This church, so different from my own, is also very much the same: they are all about following a God who loves the world and everyone in it, and who wants them to do the same.
The intersection between social justice and faith has always been interesting to me, because churches (and other faith based and religious institutions) have been at various times great forces for social justice in the world (as in the case of all of the ministries that feed and teach and clothe and visit people, medical missions, disaster relief support) and also perpetrators of great injustices (war and oppression often have religious support and philosophical underpinnings. The Taliban was a religious as well as political group. The KKK burned crosses to scare people, but they also considered the cross a symbol of their “Christian fellowship,” and regularly sang hymns and prayed during their meetings). Social justice is a big, amorphous concept, and it can be enacted (as can injustice) in radically different ways. Right now I see churches actively working to build wells in parts of the world without access to safe drinking water, and providing amazing homes and foster care supports for children who need families, but I also see churches working to prevent queer members of our communities from having basic civil rights or social acceptance. Sometimes a single church fights for and against social justice, on different fronts, simultaneously. I find it both academically interesting and deeply troubling.
This will likely be the only time I ever quote scripture on my blog, because I don’t wish to be evocative of a TV preacher, so take a screenshot with which to remember the occasion. This is the scripture that has meant the most to me, that sums up my own attitudes toward the way those of us who profess to be Christians are meant to enact our faith:
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8)
There’s a quote all over the internets, generally attributed to the Talmud, that parallels this. It’s not directly from the Talmud (other than the last line) – it’s more of an amalgamation of Micah and Pirkei Avos. But it’s beautiful, and it’s been a touchstone for me ever since I found it:
Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.
So we are admonished to live, by Micah and the internet. But if this is good, if this is what we are required to do, where is our mercy? Where is our justice? And where on earth is our humility? The church has been drawing us/them divisions and pointing fingers for about as long as there has been a church. Really. You can find it in the Gospels, and in the writings of Paul. It is, somehow, a pattern we fall into. And for a long time, it’s a pattern that caused me to write off church, and religion, altogether. It didn’t alter my faith. I was pretty sure it wasn’t God’s fault we were behaving so badly toward one another. But I came to see church and faith as two separate things, and it remained that way until I found the Quakers.
To name my bias: my denominational affinity lies with the Religious Society of Friends, which is to say that I am a Quaker, in name and philosophy if not in regular practice. The Quakers were welcoming to me, and aligned with my views of what church should be doing (the meeting I joined was taking in Katrina refugees, advocating for better environmental stewardship, a group of pacifists who practiced extraordinarily brave, peaceful civil disobedience in opposition to war and in support of everyone’s civil rights). So we’re a bunch of politically progressive hippies who sit around in silence for an hour and then (quite often) have a big meal. Quakers are predominantly Christian but embrace religious diversity, which I love – inclusion and acceptance are a good model for any faith group. Quakers don’t have clergy (anyone who feels called to may speak), or liturgy, or elaborate spaces for worship (often our meeting house is in fact a plain old house). Quakers tend to live, and worship, very simply, and I have always liked that about them. Much of my philosophy of simple and sustainable living, which led to Project Minify, stems from my Quaker beliefs. And my commitment to social justice absolutely is rooted in my Quaker-ness. And so I still claim the label even though these days I don’t attend Quaker Meeting as often as I would like. Life gets in the way, and I’ve had trouble putting down roots in the town we moved to over two years ago. But faith has been a great source of community and peace and grace in my life, and I’ve been wanting more of that to balance out all of the stress and grief in the world.
So I sought out a church that was not Quaker, but shared a deep commitment to social justice, and asked if I could spend the semester with them. They’ve been incredibly welcoming to me. It’s very different from what I’m used to (for one thing, instead of 20 or 30 people who gather to sit in a circle in silence for an hour, they’ve got hundreds of people, a worship rock band and big screen TVs), and I am a student in this context as well as a worshipper…but I’ve loved it. I’ve met some amazing people, eaten a lot of great food, fellowshipped and felt like a part of something.
For me, faith matters. It’s what gives meaning to my world, and I really think it’s made me a better person. This is because I grew up with a God who loves us instead of judging us, and admonishes us to do the same with our neighbors. I wish that church could be more like that, instead of a place where the (self)righteous exclude and marginalize the “unsaved,” the “sexually immoral,” and others who deviate from the norms the churches wish to enforce. I wish that churches would love the world with open arms the way that I genuinely believe that God does – with grace and acceptance. What I’m starting to realize this semester is that sometimes, churches do manage to do that, and those are the moments when I get to see real grace alive and embodied within the world. And that’s the kind of place that I want to belong, the enactment of faith I want to be a part of. There have been some amazing moments this semester when I have gotten to see that kind of grace. I don’t know what the end of this semester will bring, whether the church that has been so welcoming to me will constitute a more permanent home, but for this time in my life, I am really enjoying fellowship with this community. They have such good hearts.
My resolution this month is to participate more fully in this community of faith. In addition to attending Sunday services, I’ve been going to the young adults group on Tuesday nights. This week I signed up for two bimonthly events – one cooks for and then eats with homeless people on the streets of our city two nights a month. The other gets together to watch a movie and then discuss the message, which I thought might be a fun way to meet people and get to know what they think. That all starts this week, with movie night.
I don’t wish to imply that I am proselytizing in this post. My faith doesn’t really involve a hell construct, so I don’t have much impetus to evangelize – it’s not for me to save or change others, but only to treat them as I wish to be treated (and I wish for others to respect my beliefs and not impose theirs upon me, so I endeavor to do the same). But I do think it’s safe to say that we all need community, so whether it’s a faith group, a place you volunteer, a group of friends or some other place to belong – go out and participate more fully. So often we interact with the people we work and go to school with, and with our families, but we let other social ties dry up. Instead, I think we should branch out, put down new roots and strengthen the old ones (this tree metaphor is entirely played out). What I mean to say is this: love the people around you, and spend time with them. Enact meaningful community. That’s what I’ll be doing this month!