I know what you need.

I’ve been thinking recently about evangelism. They haven’t been comfortable thoughts.

Evangelism weirds me out. I can’t get comfortable with the idea of going up to random people and telling them, “I know what you need [spoiler: it’s Jesus].” As a matter of fact, I don’t know what you need. I barely, if ever, know what I need. And people who are sure, without knowing me well, that they know what I need—church people, health care people, other people’s mothers—tend to be disastrously wrong, and to piss me off correspondingly.

A story: I was in the psych ward, again. I was sitting in the dining room, eating styrofoamy hospital ice cream and having a conversation with another patient about meds: bitching about prescribers, swapping side-effect horror stories, and sharing what has actually worked. This kind of low-key, repetitive insider bonding takes up a large percentage of one’s time on an inpatient unit, and forms a significant part of the healing process. For me, though, no meds had worked, and so I was telling my friend how my psychiatrist and I had decided to stop all my medications, and what a positive decision that had been for me. At this point a nearby staff member (a young edwardian-mustache-and-pocket-watch hipster) who’d been in the room but not part of the conversation interjected. “You know,” he said in a let-me-instruct-you tone, “A lot of psychiatric medications take a very long time to get into your system and take effect. So if you’re expecting them to start helping right away, you might be disappointed. You should make sure to wait a couple of months before you discontinue a medication.” Mental health crises tend to lower my bullshit tolerance dramatically, so instead of a polite “thank you,” I said bluntly, “Yeah. I know. After fifteen or so different medications, I did actually figure that out.”
The next day I pulled Mustache Dude aside and told him that it was patronizing, offputting, and unhelpful for him to barge into our conversation with his unneeded “advice.” I told him that it had already been heartbreaking for me to have my hopes for aid dashed again and again as one after another medication failed, without his implying that it was my own fault. I told him (maybe not in so many words) that his bedside manner needed work if he was going to be successful in mental health care. He apologized, but it was clear that he didn’t really understand what he had done wrong, wasn’t going to reflect deeply on it, and was simply humoring me. I let it go.

I think what Mustache Dude did here is sort of what we do with church, a lot of the time. We barge into other people’s lives without bothering to understand the context. “I know what you need: Jesus!” Never mind that it’s impossible to live in America today and not have Jesus (or something that gets called Jesus) be part of your consciousness whether you will or no. Never mind that, for so many people, faith communities have been loci of pain, shame, neglect, or hypocrisy, and asking them to come to church with you might well be asking them to relive trauma. Never mind that plenty of atheists and agnostics would say that they are quite happy and fulfilled already; that there isn’t actually a God-shaped hole in their lives, thank you all the same.

And yet–

And yet, when things in my life bring me great joy, I want those things for others; and I am sure that this urge to share what is good is itself a great good. And yet, Christians are called, by scripture and tradition, to evangelize, whatever that means. Euangelion, the Gospel, the good news. How do I take that seriously? How do I share the things that make my life good while still respecting other peoples’ autonomy and ability to know what is best for themselves? For me, this is part of a larger question: How do I reconcile ways that the church has been such a force for good in my life (and in the lives of so many) with the ways in which it has been such a cause of suffering? Books on what made the early Church successful, posts on earning the right to invite people to church, all the brass tacks that I originally set out to talk about here, they all come down to this: how do I–how dare I–invite others into this complicated relationship? How do I know whether it is what they need?

Rejecting Exile

My home parish hosted Walter Breuggemann for a weekend recently. And yeah, I geeked out over that about as much as you might expect. For someone like me, who spends a whole lot of time thinking about biblical scholarship and also about theology and also about mainline Protestant culture and about how to get these different worlds talking to one another, this was excitement on a par–dare I say it–with the release of a new Harry Potter book. (Not Deathly Hallows, though. Let’s not exaggerate here.)

Saturday’s lecture was a sweeping introduction to the prophetic texts of the Hebrew Bible, centering on the prophet as a voice subverting and resisting the dominant narrative of empire. The ideas were pretty basic, in the best way, and were thoroughly grounded, beautifully and clearly explained, and peppered with sharp wit. (One of the most pitch-perfect images came out of a digression into the importance and sacredness of the biblical canon: “It’s like having a family album. There are more attractive pictures of other people elsewhere…but this is our family.”) It was a lovely and inspiring day, and I strongly encourage you to listen to the whole thing, and honestly, that’s about all I have to say about that.

Sunday’s lecture (which you can and should watch here)–how do I put this–gave me considerably more grist for the mill. Breuggemann moved from talking about prophecy generally to talking more specifically about exile as a metaphor for the current state of the gospel community in America, and…I just didn’t quite buy it. I feel like it wouldn’t really be fair to fuss at specific pieces of his argument, since he made it pretty clear that his emphasis was more on the metaphor of exile than on the historical reality of Jewish exile which gave rise to that metaphor. He noted furthermore that no metaphor is going to fit its historical antecedent (is that the word I want?) precisely. Also, it’s cheating to attack specific points without first comprehensively paraphrasing his argument, which latter seems too much like work.*

But taking the historical argument apart piece by piece isn’t the point here. Breuggemann’s lecture got me thinking: is the metaphor of exile an authentic one for Christians today? Is it fair to think of ourselves, as Christians both individually and communally, as displaced, cut off from our “home,” isolated within a foreign community that is indifferent or hostile to us and that seeks at all costs to assimilate us to itself, or even to erase us altogether? Is it useful to envision ourselves in this way? Does it open us up to God and to other people?

One of the things that concerns me about the metaphor of exile is the variety of ways in which various people talking about the lecture before and afterward paraphrased it. As I heard it, Breuggemann’s argument was that Christians feel as though we are in exile due to an increasing sense that our baptismal values–the values of the gospel–are no longer (if they ever were) the values of the dominant culture. That is, we live in a world dominated by the cruel exigencies of the market rather than by the Christian virtues of generosity, hospitality, and self-giving love. Okay, cool! That is a sentiment I can get behind. But when I heard other people describe what they were hearing, there was a subtle difference: people talked about the demise of Christendom, that is, a world in which Christian culture was the default setting. People talked about feeling pushed aside, displaced, misunderstood. And I think these are two ideas which are fundamentally very different, but which bleed into one another incredibly easily. We need to distinguish between “We have an abiding sense that our baptismal values are not the values of the dominant culture” and “We’re anxious about not being quite as much the center of our own universe as we used to be.” The former is a deep concern for me. The latter is a grief that I think is probably understandable, but that, honestly, I really struggle to understand or sympathize with.

So, here’s a more tentative question: What does it do to other people to claim the language of exile? We claim a metaphorical exile; is that–can it possibly be–a neutral act with regard to those among us who are literally in exile? As I listened to Breuggemann’s lecture, I thought, What would a refugee with no support network and little English think of this? And honestly, I don’t have any idea. (Which is something I need to sit with.) Are we taking on the romance of exile without being privy to its disorienting, devastating grief?

And my last, still-more-inchoate thought: It seems to me that exile as a concept depends on the idea of a pre-exilic existence, a home that exists, somewhere, to which you maintain your loyalty, on which you pin your hopes. You used to be in control, have self-determination, live in your homeland. You used to be part of the dominant culture. Though it looks forward to the future, the exilic imagination necessarily has strong roots in the past. And I want to say that my identity as Christian is fundamentally at odds with this sense. The Kingdom of God is always already-but-not-yet, always looking forward, never looking backward. I guess this is where one could bring in Paradise and the Fall and say that really, we’re exiled from Eden; but that’s not a story that gets me very far. Because to me, saying “I want to return to Paradise” is like saying “I want to turn away from this world,” and I will always reject that. Always. The Kingdom of God, as we imagine it, is not some other place, from which we have been exiled, to which we will return. It is this place, transfigured into what we can even now see that it might be. This place is our home. That is the whole point.

 

 


*Okay, I’m going to cheat, just a little: 1. Breuggemann’s sweeping dismissal of empires as culturally sterile, homogeneous entities (“If you’ve seen one empire, you’ve seen all the empires;” “By and large empires do not have any visions; they just imagine keeping doing what they’re doing, but they do it better”) is just…not true. The Babylonian empire =/= Persian =/= Roman. There were definitely some strong similarities in the ways those empires chose to administer their vassal states, but that’s mostly because the Babylonians were really freaking good at it to begin with, is what I dimly remember. 2. He characterizes the formation of the Torah during the Persian period as a straightforward rejection of the culture of empire, rather than a complex borrowing, transformation, and appropriation of the high culture of the ancient Near Eastern powers. He cites Genesis 1 as a text that develops in order to show that “the world does not belong to the gods of the Persians, or the gods of the empire, but the world belongs to the God who has long loved the Jews”; but the very thing that makes this text work in that way is its total saturation in the mythology and literature of the powers it seeks to supplant.** 3. This is a little further out of my (former) area of expertise, but every time he draws a sharp dichotomy between the gospel community and the “market ideology” of contemporary global capitalism, I think, “Wait, didn’t capitalism develop within a Christian society? Do we really get to wash our hands of this market ideology?”

**WRT 1 and 2, I feel moderately confident that he knows that the historical situation was much more complicated than he’s making it out to be, and is simplifying for the sake of telling a coherent story to a non-specialist audience. Which opens up whole new vistas of puzzlement and frustration for me.  It just hurts me inside when people dismiss or malign the monumental achievements of human civilization to make a rhetorical point.

You, too, are the Body of Christ (part two)

So, in my previous post, I wrote about the dynamics at play when a sheltered Catholic (me) decides to attend a non-Catholic worship service.  In this post, I’ll share my reflections on the actual service I attended–a weekday low mass at an Episcopal church.  In general, I would say that the service itself was incredibly similar to a Catholic mass, the language was noticeably formal, and the people I met tried incredibly hard to be welcoming.

I had been thinking about going to a service at this particular church for a long time, and one night while walking back from the farmer’s market, I decided to make the time and just headed in, vegetables and all.  I was struck by how similar the church looked to the chapel at my undergrad–a little spare but beautifully decorated with stained glass windows and a little marble.  There were about 6 or 8 people there and a few more trickled in after the mass started.

One thing that I immediately noticed was the language of the mass.  The structure of liturgy of the Word then liturgy of the Eucharist and the call and response were very familiar–almost identical to a Catholic service.  But the language was so formal.  So many “thees” and “thous” and “speakest” and “hast”–I suddenly understood how very English the Episcopal Church is (or rather, how very Latinized the Roman Catholic Church is).  These language differences also made me think of the recent retranslations of the Roman Missal that caused so much uproar in the Catholic Church.  I, like a lot of Catholics, wasn’t a big fan of them when they first came around, for a number of reasons (some theological, some sentimental).  Though the retranslations intended to solve a number of errors and mistranslations, they have been widely criticized because of their clunky, formal style (“chalice” for “cup” and “enter under my roof” for “receive”, etc).  What is frustrating about these translations is that I work really hard to teach high school students that prayer (and liturgy) is simply a form of communication between God and humans, just like a conversation one would have with a friend.  When they finally believe me (it takes a lot of convincing) and see prayer that way, they inevitably are far less intimidated by prayer and are encouraged to treat their relationship with God like one of close friendship.  So here’s my problem: we don’t use words like “chalice” and “thee” and “hast” in conversation, least of all, conversation with our friends.  So can this kind of formal language create distance between the worshipper and God?  Does this kind of language adequately express how the average Catholic or Episcopalian would choose to converse with God?  I couldn’t help but feel alienated at this mass, like I felt alienated during the first few weeks of the Catholic retranslations.

Things really got interesting after the service.  I gathered my things to go and was greeted near the door by the pastor who celebrated the mass.  I chatted a little bit with him about what brought me there, my job, etc and he invited me downstairs where they were having fellowship, and the other parishioners there echoed the invitation.  I was a little hesitant but genuinely felt welcomed, so I went.

The fellowship downstairs was a lovely expression of Christian hospitality.  There was a simple meal of wine, cheese, crackers, fruit, etc.  Everyone brought something to share and everyone pitched in to set up the table.  We sat down to eat and discuss some Bible passages the pastor printed out to share.  I wasn’t sure what to expect but I was quite sure this had never happened at any Catholic parish I had ever visited.  (Talking with people you don’t know after Mass?  MADNESS.)

The Bible passage was a Psalm and it was wonderful to simply listen to what others thought of the passage.  Most of those present were older, so I was captivated by their listening to where they are on their faith journeys and how the Psalm could speak to them.  The conversation meandered, and eventually, we came onto the topic of the Catholic Church.  A few of those present appeared to be ex-Catholics and bore some pretty serious wounds from their histories with the Catholic Church.  Finally, the question came up as to why non-Catholics are not permitted to take the Eucharist in a Catholic Mass, i.e.: why belief is a prerequisite for partaking.  One woman spoke up and explained, “well, that just goes to show how differently we think about the Eucharist.  Catholics don’t believe in the power of the Eucharist; they think it’s just a symbol.  We think it’s effective and it makes us into the Body of Christ.”

At this point I should mention that I hadn’t been “outed” as Catholic yet.  Rather than serve as a mouthpiece for all things Catholic or violate what might be seen as a safe space to discuss painful experiences with Catholicism, I chose not to jump in and declare my Catholic identity.  However, Catholic educator alarm bells were ringing in my head at the characterization of the Eucharist as a symbol.  And ironically, this argument from effect is exactly what Catholic theology uses to explain precisely why non-Catholics cannot take communion–Catholic eucharistic theology also holds that because the unity among the churches of the Body of Christ does not exist yet, we cannot share the same Eucharist as if we did.  So the woman who spoke up really called Catholic theology to task in an important way, one that I hadn’t considered before: if we really believe the sacrament is not just a symbol, if we take serious its efficacy, can’t it make us into the Body of Christ?  Aren’t we saying that the Eucharist is just a symbol when it is shared only by those who are already united in faith?  Perhaps that is an overly simplified way to think about the effect of sacraments, but I couldn’t help but notice that from this Episcopalian perspective, Catholic theology looks like it doubts the efficacy of the Eucharist.

So I left that evening wondering–what will make us into the Body of Christ?  I don’t have a magic solution to that problem, but more than anything, I am glad that I went to this mass and glad I can continue to discuss theology with my non-Catholic brethren.  Such a rewarding experience is a great reminder for me to step outside the Catholic bubble more often.  It seems to me that sharing in the Eucharist, even with some restrictions, and trading ideas in theology is the best way to effect the Body of Christ here and now.

 

Young People In The Church (TM)

I am a young person in the church. It is great! I love my parish, and my church community is a source of friendship, spiritual sustenance, and purpose. As should surprise no one, I have some thoughts about what being A Young Person In The Church has felt like to me, and what we might do to welcome, incorporate, respect, and learn from other Young People. (Spoiler alert: Stop thinking of us in capital letters.) Some of these ideas come from things my congregation does really well; some of them originate with frustrating or hurtful encounters I’ve had. Some of this will probably be pretty specific to the Episcopal Church, and some of it probably will not be.

(NB: For the purposes of this post, Young People = anyone under 40.)

Please don’t tell us that we’re babies.

I feel like this should be obvious, and yet it keeps happening to me: someone (usually in his or her 40s or 50s) will ask my age, and when they hear it (28), they’ll exclaim, “You’re a baby!” Or I’ll describe a troubling or distressing situation–financial instability or vocational concerns–only to have it met with, “Well, you’re SO YOUNG” (the implicit corollary being that my difficulty in making rent is therefore not a serious problem). Or someone will say in my presence, “Anyone under 40 is just a baby to me.”

People. I am a grown-ass woman. I have grey hairs and wrinkles. I pay taxes, I get drunk legally, I try to live into my wedding vows. When you tell me that I’m a baby, you dismiss my whole life, all my suffering and struggle and hard-earned wisdom. You tell me that my life doesn’t count to you. This would be equally unacceptable if I were a college student, or even a high school student. We all have wisdom to offer. We all have suffering that needs to be acknowledged. We are all very members incorporate in the mystical body of God’s Son, the blessed company of all faithful people; and are also heirs, through hope, of God’s everlasting kingdom. We all count.

Ask us to do stuff.

By which I mean: invite young people into leadership positions; not just as acolytes or youth fellowship groups, but as vestry members, as members of the committees that make the big decisions. When you’re choosing a group to think about what you want your church’s future to look like, to think big, to decide how to allocate your money and how to grow your church, ask young people to be part of making those decisions.

By which I also mean: invite us into areas of church life that don’t just have to do with worship. Ask us to help serve coffee hour, or to be on the Altar Guild, or to volunteer to help serve the homeless, or to bring the Eucharist to sick parishioners. Let us know that we’re needed, and help us feel that the church is ours, too, and we’re not simply filling a pew on someone else’s sufferance. Be our friends. My parish is particularly good at asking people to do stuff, with a fantastic ministry of hospitality and welcome to newcomers, and it’s made such a difference in my life.

Facebook is a red herring.

You guys, I have sat through so. many. sermons. about Facebook. And The World Wide Web. And the perilous allure of Technology. At best, these make me roll my eyes, and at worst, they make me furious. It’s sort of like re-watching the early seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where they set up Willow as the computer wizard who “surfs the net” using the wonders of dial-up: these episodes just don’t wear well, and I can’t really take them seriously. But any discussion about Young People In The Church must apparently include some reference to Facebook, which makes it hard for me to take any discussion about YPITC seriously.

Technology moves very fast, and it’s hard to keep up with (like, what is Snapchat? Is it or is it not purely for sexting? Discuss.), and I get that it’s scary to have this huge pervasive element that wasn’t so much a part of people’s lives a generation ago. And yet, no matter how fast technology changes, people don’t change. People still need the same things we have always needed: sustenance, shelter, community, God. Our tools evolve, but what we’re trying to do with those tools remains pretty stable. The fact that many young people create communities on the internet does not change the fact that we need community. Focus on that.

Spend some money on us.

Fund youth ministry programs, church summer camps, college chaplaincies. Invest in Christian formation for all ages. Ask that your youth ministers be professionals, and compensate them accordingly, both financially and with respect for their roles and gifts. This article by Frederick Schmidt says it beautifully:

Youth and campus ministry need to be treated as a vocation and destination and not as heavy lifting done by someone young enough to survive a week at camp with a hundred kids. That means paying youth ministers as if they do something critical. That means cultivating an approach to the vocation that makes it possible to continue doing the work as long as they feel called to do it. And it means eliminating structures that suggest that this is something worth doing only as long as you are young, unattached, and willing to eat pizza.

Think of us as people rather than members of a demographic. Treat us as an end rather than a means.

One thing I don’t much like in the article linked to above is that Schmidt opens by citing the (admittedly troubling) decline in Episcopal Church membership and aging of its clergy and congregations, then presents his powerful plea for good youth ministry as a solution to this problem. Personally, I don’t want to be anyone’s solution to a declining church. I don’t want to be welcomed as a Young Person; I’d prefer to be welcomed as a real person. Similarly, youth ministry is important not simply because without it the church might not survive; it’s important because young people–like all people–have pressing spiritual needs, and because every person is infinitely precious in the sight of God, and because it’s our job as Christians to spread the light of Christ in the world.

We talk a lot in the church about seeing the full humanity of all people, and in the end, I think it’s as simple–and as difficult–as that. Young people are not babies. We are not alien masters of technology (I still don’t have a smartphone). We are not the holy grail sought by an aging church. We’re just people.

Mental illness and the Body of Christ

I spent the other day at the cathedral church for my diocese, going through the required training program to become a Eucharistic Visitor. (A Eucharistic Visitor—EV—is someone who brings fellowship and the Eucharist to members of the congregation who can’t make it to church for some reason.) It was…interesting. Some of it was new; some of it was useful; some of it was infuriating. For the most part, I felt a real camaraderie develop among the 16 or so of us trainees, who came from several different area churches. As the day progressed, I was impressed by the strength of faith, theology, empathy, and openness of my fellow trainees.

A large chunk of the training involved witnessing and performing role-played scenarios of the types of visits we might encounter. We were handed slips of paper with a brief description of the visitee’s age, situation in life, and temperament: Man, 79, is recovering from knee replacement surgery at home and is in generally good spirits but lonely and desirous of company. 66-year-old woman is dying of cancer in a hospital bed and has trouble speaking or swallowing. 89-year-old woman has recently moved to an assisted care facility; she is gregarious and invites several friends to participate in communion with her. We split into pairs and took turns playing the visitor and the visited; afterward we’d gather as a group to reflect on our encounters. Emphasis was placed on developing our empathy, both through practicing active listening and through creatively imagining ourselves into the situations we were given.

Great. Good. Until one pair of trainees turned out to have had a scenario involving a 21-year-old woman who was in a psychiatric ward for suicidality. And then—and I’m not sure exactly how to describe this—the atmosphere changed palpably. There was a discussion, punctuated by furrowed brows and wise nods, of how hard and unusual and strange this situation was, how difficult to reach the woman being visited, how glad everyone else was that they hadn’t drawn that slip of paper that would require them to pretend to be a young woman in a psych ward. Perhaps the most concrete example of what I mean is that one of the training leaders said, “Well, I just can’t imagine being 21 years old.”* Someone else immediately chimed in, “Let alone being suicidal!” It felt as though the discussion had abruptly shifted from exploring how to put ourselves imaginatively into someone else’s shoes to a relieved consensus that such empathy was obviously impossible.

This description is far more nuanced than I could have given at the time. In the moment, all I was aware of was the shock of going from feeling warm, welcomed, and safe to the opposite extremes. I could feel myself shaking with anger and struggling not to cry. I excused myself to the bathroom for a few minutes. I glared at my reflection in the mirror, balled and unballed my fists, wiped my eyes, took a breath, and went back out. The conversation had moved on, and no one had noticed that anything was wrong. Our day ended shortly thereafter.

What was wrong, exactly? I’ve spent some time pondering the situation, and here’s what I’ve come up with. We had been invited—directed—to put ourselves into the situations of the people we might be called upon to visit. The leaders reminded us repeatedly that one of the purposes of the exercise was to imagine what it was like for our visitees. But no one wanted to play the young woman in the psych ward. No one wanted to imagine what her life—my life—has been. And instead of acknowledging this reluctance as coming from discomfort, they said, “oh, it’s obviously too hard. It’s impossible, really.” And all these lovely, empathetic, warm, thoughtful people pushed me away, without even realizing that they were doing it.

You know what? I can imagine what it might be like to be 89 and in an assisted living facility. To feel your body change and start to fail you, and to worry that your mind will do the same. To feel that others are beginning to see you as irrelevant, while you know that you have more to offer than ever. To lose the dignity of autonomy. I can imagine what it might be like to live with chronic physical pain, or to lose one’s spouse of many years to death or divorce. I’m sure that what I imagine is different from individual reality; and I don’t think that putting myself into someone else’s shoes gives me any kind of ownership over their situation. But I try to imagine these things, and (even if I don’t always succeed in this) I try to listen to the narratives I hear from others for whom these things are a reality. So why did it feel as though these people were unwilling to do the same for me? Why, when we talk about mental illness in community,** is it always “them,” never “us”?

A suggestion: people are scared. This seems reasonable to me. We don’t want to think about bad things happening to us; we don’t know how we’ll deal with changes that shatter our world. We do nonetheless share a cultural understanding that we might get cancer, however shocking it inevitably is when it happens. We know that our best-case scenario involves growing old and the hardships that come with that. We know that all marriages end, whether by death or divorce. (See [please!] Louis C. K. on the matter.) But it’s terrifying to imagine that the sadness and despair that we all experience at some point could balloon, could devour our lives until we actively seek death. We don’t want that to be part of the human experience. We don’t want to be able to empathize with this. Perhaps on some level we’re afraid that, if we put ourselves into a suicidal person’s shoes, we’ll never be able to take them off.

I have been there, and I understand it. I find that even among the narratives of those who have been hospitalized for depression, there’s a curious desire to distinguish between the ones who are “really” crazy and the ones who just, you know, happen to be there. Between them and us. But there is no them; there’s only us.

Afterward, I wondered why this small incident of alienation had stung so much. It’s not as though something similar doesn’t happen pretty much every time mental illness comes up in pretty much any group I happen to be in. It’s not as though this was in any way unique or drastic in the annals of people alienating one another. What I kept thinking of was 1 Corinthians 12:21: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.'” This was a Christian context, and I had felt safe as a member of the Body of Christ. Until I didn’t.

*I should note that I appeared to be the youngest person in the room by perhaps 15-20 years.

**”In community” is important. One-on-one, I’ve found people to be remarkably sympathetic and usually eager to share stories of their own encounters with mental illness, either personally or in someone close to them. When I tell one person about my hospitalizations, I actually often have the opposite problem (though I suspect it comes from the same emotional place): they want to assure me that they know exactly how I feel, and they often have trouble listening to me because they’re filling the space with their own stories of depression. This bugs me, but I’ve certainly done precisely the same thing to other people more than I’d care to admit.

You, too, are the Body of Christ (part one)

I’m sort of ashamed to admit it, but I grew up in a pretty serious Catholic bubble.  I went to Catholic schools my whole life and grew up in a heavily Irish neighborhood.  My Irish/Polish and Mexican families are teeming with Catholics.  I don’t think I knew anyone who wasn’t Catholic until I went to high school.  In college, I met a number of Muslims and Jews, thanks to an explicitly inter-religious campus ministry, but my exposure to non-Catholic Christianity was quite limited.  Before I met Mary, I didn’t know the difference between the terms “Episcopal” and “Episcopalian.”  This is all by way of introducing the slightly embarrassing fact that before this year, I had never attended a non-Catholic Christian worship service.

This limited exposure wasn’t by design; I chose to go to Catholic schools, but I didn’t realize that by choosing Catholic education I was also choosing an environment  predominantly populated by Catholics and thus, not by other Christians.  I didn’t really think about how myopic I was until my sister decided to get to know our neighborhood and began conducting what she called “theological field trips,” where she went around to the Protestant* Christian churches in the area to visit at a different worship service each week.  As she rattled off the list of churches within a few miles of our house, I realized that I had passed those addresses a million times, but never noticed them because I never had a reason to go in.  I could name 15 or 20 Catholic churches in a few miles radius (like I said, really Irish neighborhood), but couldn’t list a single non-Catholic church.

As I’ve said, I am ashamed of this bubble. I’m ashamed because it means that by explicit choice or not, I have surrounded myself with Catholics and failed to experience and learn about the other half of the Christian church.  Such a Catholic dominated environment is dangerous primarily because it can lead a person to see the Catholic perspective as the normative Christian perspective.  It reminds me, in a way, of Peggy McIntosh’s analysis of white privilege where she lists “arranging to be in the company of people of  [one’s] own race” as the first example of white privilege.  I’m certainly not saying that ecumenical relationships are nearly as complicated or oppressive as race relationships/racism, but like it or not, there is a power dynamic at play if I can choose to surround myself with Catholic friends, Catholic schools, Catholic churches, and Catholic theological perspectives with ease and rarely encounter the “other” voice of the Protestant Christian.

Coming to understand this “theological privilege” is difficult and surprising for me because I am someone who tries to constantly analyze the privilege and power at work in the world.  Racial and gendered privilege are especially poignant issues to me and I would never accept such a ignorance or lack of exposure in any other realm of my life.  So I decided a few months ago to simply attend a worship service at a church of a different denomination.  A few blocks from my apartment is an Episcopal church so I attended a low mass at 6pm on a Tuesday night.  (Imagine that!  A mass at a convenient time for people who work! Ok.  End of snark.)   I tried my very best not to make it a “museum visit,” where I looked at the service from a detached, analytic lens, but to experience it as it was–a spiritual and religious service.  I’m happy to report that my overwhelming reaction was the feeling of being welcomed, by the pastor, the community, and the fellowship following the service.

I’ll  use another post to reflect on the actual service itself, as this post is growing mammoth, but let me end with this point: not to make excuses, but I think, unfortunately, this Catho-centric experience is really common for Catholics.  Perhaps its the size of the Church, the extensive education system, or the Catholic pride some feel, but there are some undeniable power dynamics at work in the Christian Church.  I hope that both institutionally and individually, Catholics have the self awareness to analyze these power dynamics, but also that our Protestant brethren participate actively in that discussion.

To end, I’ll note that the title of this post comes from a phrase that a cheeky Jesuit I know uses.  He says the masses for a particular retreat I lead, a retreat that is populated by mostly Protestants.  When they approach him in the communion line, arms crossed for a blessing, instead of the usual “Bless you in the name of the Father…” or “May Jesus live in your heart,” he says “You, too, are the Body of Christ,” with particular emphasis on the “too.”  When I realized what he was saying, and how refreshing that blessing might sound to a person deliberately excluded from sharing the Eucharist, I was struck by its spirit of inclusion and I hope to keep that strike that same spirit throughout my studies and theological exchanges with all Christians.

*For lack of a better one, I’ll use the term “Protestant” to describe the half of the Christian Church that isn’t Catholic, even though it defines those Christians in terms of the Catholic Church, and I do so with the understanding that this term lumps in about a billion Christians with a great diversity of beliefs into one word.  If others have a suggestion to describe what I’m getting at, I’d love to hear it.