I was lucky enough to have the amazing Rev. Dr. Samuel Dewitt Proctor as my advisor for my Doctor of Ministry program. Dr. Proctor was a professor of education at Rutgers University and the long-time pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City. He wrote an excellent book titled “My Moral Odyssey” in which he stated that a morally healthy person needs a healthy family, a healthy local community, and a healthy spiritual community. The book came out in 1989, and I worked with him soon after. We commiserated over our concern that very few people had all three of those things in their lives, and I believe things have gotten worse in the 30 years since I was doing my research.
I have read a number of articles and research projects recently pointing to an epidemic of loneliness that is gripping most of the world, at least what we call the Western world. People are yearning to belong, and if they can’t find it in healthy ways, they will often seek it out wherever they can find it. I think about all the churches I have visited over the years, and how off-putting so many of them were to me and others, and I completely understand why religious communities can often be the worst places for seekers to find belonging. It isn’t that healthy faith communities don’t exist; they just aren’t always easy to find. We tend to think of our faith as private rather than personal and we hesitate to talk about it for fear of insulting or intruding. I completely get that we are trying to be polite, but there is a middle ground. We can talk about God and the impact faith has on our own lives without being patronizing or oppressive.
I sometimes go to restaurants by myself, and I tend to eat at the bar so as not to take up a table. While I will engage with those around me (if they are willing), I usually mind my own business and listen carefully to the conversations going on around me. Some of these establishments are like “Cheers” from the 1990’s; everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came. Others are quite the opposite; they are hookup joints with sad people getting wasted together. I think that faith communities can be either one or the other; some of our churches are spirit-filled and loving and open to new people, while others are cold and functional and have reserved seating. Some allow laughter and joy; others are mechanical and rigid. When someone walks into the door of a church, they are looking for a place to belong, and our response matters. We should welcome them, but not overwhelm them. We should ask if they need anything, but not consume them. The worst thing we can do is to ignore them. There are so many other things they can be doing on a Sunday morning, and they have chosen to be with us. That means something.
We can’t fix every unhealthy family, and we have some control over the health of the neighborhoods we live in, but we are the answer to our spiritual communities and how they live in the world. We can help change the world for the better, or we can hunker down and wait for the last person to die so our building can be turned into retail space. God has given us the authority and opportunity to be a place of welcome and light and grace, but we have to reach out and take that authority. Because people are yearning to belong. Me and you and the stranger at the door. We need each other.
Prayer – You said once, God of all creation, that it is not right for us to be alone. Even if we live alone, we want to belong to something greater than us. Help Your families of faith to meet that yearning with joy. Amen.
Today’s art is a 24 x 32-foot mural (2011) in Vancouver, Canada called “The Belonging Action.” While 80 artists did the work, it was led by Melanie Schambach.