My biggest struggle with the Episcopal Church’s newfound focus on evangelism is that is starts from an assumption that we have the answers. As we grow ever bolder in telling each other to “go forth” and “be the Jesus movement” I wonder why we assume Jesus is starting in our churches. Perhaps my unique situation has left me doing evangelism backwards, but at this moment I’m learning the Gospel in the world, and weeping as cries of Jesus in my friends go unheard in the church.
It is in my work, listening to survivors of intimate partner violence take steps to reach safety, often fighting stigma, isolation and their faith communities along the way, that I see resurrection being lived. At the boisterous table of a local college, full of people who’ve found themselves rejected by the local churches (including the Episcopal Church); I join in a sacramental meal with others who are hungry for a life that transcends the limits of this world. Instead of a home, my community is a scattered group of friends, of many different beliefs and unbelief. It is they who hold me as I cry under the weight of discrimination. It is these people, many of whom have left organized religion years ago who tell me that God didn’t make a mistake in me. And it is in those moments that I can feel the Gospel come to life. For it is in these places of the world, the “mission fields” that church is gearing up to save, that I’m actually at home.
It is hard to admit this, especially in a church that values the appearance of being well put together. When we speak of the challenges of going into the world, I don’t ever see conversations about people like me who are more comfortable eating at soup kitchens than the hotels we schedule our conventions. Indeed, the more I learn about oppression and bias in the world, the less welcome I am on Sunday morning. The more comfortable I get in naming my discomfort when we blame mass shootings on “the crazies” instead of engaging in our own role in perpetuating a culture of violence, the more I’ve been told to be quiet. As I get more forceful in demanding that I be treated as the person God made me, the more I am told to tolerate erasure for the sake of relationship. When I bring up an aspect of oppression that we engage in, by active participation or silently complicity, I am asked to not be disruptive. I watch in pain as the marginalized people I keep lifting up, my dying friends, are so often reduced to a ‘controversial new issue’ that we aren’t ready to engage with.
I’ve fallen silent online because I don’t know how to blog about faith when I’m desperately hungry for a sacramental vitality that feel so distant. For example, as I sat with the pain of General Convention and my rising alienation from my home parish, I needed to change my rule of life. On those pages I had written “I will attend the Eucharist at least weekly” because I was inspired by the richness of life I experienced when daily Mass was a part of my routine. After this summer that statement became restricting. After much painful discernment I’ve found it to be sinful to expect myself to endure dehumanizing otherness simply to participate in the rites of the church. That line has since been expanded to read in full:
The sacraments, those set rituals and spaces where heaven and earth are joined with the full communion of saints bearing witness, are for me also the epicenter of invitation and exclusion. Caught between the eternal invitation of Love and the time-bound exclusion of language, those moments of life can also thrust me back into the shadows. Thus in the this next phase of my Christian growth I commit to participation in the sacraments when doing so will not cut me off from Christ’s loving presence. In times when I am unable to worship with my siblings I will allocate time for intercessory prayer, that we all may be one as You and the Father are one.
Throughout this transition, from star Episcopal young adult on the ordination fast-track, to one fed by the presence of Jesus in the world while ministering to a church that denies him daily, I’ve never lost my love of ritual and liturgy. Each time I come to a service where I can dare to hope that it will be inclusive, tears burst forth, as I drink in the worship as a starving person might water in the desert. In the absence of those places, I’ve spent so many nights crying myself to sleep longing for a church home that sees me, and loves me for all that I am. I’m desperate for a faith community that takes my awareness of inequality along my comfort in the forbidden places as the gifts that they are, instead of as a threat to stability. Indeed, I’m dying for lack of a place where I can enter the celebration of the Eucharist without being told that my name is unimportant, and my pronouns are too complicated. All of this is happening while I am still an active member of a church that shapes its advertisements around ‘welcome’ and constantly tells me how good I have it here.
Because of this pain, when this prompt first came out, I was going to skip it. How could I go to Galilee, when I can barely bring myself to endure the dehumanization and separation that is so often asked of me within our Episcopal Church? How could I write about evangelism, when I’m currently learning more about the Gospel from the people who’ve left, then the ones who expect me to stay?
It was in these questions that I began to see how it is that I can be growing into my ministry and away from the body that first sent me to it in the same moment. My Galilee is not the mission fields of the world, but the Episcopal Church. Instead of the childhood salvation plan I once forced on to others, I am called to bring the Gospel back into my own worshiping community by testifying to the places where fear and pride are keeping us from the death that could, through the power of Jesus, bring us back to life. I feel like an alien on Sunday morning, because I’ve met the living God in the faces of the oppressed and broken.
So as we speak of going forth, I offer this reflection. When we think about evangelism are we doing our own work to be sure we are ready for them. When we issue the invitation, are we asking ourselves the hard questions? When we go into the world do we expect those we meet to conform to our expectations? Or do we dare to offer the unthinkable Gospel of mutual transformation in the name of Jesus Christ?