If you grew up in a Baptist church in the south you had an older man who gave out candy to the kids on Sunday morning, dressed up like a clown or with an orange cowboy hat or crazy hair or whatever for church events. The guy who would juggle or make balloon animals at these events. You know who I am talking about….
You also if you grew up in a Baptist church in the south, at some point you wore the same brightly colored t-shirt as 40 of your peers in honor of a musical, a mission trip, church camp, See You at the Pole or just to be a “witness”. These varied from advertizing your event, your church, or advertizing Jesus. You may or may not have be either comforted by the camaraderie and the power of the communal t-shirt or awkwardly uncomfortable but unable to fully shake the situation… No matter what you know who I’m talking about….
If you are like me you may be in the recovery phase, where your faith has been liberated from the strange legalism and evangelical sub-cultural of your childhood and you probably think yourself as removed from the man with the orange cowboy hat. Maybe you are, I however have not had that option and I go to church with some of these folks.
I live in a large, very Catholic city in the Midwest now, in the inner city. There are four kind of churches: 1. Dying churches, 2. Terrifyingly conservative churches, 3. my church (conservative side of moderate), 4. Catholic Churches . If I went to the suburbs I would drive an hour and likely end up either 1. In something like what I grew up with, 2. something kin to Unitarian (I still like Jesus), 3. Dying church.
Yesterday, I encountered these phantoms from my childhood and it broke my heart.
My church is trying to start a healthcare ministry for our inner city neighbors. Good idea in theory except if you actually look at the data, the area is saturated with health care ministries considering the church is 1 mile from a giant university hospital and one of the top children’s hospitals in the world. I had much misgivings about the model of health care delivery but I knew that at the heart my church was trying to respond to the poverty that is all around us. From the elders’ perspective they have no less than 10-12 doctors/medical students in a church plant of 100 members. When I confronted them about doing a needs assessment or doing something that was more of a need than a saturated issue, I was told that was not where God was leading. Despite my best judgement, I reluctantly ended up in charge of the pediatrics area which I tailored to health education and away from the saturated area of health care delivery.
Thursday night, my small group was asked to help deliver fliers around the area to promote the event. I was even less thrilled about this but I went. I arrived and they were assigning neighborhoods. No one wanted to go to “Smithville”. Smithville is a notorious neighborhood in the city, with a reputation for violence, abandoned houses, bed bugs (literally) and the homeless. One guy said, “I just wouldn’t even know where to go down there to hang up a flier.” I know Smithville very well, its where my faith based community health center is, I go there every week. My patients all live in Smithville, my medical assistants live in Smithville. My mentor lived in Smithville for many years when his kids were still home. I spoke up and say “We will go to Smithville, I know it well.” Everyone looks at me warmly, (OH THANK GOD we dont have to go down there in the rain and dark). My two group mates (my boyfriend and another girl) look slightly less warm. My boyfriend however knows that I am truly the only person who knows Smithville. I oddly feel relieved because I feel at home in Smithville. So we go, we leave fliers at a Western Union and a few shabby convenience stores because there are few restaurants, only one gas station and one crumbling grocery store in Smithville. Its what we call a “food desert” ,its such a bad neighborhood and so poor that the chain stores won’t build there so many families have to take a bus to get basic supplies. My boyfriend and I both run into people we know, the petite girl from our church with us looks at us like we are crazy.
Then Saturday dawns beautiful and warm. I am representing the Smithville Community Health Center among other responsibilities so I pull on a t-shirt from our annual community walk and community day. I walk into my church lugging boxes of education supplies I will need for our health education games to find 100 mostly white young adults in matching t-shirts that say our church’s name and “showing cross cultural love”. Then I saw a man with an orange cowboy hat making balloon animals in the back surrounded by middle aged white people who were from a suburban church that had come to help. I almost dropped the boxes, ran back to my car and went back to bed (on my one day off from the ICU no less).
Because nothing says equality and relationship building like wearing a T-shirt that points out A. we are from different cultures and B. our love of the “other” is apparently tied to our membership in this church. Nothing like starting out with our differences and discounting our likes. Wouldn’t you love to be invited to an event where a bunch of people wanted to love you like that? That’s not intimidating…or demeaning… or like some sort of bad youth group flash back….or gimp camp flashback (but that is another story entirely…)
I regained my composure and avoided the volunteer and member check in area. I just never went over there. My boyfriend showed up with my name tag 20 minutes later. He was wearing a pained expression and a black variety of the cross cultural love t shirt. They had got him. His expression told me that he had not gotten much of a choice.
Then came the awkward two hours where no one showed up….no really. No one showed up. Meanwhile we stood around with our iphones, matching shirts and talked. My boyfriend tried to politely include the suburban church goers who were cowering in the corner with their well dressed children around the man with the orange hat. They gave us a lot of one word answers. We felt like they were not interested in cross generational love (not on the t-shirts…). SO we gave up after a while.
Finally, some folks showed up, most of whom were children. We took them through, the health education games which were a huge hit, especially the one about bike helmets that involved a fake brain and dropping a egg on the floor. All of the matching t-shirts began to gather around my little crowd of kids and pediatricians few of whom wore t-shirts. Suddenly I am the health fair, I’m the only thing that is working. I’m uncomfortable with being a savior of a project that I feel is not entirely well founded and distract myself with taking pictures of adorable children learning about urban safety and nutrition.
Meanwhile about 30 minutes after the first few families trickle in, the suburban church volunteers disappear. I feel oddly relieved.
A few more families come, we break some more eggs, I sign someone up for a new primary care doctor at Smithville. Then all of the suddenly, I hear a loud exclaim amongst the crowd of bored volunteers in matching t-shirts proclaiming cross-cultural love, “I HAVE THAT SHIRT TOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!” says a voice in the crowd. Suddenly, I encircled in the arms of a 9 yo African American girl in a stained sweat shirt with smeared face paint on her cheek. “Did you walk for Smithville, last year? she asks enthusiastically . “I DID AND I HAVE THAT SHIRT!!!” she exclaims loudly, so that all my matching t-shirt onlookers can see and hear her.
Suddenly, I have tears in my eyes over this little girl and the power of her statement because she just said the most profound statement about cross cultural love, community development and the gospel that anyone has said all day… Here is a little girl from the neighborhood that my church wants to reach but is too afraid to go down into at night who came to the place that was safe for US (the white evangelicals), our little of evangelical haven of a church in the mist of a inner city neighborhood and instead of finding all the ways we were different, she finds something that we were the same. Something silly, something like an old 5K t-shirt that I was partly wearing as an act of rebellion, maybe even sinfully. She also pointed out the power of including the actual people who live and are from a community in a community development initiative. No one wants to be someone cross-cultural love project (did I mention gimp camp…)
My boyfriend and I pack up the boxes, receive lots of awkward pats on the back for our contribution, making both of us even further uncomfortable. We go out for our anniversary dinner where we had our first date and he turns to me and says “Amy, that was about our church, not about the people who came. We had people come to us where we felt safe and affirmed, we didn’t go to them” I sigh and thank God for him, for saying what I have been trying to articulate for 6 weeks but failing to in planning meetings.
Today in church, my name was spoken from the pulpit as we praised the fair yesterday. I sat there like a stone, wishing that everyone would stop applauding for a project I felt failed miserably and frankly embarrassed me in front of my patients and their families. Then I just felt like the worst church member and doctor ever. I openly wept in worship. I confessed my bitterness, snarkiness of the whole experience I wasnt exactly offering much love to anyone-cross cultural or otherwise. I was quick to judge, slow to love. I’m sure someone thought I was particularly holy or so touched by the sermon or something. But I was also as I confessed, genuinely weeping for the people around me. Weeping because while yes caring for underserved children and teaching development is what I do for a living, its also the most profoundly worshipful, Christ meeting, defining experience of my life. Not because I saved the world or converted anyone, but because I sat down with my brothers and sisters, broke bread and learned from them…oh what I have learned from them…far more than I can ever teach. I want so badly to find a way to bridge that profound experience with the man with the orange cowboy hat and my sweet, young, little yuppie matching t-shirt church plant. I want them to know not just the horror of the so called poor but realize their own poverty, acknowledge the beauty of imageo dei in shared human dignity and the shared joy of listening to one’s story and realizing that the gospel is transcendent of bed bugs, matching t-shirts and our comfort zones.
I don’t want to save the poor or save anyone from their “culture”, I want God to save human beings in general and myself from my own culture first and foremost, starting with me and then the people in the matching t-shirts who I share a pew with (it actually not a pew, we are too cool for pews, its padded modern chairs) and the man with the orange cowboy hat. Because while I may think differently than I did when I was 15, these people are still my people. We worship the same God.