In President Obama’s elegant speech this week, memorializing the victims of the shooting in Tucson , he told how each citizen who was killed was active in the civic life of their community, including the fact that most had ties to a local church.
Many of us learned how to be part of our communities by attending church. We learned to listen to each other and follow a leader. To offer our help as volunteers and speak up when something felt wrong. We learned to be friends with the woman with Downs Syndrome, the crotchety old Deacon and the little kids, even when we were teenagers. Some of us learned to organize marches to protest a war or boycott grapes. We learned to put our cold, hard cash in the offering plate with no assurance that we would get anything in return.
The local church has long been an accessible center for community life and civil discourse, alongside the public school and town hall. It may be the only organized voice speaking up against injustice that some communities have. And it operates chiefly on the fuel of faith and goodwill. In a society where people are increasingly isolated and politically polarized, any institution that brings people together for the common good is vital.
There is an urgent need for the existence of spiritual centers where people can go for support and direction; where we can meet others who are different from us and find an experience of community more substantial than that on Facebook.
Don’t despair if Sunday morning worship is not the gathering point for everyone. Some people need a different kind of entry into community life. Whether the gathering is an AA group, a Girl Scout troupe, a senior lunch program or a political forum, your church has the potential to bring people together in uncertain times.
If you don’t house any community programs, think about it. Why don’t you? Would the neighborhood notice if you weren’t there? Is there another neighborhood you should be in? Or another kind of church that should be gathering in your space?
I know about a church that is in decline and doesn’t have much energy for community outreach these days. But once a year, they throw an ice cream social for the neighborhood. They scoop up free sundaes and the fire department brings over a truck for the kids to climb on. The neighbors wear name tags and point out their houses to each other. The church people, none of whom live there anymore, marvel at how the neighborhood is changing demographically year to year.
A book group at the local café, a theatre troupe, a prison ministry, a food pantry, or a multi-cultural fair are all ways churches can bring different kinds of people together to work on common goals. Of course, these events can’t prevent senseless tragedies like the one in Tucson, but they can prepare us for the challenges of living and working together in an anxious world.
It is easy to think of the things you personally would lose if you didn’t have your church. Consider also the benefits your community loses if your church is not a healthy agent of human connection.