Into the neighborhood
Everyone knows where they were. Everyone bears memories. Here’s one of mine, one of many. Our church in Manhattan was packed on the first Sunday after the attacks on the World Trade Center. The evening service, in particular, was much larger than usual. It was all unprecedented, so we wondered what the church’s response should be that Sunday, how to help people pray, what to read, what to sing, how to shape the liturgy to help people deal with fear and anger, sorrow and uncertainty, how to help people move forward. At the end of the evening service, our dismissal was an invitation to a procession. We filed out of the church, grabbing a candle as we left, making our way to the local fire station, a couple blocks away. We brought flowers, some refreshments. We thanked the surviving members of this team of firefighters. They had lost ten of their colleagues. We said prayers. That night, the church went into the neighborhood, in a way we had not before.
A year later, we were invited back to that neighborhood fire station to dedicate and bless a plaque. It was placed near the door where pedestrians could see faces of the firefighters, a reminder of their service, their heroism in the face of tragedy. I will always remember standing next to the captain at a podium set up in the garage, a crowd of family members, firefighters, neighbors. I will never forget the tears which rolled down his face, his head bowed to see his notes, those tears dropping off the end of his nose onto the paper he held with shaking hands to read what he’d written about each of his brothers.
That church has held a memorial service for firefighters each year since. They had one last Friday. They have learned what it means to go to the neighborhood. They haven’t forgotten.
Disciples go into the neighborhood. That’s what they do, because that’s what Jesus asked them to do. See the passage from Luke’s gospel, printed on the left. They go into the neighborhood like that congregation in procession to the fire station, meeting hearts that were broken, noticing service that was noble. The garage was not a church, not a religious institution, but it was a holy place. Firefighters had done holy work.
In so much of my experience of church, the work has been about getting people to come to church. Come to church (as long as you think the way we do). Come to church (as long as you look the part). Come to church (as long as you agree with us on social issues, whatever they may be). Come to church (as long as you think our music or our liturgy pass the taste test). Jesus spent a lot more time telling people to go. Go into the neighborhood. Go meet people where they are. Find out what is there. Discover how God is already present. Uncover opportunities for service. It’s a shame that it took the tragedy of 9/11 to get our congregation into the fire station, to recognize with gratitude the work that others do on our behalf, the holiness of that place. Would that we could do that on our own. This week, take a look at your neighborhood. What is God up to in your neighborhood? How is God calling you to listen, serve, heal? Where is God calling you to go?
– Jay Sidebotham
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.