Monday, December 12, 2011

Eavesdropping on the El Tracks

Last Saturday afternoon, I was standing on the Belmont El platform waiting for a brown line train to arrive, huddled in a small heated nook of the platform with about half a dozen other people. The cold wind whipped mercilessly across the platform and cut through the shivering crowd as we tried to retreat further into our scarves and coats.  We seemed to be waiting rather a long time, so I eventually noticed that a young woman behind me was talking quite loudly on her cell phone.  Considering how tightly we were packed into this small space, it was impossible not to eavesdrop, and I unintentionally began to attend breathlessly to her conversation.  The brief snippets I heard behind me didn't give me much to go on, but I knew it was about religion, and the tone was not positive.  "Well, I used to go to church, because I was raised Catholic," she announced, "but it was . . . I don't know . . . like fake."  I waited for the next damning line.  "Uh huh.  People seemed so hypocritical . . .  uh huh . . . but yeah, they were totally fake.  But she goes there, and so I told her . . . "  I have no idea who the "she" was, but as a churchy person, I instinctively rallied to this unnamed woman's side against the naysayers.  Then the conversation took on a surprisingly theological tone.  "The Dalai Lama was reincarnated, but Jesus died and came back to life."  This was quite a chat, and I almost wanted to turn around and ask the young woman what her friend was saying so I could get the full play-by-play.  But I didn't.  I faced the other direction and kept my big mouth shut.

It was a fascinating conversation, at least the little of it that I heard while waiting under the heat lamp.  I wonder what this woman would have thought, though, if I had told her that I was waiting for a train to take me to church to watch a colleague get ordained to the priesthood.  I'm sure it would have been an instructive chat, and I would have welcomed an opportunity to talk about this church experience that she so indicted with the word fake.  It's an indictment that I take seriously and to which I am very sympathetic.  I have visited several congregations, for example, that have described themselves as friendly and hospitable, and yet nobody from these churches said one word to me or even gave me a nod of recognition while I was there.  I was invisible.  It is too bad that this young woman and many others view the church as fake, hypocritical, judgmental, elitist, and a host of other attributes that conflict with the understanding of koinonia, Christian community experienced as communion or participation.  

Photo courtesy of Sue Cromer.
When I arrived at the ordination at All Saint's Episcopal Church, the feeling was the complete opposite of what the young woman had described.  Here was church that was authentic, instead of fake.  In retrospect, I wonder if I should have invited her to come with me--although she was clearly on her way somewhere else--to offer her a different vision of this Christianity that had so failed her.  Perhaps she would have nodded her head when the preacher talked about the many ways Christians are called to look the hurts and needs of the world in the face and respond through active ministry.  Citing the prayer for the feast of St. Nicholas whom we were commemorating that day, she would have heard the preacher emphasize that the Church's mission is to "work for the happiness of children, the safety of sailors, the relief of the poor, and the help of those tossed by tempests of doubt or grief."  At communion, she would no doubt have been stunned to watch the deacon pop the corks off of bottles of champagne and empty their contents into the chalice as a sign of the celebratory hope and joy embodied in the life of the Church.  And someone would have certainly welcomed her and asked her her name.  What would she have thought?  Would it have made a difference?

I have always said that theology begins at the front door, which is why I am usually to be found before mass on Sunday on the front steps greeting people as they enter.  But I am aware that this is profoundly inadequate.  No one is ever going to revise his or her experience of the Church as fake or hypocritical if we never bring this alternative vision of welcome, joy, celebration, and sincere compassion to the El platforms and other public places, where we encounter people who wouldn't dream of darkening the doorways of our churches.  That is why I am so grateful to those Christians who provide a visible witness of their faith as a force of justice, mercy, and peace in places where others would not expect to see it, such as in administering ashes to commuters on the El tracks and downtown plazas on Ash Wednesday.  Surely we can engage in more moments like this.  I am not suggesting, of course, that every congregation start popping bottles of champagne, but rather to embody, in their own authentic ways, the spirit of new life that can come with belonging in the Church. 

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