CALLED TO CHAOS (Part II)
When the meal was finished, we went to different stations around the room to scrape our dishes. From there I inquired how to get to the sanctuary. I could hear organ music. “Up the steps and then go through the door on the other side of the stairwell,” I was told. I got to the door opened it and realized I was smack dab in the middle of the altar. There was a lot of visiting between the members of the congregation and I noticed that down a few steps was a grand piano with bulletins on it. I surmised I was supposed to enter this way, hence the programs, so I did.
I found a pew near the back and sat next to a woman. She was bundled less warmly than my meal companions and I wondered how she had fared on the streets the night before. Other people were entering from behind me where the double doors to the sanctuary vestibule were. Two men dressed in plaid shirts and khakis handed out programs. They had neither coats nor sweaters, and a cold blast of air hit them every time someone opened the outside doors. I was beginning to wish I had sat farther toward the front. Nothing like physical discomfort to get the members to sit up front, I thought. But I realized quickly that the seats were full all over the church so there was no need to worry about getting people to the front rows.
The organ music stopped. A middle aged black man welcomed us and told us to stand and sing the hymn printed in the bulletin. We did. At the end a young woman stood up, the one in the sweatshirt and roughed up jeans from downstairs, asked for prayers for the congregation. All around the room hands went up. People needed prayers for those without homes, for friends or relatives with cancer, for the world at large where the war in the Middle East was endlessly expanding. After each prayer a plastic water bottle full of beans or buttons or small stones was shaken. The noise was deafening but short-lived. The prayer time ended with all holding hands making us a snake woven in and out and around the pews and repeating the Lord’s Prayer. I found myself holding hands with the pale little lady to my left and the big black man who sat to the right. Both of them had hands warmer than mine. I had not come prepared with hand sanitizer and I wondered if they minded holding my hands still sticky from lunch. They squeezed my hands at prayer’s end so I guess they didn’t.
Another extremely thin man stood up and asked, “What does God love?”
“A cheerful giver,” the congregation responded in unison. The bulletin had a small tear out on the edge where you could ask for prayer, could designate how you’d like to serve, and could record a monetary gift. I tore mine out and included it with my check that I had brought. We delivered our gifts to a small breadbasket at the front of the church. Those who didn’t feel moved to put a gift in the basket were equally as acceptable as those who did.
Then the young minister with the thin T-shirt from the news article stood up in the middle of the aisle. He came in earlier through the same door I had entered and immediately walked up and down the aisles speaking to people, calling out names of men and women, telling them how happy he was they had come and making his way to a man behind me. A woman in front of me stood to speak to him, but he walked right past her never taking his eyes off the man. I turned to see who it was that he was addressing expecting a dignitary of some sort. The man drawing his attention was dressed in dirty rags. He had a scraggly beard but the kindest eyes and when Brian approached him with both of his arms out, the man almost fell into them. A tiny shriveled lady was on the end of that pew and provided a buffer to the two men. Nonetheless it was like two old friends rediscovering one another after a long absence. Promises were exchanged to talk after the service. Without missing a beat Brian patted the elderly woman below him on the shoulder calling her name and turned to the nicely dressed woman who had stood as he approached. She wanted him to meet her mother who was in her 90’s and was visiting. He warmly greeted both of them giving each his full attention in turn. Then he moved up the aisle and sat in a pew half way up.
I’ve grown up in churches, Roman Catholic, United Methodist, Presbyterian, and Baptist, but I had never witnessed introductions and welcomes like those. He was the man in the news article, but he didn’t look to be ready to officiate, no robe, no vestments, only piercing eyes and a smile. What was more he sat in a pew with the rest of the congregation.
When he stood later to speak, he made comments about the Scripture for the day. I believe it was the reference to Dorcas in ACTS. Would someone like to read, he asked? A woman in the middle of a pew stood to do so. The Scripture was in the bulletin so there was no rifling of pages. When she finished and sat down, Brian asked a question. Dorcas known as Lydia also was a single woman who gathered other single women in the community. They made clothes for people. That was almost unheard of in the ancient Jewish community, this single woman gathering other women into enterprise. I wish I could recall the question Brian asked. It has been so many years since that day that my memory fails me, but the memory of those responses is very alive. Everyone was honest. Some were raw about the identification with the Scripture from both men and women who had experienced being put aside for some reason, drug misuse, color, poverty, sexual orientation, etc. and finding value by being accepted in a community and, even more, by serving with other people.
I was struck by the fact that it was the least who were in charge. You really couldn’t tell who was privileged and who was underprivileged. Indeed, I later discovered that the financially and socially privileged often withdrew to learn from those who were not housed and had no car.
The young woman in the sweat shirt stood and asked for volunteers to serve the bread and the grape juice that were brought forward from the back of the church. Four people came forward. One was barely able to stand, but the young woman stood behind her to steady the bread. The United Methodist liturgy of Communion was spoken and all came forward in two lines to receive the Host. When everyone was served, a voice of a man who was in the balcony cried out, “Whose child are you?” The congregation responded, “God’s child.” He spoke again louder still. “Whose child are you?” “God’s child.” Then louder, “Whose child are you?” “God’s child.” Then the voice said, “Go in peace.”
The journey of Haywood Street Congregation is not structured by efficiency and results. Relationship to God as His child and to one another as children of the One Father is the central goal. The Holy Spirit reaches out through unlikely people and grabs your heart and sometimes breaks it but always heals its broken places.
My husband asked me when I got home if I would be going back. I said, “Absolutely. I want to catch what they have.” I wanted more Holy Chaos, more paradox of the last being first, of brokenness being healing. What the congregation of Haywood Street has is Grace in action. It is a palpable entity that surrounds and embraces you. All I can say is what Andrew said to his brother Simon, “Come and see.”
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