In the fall of 2006, when Lake Avenue Baptist Church in Rochester, New York, began welcoming refugees from Burma, we had no idea what we were getting into. In the spring of 2007 there were 30 refugees from Burma in Rochester; by 2007 there were 200, and by now there are almost 400, with many more expected. Rochester is a microcosm of what is happening quietly across this continent and in many other nations.
It’s beautiful when the congregational system is humming along—the church is Spirit-filled, worshipers are bearing each other’s burdens, submitting to one another and rejoicing continually. When faced with major decisions, the congregation seeks the Lord and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. After prayer and copious dialogue, a consensus emerges. Or the congregational system hits a pothole. The decision-making process is accelerated or compressed for a decision that has huge implications for the life of the church; the issues raised are theologically profound and the consequences painful no matter what is decided. At these times, a congregation can see its unity shattered.
When Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church was built by German immigrants 100 years ago, it stood alone on the block; now luxury condominiums are boxing us in. A preservationist says it will cost $8 million to repair our church, give or take a million. The stained glass windows have already been removed because of the danger of breakage during the construction next door. The steeple alone, leaning to one side, will cost over a million to repair. “It’s a substantial building,” the preservationist said when he delivered the news. Sometimes I curse this substantial building as an albatross, a black hole, a money pit. And yet . . .
During the testimony portion of a worship service at Central Park United Methodist Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, “Karen” walked to the front and confessed for the first time that years earlier she had killed a woman while driving drunk, had served five years in prison, and had then begun drinking again. “I was a menace to society,” she said. When she finished, she waited anxiously for the congregation’s response. Immediately some moved forward to embrace her; then the service continued and Karen joined other volunteers in serving communion.
The absence of community surrounds us in a daily way—in our neighborhoods, our work lives and the anguish of our own souls. The scarcity of community wreaks havoc below the surface of outwardly busy lives. From the ethos of economic life to the chatter of talk radio, our society is busy promoting the appetites and fantasies of the individual more than it encourages investment in the larger aspirations of a community.