Thursday, October 9, 2008

Quakers and Radical Hospitality

There is a Methodist church I know that has a sign out front that says all are welcome. More than that anyone who walks off the street will truly be welcomed, and the church makes sure there is always someone there to sit and talk with people who come to them. They also run a soup kitchen, many religious education groups, a daycare program, and the pastor is very active in local activism. This year they hosted the People of Blessings Service an ecumenical service celebrating the local GLBTQ community. Not everyone who belongs to this church is in favor of their stance towards radical inclusiveness but the pastor feels that inclusiveness is her duty as a servant of God. One day she told us all, at one of the book discussion groups that I attend, about a Methodist church she interned at. This church had sunk down to a tiny congregation of elderly churchgoers. When the diocese sent people down to see if they could revive the church they realized that the church stood in the middle of a very impoverished community. So they started a soup kitchen, and a food bank, and a free meal system where on Sunday they would set up tables outside of the church and handout free meals. The whole congregation participated and the church grew. They funded these good works and revival by declaring themselves a mission church and trusting other churches would support their work financially.

Radical Hospitality is, in the words of Saint Benedict, “to invite all into your house as if they where Christ.” In my experience Quakers are real horrifically bad at it. My own meeting can’t be bothered to give food to the local food pantry. While I know of one meeting who keeps their building locked at all times because they are situated in an impoverished community and are
afraid of getting stuff stolen. They also have on going debate about turning people away when they come asking for food. I don’t drive, due to my disabilities. In the town I was staying at for two summers I only got one ride once to meeting and that was after a lot of trouble and very grudgingly offered. Furthermore it took me a solid month to track down someone willing to give me a ride to Meeting this summer. I would have been happy to take the bus but it didn’t run on Sundays. Over all though it’s not surprising that if Friends are this unwilling to go out of their way to welcome a young adult Friend, that they wouldn’t be at all willing to help a non Quaker. I find this strange and very sad because we as Friends are supposed to be bringing about the Kingdom of Heaven. Yet, as far as I can tell, we are phenomenally bad at welcoming people into our midst or reaching out to our communities. In a resent book group I read the chapter on Hospitality, in Christianity for the Rest of Us, about a church that welcomed, ex-convicts, the elderly, gay and lesbian couples, troubled teens, and anyone seeking God into their church and their hearts, taking special time to talk and pray with them and learn their individual needs. I came to the conclusion that Friends aren’t good at hospitality because we don’t want to be.

I have always gotten the feeling that when Friends talked about the Kingdom they were really talking about a time when everyone on the planet would be just like them. As I reflect more though, I think I have come to the conclusion that the Kingdom won’t be so much like your average Quaker meeting and more like a city bus. On, say a down town bus you will have, white collar commuters, shoppers, college students, elderly woman and men, the mentally ill community, the disabled community, punks and Goths, high school kids, hippies, children, troubled teens, people just out of prison or rehab, there are homeless people who are paying the last money the have in bus fare, there are blue collar workers, housewives, college professors, grad students, and perhaps the one young transgendered woman I knew who has been routinely kicked out of all
the homeless shelters in town for being transgendered. Some of these people come and are welcomed into our Meetings, but not all. Many Friends have pointed out that these people do not come to meeting, which is why they are not
there. Yet I would wonder why don’t our meeting look more like city buses? Why are ninety-nine present of all Friends I know white, middle classed and middle aged? There are many, many churches that are made up of members of other communities and groups so why are Quaker meetings not serving as a spiritual home to a more diverse population. Even if we are not attracting people into our meeting why are we not reaching out to our communities? Why do meeting not run soup kitchens,food pantries, and homeless shelters? Why are there no Quaker inner city mission churches? Why are there no Quaker mission churches in America at all? These are not impossible feats. Many other churches of many other denominations do this work. Some churches have dedicated themselves to doing this work. Large numbers of Christians affirm that this work, reaching out to those in need all around us, is God’s work. If this is God’s work then why isn’t it work Friends are doing? Money is not a question when facing God’s work. Friends go to Africa and South America with nothing and do good works. Many other churches raise money to help fund their works. Some churches reach out to other churches to help supply them with funds. I know from experience that community non-profits raise enough money to survive all the time. Perhaps it is fear that holds Friends back from radical hospitality. Perhaps it is spiritual apathy. I only know that until we listen to that of Christ within our hearts and reach out to the communities we are a part of we will move no further in the building of the Kingdom towards which we strive.

Monday, October 6, 2008

When God comes to Pot-Lucks

Ok so I'm sure I am not the only liberal religious person who has had to both balance a plate of food on my knees and explain my beliefs to a group of skeptics. Whether it's in bookstores, pot-lucks, coffee shops or other activist rallies often we as people of faith are expected to be able to give good and convincing answers to the nitty-gritty theological questions.
So I'm wondering what are the questions about faith you are called on to answer the most? How do you answer them?

For me it would be:

-but you're not Christian right? (after I say that I'm Quaker)

-as a Christian what is your views on homosexuality?

-how can you talk about your religious experience without making people feel like your trying to convert them?

-but you're not evangelical right?

-do you believe the Bible is the word of God?

-what about all the horrible things people do and have done in the name of God?

-how can you be both Universalist and Christian?

What are the questions about faith you get asked the most?

Thursday, October 2, 2008

When God Goes to Starbucks?

When I first saw the title in my local library the first think that popped into my head was ‘what is God doing in some place as chain-store oriented and big business as Starbucks; known for totally destroying locally owned businesses.’ My second thought was to chide my self for falling into the old trap of assuming God is somehow politically motivated, and one side or another ‘gets’ God on their team. God no doubt spends a lot of time in Starbucks and where ever else God is needed. I picked the book up and flipped through it while spending time studying and writing my most recent paper. When God Goes to Starbucks by Paul Copan is supposed to be a easy to read little book about good, Christian-grounded answers to the kind of questions most believers get every day: Do people really believe in miracles? is it ok to lie if your lying to a Nazi? doesn’t the Bible condone holy war? what about the Bible and homosexuality? and on. All of these questions are good question and they are questions I have found I have to answer quite often as I move in cycles of young people where being Christian is akin to having a disfiguring disease. The book is also well thought out and easy to read, light in tone and engaging. However I found as I began to read it, for me, a huge glaring problem that ultimately made me have to put the book down.

The problem was simply that the author assumed when he said Christian he was talking about a group of people who believed pretty much the same thing. Yet what he called Christian and what I believe to be Christianity was not even remotely the same thing. His God was not my God (although they may both buy coffee at the same play on occasion). Paul Copan is an extremely gifted writer, a man who holds multiple degrees including a professorship, yet he assumes that he speaks for all Christians when really he only speaks for some, mostly more fundamentalist leaning, conservatively minded, Christians.

I have tried to keep a good sense of humor throughout writing this, ultimately I didn’t walk away from When God Goes to Starbucks feeling angry that Paul and I didn’t see eye to eye on our Christian beliefs. I did walk way feeling sad though; sad because I know of no equally engaging little book that forthrightly examines the hard Christian questions for Christians like me. I know we exist, there are other liberal and/or ecstatic Christians out there, I have met so many and look forward to meeting many more. Yet when we look at the book shelves in our libraries and Barns and Nobles (God might hangout there too) we see books that assume there is only one kind of Christianity. Books that assume these Christians can speak for all Christians, although I know there are many of us where that’s not true. Yet we still let them. For many years I have been trying to understand why. Why do we stand quiet when other more fundamentalist Christians don’t? I have come to think that we are all, on some level, afraid and ashamed. Afraid to unwittingly hurt others and ashamed that we are Christians in a society where to be liberal often means to be against Christianity. I know I always pause before telling someone about my faith, especially if they know my sexual orientation or the kind of social activism I do, inwardly bracing myself for the onslaught of questions. Well I think it’s time, overdue actually to knuckle down. That kind of fear is not going to cut it, we can’t write books that way.

Copan points out that there are many important theological conversation taking place at Starbucks and his book might help many having those conversation, but there are some of us who will be giving different answers.