Barriers

It’s official, I’ve been in Miami for five months.  Where in the world did the time go?  I realize that I have posted very little during my time in Miami, and I promise to try to do better.

My program is really starting to take off, and everyone in Miami has been delightful.  Things are about to pick up in my neck of the woods, new responsibilities are being added and new opportunities for engagement are popping up, and it is a really exciting time for me.  It’s such a different atmosphere, working in a district office, than in a local church or non-profit, and this has allowed me to get to know a lot of the clergy and churches in this area.  I have gotten the opportunity to go and worship at a bunch of different churches.  Meet with their leaders and lay folk as we consider partnership and involvement in Mission: Layover and Mission: 305.

The church culture of Miami is unlike anything I’ve experienced in the past.  It’s a huge city with many little pockets of culture and diversity.  We have churches that only have services in a language other than English, churches that are diverse in a number of ways, not just race or ethnicity, but socioeconomic status as well.

It’s an interesting place to be the church.

With Miami being the city that it is, there is a lot of crime here.  There is a lot human trafficking here.  There is, in some ways, a lot of fear here.  This fear manifests itself in so many different ways, whether that’s the way in which you walk to your car, or the neighborhoods that you go into.

A lot of the churches that I’ve experienced in Miami are full of gates, and locked doors.  To get to my office, as an example, you go through two gates, one always locked door, and two additional doors, one of which dings when you open it.  I’ve arrived at churches that I cannot enter due to gates.  Churches with bars on the entrances.

In these churches there are so many barriers to get in.  Now, this is not all the churches here, and this is not an issue that is specific to Miami, let’s face it, churches have locks.  All of them.

My question is with all of these barriers, who in the world are we trying to keep out?

Of whom are we so scared?

I met a lady the other day that was packing lunches to give away to those that showed up for their weekly food give away.  She said that about 7 folks show up to get these bags.  She then said that the trustees had just voted to put locks on the main gates of the church so that folks couldn’t get in without a key or getting buzzed in or something.  And then she voiced her concern that these 7 folks wouldn’t be able to get their food.  That they wouldn’t be allowed to enter, or that they would be scared off by the locks.

Isn’t the church a place where life happens?  Isn’t it supposed to be a refuge, a place for the broken and the lost?  Shouldn’t it be open to all?

Of whom are we so scared?

These locked gates and doors, make me crazy.  Really it makes me nuts.  When I see all of the barriers that one must go through to enter a church during regular office hours it really upsets me.  How does anyone feel that they could come to this church and ask questions, or explore even just the opportunity to attend this community?  And I’m not even talking about this radical notion that the church is for ALL people, homeless and non-homeless, addicts and sober folks, the unloved and the cared for, I’m talking about what our churches see as this “prime” “clean” church going family of four.  How does these folks feel that they can access this church?

Not only do these barriers keep out those you might want to come to your church, but they do also bar you, in a way, from real and authentic interaction with your community.  Nothing says, you are not welcome here more than locked gates.  Nothing says, this is a private club, than locked gates.

Now, I understand the necessity to protect the asset(s) of and in the church.  I get it.  It’s the same as locking your car lest it be stolen, but when people are here, when life is happening in the church, during the week, shouldn’t it be a time of open doors?  Shouldn’t it be a place that anyone felt they had access to?

Church, we are scared of those that are unlike us.  We are scared to open our doors to those who neither look, nor live, nor smell, nor act like us, and it’s a damn shame.  For every church that I have ever found that embraces this kind of radical community, I find dozens that believe that their church is a place for them and their neighbors.  A church with assigned seating and the same kind of folks every week.  One who believes that mission is out there in another country, but not in their backyard.  This isn’t necessarily on the church leaders themselves, this is on us.  This is on the lay people who fail to welcome and invite; who fail to make their churches a place where all would feel welcomed.

I’m guilty of it.  I own my part in this, but I also realize that we need change desperately.  You want to talk about the church dying, and the factors that are leading to this, why not look at the locks on your church.  Look at the barriers we’ve put in place to keep people out of the church.  We’ve made the church into this place where often those who fall short, in our minds, of worthiness to be in community with us are frowned upon or made to be invisible.  We have turned our churches into social clubs for those of the ‘right’ pedigree instead of a place for all of God’s children to come and wrestle together.  The church should be a place where the labels that we (society) assign one another, have no meaning.  All are welcome, all are safe, and all have the right and the welcome to join us.

I invite you to dream of the church being a place where life truly happens.  One with open doors, showers, food, coffee, whatever.  A place for folks to gather and be the church, not just in it.  A place where all of God’s children find purpose and community.  How can we make our churches the center of our communities, where all those who need assistance can find it, and all those looking for community and relationship are welcomed?  How do we transform ourselves to be open to those who may not be like us?

This requires a big leap of faith.  We are scared.  We are scared of crime, and intruders, and the intentions of those we do not know.  We are raised in this atmosphere of fear.  The news tells us all the time how scared we need to be, but our beautiful faith tells over and over again, do not be afraid.  Do not be afraid.  We cannot allow fear to govern the policies and the culture of the church.  Fear shackles us, and we cannot move forward until we break free from it.

On a final note, I was having lunch with someone quite awhile ago.  This clergy person told me that they were told that families would want to go to a church with a bunch of homeless folks in it.  This deeply hurt this clergy person, and it, quite frankly, offends me.  I challenge us, church folk, to not let this attitude prevail.  For us to be the kind of church where all of God’s children are welcomed and comfortable and loved, and that we not let our fear of the “other” keep us from engaging in a church community filled with people that are different from ourselves.  For to miss out on that kind of community is a shame for us all.

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