Of the sanctity of pans and spreadsheets
(Photo © Qwart/iStock/Getty)
At the end of the Bible, in the closing chapters of the book of Revelation, we read a vision of hope for the church and the world. Jerusalem, the holy city of God, descends into our world. The multitudes are gathering together in the heavenly city, now on earth, and in their gathering is the very presence of God: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is among mortals” (Rev. 21:3).
The promise of this vision is that the life of God descends here, in our earthly community – in the simplicity of church work, the basic gathering routines for fellowship and worship, the hand of God in caring that we offer to each other and to our neighbours. Our life and our work are a kind of household with God.
I try to remember the sanctity of that vision as I’m immersed in the daily toil of emails, spreadsheets, calendars, and committee meetings. Although none of this crossed my mind when I first answered the pastoral call, I became an expert with the tools necessary for organizational logistics.
The life of the Church has everything to do with the body of Christ assembled for worship and fellowship, for welfare and public service – to receive and proclaim God’s love for the world. All of this involves designing online registration forms and mobilizing volunteers, developing meeting agendas and delegating responsibilities to committees. Pastoral ministry, I learned, resembles the work of my friends who are grassroots community organizers, with our spreadsheets, performance notes, and one-on-one relationship meetings—all the toolkit strategies for organizing a people, to gather a community in the presence of God.
The church displays a political life: a congregation is like a polis, a city, as my seminary teacher Stanley Hauerwas said. And pastors, I would add, are like community organizers. This is how I characterized my work in a 2012 Century interview on the first years of ministry. “Our little church is coming together like a polis,” I said, “and I’m working behind the scenes to make sure everything is ready for the meeting.”
I have never understood why the experts of the ministry like to oppose the mission to the maintenance and the displacement to the institution. A community does not come together, whether for worship or for a public demonstration, without organizers. Someone sends an announcement; someone keeps a list; someone keeps track of past successes and failures. Collective movements are indebted to the perseverance of institutional forms and cultural memories. Pastors do the groundwork of issuing reminders of where a community has experienced God manifesting Himself in the past and ensuring that all preparations have been made for God to come to new.
During the Trump Presidency, as his administration increased the arrest and deportation power of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the institutional structure and organizational habits of my congregation prepared us to welcome an undocumented resident into a church sanctuary. protective. We were inspired by the sanctuary movement of the 1980s, when hundreds of congregations housed refugees from Central America in defiance of US laws. Government officials prefer not to have public relations nightmares by entering church property to carry out state-sponsored kidnapping operations, and ICE agents have been instructed not to not venture into religious communities.
So we coordinated the efforts of the relevant members of the church to convert an office into a bedroom and a closet into a bathroom with shower. Since our new resident could not leave church property without fear of being captured and deported to El Salvador, a world away from her children and her life here in North Carolina, people from several congregations in the area have signed up for weekly grocery shopping, meal delivery, and laundry service. We have provided round-the-clock support, with teams of trained volunteers ready to respond with nonviolent resistance if ICE agents threaten to enter the building.
During the years Rosa del Carmen lived in a sanctuary on church property, the ordinary ways of congregational life became a policy of hospitality in opposition to the ethno-nationalist policies of President Trump. When I added volunteers to the meal schedule, I reminded them that to drop off dinner for her was to risk participating in an actionable offense – a casserole as an act of civil disobedience. The mundane care structures at the heart of our community contrasted with the nation-state’s policy of exclusion and deportation. We have organized our polis according to the hospitality of the gospel, not according to governmental categories of citizens and foreigners – a division that makes some people deportable in order to protect the rights and privileges of others.
With our spreadsheets and pans, we maintained our testimony of God’s peace and integrity in the face of the violence of the deportation – the government’s attempt to snatch Rosa from her children, to snatch her life from the fabric of our society, all for the good of citizenship, the civilized sectarianism of the world order. The institutional life of the Church has made possible our alternative politics, which has been our household with God: our work as a collective prayer for a heavenly city to descend among us, for the life of God to dwell among us mortals. .
A version of this article appears in the print edition under the title “Tableurs et casseroles”.
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