It started with a broken zipper – the zipper on my suitcase. I took my bag to be repaired at a cobbler’s shop. An amiable young man diagnosed the problem, took the suitcase, and asked where I had been. I told him “Kenya.” He asked what I had been doing there and I told him about our church sponsored schools, especially how they rescue girls from genital mutilation and forced marriage. He asked, “Where is your church here?” I told him. Even our slight involvement in upholding the status of women in Africa, perhaps just our affiliation with Anglican Communion partners who are directly engaged in that struggle, was enough to make an unchurched young man in Henderson want to worship with us. We were doing something that he could see and understand, something that matters.
The day before that exchange, the Las Vegas Review Journal ran a feature article on Deacon Bonnie Polley and her ministry to the homeless and the incarcerated. They called her “the Mother Teresa of Las Vegas.” Bonnie was, of course, embarrassed by the attention. But there’s a gospel message in what she does and the largest newspaper in Nevada was proclaiming it to a lot of people who need to see some light that isn’t neon. The article showed people another way to live and that the Episcopal Church is living it. The next day a County Commissioner called Bonnie for a meeting to talk about making Clarke County a better place.
On Wednesday, Deacon Ann Langevin was in Boulder City to meet President Obama. She was one of five people in the room authorized to shake hands and speak with the President. She was there to welcome him on behalf of Bread for the World and the Episcopal Diocese of Nevada. Bread for the World arranged it. The point was to keep world hunger on the President’s radar screen and to say the Episcopal Church cares about this. When Bread speaks up for the hungry, we are with them.
That same afternoon, along with a small group of African Methodist Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Jewish leaders of our interfaith community organizing group, I met with Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto. We were there to discuss mortgage foreclosure relief, child sex trafficking, and deportation practices. It was an energized and energizing conversation as we told each other new things and sparked new ideas in each other’s minds.
I had missed lunch; so after the meeting, I stopped by Starbucks on my way to the office for a snack and coffee. As I sat there reading Parker Palmer’s excellent book on the spiritual foundation of the common good, Healing The Heart of Democracy, a man on his way to the counter saw the book and stopped to talk. He began life in the Orthodox faith but was now an evangelical. We had a great dialogue. He confessed to being confused by the Beatitudes and I talked about the difference between blessing and commandment, how we distort the Bible when we see everything as commandment. He was touched by my simple approach to the text and gave me a small icon of the Christos Pantokrater.
These vignettes are little portraits of the Church in the World. The “first and greatest” book I have read on church and society in recent years is James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Tragedy, Irony, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (“and the second is like unto it,” Parker Palmer’s Healing the Heart of Democracy). These Nevada stories are about our doing what Hunter and Palmer say our mission is.
Hunter looks at the three leading approaches churches take to living on this planet. The Christian left, the Christian right, and the neo-Anabaptists. The Christian left and right mirror each other vying for control, trying to push their view of how society should work through political power. He demonstrates that neither has been successful and shows sociologically why their political strategies don’t work. (I would criticize them theologically, but his point is more practical – they just don’t achieve what they are trying to do.) The third option, the one Hunter calls neo-Anabaptist, is to condemn the culture as fallen and to stand apart from it, aloof and self-righteous. The object is to avoid contamination. I would criticize that theologically too; but Hunter’s point is that it just doesn’t work either. You can’t cut yourself off that completely from relationship with the place where you live or the people you live with.
To Change the World prescribes a different strategy. It is to be faithfully and visibly ourselves while actively engaged in society. It is as simple as saying, “Good morning, Mr. President, I’m Deacon Ann Langevin representing Bread for the World and the Episcopal Diocese of Nevada.” We are there. We are present. We are in the game. We are being the Christ light. Being the Christ light takes two things: faithful action and upfront identification with Jesus.
In the Diocese of Nevada, we are often in the game. We are often shining the Christ light. Christ Church, Pioche has adopted the highway leading into town. St. Timothy’s hosts Friends in the Desert (food program). St. Paul’s, Elko hosts and leads Boy Scouts. Grace, Trinity, and others host the homeless through Family Promise. St. Bart’s is beginning a program to combat hunger among school children. St. Peter’s, St. Matthew’s, St. Paul’s, Elko, All Saints and others support their neighborhood schools. St. Martin’s hosts Teen Night for all the youth of Pahrump. The list goes on.
This year I will be promoting the B-BHAG (the Bishop’s Big Hairy Audacious Goal). It came to me last Martin Luther King Day. As a member of the Governor’s Commission for Nevada Volunteers, I was at an Ameri-Corps work site trimming hedge and raking up trash from an urban community center. I worked alongside teams from various places that wanted to do their bit for the common good. There were high school groups, baristas from Starbuck’s, people from a bank, etc. It reminded me of all the times in Georgia when I worked with Habitat for Humanity to build houses or with Rebuilding Together to rehab houses, always, without exception as a part of a church group – our name on the sign, our t-shirts identifying our faith community. But as I looked around the work site this January, I did not see another Episcopalian.
My BBHAG is just a special opportunity for us to do what we already do so well in so many congregations. Next Martin Luther King Day, our goal is to field 300 Episcopalians at work sites around Nevada, each of them wearing our t-shirt which proclaims “Together We Can Change the World.”
There are so many ways to make difference – visibly. It can be local mission or a global mission supporting the Millenium Development Goals of alleviating hunger, poverty, and disease. The greatest danger to the soul of the Church is fearful focus on survival. The minute we shift from mission to survival, we fail at both. Without a vital mission, the Church dies for lack of a reason to exist. The Christ light goes out in our part of the world.
We have churches, both large and small, that are connected to their communities. The town knows they are there and, more importantly, knows why they are there. They know because the Church acts – acts visibly, as the church, with its nameplate on. The Church is the hands and feet of Christ. We have other congregations, large and small, where the town does not know they are there – or in some cases the town is under the impression the church is closed – because they act closed. A church focused on its own survival is spiritually closed already. It isn’t in the game.
But most of us are in the game. As we begin this year to form congregations into Jubilee Ministry Communities, we will learn more about what each other are doing. We will have a chance to learn from each other and feel each other’s support. We will experience our Communion as a sign of common mission – God’s mission here in God’s world.