Text: Mark 9:38-50
Someone told me last week, “It’s been a breath of fresh air since you came, and now what’s next?” Today’s reflection is my attempt to answer the question, what’s next. I’m beginning my 5th year of ministry here at Fort Garry. The time went by quickly. Over the last four years, I have seen how faithful, hospitable and generous you are. This is a good place to be. It’s a place of nurturing, caring, sharing and belonging. We care deeply, listen deeply and act audaciously. So many good things are happening in this seven days a week church.
Before I came here, I didn’t quite understand the role a church space could play in creating a sense of belonging not just for its members but for people from the wider community. Church is, as you know, not a place but people. What I have experienced here, however, is how a church as a building can be used for its mission. We care about our building because we care about the people using it. There is something special about this space because of how it’s being used for various reasons. People from every walk of life come into this building, and make meaningful connections with God, with each other, and with themselves.
South Winnipeg Family Information Centre (SWFIC), our strong partner brings diverse groups of people into this place, providing programs across ages and cultures. Their popular program, The Clothes Closet provides quality clothing to women who have financial restrictions and are currently enrolled in a job training program. Clothing is provided, free of charge, to attend a job interview. Last year marked the 20th anniversary of this program. I was there at the celebration with Dianne Cooper and Eltie Pearce, listening to wonderful stories of how this particular program made a huge impact on women’s lives. One story is still lingering in my heart. One volunteer gave her own shoes to a woman who couldn’t find the right size. I was moved by many stories of how the dedicated volunteers made a difference. There were lots of tears and laughter. Cathy Kinsman was one of the first people, who organized this program, spending countless hours, doing research and asking for donations from various fancy clothes stores around the city. I want you to remember this life-changing program started right here.
This spring, a dozen of us, people from the congregation and from the wider community, gathered together to support ourselves and one another in difficult times. We shared stories of our losses, the changes we experienced, and what we miss most about our loved ones. It was a very intimate, deep, and sometimes overwhelming experience. We found ourselves not alone in this long and lonely journey we call grief. I’ve learned that there is a huge need in our society for space where people can come as they are, without the fear of judgement, no matter how broken, vulnerable or lonely. We all need to express what matters most to us. We all want to be seen, heard and understood. I want you to remember such a sacred and invaluable time was created right here.
As I reflect on the two examples – one is about SWFIC’s program, The Clothes Closet, and the other is about our recent program – Not Alone: Healing in Times of Grief and Loss, I gain some insights about what’s next. We must continue to provide a generous space for people from all walks of life seven days a week. In a world where loneliness and isolation are prevailing, people are searching for a place to belong more than ever before. In a world where discrimination and oppression are real based on gender, sexual orientation, race, language, physical or mental ability, age or social or economic status, people are looking for a safe, inclusive and barrier free community. This space matters because our mission matters.
One important aspect about any church building is that it is grounded in a particular location. It’s not movable. It’s not in a vacuum. It is rooted in earth sharing the same air with its surrounding community. Don’t get me wrong when I say we must provide a generous space. I don’t mean a landlord and tenant relationship. In fact, we should stop using the word, tenant or renter. They are our partners, because we work together for the well-being of individuals and of the community. Our church building facilitates our mission. So, providing space for a reasonable price is not enough. We must be fully present so we can engage the people in it.
One thing we need to work on is to narrow the gap between the demographic of the week, and the demographic of Sunday morning. It’s great that we have people from the younger generation and from different backgrounds throughout the week. But we are much more than a community centre, you know. We are a people of faith. Our trust is in God, who created the whole creation in such diversity and beauty. We are called to love God by loving our neighbours, including those we haven’t met yet, or those who are different from you and me. Haven’t we all learned that strangers are just one inch away from being new friends, and that a difference is our teacher?
I wonder if it’s human nature to draw the line between who’s in and who’s out. In today’s Scripture reading, John, who is not only one of the 12, but one of the closest ones to Jesus along with Peter and James asked for a clear boundary. John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” John, the insider expresses his concern about the outsider, who could do what he and his fellow disciples failed to do – casting out demons in Jesus’ name. It’s interesting that John and the other disciples, instead of trying to learn from the stranger, tried to stop him just because he wasn’t one of them. Jesus’ answer, “Do not stop him” leaves a spacious room for possibilities to find a new “we” which is not based on credo or familiarity but based on actions.
So, what’s next? It depends on our readiness to welcome strangers into our midst, and our willingness to learn from those who are different from us. It all depends on our openness to give up our old we, and embrace a new we. It all starts right here.