"Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the One who loved His enemies so fully that he died for them?" - Martin Luther King, Jr.
When a colleague of mine in the Bay Area ended up in the hospital for an appendectomy, I agreed at the last minute to fly down from Seattle to cover her portion of a mission formation retreat for a parish in East Oakland. The parish, located in an area facing a great deal of socio-economic challenge, has two parish councils: one predominantly Hispanic, one predominantly African-American. The idea was to provide Mission Education Training for both groups in combined and separate sessions to help them discern how to move forward together as one community of missionary disciples. The program was to be bilingual and bi-cultural, with another colleague facilitating sessions for the Hispanic group.
We opened the first evening with prayer, and as people laid their hopes before God and the community, it became clear that both the heartache of division and a longing for unity permeated this community. As the weekend progressed, some of the reasons for this heaviness of spirit began to unfold. The members of the English-speaking group that I facilitated were mostly decades-long members of the community, many originally from the South. They remembered segregation and the overt racism of the world around them at the time. They remembered how the love and faith of their families instilled in them a strength to face that world with courage and dignity. And they also remembered a time when their parish and broader community consisted predominantly of people that looked like them and spoke their language. Today, the community is somewhere around 70% Latino in makeup, and almost all of the members of the other parish council speak Spanish as a first language.
This group also offered some of the most powerful, faith-filled, and urgent reflections on the mission of God that I have heard. To them, the life and witness of Jesus Christ - as one who serves, one who heals, one who exalts the marginalized and challenges the comfortable, who reconciles broken communities with faith and love - resonated profoundly with their immediate reality. In reflecting on the reading of the Sending of the Seventy-Two in the Gospel of Luke, a member of the group pointed to the words, “Behold, I am sending you like lambs among wolves.” To him, this was not a metaphor: going out into the community meant risking getting beat up or being chased down the street by dogs. Both of these had happened to him in the past, yet he still questioned his own commitment to go out and proclaim “Peace to this household,” and that the “Kingdom of God is at hand.” He felt strongly that they all could more fully live the mission together.
At the end of the weekend, we brought the groups back together for a joint session and mass. In a breakout group comprised of members of both councils, participants shared a common commitment to moving forward together. As one participant from the Hispanic council said, as it stands now, visitors to the parish would probably think, ”If this is how they treat each other here, maybe I want to go somewhere else.” The idea of being a light to the world around them, an example of God’s love transcending the divisions to which we so often succumb, took on tangible urgency among them. By the time we ended the program, every participant expressed a renewed commitment to togetherness.
The challenge laid before this faith community was not one of togetherness for its own sake, but togetherness for the sake of building the Kingdom in their midst. In many ways, the need for prophetic witness of God’s love was more overtly recognizable in this context than in many others, but no less urgent than it is for all people of faith. By doing the hard work to overcome divisions, to see God in the stranger, to become one people through the proactive embrace of our common bond and celebration of our differences, we can better share with a broken world a love that reconciles, a love that builds peace, a love that breeds justice.
I think of so many parish communities divided by language, race, nationality, political leanings, age, family situations, economic status, and countless more barriers that are both momentous in our lived reality and ultimately trivial in the eyes of the Lord. God’s love can and does overcome all of these divisions. As Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians, “So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God” (2:19).
Perhaps the two most pressing challenges in authentic Christian discipleship are radical love and the embrace of new life in death. In the case of the latter, we often look to martyrs, both historical and current. But up to the point of martyrdom is lived a life of a thousand willful deaths - death to our plans, our ambitions, our biases, our sense of self as something superior to or separate from those around us. For each one of us as individuals and communities, God lays out a lifetime of new life through death. When we willingly bear these crosses in love, we find greater joy in our own hearts, experience greater joy with those around us, and bring greater joy into the world.
This is what I saw beginning to unfold at the parish in Oakland. Working to transcend identities that give us comfort and security - as a people historically marginalized, or as strangers in a strange land - is a heavy cross to bear. But I could see in the love that opened up over that weekend the seeds of new life. This represents to me so concisely what it means to be Church. As Paul concludes in that second chapter of Ephesians, “in him you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (22).
Kevin Foy is Associate Director for Mission Education and Promotion in the Western US.