“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25 NIV).
The caller’s voice sounded familiar. We had talked before, over the phone and in his home territory. Things hadn’t changed in two-and-a-half years. He was still a stranger in a large Mennonite congregation, a place to which he had come to retire and where he expected to find friends with whom he could share faith and life with some intimacy.
It hasn’t happened. His wife had surgery with no one knowing about it, or seeming to care. Now he had a stent inserted into his heart—a journey he took alone. I really had nothing to offer, only a listening ear and a bit of identification for similar moments in my own life. Not a fellow-member in his congregation, I couldn’t give him any handles to grab onto.
Hearing only his side of the story, I pondered the possibility of his taking more responsibility for his own dilemma. “Are there no designated caregivers in your church?” I asked. “A parish nurse, perhaps? Are you part of a small care group or Sunday school class who takes responsibility for members in the group?” No to all the above.
I was dumbfounded. This is not a small congregation; certainly it would have the resources, staff and infrastructure to address this issue.
This should not be. Besides, our theology, informed by our spiritual origins, is clear: we are a priesthood, ministering to each other because of God reaching out to us in love. We do not subcontract our “care” to professionals or rely on some sophisticated social network to do this at arm’s length.
We are the network. We distinguish ourselves as a unique “faith community.” We are accepting of strangers. Look at where our church is growing—at the multi-cultural edges. We are delighted, almost proud, when Stuart Murray tells us postmodern Anabaptists that we are the right fit for other Christians and seekers scattered by the post-Christendom diaspora. As Anabaptists, we had it right all along, no?
Not so fast. If that is the case, why are there strangers among us? Why am I getting anguished calls from readers lost in a large congregation, travelling alone on a scary medical journey, wanting not so much a pastoral prayer as a simple call of support from a fellow congregant who has gotten to know them personally, offering to bring in a meal and dine together, promising to “go fishing” after the ordeal is over.
It isn’t that we haven’t talked about this before. In perusing the pages of Canadian Mennonite, I see stories of similar anguish—such as from Arthur Boers, who wrote about visiting churches in the Toronto area (June 28, 2010), where he asked an usher about the use of hymnals and the order of service, and got no response. “I was left to interpret her silence: ‘What are you doing here, anyway? Who wants to know? What, really, is your problem?’ ”
Hmm. Welcoming strangers? Priests ministering to priests?
In that same edition, J. Laurence Martin wrote of returning to a “new” local congregation after a time of travel and voluntary service. “There we were, standing in line to get our coffee in a church where we knew no one. Everyone was chatting with friends and family; no one made eye contact with us.”
He went on to explain that, after a meaningful worship service and a welcome by the worship leader to coffee hour and a time of fellowship, “my wife and I drifted to the outside of the circle with our coffee and watched fellowship happen, but we were definitely not a welcomed part of it.”
If the Apostle Paul was to return to Mennonite Church Canada congregations, would he be as gentle as he supposedly was in his sermon to the Hebrews? Would he come down hard on “spurring each other to love and good works?” Would we pass the test of “encouraging each other”?
After all, we’ve had nearly 500 years to get it right. How are we doing?