Embracing Our Identity and Status

Last year, my husband, son and I attended the bar mitzvah of one of my son’s closest friends, Gabe. Gabe had clearly worked hard to reach this point in his life and to accept the new responsibilities that were conferred upon him during the service.

In her remarks that were made directly to Gabe, the rabbi acknowledged, unabashedly, the minority status of Jews in Central Maine. She counseled Gabe that he may find himself the only Jewish student in his school. And, with that minority status came responsibilities and opportunities. The rabbi encouraged Gabe to serve as a good role model and to be prepared to speak up, to speak for justice, for instance, and to be prepared to share something from time to time about what it means to be Jewish with people who may have absolutely no concept of Jewish belief or practice.

I found the rabbi’s words and counsel to be wonderfully refreshing.

I wish we in the mainline church, also in Central Maine, could adopt a similar posture. Instead of wringing our hands almost constantly about the low numbers of people in our pews and trying to come up with new ways of luring people in, I would like to see us at least try to accept and embrace our minority status and to explore how we can better outline and speak about our identity as a minority group in the community.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be extravagantly welcoming of new people, and to continue to find new ways of expressing our hospitality, but I am concerned that we pin far too much of our identity on how well we do in luring new people into the fold. And, it’s not just the congregation that does this; I know I’m guilty as well.

To embrace our minority status, as more progressive Christians, would offer an opportunity to do more work in outlining what is truly meaningful for us, and to articulate our identity in a more robust way.

We spend so much time considering the numbers that I feel that a big part of our identity is found in our numbers, especially the numbers of our past. Yet, in our former days we must acknowledge that our full sanctuary had more to do with the culture as a whole pushing people into churches and that there wasn’t much else to do on a Sunday morning, and less to do with a healthy and strong articulation of what it meant for us to be Christian.

To explore and embrace our minority status is an opportunity to discover anew what it means to be Christian. In these days when the dominant definition of “Christian” is not what we practice at Old South, it is even more important that we—at Old South and churches that are like Old South— figure out what we mean and then to learn how to express what it means for us to be Christian.

I’ve begun to notice some movement in this direction when it comes to Old South’s Open and Affirming statement. The statement was passed, unanimously, in June of 2008. But since it passed, the church has struggled a bit with how to live the statement. We say we are “Open and Affirming,” but we have a hard time acknowledging that most people in the community have no idea what that phrase means. So, the question is for us, how to we express our Open and Affirming status?

At recent church meetings at Old South, this topic was taken up with meaningful enthusiasm. People shared ideas and thoughts about how we can live out our statement in a more obvious way. This was a good sign. It helps not just with this aspect of who we are, but it begins that community discussion of what it means for us to live as Christians in this time and place, rather than simply looking at who we are through the lens of the past.

My “hope in the wilderness” moment for this week is to be thankful for these small signs of movement, of exploration of our identity, of noticing that some of those sermon messages of the past five years are finally taking root in fertile soil.

There is responsibility and opportunity in exploring who we are in this time and place, and to be connected in new ways to the movement of the Spirit—and to do that as a community. To embrace and explore our minority status is not to be fatalistic about our future, but to experience the hope that our faith always brings—even when there’s just a very small group huddled up near the cross. There’s always hope. We are always an Easter people.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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