A Valuable Witness

At the end of a congregational meeting after worship last Sunday, an older member summed up the proceedings this way: “Well, we handled that a lot better than Washington.” Everyone chuckled and heads were seen nodding up and down.

What was especially poignant about the comment was that, even though the meeting was brief and resulted in a unanimous vote, the road to the vote was fraught with difficulties of various kinds. It gets like that in a congregational church. As the meeting broke up and people headed to the vestry for snacks, with a sense of good work done, I wondered about this potentially lost witness, as our membership declines and the congregation ages—this lost witness of working together, even in the midst of considerable differences in perspective and opinion.

The topic of the meeting was a plan to improve the accessibility of the church’s sanctuary. Old South, you see, has a sloping floor, with curved pews that use space so efficiently that space for walking around the sanctuary and up and down aisles is tight, even for those with no mobility problems. For anyone with a walker or in a wheelchair, or anyone with comprised balance, the sanctuary is a difficult, frustrating, and dangerous, place.

The process that brought us to last Sunday’s congregational meeting was a long one, with many components and a lot of conversation, some of it heated and ugly. There was one group that felt strongly that we should have had done this work long ago, outraged at the slow response to the obvious obstacles for anyone with mobility issues. There was another group that was deeply concerned about alterations that would damage the historical integrity of the sanctuary (the church building exists within an historic district).

For months, the Trustees of the church discussed several possible plans and finally agreed on one, which they presented to the church membership last Sunday. The plan passed unanimously after a short period of discussion.

On my ride home last Sunday, I reflected on the long, sometimes fraught, journey. This is not the only time during my tenure at Old South when the church has faced a difficult issue, where there were many perspectives and opinions, but has found its way to unanimity at voting time.

So, I’m wondering about a dimension of our witness that we don’t really talk about much: our ability to get things done even when there is a wide, and deeply held, diversity of perspectives and opinions. In the world of politics, Old South people hold a full range of viewpoints. We have Republicans, even some who lean to the Tea Party, and a fair number of Democrats, and a group of staunch Independents.

Politically and otherwise, Old South’s people approach issues and problems in many different ways. Yet, in the time that I’ve served Old South, we have made a conscientious effort to listen to each other, to be mindful that it is not our own will that must be done. This often means that certain things move very slowly through a process, but somehow we manage to get to a place where we all find agreement in compromise. That agreement comes from a willingness to be open, to listen, to reflect, and, importantly, to recognize the essential humanity even in those with whom one disagrees.

One of the most vocal members of the congregation, on the historic preservation side of Sunday’s issue, had long voiced grave concerns about damaging the sanctuary. He had been very clear in his opposition to any plan that made “dramatic” change, and almost every plan seemed to fall to the “dramatic” side. But, on Sunday, this particular man listened to the presentation, studied the plan on paper, and stood up to declare his support. He admitted that he had come to the meeting skeptical about any plan that included any alterations to the sanctuary, but this plan seemed about as good as it could get, and still achieve improvement for accessibility.

This may not seem all that big of a deal, but at a time when our national leaders seem not only unable to work together, but seem to have difficulty in recognizing an opponent’s humanity, and when we see some of that dynamic in other parts of our public lives as well, we find not only an erosion of the landscape of compromise, of getting things done to make the world better, but an erosion of that place in our lives where we acknowledge that thoughtful and intelligent people can disagree with one other, and that thoughtful people can also work together, to listen to one another, to find common ground.

As churches like Old South—where people value (even if they sometimes have a hard time admitting) differences of opinion and perspectives—decline in membership and influence, I wonder about the loss of this witness in the community. It is not simply that we are able to find common ground, but that process through which we learn important and vital aspects of each other—and ourselves. We are strengthened, individually and collectively, when we discover that in the common ground is a renewal of the notion that in creation, in humanity, there is goodness. This is sadly lacking on the national stage and may very well become increasingly lacking on the state and local level of well. And, that will be a significant loss indeed.

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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