Post Synod Reflection #3: At the Edges of Our Big Tent

The United Church of Christ proudly declares, “No Matter Who You Are, No Matter Where You Are On Life’s Journey, You Are Welcome Here.” In reality, this is more a goal than a statement of fact. There are plenty of ways in which the sense of welcome is tepid, at best. And, there are places where the denomination—particularly at the national level— is not especially welcoming to and for those whose values and perspectives are different from what appears to be the majority.

The efforts of welcome are a good and noble goal, but it is important that those of us in the United Church of Christ continue to work diligently toward this objective, paying close attention to those opportunities where we are confronted by the reality of our not so welcoming attitude concerning those whose opinions, life stories and circumstances, are very different from our own. The United Church of Christ is, in many ways, a big tent sort of place. But, without vigilance—as well as a thoughtful, reflective, and humble attitude—we can easily become just another small tent denomination, with a motto that is dangerously inaccurate.

At General Synod 31 this year, I discovered several places where we danced on the edges of our “big tent,” where the welcome of differing perspectives and opinions was especially fraught. There were two places, in particular, that offered a lens through which we may reflect on the denomination, and its ability to engage with what it means to be a welcoming church, motivated by the reckless love that Jesus himself shared.

In one instance, significant common ground was discovered. In another, not so much.

I’ve written about the first one already: the committee and resolution regarding corporal punishment in homes and institutions. When the members of the Maine delegation received our committee assignments, the person in the delegation who was assigned to this committee was very pleased. How hard could this be? “We’ll be done in 5 minutes!” he declared. After the first round of committee meetings, I bumped into him. He wasn’t so happy anymore. What seemed like an easy issue turned out to be not so easy. In the work of the committee, he was confronted by some realities that he had never thought about before.

After a great deal of discussion and deliberation, where considerable truth telling took place and, with that, a lot of listening and absorbing, a new awareness came to many of those who served on that committee. When the resolution came to the full floor, it was clearly evident that this “easy issue” was indeed thorny and complicated. I know I was not the only person to learn something new and to gain a new sensitivity about the lives of people whose circumstances are very different from my own.

In the other instance, where there was a clear clash of perspectives, involved more of clash of generations—the older generation versus millennials. In one of the resolutions (assigned to Committee 12, “Toward Disability Justice: A Call to the Church and Churches”), the word “intersectionality” was used (urging the national and other settings “to develop an active response to the intersectionality of race and disability in relation to police brutality . . .”). The member of the Maine delegation assigned to this committee was one of our older members. In committee, she had asked for the word “impact” to be added to the sentence where “intersectionality” was found, as in “impact and intersectionality.” The suggestion went nowhere. So, she brought it up again when the resolution hit the full floor. As soon as that happened, it seemed that every millennial in the large convention hall lined up in opposition.

Among those who spoke up were young people who talked about any addition to the sentence “diminishing” what the sentence was trying to convey. Another young person talked about how important the word “intersectionality” is to her generation. Sensing that there were people in the hall who didn’t understand the word (because if they did, they obviously wouldn’t want to mess with it) this particular speaker made no attempt to define the word for those of us who were clueless, but instead suggested that if there were people in the audience who didn’t understand what the word means, “they should look it up on Google.”

In the end, “intersectionality” was left to stand by itself, yet with a fair number of people still not knowing what in the world it meant, but now especially reluctant to ask, lest another millennial tell them how stupid they are.

Generational clashes are certainly not new, or unexpected. But, in our church setting, it’s disconcerting to experience so much derision from one generation to another. If our goal is to be truly “welcoming,” it seems clear to me that we need to find ways of allowing our toes to be stepped on, from time to time, and to enter into different ways of speaking to, and with, each other.

If nothing else, such an approach would be a significant and remarkable witness in these days where people seem more comfortable shouting at each other, rather than in engaging in dialogue.

The clash of generations displayed at Synod was a problematic moment for me. While I didn’t expect an absence of such moments, this one seemed to end with no sense or undertone of communal regret for what had transpired. In our church setting writ large, we must be particularly conscious of the ways in which we listen and the ways through which we speak. If we—as individuals and as community—truly mean to be welcoming, we must seek a deeper awareness of the limits of our own context, as we attempt to engage in meaningful dialogue with others, whose contexts and experiences are very different from our own. A part of this dialogue is the creation of “safe space” where people are allowed to say things that others may find insensitive and even offensive. This is the only way to build meaningful bridges of awareness and knowledge.

Welcome cannot just be a nice sounding motto, something that we somehow expect from others while simply assuming for ourselves. For our “big tent” that encourages welcome of all, no matter where one is on life’s journey, no matter who one is, we must do a better job of living out that welcome, and making it real. This is a mission, and ministry, for each and every one, and for all of us together.

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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