I have heard it said Sunday is the most segregated day of the week. How deeply sad is that?!? This should be an enormous red flag, a dead end sign, an emergency signal. But instead, us church folks think to ourselves, “it’s not like we don’t want black people, or poor people, or hispanic people (or whoever the “others” are) to come to church. We just don’t know any of them.” To tell the truth I have been a bit stymied here too. I live a very white, very middle class, very rural/small town life. I have been trying to think of ways to get to know people of different walks of life and I haven’t come up with many ideas. And the truth is, I am a bit scared of people who are different from me. What if I don’t understand them or what if I put my foot in my mouth? Then there are the sneakier, slithering voices which I have to stomp down hard upon. These whisper false, arrogant, prejudiced fears such as “what if they take advantage of me”...STOMP!
There are huge barriers between classes and races and lifestyles in our society. I don’t know how to break down these barriers but it occurs to me there are things done in congregations which actually shore them up. How many things happen in church which might make people feel as if they are not welcome if they don’t dress or speak or act a certain way?
Consider meetings which take place at church. Often there is a president or committee chairperson or perhaps the pastor is in charge. A meeting may be based loosely on parliamentary procedure. There are people with more power than others. There is a way of doing things. Even if the structure is more casual or consensus based that doesn't necessarily avoid a meeting type atmosphere. Might this make it more difficult for some people to speak up? Though I am a former pastor and have run my share of meetings, still, having been out of that environment for a while, I have some difficulty finding the comfort level and the words to speak up when I am at a meeting. Meetings require a different way of thinking from your normal conversation. I observe people who work in business environments are often more accustomed to speaking forcefully, decisively, and quickly. They know how meetings work and how to get something done in such an environment. If I find this a bit intimidating, is it perhaps also intimidating to some who spend their days working in a factory or a restaurant or the like and may not often sit in meetings? Might this create barriers for those who did not grow up privileged enough to participate in 4-H, Scouts or other extracurricular activities which teach parliamentary skills? Are voices being excluded from decision making processes by the very nature of how these processes are conducted?
Consider how people speak in church. When people allow themselves to feel shocked and judgmental over crude language are others being excluded who have learned different methods of communication? Notice how convoluted the above sentence is. Perhaps I should state this more simply and directly: when we gasp if someone says “crap” are we making it hard for those who are used to saying “shit” in their everyday conversations? I have been thinking about this lately because I am pondering a writing project and my first inspiration was an idea which involved the phrase “I don’t give a rat’s ass.” As I considered this and considered some of my friends, relatives, and neighbors I was concerned some of them would be shocked and find it difficult to hear what else I was saying. But now I am considering the possibility it is not my calling to keep people from being shocked and the people I most need to communicate to would find such language liberating or normal. The ones who would be shocked are likely already in the church, they are already in the "in crowd", and perhaps they should stop being our primary concern. Can voices be heard in churches if they speak in ways which might be considered crude?
Consider the way church folks most often dress. Where did the idea of wearing Sunday best come from? Is dressing in finery supposed to honor Jesus? It seems odd to me to honor a man who touched lepers, chastised the rich and reached out to the poor by dressing richly. Does dressing up for church create boundaries for those who might have limited clothing options? Clothing with holes and stains? Dirty clothing?
I continue to dream and imagine what a different church could look like. A church focused on service. A church which would let go of a fancy building in favor of meeting at a different location each week to do work serving those in need. I imagine this church would not have a president or a pastor or even a membership list in favor of a simple mailing/contact list and discussions while working or gathering around a meal. I imagine people would wear clothes they can work in or clothes which help them feel fabulous or whatever they have. I imagine people could speak without concern over linguistics but always being encouraged to speak love. This is just the beginning of a vision so naturally it is idealistic and vague. Yet, it gives me hope that someday....
I don’t know how to break down the barriers between classes and races and lifestyles. Still, perhaps we can prepare ourselves for those few moments when the boundaries are breached by tearing down the portions we have erected ourselves. For me it may begin by regularly wearing jeans to church. I might even start this Sunday. Easter Sunday. Gasp. Somehow appropriate. After all Jesus showed up for Easter wrapped only in a burial cloth, covered in the marks of torture, and dead.
I really am not setting out to shock anyone. I am just trying to make a point. Talking about being more relaxed when it comes to language and then carefully tiptoeing around potentially shocking language seems self-contradictory. What do you think? Is it important not to cuss? Do you think clothing, language and the way business is conducted in the church are barriers? What do you think of my idealistic and vague vision of future church? If you attend church, what will you wear the next time you go?
by Sheri Ellwood
by Sheri Ellwood