“Churches are filled to the brim with people who love the lovable. But if you want to know true love, if you want to capture the very heart of Jesus’s teaching, if you want to tap into the extraordinary – love those who do not love you back or learn to love the seemingly unlovable.”
– author Matthew Paul Turner, “Provocative Faith”
This was years ago. I had been attending a church for a very long time, and was having a discussion with some folks about inner city outreach. This church was very good at helping people from the inner city find churches in the inner city. I threw out the question, “Well, what would we do if a prostitute came to our church?” – our nice, clean upper middle class suburban church. One of the women in leadership responded, “We’d help her find a church in the city that would best suit her needs.”
I’d like to say I was surprised, but it wasn’t the first time I’d heard that from church leadership. Several years before I’d volunteered for a project called Flower City Work Camp, helping with mini Vacation Bible Schools on the streets of the inner city during spring break. I did it for several years, but that first year I bonded with a few of the kids. They asked to come to church with me, so for a few Sundays my husband, daughter and I picked them up. First two kids, then three, then more wanted to come than we could fit in our car.
I asked around the church to see if anyone else would help pick up kids, and the only taker was a couple who, unable to have kids of their own, adopted … well, I don’t know how many now … but I’m sure that if they’d had room in their own already crammed van they would have not only brought the kids to church but offered them a home. But that wasn’t going to be enough. The few kids was growing to more kids and their families.
Instead of helping to find ways to get the kids to church, the pastor gently suggested that I connect them with a church in their neighborhood.
Their drug and crime ridden, very dangerous neighborhood.
I was very, very naive about organized church, having up until that point attended very small churches or a house church. So I did what was suggested, and found the kids a church in their neighborhood. The kids, understandably, felt like I’d abandoned them. Which I had. I still cry over that.
I understand why the pastor suggested a local church; the kids needed more than just Sunday School. They needed role models and breakfast programs and a safe place to go after school, all that they could see on a daily basis. At the same time, I think our church really missed an opportunity for some intense – and probably not very comfortable – spiritual growth. It was easier to hand over the kids than actually step in and help, to drive into the dangerous streets and pick the kids up every week, to bring into our fold children and families who live and think (and bathe) differently than we do. We missed the opportunity to really – really – reach out to the inner city.
I’ve never felt good about that decision, so when the conversation came up again years later, I spoke up.
“So if a prostitute came into our church we’d send her somewhere else to have her needs met?” I remember asking. The woman said yes (and everyone else agreed with her). “Can you tell me what her needs are that are different than my needs?” Blank looks.
I left that church not long after, not because I thought there was something wrong with the church. I’d loved that church for years. I left because I felt God talking to me in a way that he wasn’t talking to everyone else – or if he was, they weren’t hearing the same thing I was.
I was hearing love the unlovable. Love the dirty, unwashed, and ill-mannered until you don’t notice that they’re different than you are. Because they’re not. We all have the same needs – the need for food and shelter and water, for companionship and safety, for an eternal answer to our spiritual questions.
A prostitute walking into a suburban church has the same needs at a corporate executive sitting in the same pew. And when you start to think of people in that way, it’s much easier to love the seemingly unlovable. “There but for the grace of God, go I.”