We are sojourners before you and are sojourning just as all our fathers (1 Chronicles 29:10, 15).
The capacity for the transformation of church and community requires deep, intentional remembering. Our core memories are essential to our common identity as Christians. Memories give power for spiritual energy and growth. In spite of many warnings from Scripture about the perils of forgetting, we do forget.
Frederick Weidmann is director of the Center for Church Life and Professor of Biblical Studies at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City. In an article about the early church, he recalls a core memory, one that formed the identity of the Christian movement in the first and second century. Citing writings by early Christian leaders, he recalls how our identity was formed by our ancestors, the Israelites. We even called ourselves the New Israel. Writers in the second century identified the New Israel as a “third race,” a distinction that set us apart from the religions of the Greek and the Romans and from the Jews who remained in Palestine. The followers of other religions were referred to as “dwellers.” However, members of the “third race” (Christians) were consistently described as “sojourners.” Christians could not be “dwellers.” We remembered how our ancestors were called out by God to journey to foreign lands. We were sojourners called out by the same God to continue the journey begun by the Israelites.
What does that memory mean for the church today? What are the implications for “mainline Protestant churches” given the 33.5 million foreign-born who live in this country? How might memory serve our churches when the fastest growing populations in our neighborhoods are the foreign born, a population no longer settling only in urban areas of gateway states like Texas and New York, but rather migrating into far-flung suburbs?
Amnesia is crippling. When we as the church forget we are sojourners, we act like dwellers. Dwellers depend upon programs and strategies to attract new members. But attraction presumes familiarity. It is unlikely that our new foreign-born neighbors will recognize our churches as familiar, welcoming places. Moreover, isn’t the notion that we are meant to “attract” people to us a reversal of the way in which we once understood ourselves as sojourners?
Consider this: Our government is spending over a billion dollars on “border control” to keep immigrants out. Sadly, dweller congregations are practicing a form of border control in their neighborhoods. Invisible walls created by fear have been built around their sanctuaries to protect them from dangerous foreign influences. One congregation I’ve visited keeps the door that faces a street lined with immigrants locked at all times!
Do you remember Ezra and Nehemiah, who rebuilt the city of Jerusalem after the Exile? Reacting to the threat of losing all they held sacred, their customs and traditions, the leaders built a wall to surround the city. It was a fifth-century B.C.E. form of border control. The wall was built to keep believers in and foreigners out. We can sympathize with their fear of loss. But the truth is we lose what we hold on to. And sojourners become dwellers when we forget our own history.
In stories from the Bible, it is the “outsiders” — those to whom the practices and customs of the insiders are most foreign — who remind the “insiders” of who God wants us to be and how God wants us to treat each other. One of many examples is Ruth. She was foreign-born, poor, and without legal or economic support. Regardless, Ruth was God’s instrument for the redemption of Israel. She exemplified the sojourner spirit. Who can forget her memorable line as she leaves her home: “Where you go I will go.” An immigrant among people who hated her people, the Moabites, she is for Israel the model of love and fidelity. She was called out to strangers, a journey that later influenced the course of Israel’s history and led her adopted country to new life. Her memory reminds us that when we create walls, either through fear or neglect, we are in danger of shutting out the people who could be the restorers of life.
Not all of us are dwellers. I have watched, with admiration, the sojourner spirit of six congregations in my neighborhood. Over the years survival issues have captured each congregation’s spirit. Predictably, as these congregations became preoccupied with salvaging dwindling resources, they began to lose contact with one another. Last year, the plight of a homeless man who froze to death came as a wake-up call to go out and do something. As a result, people from the congregations met and began planning to provide shelter for our homeless neighbors of whom many are foreign born. The results have been life changing. Where members had been hanging on and hunkering down, a surge of energy has begun to invigorate congregational life. Members who rarely participated in congregational life are becoming involved in a life-changing ministry.
Because people from six congregations were no longer willing to be dwellers inside their individual sanctuaries, life has begun to change.
They went to the strangers on their streets without an agenda to attract new members. Consequently there has been a ripple effect: Religious leaders, merchants, leaders of government, law enforcement agents, and concerned neighbors have come together around this “Shelter Project.” People who were strangers are now in conversation, asking how our neighborhood might work together with its immigrant population for the benefit of the whole community. And yes, people hearing about the ministry with the homeless are visiting the neighborhood churches, attracted by the witness of the sojourners. However, the people involved in the shelter ministry do not think of themselves as “attracters.” They are being faithful to a memory all Christians share, of who God intends us to be — the “third race.” They are sojourners among foreigners in their own neighborhood.
Barbara Jones-Hagedorn is a team consultant for VITAL (Vision, Interpretation, Transformation, Action and Leadership), serving congregations and judicatories. She is honorably retired from the Presbytery of Hudson River.