Click here for General Assembly coverage

Longing for the homeland

Can the church live into its call to be a family?  

Photo by Mitchell Orr on Unsplash

In 2018, I visited the small Welsh village from which my great-great-grandparents emigrated. While I was there, I worshiped in the church in which they were married, and I walked through the church cemetery hoping to spot a grave marker for one of my ancestors. I didn’t find one. However, I found many graves of people from that town who lived during the years my family was there, and I thought, “These people knew my family.”

The visit was a profoundly spiritual experience. Encountering my roots so tangibly, I felt known and seen like never before. It was a powerfully positive visit; yet, at the same time, I was also aware of family pain and trauma that I carry around, handed down to me by these very same ancestors. There’s a word in Welsh (hiraeth) that means “longing for the homeland.” As I walked around my ancestral home, in the joy and pain of encountering it, I felt hiraeth.

As I reflect back on my pilgrimage of self-discovery, I still feel hiraeth. But as I continue to reflect, I also know that my experience of ancestry is not shared by all people. Some people’s experience of their homeland is marked mostly by pain, and they have no feelings of longing for it but, instead, would rather get as far from it as possible. Some people’s experience of their homeland is marked by a profound silence or hurt because others stole the knowledge and/or beauty of it from them through colonialism and slavery. The relationship between homeland, belonging, and family is complex.

In its earliest years, the church community was understood to be a family, a spiritual homeland of sorts. The New Testament refers to the church as the “household of faith” (Galatians 6:10), and early Christians referred to each other and Christ as siblings (Colossians 1:2 and Hebrews 2:11) and God as a parent (Galatians 4:6). Many early followers of Jesus were literally forced to choose the church as their family over their own nuclear families.

There is an ancient story called “The Passion of Perpetua and Felicity,” about two women from Roman Carthage who were arrested and imprisoned for their faith in Christ. Perpetua was nobility. Felicity was a slave. Their mutual love for Christ led them to love one another and, through much suffering, they formed an eternal bond. Despite many attempts from Perpetua’s family to rescue her from imprisonment, she forsook the privilege of nobility and chose to stay with her beloved Felicity. Together, they were fed to the wild beasts in celebration of the emperor’s birthday. Their story is no doubt a tragedy; yet, it demonstrates the strength and commitment of Christian love.

In stark contrast, after being part of multiple churches over my lifetime, here is my observation of Christians’ commitments to one another in our own time. In general, church-goers tend to be happy to see each other at worship and are eager to pray for one another. They are also willing to care and support one another when there is a need. However, average churchgoers are also very quick to disengage and even leave the community of faith if something offends them or if they simply “like it better” somewhere else. Many of the relationships people have within the church are at the level of “acquaintances”; some relationships go beyond that, but I would hardly describe the average church community as a family whose most important relationships are within the church and who would sacrifice much for one another.

I’m sure you can think of one or two (hopefully more!) people in your congregation that are the exception to what I’m saying. I think the future of the church depends on our ability to nurture and encourage these kinds of relationships in the church. Because of the nature of leadership, I think pastors have a responsibility to lead this effort by example. Jesus was talking about the relationships his disciples had among themselves when he said, “Everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

In other words, the relationships we have within the church are meant to show the world what God intends for all relationships. The church is meant to be a place of unconditional love, radical hospitality, abundant forgiveness, generous grace and unequivocal acceptance. The church is meant to be a family whose members are so committed to each that we eagerly make selfless sacrifices for one another. The church is meant to be a place where we push past the discomfort of learning to love those that are hard to love so that all might be fully known and embraced. I long for a spiritual homeland in which the whole church, in all our joy and pain, lives together and belongs.