I regularly convene groups of people, most of whom are strangers to each other, by asking them to share their names and then a recent moment when they saw God.
While they are thinking about this, I read a poem by Brian Doyle titled “God” in which the poem’s speaker saw God in six girls and one boy on a kindergarten bus, the boy wearing “a bright green and purple stegosaurus hat.” Doyle was a devoted Roman Catholic, but I stress by this poem’s example that dogmatic or creedal answers to my question are not required. A person could interpret “seeing God” as witnessing beauty or humor, a child or an act of kindness, or in a wild and crazy hat.
In a recent gathering, one person shared about a fourth-grade girl who crossed the street to help him plant Jerusalem artichokes. Another shared about caring for a spouse after surgery. Still another spoke of a parent at a Little League Baseball game who quietly calmed down another dad who had been yelling at the umpire.
The larger goal of bringing these people together is to talk about ways we can partner for racial justice. Some of the participants are Christians, others practice a different faith, still others are agnostics or secular humanists. All are welcome to the conversation about dismantling racism in our local community. Tragically, Christians have not always spoken up.
Recently, a group of us marked the 60th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” with a public reading of that famous letter. The point was made again and again that King’s words were just as relevant today: “If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.” King also seemed to speak to our time and place by noting, “Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.”
The decline of membership, including younger generations, in mainline churches is well-known, but the reasons are disputed. Like the White moderates of King’s time, some claim that the church should stay out of social issues like racial justice. Yet, King’s heaviest criticism was aimed at precisely that attitude: “[C]hurches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.”
“I saw him, and he saw me,” Charles smiled, “and that’s how God is seen.”
Instead of that “strange, un-Biblical distinction,” we could encourage people to see the world differently.
At a recent gathering for racial justice, my friend Charles, a Black leader in the local Bahá’í community, shared that he saw God in a squirrel! Everyone chuckled. Charles explained that this little furry guy scurried up a tree and, as Charles looked up, the squirrel looked down: “I saw him, and he saw me,” Charles smiled, “and that’s how God is seen.”
Sixty years later and America still has a long way to go toward fulfilling the vision of what King called the “Beloved Community.” There are times for prophetic speech, which connects our situation to the arc of the biblical narrative for justice and liberation. There are also times for bright green and purple stegosaurus hats. Times for squirrels and laughter.
Instead of isolating ourselves in a church building or with fellow Christians, we can spend some of our time and energy in creating opportunities for cross-cultural and interfaith dialogue. Such experiences not only appeal to younger generations, who are often interested in plurality and connection, but also open our eyes, ears and hearts to the truth and beauty in our lives and, ultimately, in each other. As a young White woman said to Charles after he had spoken, “I see the face of God in you.” They promised to keep talking, and that gives me hope.