I had a special opportunity to visit a different church this past Sunday. We were out of town for the weekend - visiting family and also having lots of Grown Up Time while the kids stayed with Grandma.
A guy I knew in high school that I have since becomes friends with since reconnecting on Facebook is the pastor of a church and I have wanted to go visit his church for a while now. And this past weekend, I had my chance.
And what's funny is that part of me knew what I was walking into and part of me didn't until we were there.
Cincinnati is a city with a lot to offer. There are big companies - great places to work. There is fantastic history in the city. There's a great riverfront. Tons of things for families to do and tons of things for couples to do. Lots of nightlife, arts, museums, etc.
Cincinnati, in my experience, is also a city that has a bit of a unique situation when it comes to the neighborhoods of the city.
Neighborhoods, in general, tend to have a cultural/ethnic majority of some sort, right? I look at the suburb where I live, the nieghborhood I specifically live in, and I see that the majority of the families are white. But I also see some black families, some hispanic families, and some indian and middle eastern families.
In Cincinnati, neighborhoods tend to be pretty strongly divided by economic class and by race.
My friend's church is in a very old Cincy neighborhood. It's an old river town and the population is primarily white, working class, and politically conservative.
My friend is pretty much the opposite of that. OK - completely.
The church is 150 years old. He is their first pastor who is a black male.
It's been a year. In fact, they thanked him for his one year anniversary when we were there on Sunday.
Church was great. It is a small church on a gorgeous piece of land. It's peaceful and quiet. There is a lovely community garden. We really just made ourselves at home. People knew we were guests but didn't quite seem to know how to approach us. A woman from the choir did come over and say hello and was friendly. Church started and it was a more classic style of worship in the Methodist church. More liturgy, more old hymns. Different from the contemporary music we sing in our home church.
But my friend, Pastor Peter, fills the place with warmth and love.
In that small space, he spoke so intimately with everyone there. In prayer, he purposefully and graciously and warmly invited the Holy Spirit to fill the space, to open our hearts. He encouraged everyone in the room to open their hearts and minds in prayer, to focus on worship, to intercede in prayer on someone's behalf. He taught the congregation about some of the fundamentals of Methodism that are being taught throughout the faith right now - about Fruitful Living through passionate worship and risk taking missions. He preached. He preached!! And in his message, he spoke about the pain in the nation right now. He read words from Dr. King. He wove this message that talked about the pain and hurt in the nation and in all of us as individuals but also the need for worship and what worship means - that we have to come seeking help (and we all need God's help somewhere in our lives), that we have to believe that "God Can!" and that we are there to worshipa nd findout the How, and we have to be open to healing.
After church, we spent some time with my friend and his wife and a member of his congregation. We spoke about the challenges he has faced coming into this church and community. We talked about the growth that has happened. We talked about the fantastic things the church is doing to reach out into the community. We talked about church and church leadership and their future plans and hurdles.
And I'll be blunt and possibly hurt some feelings or offend or make your eyebrows go up when I say...
I walked away from the experience still shaking my head that I sat in a congregation made up of primarily older, conservative, white working class as they accepted and heard a strong black man preach about what love really means, preach about loving and accepting all of our brothers and sisters - black, white, yellow, brown, straight, gay.
And I walked away filled with hope. Inspired. Eager to see what this congregation will continue to do in this community. Because I woke that morning and my heart broke when I learned of the verdict in the Zimmerman trial. And then I found myself in a place where there is a lot of cultural swing and shift and change happening - where black and white are coming together not only as people but also meshing together as cultures.
Seriously - if it can happen in Sayler Park, it can happen just about anywhere.
If you are in the Cincinnati area, I'd encourage you to take a Sunday morning and go visit Eden Chapel UMC. Sit and be open to the experience from the time you walk in the door until the service ends. Pay attention to the assumptions you make in your head - about the church, the sanctuary, the people you encounter. I know I made them. I was hesitant when I walked in the door and no one greeted me. I was hesitant when I saw the choir in robes and the big pipes of the organ. I was hesitant when I saw all the decorations for Vacation Bible School (going on this week). But Jeff and I sat and remained open and listened and observed. And this is a church where God is at work. This is a congregation that is getting excited about the fullness of a life lived immersed in God's love and mercy and grace.
There is a chance that I will have an opportunity to continue to be connected to Eden Chapel - to continue to say that I Am Eden with that congregation (even from 120 miles away). That church, that congregation, that community, that pastor friend of mine and his beautiful family... they are in my prayers. And I hope you will pray for them, too.
Because as you pray for them, you also pray for the rest of our country, our culture, our society. That the divide can be recognized, named, and conquered through God's grace and mercy.
When I first read this blog post from a worship leader that I follow, Carlos Whitaker, I didn't agree with him. Until the very end.
"BE Jesus and watch racial, socioeconomic, and cultural lines blur into revival.
Call me a romantic.
But I think Jesus can fix things before we can."
And that's what is really happening in Sayler Park at Eden Chapel UMC.