Last Friday I walked to the A.A. club in my neighbourhood for the noon meeting. I’m not an alcoholic, but I’m grateful for open meetings where I can sit and listen as people share their experience, strength and hope. I am always struck by two things in meetings. One, while I may not relate to the stories people share of their drinking and its consequences, I do relate to the feelings they share that lay underneath their drinking, as well as the ongoing struggle involved in not choosing the “easier, softer way” in life. I feel a deep kinship and affection for this group of people who are mostly strangers to me. Two, I am struck by the sheer diversity of the room. There are between 80-100 folk at the “Lunch Bunch” daily noon meeting. Some have decades of sobriety, others have days, and bring sheets to be signed by the meeting chair from the halfway houses where they live and where they are being offered a new way of life. Some are in jackets and ties, others in scrubs: most are in jeans. Some live in the neighborhood, others drive in because it’s a good meeting. There are many tones of skin, differing hair styles, a variety of visible tattoos and some pretty distinct accents. Of all the social settings in which I find myself on a regular basis, it is without question the most diverse. But as each person speaks, I look around the room and find people nodding in that, “yeah, me too” way. A chorus of laughter greets yet another story highlighting the ridiculous things we’re capable of when in the throes of a substance or process that is “cunning, baffling, powerful.” And then, after the meeting I watch as a woman approaches another who has shared her need for a safe place to hang out before she moved into a shelter that night, and I know that she will be taken care of. On the walk home, a memory thrust its way into the warm glow I usually experience after a meeting, and I was suddenly sitting in another room, almost 14 years ago.
In February 2001 I was a student at Asbury Theological Seminary. The seminary organized a week of chapel services centered on racial reconciliation. Dr William H. Myers was the preacher, and I distinctly remember his first sermon, entitled “Martin’s Dream: black America’s nightmare.” Dr. Myers remarked that most Americans are only familiar with Dr. King’s speech at the March on Washington, with his talk of “the content of character”, of “joining hands,” and of the ephemeral nature of “mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” We are far less familiar with his speeches on the concrete issues of black poverty, ghettoism, police brutality and his anti-war stance. Dr. Myers then contrasted “the dream” of 1963 and its enactment in the 1968 Civil Rights Act with the reality for black America 33 years later (46 years now), where, in terms of, for example, unemployment and incarceration rates, things are actually worse. He said that with the passing of that landmark legislation the church had lost its focus on the dream, and had started to day dream, now that “the job was done.” He ended with this call: “Let us have the divine dissatisfaction ever inside us,” because, clearly, the job is not yet done.
But the room I suddenly remembered was not Estes Chapel. While I can remember both of Dr. Myers’ sermons, it was the ‘talkback session’ on racial reconciliation in the gym that came to mind on Friday. After a series of well-meaning and benign comments and questions, one student offered a very eloquent affirmation of the need for the church to prioritize racial reconciliation, to which one of the panel passionately responded by saying, “Reconciliation? Reconciliation? That means we got something to go back to. Truth is, we ain’t never been conciled. We ain’t never been friends!”
“We ain’t never been friends.“
After which, I recall, there was a lengthy period of silence. Finally, some brave soul asked, “So what’s it going to take for us to become friends?” To which the panel member seemed to deflate and responded with something like, “I just don’t know.” And as he said that, I remember thinking of all the A.A. and other 12-Step meetings I had sat in. And the fact that there was racial diversity in those groups, and as far as I could see, people seemed to be friends across lines of race and ethnicity, across lines of social class and standing. Dr. King once famously stated that “it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” I’m not sure there’s much of a segregated hour for Recovering America. In that moment I asked myself, “What’s the difference?” And it struck me: people in A.A. know that they need each other. I don’t think that’s the case with the church.
Because the fact is, we don’t need each other.
We can go about all our worship and ministry in isolation from each other, our preachers for the most part looking out over a sea of faces who look just like them, with a choir who look just like them seated behind. Perhaps the only time our voluntarily segregated churches will rub shoulders with each other will be today, at an MLK Day march or event. We may be inspired by a stirring speech about the work that is still to be done, but then we’ll go back to “business as usual,” reflected in the words of a song I grew up singing in Sunday School, “you in your (increasingly) small corner, and I in mine.”
But the truth is, we do need each other.
We just (apparently) don’t know it. We need each other because Jesus has called us “friend,” and created an alternative community in which “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3.28). We have been reconciled to God and to each other – God has made us friends across all the lines that divide human society – but we still live as if that were not true. We need each other because God has given us the ministry of reconciliation, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5.18-21). We need each other because it is not enough to wring our hands over events in Ferguson or New York, or worse, to respond to such events by disparaging entire groups of people with whom we have chosen to have no relationship. The topic in the meeting on Friday was “hitting bottom,” that moment – or moments – when we are confronted with our powerlessness and “become willing to go to any lengths to get what [recovering alcoholics] have.” What will it take for the church in the United States to “hit bottom”? What will it take for us to look at the challenges we face as a society around race and say, “we’re not offering much of an alternative?” What will it take for us to learn this simple truth:
We need each other
And then live as if that were indeed true? Perhaps we can take some time on Martin Luther King Jr Day 2015 to ask ourselves that question, and begin to dream again.