There I sat in a church leadership meeting, surrounded by a group of smiling faces.
In reality, I found myself in the midst of a difficult situation with this team. From a distance, over a handful of years I was aware of some conflict they had. When I was invited in for a closer look, it didn’t take long before I sensed the tremendous pressure of buried issues behind those smiles. I discovered no one was going to talk about any of that let alone actually address it.
Underneath the pleasantries there were beliefs that “the other” was the problem and if we just removed him/her things would be solved. “He’s the problem. She’s just wrong. That group has infiltrated. They are sinful…”
Heels dug in, they were poised for another battle.
I sensed the nudge to slow down.
I noticed and felt the whole range of my emotions in those moments as I looked at the faces in the circle. Anger. Sadness. Compassion. Hopelessness. Helplessness. Love. Frustration. Confusion. Disappointment.
How could leaders in a church have gotten here? How could elders in a community of faith have settled into this?
The voices began to press me, suggesting my slow approach was not helpful and that we needed to “hurry up and get on with it so we could get to the work of the church.”
In those moments the Spirit brought to mind a Grey’s Anatomy episode where an active shooter had come into the hospital. One character stood before the shooter and began speaking. I don’t remember the actual words but as the shooter aimed the gun at her, she began: I am _____’s daughter. I am the sister of____. I am married to_______. I am the mother of______.
The shooter put the gun down. Why?
Simple. It is much harder to kill someone when you truly see them. When you slow down and see another human being you might not follow through with the impulse to annihilate him/her with a gun or with words.
I posed this scenario to the circle of church leaders. “What should you do if faced with an active shooter?” Stunned by what seemed a very strange question coming from out of the blue in that setting, they sat silently staring back at me.
I went on to share the answer. “Make yourself human in front of the shooter by speaking of your life. I am married to Josh and I am the mother of Miles, Owen, Caleb and Sophia. I am Tom and Deb’s daughter. I am the sister of Nathan and Daniel…”
I took a long deep breath and said,” I’m sorry that I have to start here with this group, but unless you can truly see one another I know where things are headed- back into dehumanizing patterns that end in annihilation. I refuse to participate in that. So, while you might not like it, this is the first work-becoming human to one another again.”
I invited the leaders to take some time, right in that meeting, to share how each had met his/her spouse. They had known one another for many many years and yet they didn’t know each other. As the stories were shared around that circle the atmosphere changed.
Those moments didn’t fix all of our issues. We didn’t complete a 5 year plan to maximize growth. We didn’t solve budget issues or create grand plans for the most powerful worship service. But we certainly were doing the work of the church.
This work of re-humanizing the “other,” (the one whom we don’t understand, the one with whom we disagree, the one whom we view as the problem, the one who we have labeled wrong, stupid, ignorant, flawed, etc. ) is the work of the church.
Bryan Stevenson is quoted in his recent interview with Dominique Gilliard:
“What has defined my work over the last 35 years is this belief that each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. I genuinely believe that no one is just their worst act. If you tell a lie, you’re not just a liar; or if you take something, you’re not just a thief—even if you’ve killed someone, you’re not just a killer. And justice requires that we know the other things that you are.”
This is the work of the church.
When I sit looking at someone and am tempted to paint them in with one color, I try to pause and wonder about the other things they are too. This is the first work.