It’s not easy being the church these days. Actually, it has never been easy. But let’s focus on the present moment since that’s where we find ourselves.
By difficult, I don’t mean weathering critics of the church who enjoy pointing out how Christians lack a holy shine (as if being Christian is about living tarnish free). I am not thinking of what it takes to survive as the church in an increasingly secular culture where other priorities constantly catch the fancy of people.
I have in mind the requirements associated with being faithful to Jesus given the messiness of people who are, well … messy.
I stepped into one of Chicago’s tall steeple churches the other day. “Tall steeple” is shorthand for large edifice, storied tradition, significant endowment, challenged parking, and constant repair – a sanctuary that some long-ago architect intentionally situated in the heart of city traffic.
It was a Tuesday, so I imagined the church to be empty. I walked in the door and climbed the steps to the balcony. My eyes, even with the chandeliers of floating light, could see people in the cavernous space below. There were 17 of them scattered among the pews. I know this for a fact. I counted them.
Once back downstairs it was clear that these guys – two women were in the mix as well – were homeless souls. There is a look of weariness and a bedraggled attire that goes with not having a warm bed to collapse in each night. Guests in this church are not permitted to lie down in the pews, though they are welcome to stay as long as they wish, even sleep, just so they remain seated upright.
Numbers of these men, buried in their bulk of winter clothing, were asleep. One arm on the pew back, bent at the elbow, can prop up even the heaviest head. While not ideal for deep sleep, it’s something.
I asked a staff member why half of the sanctuary pews were roped off. He explained that in the section where guests come and sit, the pew cushions get pulled during the week. This recent decision, made reluctantly, is an attempt to accommodate a fresh problem.
It turns out that a homeless woman who frequents the church has incredibly difficult hygiene issues, much more severe than others who visit. Her enveloping odor is nose burning to the point where it is difficult to be in close proximity. Her urinary challenges kept destroying pew cushions.
What can the church do with limited staffing, countless guests each week, and a desire to remain open to all? Before you judge the church to be morally depraved in making its pew cushion decision, think of all the other churches you know and how they would measure up. My guess is that most of them wouldn’t hold a candle to the open door hospitality of this place.
When I walked in on Tuesday, the door wasn’t merely unlocked; it was propped open. Every day of the week the little doorstop on that enormous door is intentionally in the down position. Three degrees above zero? The door is open. Ninety-eight degrees outside and humid? It’s open. That doorstop is one steady symbol of hospitality. So is the heat inside provided during the winter, the welcome sign in the center aisle to greet all guests, and the staff members who serve up meals to anyone in need.
It’s quite a church. Messy, for sure. But what else is there if one is serious about following Jesus?
– Peter Marty, senior pastor