On dancing with the rich and the poor

The kingdom of God is a dance party, after all. I’m surprised.

Because I have never doubted that I have seen heaven, and heaven is the library in Beauty and the Beast. It is blue, white, and gold, with sunshine pouring in and your pick of poofy chairs. It is big enough to have earnest, intellectual conversations without disturbing the other members of heaven readers. In the evenings you have dinner and participate in a choreographed musical revue.

Never once have I hoped that the kingdom of God would be a warm room becoming ever more stifling with the heat of all kinds of strangers moving to some mediocre music – until now.

I spent the weekend at the United Methodist Church for All People in Columbus, Ohio at a conference on “building a multicultural, multiclass church”. If you are like me and think this sounds way too abstract and touchy-feely, focus on the “building a church” phrase. The multiclass church is the center for all kinds of ministry to/with the urban poor.

Our group learned about how to give away clothes and organize leaders, how to teach nutrition and prepare to write grants. Which was all very helpful and interesting, but the church itself was captivating. From the moment I walked in, I hurt from missing Havenplace, how life-giving and faith-challenging it is to really know your neighbors from the wrong side of things, because I saw that family again, here in Ohio. We came in the door and found a tiny grey-haired woman blocking our path: “I’m Darlene, and I’m the hugger for this weekend.” She was like the opposite of a bouncer, making sure you knew you were included. You were in. Are you “all people”? You belong.

That’s the kind of hospitality the place is built on. There’s something about accepting everyone, and doing it together, that builds on itself. You get bit with something when you start to experience the joy of approaching everyone as a gift, whether they like it or not. And when everybody knows there’s enough to go around, a culture of hospitality is unstoppable.

So when Eileen stood up at Open Mic and said, “teaching Robert is my greatest accomplishment,” I don’t know why I expected Robert to be some kind of virtuoso. I should have known that Robert’s simple ability to hit all the notes of a song would be enough for celebration and the backup singer would support him without overpowering and it would not be beautiful like a diva’s superhuman aria, but for how very human it all was. Robert’s voice was nothing special and the food we were served was nothing special and having a “hugger for the weekend” sounds really cheesy, looking back on it, but love made it wonderful. Love made me not want to leave.

I think that’s why I only dreaded the impending dance party until it actually started, and then I knew it was covered with that same love. I don’t like to dance the way I don’t like to say how I feel, or actually I don’t like to feel, because I’m not in control. The hokey-pokey, maybe, where you can follow instructions one limb at a time and you won’t be doing it wrong. But when you know you’re accepted, and everyone else in the room looks kind of silly too, and there is no wrong, then you find yourself being honest – moving when you want to move.

So Billy pulled uncertain me out on the floor and we danced, everyone together, because there was music and joy to be had, there in one of the roughest neighborhoods in Columbus. And somehow it wasn’t a denial of all that was wrong and hurting there. It was recognizing that there is still much to be thankful for; that the world doesn’t stop because of job loss or storms; that being satisfied is about having enough, and in one evening a dinner and a dance is about all anyone could ask for. There’s a kind of defiance about not needing more.

I don’t mean to idealize the Church for All People. I’m quite certain it has its share of politics, workaholics, incorrigible committee members, budget strife, goof-offs and leeches; and more than its share of troublemakers and naysayers and “urban challenges” (let that be a euphemism for what you will). But it was founded to be a place where the hungry could become the fed, where alcoholics could become recoverers, where the proud could be humbled and the humble lifted up, where the formerly incarcerated could become truly free. And I, a wallflower, became a dancer.

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1 Comment

  1. I used to live a few blocks from this church. I always wondering about it, what it was like. All of my homosexual friends at art school who were even remotely religious attended. I had a gay friend who was in the choir, etc. Glad to hear about the experience and glad that Ohio welcomed you.

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