Afflicting the Comfortable

The priest at the church where I became an Episcopalian lo these many years ago  had a favorite saying that has always stuck with me- “The role of the Church is two-fold: to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable”.

I’m sure she got it from somewhere else; it has the ring of one of those little witticisms that people repeat to each other during coffee hour for decades. But… it’s hung around in the back of my brain, and it’s been poking me again the past few Sundays.

I’m an Episcopalian, among many other things, and Episcopalians are, historically, known for being white, well-educated, and rich. There’s more to it than that, obviously; Episcopalianism (and its parent denomination, Anglicanism) have a long and rich history, and in recent years the Episcopal church has been at the forefront of important civil rights issues, especially those dealing with gender and sexuality. Yet, a certain amount of that storied privilege persists, especially at the parish level.

For example: there are four Episcopal churches here in Berkeley- St. Clements, a beautiful and very old-fashioned parish with gorgeous buildings and a lovely service. St. Mark’s, right by Cal campus, with lots of people, lots of money, and a hell of a choir. All Souls, with it’s family-centered worship and its close ties to the seminary. All healthy parishes with strong, generally happy, congregations.

And then there’s my church.

Good Shepherd Berkeley is a lovely little late Victorian church with a tiny congregation of eccentrics, social justice crusaders, trouble-makers, and the rest of us. We are continually poor, our congregation is always coming and going, and our facilities are perpetually in need of some repair. The folks in pews range from the middle class to the homeless, the competent to the certifiably insane, the tee-totaler to the still-drunk-from-last-night. There’s a core of folks who hold it all together, but every Sunday can be a bit of crap-shoot, and I, at least, always breathe a sigh of relief when we get through the service with only the usual interruptions.

So why, I asked myself a couple weeks ago as I was de-frosting the communion bread on knife-point over the gas range (the microwave has finally died), do I continue to go here? It would be so. much. easier. to simply jump ship, and go somewhere that I wasn’t going to rumple my Sunday dress when I hugged our semi-regular meth-head at the Peace.

Why? It’s simple- because my comfort needs to be afflicted.

I’m a systems person- I love order, and I really, desperately, want things to go How They Are Supposed To Go. I want a plan, and I want competent folks who know what they’re doing confidently executing every line of it, preferably while delicate music wafts overhead and we all smile beatifically at one another. Except… that’s not really how the world works. And it’s certainly not how the divine works, at least not in my experience. I could so easily slide into a church where I showed up on Sunday in my nice shoes and my pretty earrings, and sat quietly in my pew, and hugged professors and professionals and other frequently-bathing folks at the Peace.

But what would I be doing there?

No. For me, it is crucial to my understanding of my faith that G-d and Jesus and all the teachings of love are for everyone. Full-stop. Everyone. When I serve communion to people I would not voluntarily otherwise interact with, that’s the gospel. When I hold hands with someone I might not otherwise even see in my daily life, that’s the gospel. When I am brought up flat against the fact that, if I say I love all G-d’s creatures, that means loving people who are not like me (and wouldn’t want to be if they could), that’s when I experience the gospel.

It’s not the only way, of course- but it’s an important way in what is an otherwise pretty comfortable life that I live. And I don’t mean to cast stones- for many folks the church is a refuge from the chaos and trials of day to day life, and there is nothing wrong with that. Everyone’s faith journey is different.

For me, I am most fully present when I am thrown into it. When I show up fifteen minutes before the service and have to fill-in for someone who forgot to check the rota. When I have to sit and make small talk with the person who is waiting for the priest to bring a little bit of money buy some food. When I have to consider that, while I’m typing this on my laptop, someone I broke bread with in the last month is living in a tent. I don’t like it-  believe me, I probably never will.

But… I need it.

*I realize that this makes it sound like GS is a bit of a disaster- it’s not. GS has some wonderful people and does some wonderful things, especially around working with the poor and immigrant communities. I wouldn’t continue attending if they didn’t have more going for them than just poking me in my comfort zones. However, I do think it’s fair to say that there is less of the traditional gloss than is often found in other parishes, and I think that actually often works in our favor, though there are days I long for a little more decorum. But churches are made up of humans, and will therefore be just as gloriously flawed as the people in them, and that is the way it is meant to be.

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