What’s one good thing you learned in church? During the month of April, a handful of contributors from Talking Taboo are running with this question – and inviting you to do the same with the hashtag #onegoodchurch. This week? Sarah Thebarge on the physical witness of the church and why she still clings to its sign of welcome.
I spent much of my childhood living in a parsonage next to a church where my dad was the pastor. Our church had a Benevolence Fund to help people who were having financial problems, and it didn’t take long for people in the town to get word of the fund.
We often had people knocking on the parsonage door, asking for help. While my dad retrieved food coupons or utility vouchers from his office, my mom would ask the people on our doorstep if they were hungry.
If they said yes, she’d ask them to have a seat on our front steps while she and I made them tuna fish sandwiches and lemonade.
And then we’d sit with them while they ate, and hear more about their stories. They told us about losing their job and then their apartment and then living out of their car. They told us about running out of food, or running out of gas while they were trying to get home.
When we asked them how they knew where to come for help, they all said they could see the steeple from a distance, and they followed it to our house.
When I finished high school, I moved to California for college. Then to Connecticut for grad school. Then to Oregon for a job. And everywhere I went, I found a church to join. To me, churches feel like a little piece of home.
Over the past few years, there’s been a conversation amongst emergent Christians about the value or necessity of churches. Some say that meeting on Sundays in physical buildings puts the “organized” in “organized religion,” and maybe it’s time to do away with the bricks and mortar.
I’ve been unsettled by that line of thinking, but I didn’t know exactly why until last night.
I’m currently the artist-in-residence at a church in Fort Smith, Arkansas. I’m staying in a house across the street from the church. Every morning at sunrise I can look out my bedroom window and see the church steeple, backlit by a glowing pastel sky.
Last night I spoke at a church event, and afterwards I was standing on the sidewalk, talking to Tasha, one of the pastors. As we were talking, we noticed a 50-something-year-old man wheeling his wheelchair up the street, calling for help.
“Can you help me? Can you help me?” he called.
Tasha and I walked over to him, thinking he needed help pushing his wheelchair up on the uphill street.
“Where do you need to go?” I asked him.
He shook his head. He didn’t need help pushing his wheelchair. Instead, he said, “I just got out of the hospital and I’m staying in a hotel and I don’t have anything to eat and I’m so hungry.” His voice cracked as he said the last words. I noticed his torn gray sweatshirt and stained red shorts. He had no shoes, and he was missing most of his teeth.
“Our church has an account with the grocery store down the street,” Tasha said. “I can call them and tell them you’re coming to pick up some food. Would $30 be enough?”
The man began to cry as he emphatically nodded his head. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” he said through his tears.
As we stood in the street, Tasha put her hand on one of his shoulders and I put my hand on his other shoulder. As she prayed a blessing over him, I stood facing traffic to make sure the three of us didn’t get hit by a car as we stood there, praying in the street.
When Tasha said Amen, the man wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his sweatshirt. He asked if he might be able to come to our church on Sunday mornings.
Tasha pointed to a sign outside the church that says, WELCOME. “Of course!” she said. “We’d love to have you.”
As the man turned his wheelchair around and started making his way to the store, I realized why brick-and-mortar churches are not optional; they’re integral.
Because as people in physical, emotional or spiritual need scan the city skyline, they see the steeple, and they make their way toward the place where people who love Jesus worship and fellowship and work.
They make their way toward the church building as if it’s a lighthouse in the middle of a stormy sea.
They come to feel the love of Jesus in a tangible way.
They catch a glimpse of on earth as it is in heaven.
They taste a little piece of Home.
Sarah Thebarge is a speaker and the author of The Invisible Girls, which weaves her story of nearly dying of breast cancer in her 20’s together with the story of a Somali refugee family she met on a train in Portland, Oregon. She is also a spokesperson for Compassion International and Vanity Fair Lingerie’s Women Who Do Campaign.