On Thanksgiving Day, I was driving down the highway, on my way to Florida to visit my grandparents. Unfortunately, I only made it 40 miles south, because my 1992 Nissan Sentra decided it was not feeling up to the trip. I pulled off to the side of the road. I was officially “broke down”. I made some phone calls. Thankful that at least the towing companies were open on Thanksgiving, I was towed to the nearest garage, and the tow-truck driver was kind enough to drop me off at a Waffle House, where I waited. I was of course disappointed that my Thanksgiving plans were thwarted. I thought about my sad situation; here I was sitting at a Waffle House when I had imagined myself in my grandparent’s living room! Well, fortunately, I had a lot of time to reflect at the Waffle House, and I found myself, to my surprise, becoming deeply thankful. I realized that in the course of only an hour and a half after I broke down, I had communicated with a whole group of people who are my family. Mom and Dad, now living back in Iceland, were worried and wanted to make sure I was alright. My grandparents were calling, and my beloved friend, Heather, and her parents drove an hour and a half to pick me up so I could spend the day with them. I felt literally showered with love and support. Family. What a gift to have a loving family. There is such a deep desire within us all, to be a part of a family. Human beings were created with a need to belong, to “be with.”And the astounding truth of the God we put our faith in, is that this God chose to become “Emmanuel,” meaning “God with us.” This truth takes us back to the creation account in Genesis when God is convinced that it is not good for a human being to be alone (Gen. 2:18). We are created for companionship. We are created to be in relationship. So there I was at the Waffle House, and I found myself surprisingly comforted by the realization that there are people who care about me, who care that I am alive. Someone thinks I matter in this world.
Family at Mercy
Several weeks before my Thanksgiving road trip, I had driven north to Douglasville, Georgia, to pick up a member of our church who had just been released from jail. Rob was in jail for violating his probation. This is not an unusual offense because people who are poor often do not have the financial resources or the stability in life to be able to meet their probation requirements. Probation requirements most often include regular meetings with a probation officer, recovery classes, community service hours and hefty fees (anywhere from $50-$300 per month), which for someone who is homeless can be extremely stressful, if not impossible. So Rob’s situation was not unusual. Not unlike my being stranded by the road waiting for help, Rob was stranded in Douglasville, calling us, his church family, hoping for a ride back to Atlanta.
Rob is not the only one in our church who has probation requirements. Another woman in our church has to see her probation officer every month and account for what she is doing, and pay her fees. Every month since Patricia has been out of jail, I have gone with her to see her probation officer. This can be helpful in that it demonstrates to the officer that Patricia is part of a community that cares about her and advocates for her. But what is perhaps more important is that Patricia knows that we care about her. She thanks me every time I go with her and tells me how much she appreciates the support of her church family.
The evening before Thanksgiving, we decorated our church space with wreaths and lights. We painted cards, and we sang songs. We ate a delicious home-cooked meal of chili with salad and warm bread. And as we began cleaning up after our meal, a group of folks burst into spontaneous song and dance. Our bass player was grooving along as people took up barrels and water coolers and started beating on them! I saw people clapping and smiling, and some were waving their arms in the air. I saw people laughing so hard they had to hold their stomach. I thought to myself, this is family. And I realized then, as I do over and over again at our church, that so many of our church members see Mercy as their family. Or as one woman who cooks for us regularly said to me, “I come here because this is my family. I feel more accepted and loved here than anywhere else I go. Sometimes when I know I’m really struggling, I just start walking toward Mercy Community Church because I know that I will feel at home and I won’t be judged.”
Family in the Gospel Vision
The more I work at Mercy, the more I realize just how important it is to be church. Isn’t the church a new kind of family, a body, a fellowship of human beings who are united through Christ’s love? Every day I see people come through our church doors who have come from deeply dysfunctional families. And I realize how important it is, especially in light of the brokenness in our society and in our families, for Christians to practice being church. Every so often I hear people describe our church as a “homeless ministry” or an “outreach program.” Yet this is not who we are. We are not a program and we are not a service agency. Outreach programs and service agencies can serve good purposes. But Mercy Community Church is a church. This means that we are striving to live into our identity as a family in Christ, or as biblical scholar, Michael Crosby, says, a “household of the just in a world of the unjust,” a family that comes to pick us up when we are stranded on I-75 or in Douglasville, a family that accompanies us to probation appointments or to the Social Security office, a family that encourages us, a family that celebrates and dances and sings on Thanksgiving eve!
One of the ways in which the gospel rattles our cages is that it re-defines the concept of family. God’s vision for family does not meet our cultural and social standards. When a crowd points out to Jesus that his family is asking for him, Jesus challenges them by asking, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Jesus looks around at those seated with him and answers his own question, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mk. 3:32-35). In a culture where loyalty, honor, and social status were defined through kinship, Jesus’ words would have sounded absurd. Is our culture so different? What about us? Do Jesus’ words about God’s new understanding of family disturb us, too? They certainly challenge me. Perhaps Jesus’ words challenge me more because I have been blessed with such a loving biological family. Yet, even as I give thanks for this gift in my life, I am aware that Christ calls me to receive a new family, to open my arms to strangers.
We are not made to be alone. My prayer for all of us is that we would be church during this Christmas season. That we would practice the astonishing good news of Christmas: that God is with us. And that we would likewise bewith one another as God’s family.
–Rev. Katie Aikins