By: Chad Hyatt
It catches folks by surprise when they first hear us use it. Frequently they even ask us about it. If they stick around long enough, they use it too. Theologians sometimes debate what constitutes the ‘marks’ of the church—those essential characteristics that make a church really church, in the big-C sense. One of the distinctive marks of Mercy is the way we use a pronoun.
It is not unusual for us to talk about a wide variety of community struggles using the first person plural. Our surprising use of the language of ‘we’ may be as good a way as any to describe the essence of what God has done in this little community over the last ten years.
We are homeless, even if some of us live in houses. We are alcoholics in need of recovery, even if some of us have never sipped more than the wine of communion. We are in danger of deportation, even if some of us were born here. We are prisoners, even if some of us have never been convicted of any crime. ‘We’ is the natural pronoun when something more powerful than difference defines who we are.
When people ask me to describe Mercy, I just say, ‘We are a church.’ Many people do not immediately think of us as a church. They may see us as an expression of church—like an outreach, or a mission, or a ministry. And, yes, we do incorporate all those aspects in one way or another. But none of those things alone get to the core, the absolute essence, of who we are. Church does. We are a church, a congregation, a visible community of the much larger, much older, much more ‘catholic’ body of Christ. We are part of that—a particular, tangible expression of that—the mystery that is church.
Metaphorically and in reality, Jesus Christ is at the center of our community, calling us from many scattered places to gather together around himself. Every Sunday, like an old-fashioned revival, we form a meandering circle of sisters and brothers holding hands around our communion table, where Jesus himself holds out open arms of invitation to all. To me, that’s a powerful image of what it means to be church.
But at Mercy, we believe there is more to the call to be church. Imagine you are operating a camera in a movie, and what we have just described is a close-up, focused on Jesus and then slowly moving out to see the crowd that is coming from every direction to gather around him. Now imagine the script directions are for the same camera to pan outward, moving away from Jesus so that we can now see where he and the group around him is situated in the broader landscape. Jesus and the people who stand with him are seemingly at the edge of this bigger picture.
Jesus goes to the margins—what Pope Francis calls the ‘peripheries’ or we just called the ‘edge’—in order to show he is the center of all things. And unless we go there, following him where he chooses to be in our world, we cannot be held together. We certainly cannot be held together as church in any real sense, and perhaps not even as any kind of authentic expression of human togetherness at all. I honestly believe any other way of forming human community will eventually disintegrate into little more than a barely disguised defense against our deepest fears of chaos.
Our use of the language of ‘we’ at Mercy surprises others. But I don’t think it is because a group of people feel a shared sense of community. That’s unexceptional, in and of itself. I believe it is because this particular group of people have the audacity feel it. We have crossed long-held lines to get to where Jesus has called us. These are the lines that separate folks who live under a roof from those who live on the streets. These are the lines that continue to segregate children of God on the basis of the color of their skin, or their nation of origin, or degree of education, or gender—or any of a thousand different lines of division we have devised for ourselves. But the lines that once divided us have now been redrawn into the sign of the cross, binding us all together. The world believes we are too different to ever become one community. But the truth is we have grown into a very non-traditional family, freely talking of one another as sisters and brothers—with an all-inclusive and liberating ‘we.’
Am I papering over the very real and sometimes exceedingly painful differences we still experience? Am I trying to force our rich and beautiful diversity into a bland, tasteless ‘melting pot’? I don’t think so. We are gloriously and dangerously diverse. Such is the true nature of the call of Jesus. But once gathered around him and led into genuine relationship with one another, we discover we are one. We are one in our brokenness and one in our beloved-ness, one as ‘sinners’ and one in our ‘call to be saints.’
This is the hard-earned grace of making a commitment to ten years of community. You might glimpse it, but you probably will not take it fully to heart on a week-long mission trip or in a summer ‘urban immersion.’ These are baptismal waters into which we are being plunged, and they require at least a lifetime to live out.
I don’t think there is anything new here. But there is something to see. Just flip through any Lives of the Saints. You will read, more often than not, the story of someone who discovers anew the life-changing love of God, and quite completely undone by it all, sets out in humble but very tangible ways to share in and perhaps in some small way to relieve the suffering of our sisters and brothers. The result is that often a small community is formed and the truly radical and revolutionary heart of the gospel is rediscovered once more.
At Mercy, we do not believe that we are the answer to every problem the church or the world faces. We are not so foolish as to think our way is new and novel or best or that history has been waiting on us. We are just following Jesus to where we sense that he is and trying to be church as he would want us to be. And, quite frankly, that is something to see.
Helping us to see is what this particular, special issue does best: it is packed with photos, pulled from across our ten years together. We have included a few favorite articles from previous issues. And there are new reflections, too—just to show that this celebration isn’t just an exercise in nostalgia, no matter how wonderful the past has been. We are still moving ever onward, following the path down which Jesus is leading—in ways always new to us, always hopeful, always overflowing with mercy.