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27 July 2011

The Church Would Be Great if it Weren't for the People

I love the Church - the body of Christ.
I love the Episcopal Church.
I love my congregation.
But sometimes the folk in the Church and her congregations are really, really hard to love.
I am having a week of reflection in an Anglican community as I prepare to leave Israel. And in the past 24 hours I have seen some of the worst of American Christianity. And then I have seen and experienced that which gives me hope.
First a relatively young woman told me that I could not sit at the dinner table with her even though there were four empty seats around her. They were for the group with whom she was traveling and there was no room for anyone else. (She did not say anything to the white man who sat at the other table from her group who was also a solo traveler, like me who registered for the meal.) The waitstaff set me a place at another table by myself. I sat facing her and began to eat. One of the women with her got up and moved her plate to sit with me. Two of her friends who came later also joined us. We had a lovely time.
At some point the young woman came over to me and apologized to me for being rude. She was so concerned with the number of plates she could see, she couldn't see that there was room for anyone else. But she went to the front desk to make sure that there would be room for all of us from now on. I recognize my own control issues in her, even though they do not manifest in the same way. I was also struck by the theology of scarcity out of which she was operating: this is all I can see, there may not be more than I can see, there isn't enough for you, neither will I share nor check to see if there are more resources and the people who are responsible for this can't be trusted to provide for us and you or to think that they might need extra. There seemed to be no operative theology of grace, abundance or hospitality, and that made me sad for her.
I told her how much I appreciated her coming back to me to apologize as I accepted her apology. I have not always been woman enough to apologize when I need to. All is well.
Then a woman came to our table to get the key to her room from her roommate. As she was introduced to me she asked to touch my hair. I smiled and said as warmly as possible, absolutely not. She asked if it was all mine; I said yes. She went on her way.
Later we were in the lounge together and she came over to apologize. She said she realized how inappropriate her questions were and how she would feel and she just felt terrible. I thanked her for giving the issue such though and accepted her apology. Then I saw that she was crying. And I felt bad. Two things happened here - one I felt the ancestral, social pressure of comforting the weeping white woman and some resentment for that feeling and the guilt it produces. And two, I felt very moved personally and pastorally. I acted out of the second, and modeling appropriate boundaries asked if I could take her hand. I did and said that everything was alright. I forgave her. She kept crying and I asked to hug her. She gave me permission and I did. She realized that she was touching my hair at the point and apologized all over again. I told her it was alright in that circumstance but later wished I had not hugged her. I wanted to keep my hair to myself.
I was glad that my pastoral impulse surfaced, given that I am here as a priest and a pilgrim, but am aware of how even my pastoral response is affected by our racialized histories.
And today, I had a wonderful tour of the College on this facility with a sister-priest who knows some of the same folk that I do. I knew that women did not celebrate in the Cathedral and that she did not wear clerics here. I asked her about that. And oy vey, oy li!
The focus on Palestinian Liberation is so all consuming that there isn't "room" for women's liberation, equality or vocations. It reminds me very much of the Black Liberation Movement. I can only hope that a united womanist/feminist movement will emerge for all Anglican women here, and all Arab Muslim and Christian women throughout the area. This place is regularly run by retiring US priests who are disaffected with the inclusive policies of the Episcopal Church - while they take our money. They do things like deny course participants the option of sharing in the liturgy so that the nearly all male staff can control it and forbid the woman priest from making the men uncomfortable by wearing clerical garb. Her position here is administrative and not ecclesiastical so her priesthood is disdained by some and despised by others. She will be allowed to say one mass in the college chapel at great price, but not in the cathedral. The college books its tours with Roman Catholic churches so that the pilgrims only experience males leading worship, even when there are female clergy in the group. There is one woman who runs her own groups and has women celebrate in the fields. And the reading material they assign the pilgrims is all male, noting about women and Jesus or women in the scriptures. Horrible!
Yet she takes all of this as the price of being here to give this place her gifts of administration for the next year. She is willing to be treated in this way to model a kind of servanthood and leadership. She does not lay down for anyone, but accepts their policies. (And looks forward to her next place.) I don't know that I could do what she does as she does it. She is such a welcoming presence in worship, and she reads the texts like a lay reader and I never knew she was a priest.
This is such a beautiful place and does so much good ministry in educating Palestinian Muslim and Christian children and providing medical care here in Jerusalem, in the West Bank and in Gaza. I want to come back. Part of me wants to wear my clerics to church next Sunday. Part of me wants to model a prophetic priesthood. And part of my wants to take my marbles (my financial offerings) and go home.
Oh my people, you are exhausting! (And I imagine you say the same thing about me.)

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