Today I launched into the journey of visiting the many churches around Knoxville; it has been almost 4 months since I left the pulpit and the ministry as a local pastor for the United Methodist Church, and since then I have not being part of any community of believers. (well I have, with the new community of C2G at Cookeville TN, but I knew I was leaving the city that welcomed me to the USA). Now, the two main reason of going “church hunting” are first of all, to be able to find a place where I can find myself accepted and less unloved (like the pianist of the place I visited shared this morning), to find a place where I can belong and find a sense of “communitas” (a Latin noun referring either to an unstructured community in which people are equal, or to the very spirit of community). The second reason is more job oriented, now that I am the East organizer for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition is important to know who will and won’t be the people becoming our allies to help our neighbors to have a voice and to fight for human rights and social justice. Who are the churches of faith and communities willing to stand up against injustice and bring out to the light the many people living in the shadows of this so labeling country?
This morning was the turn of Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, I arrived 10 minutes before the 9:00am service started, and I was greeted by very friendly greeters, than in a way it seems like that is exactly their job, to greet you with good smiles without any deeper feelings about the one arriving for the first time. After I was released by this friendly group of people I found myself in the unknown world of an unfamiliar place filled with people doing their own activities and ignoring the fact that there was a stranger among them. I understand people come to church filled with many activities, and desires to serve, but even in the place that is familiar for us; there will always be a stranger that needs to be included in our daily routine. Imagine I arrived to a house dinner where I was not invited but a friend of mine told me to go and check it out. What would it happen as soon as I open the door? If it is a house where the people are friendly and warm, I will feel welcomed, and suddenly I would know that I won’t be a stranger anymore. I will open the door as a stranger and leave as a friend. That is the concept of what a true “communitas” is all about for me. We need to practice real hospitality in our homes, and places of worship because in these two places we always involve our hearts, ours souls and our spirits. The intensity of the connections we made at home and in our places of worship, I believe, are intrinsically strong.
This did not happen while visiting TVUUC, I was always a stranger, walking among strangers trying to connect. I arrived as an outsider and left as a stranger without making any connections with the people in that place(that is what I thought). When the service started I felt so inadequate in the sanctuary that I was ready to stand up and leave. Even though I work among people, when it comes to big places like this I am usually very shy and timid, so most of the time I need an extra hand to help me overcome my own relationship fears.
This is when the miracle of music came to rescue my so insecure soul; the person playing the piano, whom may be was the music minister, started to play and then shared a very powerful message that touched the core of my own existence. Finally his benediction even though I do not remembered very well captivated my spirit when he said: “and thank you for making me feel less unloved”. That was it!!! The point of redemption to this spiritual experience came when I listened the personal witness of finding his own communitas among these people. Then I realized that is not in the Sunday services where I would find that belonginess of my soul, but in the stories of the people, in finding my communality with others. Church service are only a moment, a very small point in this universe that can connect me to the presence of my God, but then my job is not expecting others to connect with me, but for me to listen to their stories and see if I can connect to them.
The true spirituality does not come from inside of the liturgical Sunday, true spirituality comes when we can go and open our ears, arms, and hearts to the many strangers among us. Suddenly I connected with the story of this man, and even though I may never see him again, my spirit and his spirit were worshiping our dearest Divinity. So no, I did not leave as a stranger, I left inspired.