By Barry Casey

“To find its fulfillment, the ‘I’ needs at least two complementary dimensions: ‘we’ and—if it is fortunate—‘you.’” “I hope in thee for us.”

Here is a wonder that we do not acknowledge enough: that two carbon-based entities of the human species can— through symbols, vocalizations, and markings—establish enough trust that they will, in the fullness of time, join their lives together for better or for worse.

We cannot read each other’s minds. We think we can read each other’s body language well enough that we make crucial decisions in the short term based on the curl of a lip, the narrowing of the eyes, and the tilt of the head. How amazing our capacity for expression! How boundless the hope we place in our gestures and words!

To begin with the most general purpose of communication—to know another person and to be known—is both to know oneself and to go beyond oneself. To transcend the “I” for the “you,” and ultimately, to create the new—the “us.”

HERE IS ABRAHAM, resting under his tree. The sun is at its apex, the horizon shimmers in the heat. Three figures glimmer into view. Abraham shades his eyes and squints. Movement out here is cause for wariness. He spits to the side and looks up again. They are still there. He can- not be sure they are moving closer; at this distance it’s a question whether they are moving at all or if it’s all a mirage. Too soon to tell. He struggles to his feet.

“Sumash,” he calls, “Sumash, get over here!” A figure ducks out from behind the shed and ambles toward him. “Yes, sir,” he answers, his head tilting away as he speaks. “If they stop,” says Abraham—he swivels and thrusts an arm toward the three—“If they will stop, I want you to get the calf ready. Understand?” “Yes,” comes the reply. The boy shuffles his feet. He traces an arc in the dust with his sandal. “Who are they?” he asks. “I don’t know yet,” Abraham says thoughtfully. “We need to be ready, though.”

Obeying the laws of his culture, Abraham will welcome them—friends or enemies, it is the same. He is not afraid of strangers, for he trusts his hospitality will protect him just as it might save their lives.

I ONCE VISITED a large Methodist church in downtown Washington, DC. It’s an historic church, one that was early involved in the civil rights struggle and continues to be involved in issues of justice and peace. I went because I had heard the preaching was powerful, deep, and challenging. And I had heard that the congregation was attuned to welcoming visitors. I was not disappointed. The preaching was exceptional, but what really touched me was the attention paid to strangers.

I am normally someone who wants to slip in the back of a church or meeting. But the moment I walked in the door there were people who kindly made me feel at home. I did not feel ignored or imposed upon—just welcomed and noticed and acknowledged. I was handed a visitor’s packet and shown to a seat. A deacon slid over next to me before the service started and introduced himself. He also welcomed me and pointed out a visitor’s note in the pew rack. I was encouraged to fill it out and to choose whether I wanted to be contacted further. I was also free to simply turn it in and be considered a part of their extended family, but without any obligation to join.

The packet had a list of small groups that one could join, the times of worship services, and a schedule of upcoming activities that one could volunteer for. Most of these small group ministries had been running for ten to twenty years, with the leadership and membership changing over time, but always sustaining themselves. Almost all of them were devoted to the immediate needs of their neighborhood, as well as joining with other churches and temples across the city to care for the homeless and for AIDS patients.

I looked around the sanctuary and noted that the congregation was diverse. There were families with small children (always a good sign), teenagers, and a lot of white hair. About half the people in the pews were African American, Hispanic, or Asian. It seemed to me that there were quite a few graduate students, an observation that was confirmed by a deacon after the service.

The next week one of the deacons called me at home (this was before cell phones) and we had a good conversation. We talked about present issues the church was involved in and I asked questions about the ministerial staff, a couple of whom I was acquainted with from the Wesleyan Seminary downtown. He asked if I was interested in joining any of the groups or classes. There was no pressure, just an open invitation to be part of the life of the church community. It was clear from our conversation that service to the local community in such groups was the lifeblood of that church. If I wanted to know the beat of its heart, that was the place to start.

WE ARE OFTEN encouraged to bring our neighbors to our churches. Most of us don’t. Perhaps we feel that ex- posing our church community to a critical eye is rather like bringing home our high school friend and hoping our crazy aunt Pat doesn’t show up. While we can anticipate her mood swings and her whimsical sense of humor, we’re not at all sure she translates into a language that friends would understand. Bringing someone to church is not just introducing them to Christianity—it’s our particular version, with certain phrases and insider talk, and assumptions that are rarely acknowledged and can barely be explained if it comes to that.

It gets more complicated. While we are all strangers in more places than not, we don’t know how strange we are until we have a point of comparison. It’s one thing to sit around a dinner table after the sermon and laugh about our Adventist cultural weirdness, but it’s another thing if a stranger derides us for those very quirks. Then we feel the stirrings of tribal identity—even if we generally shrink from that—and there’s no telling what will happen if we give in to those unquestioned urges.

Do we think of our church community—by that, I mean our local congregation—as a conduit which channels Jesus to the world? After all, the Gospels commend to us a life lived in faith within the world and Paul’s letters champion our witness before the principalities and powers. If so, we’d better be prepared to bear our channeling with humor and humility because we will exhibit all the tendencies of humans. We will some days be open and generous, other days sullen and withdrawn. These fluctuations can be tiresome and discouraging: why can’t we come before the Lord in worship with a glad heart every time?

Christians, as Thomas Merton wryly noted, travel “in the belly of a paradox.” Following Merton, Parker Palmer has taken up the fact of paradox as a central component of a spiritual journey. The Gospel paradox, Eamon Duffy says, “both affirms our human needs, and beckons us to a way of discipleship that takes us beyond them.” Duffy encourages us not to despair in our commitment to community and discipleship, and comments in his Walking to Emmaus, that “The call to be reconciled to God involves the demand that we follow Jesus, and what is demanded is an enormous effort, a lifetime of effort, everlastingly inadequate, everlastingly to be begun over again.” But it is also more than this, much more—it is “an invitation to share in a work already accomplished (and complete).” The terrible journey that Jesus made outside the city, estranged from all He had known and loved, sustains and completes our faltering attempts to bring the stranger into our midst.

Duffy concludes “that is why in the end all Christian discipleship, all following of Jesus, finds its meaning and its method not in our solitary struggle with ourselves, but in the Church, in the Eucharistic community, the community of those who give thanks.”

AND ABRAHAM RAN to meet the three men and he bowed to the ground, and he said, “My Lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant.” And he brought bread and cakes and water and meat for his guests, and they did eat.

–Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, and communication for 37 years in Maryland and Washington, D.C. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. His first collection of essays, Wandering, Not Lost, was recently published by Wipf and Stock. Email him at: [email protected]