Defining “Church.”

jesusIf someone were to ask you what “Church” means, what would you say? Is it a building? A set of beliefs? A group of people? A challenge to act? The way we define Church determines how we treat others.

In the past few weeks, Brother Jim and I have met with various community leaders about what the Church’s role should be in Chicago. We’ve sat with pastors from the Near North community desiring to meet people in the neighborhood for the purpose of inviting them into their faith communities. We also met with a group of committed citizens who are working against the violence in the city who want to bring “Church” to the streets, and preach a certain message. In our own Catholic tradition, we have been supported by the Catholics 4 Nonviolence, who see the Church as a powerful resource to bring the language of Gospel nonviolence into the community.

We also heard a growing push for a “smaller but more faithful” Catholic Church community, focusing on obedience to the magisterium. The Church becomes a pure vessel rejecting the sinful state of the world. However, our final conversation is what struck me. We gave a talk at the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Leadership Day, where our audience had just come from a reflection on the Creed.

One parishioner, inspired by this reflection, asked an earnest, well-intentioned question: “How do we get guys on the streets to come to Church? To believe in the Creed as we do?” He was concerned that the friends of Brothers and Sisters of Love were not in Sunday Mass.

The desire was correct, but the focus was wrong. His desire was for these young, troubled people to find Christ, but the focus was on getting a body in a pew. Reciting the Creed without an experience of the grace and love Christ brings is empty lip-service. Stepping foot in a physical building called “Church” is not the same thing as experiencing Christ.
One of our friends at BS/L exemplifies this. Her mother is a pastor, so learning the rules of Christianity was not the issue. Regardless of this upbringing, our friend had lived a troubled life, in and out of homelessness, prostitution, and other trappings of the streets. When we entered her life, love did not begin with Mass, but with an air conditioner so she could breathe despite her asthma. It continued with home visits and building a caring relationship. Throughout the years, a mutuality developed until she could experience grace and love in her own neighborhood, alongside the grace felt by BS/L. Years later, she just now has begun returning to Church services, in gratitude for the conversion she has experienced.

Think of your own faith journey. How did you come to know Christ? Sure, you may have been a cradle Catholic as I am, but regardless there was some experience as a youth or adult that caused you to remain committed to your beliefs.

I can name the moment. It was a particularly trying day in Jaipur, India, working with abandoned and abused street-kids. The non-profit where I interned had just rescued a child—a walking ghost—and was trying to nurture the mutilated, malnourished boy back to health. He was mute and partially deaf, but despite the odds I was able to teach him to hold a pencil and write for the first time at age 10. After writing the letter “A,” this boy celebrated as if he had painted a Picasso. In his eyes was Jesus conquering death all over again. Nothing else mattered, and nothing was impossible with the grace I experienced teaching him.

It is from that faith experience that I grew deeper into the practices of the Catholic Church. I was drawn to the Eucharist, seeing it as fuel to go forth and love when it seemed most daunting. I was attracted to Mary’s journey and her humility. I could say the words of the Creed, having this experience in my head, speaking each syllable with gratitude and joy for what God had done in my life.

As soon as we treat the Church only as a building to bring people into the beliefs, creeds, and practices of a religion without also seeing it as a starting point to go forth from to love one another, we deny Jesus’ teachings. Jesus set out to bring people the Good News. He did not force people into any type of behavior, but loved them until that love caused a conversion experience. The Gospel is full of conversions: From Peter, to Paul, and everyone in between. If we desire for others to know Christ, then we must bring the love we have out to meet our neighbors wherever they are, even in the poorest communities and most violent streets, the most criminal of prisons and most unforgiving of crowds.

What will Church be for you? What will you make Church for those who need you? Will you allow your love to be the first account of Christ your neighbor experiences? Let your light shine so that others will say, “I believe in one God…” and understand its glorious implications.

~Megan Cottam, BSL

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About Brothers and Sisters of Love

The Mission of Brothers and Sisters of Love is to be a visible sign of Jesus’ Love, Peace, and Presence to the poor in gang-infested neighborhoods in Chicago and to be a bridge between gangs & the poor with the Church. This is done by: 1. Loving everyone 2. Trusting in God 3. Forgiving everyone everything 4. Never being afraid.
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