Last November, a member of our new neighborhood choir, a soft-spoken girl of about nine, stood next to me as we looked at the small altar of remembrance in the entry of Church of the Mediator in Allentown, where I am the missioner. Parishioners had been invited to place photos of loved ones on the altar, or write names on simple Kraft-paper hearts, as a way of remembering the dead in the month of All Saints and All Souls.
My young companion pointed to a small heart, with a name written on each half. “That’s my uncle and my grandpa,” she said. Then she looked up and asked if it was okay that her mother had written their names on the heart. I assured her it was more than okay, and we lit a battery-operated votive by the heart, as we talked about remembering those we love but see no longer. She smiled and nodded when I told her we were praying for all those whose names and pictures were on the altar, and for their families who miss them.
There, on an otherwise ordinary Saturday afternoon, as people walked past us putting on coats and gathering belongings, our little neighbor gently touched the other hearts, and I knew we were standing on holy ground.
Like most other churches, we are looking for ways to grow, to bring people in our doors and to move out into the neighborhood around us. Initiatives like community dinners, a middle school mentoring program, and a Pilates-style fitness class in the nave, invite people in. Yet these are often seen as things we do for our neighbors, and separate from our more “churchy” practices like prayer.
We struggle, too, with connecting the 90 percent of our members who live in outlying, suburban areas, with the 16,000 neighbors who live within a mile of our church.
The altar with those paper hearts was in a small, transitional space, just inside the entry most people use, and the scene of our daily comings and goings. It’s a place of salt buckets and soggy boots, large bulletin boards that are hard to keep updated, and an assortment of signs and directions pointing people every which way. It is easy to see it as a space one passes through, rather than a threshold of any significance. Yet it is here, in this inauspicious space that we have the opportunity to reach out to neighbors who come in and out of our building for a variety of purposes, but who might not feel they are ready to step into the nave of our church on a Sunday morning.
Autumn has become winter, and now we are observing the season of Lent. A few weeks ago, we set a children’s activity basket in that transitional space, as a way to catch young parishioners who often slip into the nave from the side. Once again, our neighbors are showing us points of connection we had over-looked.
A family seeking assistance warmed-up from the cold as their children sat there on the floor, content with the paper and crayons from the basket. A community dinner guest picked up a paper nativity and visitors for a local meeting left with small kits for observing Epiphany and blessing their homes. Time and again, little ones reach for a book with pictures from around the world, where they find children who look like themselves. Parents sit and read with them as they wait to retrieve older siblings from Girl Scouts and music lessons.
Like many churches, Mediator has a history of letting community groups use our building. By itself, this is a gift we can offer (or a business transaction when we charge a fee), yet we often don’t interact. Our neighbors are showing us that there can be more to this relationship, and they are already reaching out to touch our hearts. An opportunity is becoming clear for us at the edges, in places like our church entry, where distinctions of inside and outside, sacred and secular, are blurred out of existence.
This Lent, instead of leaving our entryway a desolate wilderness, we’re filling it with prayer. An interactive wall is covering old bulletin boards with colorful prayer cards. We are pinning up visual signs of prayer petitions for our neighbors – the schools and hospitals near us, local groups who meet in the church and those we support through outreach, and children who enter the doors for programs. We’re asking people to pray for us, too. These prayer biddings to God are coming in as many shapes as we who pray; they are lyrical and direct, expressed in words, photos, objects, and drawings. We hope the prayers will be on our lips in worship and continue to rise in the community around us.
The invitation is the same for all who pass by: take prayers or leave them, linger at the wall and pray, cast laments and pleas and burdens into God’s care. At this edge of coming and going, whatever way we pray is more than okay.
–The Rev. Twila Smith