I remember sitting down to potluck at a table with young adults in their Sabbath best, generations old and young, some fortunate enough to afford housing and healthcare, others not so fortunate. One woman served herself from the food trays with her hands; I don’t know when they’d last been washed. She sat at my table, no one flinched. We smiled, ate, talked about Jesus all at the same table.
I remember the sense of home for many of us without a spiritual home, and even for those without a physical home. Many found refuge within the purple walls from the weather, or from religious systems that had wounded them. A last stop before leaving it all behind. Sanctuary. We took (and still take) this idea of welcome and sanctuary seriously, as beautifully expressed in this current statement from the church’s board and leadership: “God’s love is broader and deeper than we can fathom. Fellowship and membership in His church should, likewise, be open and generous. The redemptive power of Christ’s love extends to everyone regardless of age, race, class or sexual identity. All are welcome in our church.”
I remember the homeless prostitute who came to our church one evening. She needed a place to stay. Together with one of our lay leaders, we spent hours on the phone contacting shelters after-hours—even driving her to one several towns away—only to find ourselves getting to close to midnight with no success. We prayed together. We sat with her on a cold street, crushed. The safety nets in place for women like her failed that night. So she slept in our fellowship hall on a couch. In the morning—shelters now open again, we introduced her to professionals with more resources than we had.
I remember hours of prayer and dwelling in scripture, opening our spirits to what God might say to us through the Bible. Reading the Gospels and the Prophets, praying and studying the psalms, meditating on scripture in evening vespers. I had the freedom to pray with my doubts and pain instead of rote religious church language. There was a rich spirituality that guided our choices and direction as a congregation. Popular opinion, universalism and such were not the guides. The Holy Spirit led. Inevitably, we took over from the Holy Spirit and things got awkward. We’d falter. Sometimes, we managed to learn from such stumbles and continue in grace. This rootedness in the Bible continued after Melody George left; it continues even now after I moved away.
I remember walking outside during worship one Sabbath to find one of our homeless friends waving his Bible around and yelling at the Devil, while the congregation sang inside. Nothing in my Adventist theological education or pastoral career provided me with resources for handling people suffering from spiritual assault—either demonic or psychological. Our western churches are almost universally unversed in spiritual warfare, let alone handling someone years off their meds. I prayed for him and went inside, wishing I could do more.
There was no foundational rejection of spiritual warfare in the Hollywood congregation, and we fought with the weapons we’d been recently training in: instead of casting out demons, we held vigils interceding with God to provide housing for those without housing, we spoke up for those with no voice to get health care, we teamed up with local ministries and non-profits with more resources for homeless assistance, and our times of prayer and worship remained open to all as a safe space.
Each member of the body of Christ has its gifts. We’re not all hands. We’re not all called to deliverance ministry. Many other churches in Hollywood provided such services. Very few other churches worked to slay the giants of systemic homelessness, mental illness and other matters of basic human decency and justice. To use the language of those more experienced in more “traditional” spiritual warfare, our congregation chose to engage the territorial spirits in our city through prayer, worship, communion and prophetic action.
I remember praying hard with leadership—staff, elders, myself an elder and pastor there—about sexual ethics. How seriously do we take Jesus’ refusal to condemn a woman accused of adultery? How serious are we about being a safe place? What do we do when someone is living in a manner outside of our inherited expectations about righteous living yet still manifests beautiful evidence of their spiritual gifts in a way that uplifts others? This is a difficult pastoral question, one in which Hollywood’s leadership did our best to be guided by grace, not out of a desire to be inoffensive and politically correct. Learning to live grace is messy; it challenges our expectations, sometimes even our sense of right and wrong. As it turned out, in some cases we handled this well and other times… regretfully, we did not. I am sad for the moments when we failed to be Christ for those looking to the church to be Christ’s embrace.
In Matthew 25, Christ called righteous those who feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, and invite a strange in to receive hospitality. For Christ, grace trumped all—even religious claims to righteousness. Justice is a radical upending of the status quo—the Kingdom of Heaven says that the systems of this earth will not stand, that to ignore the orphans, widows and strangers is to ignore God.
I remember many moments of dysfunction and broken relationships. Ryan had issues. Our church board had issues. Our staff had issues. Our congregation had issues. I had issues. God’s body on earth is just as broken as Christ’s on the cross and the bread at the table. This is our body, screwed up for you; take, eat, do this and somehow in that remember Christ.
Scott Arany is a graphic designer, musician, and former assistant pastor at the Hollywood Adventist Church.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6579