Imagine, you walk into a room where everyone looks, sounds, and acts differently than you.
You feel the eyes of everyone staring at you. You can only imagine what they are thinking: “She looks different,” or “I have never seen someone like him before.”
Calmly, you find your seat. Just as you sit down, everyone else stands up.
You play along.
You are always half a second behind what everyone is doing, but you try your best. You laugh when everyone else laughs. You are quiet when everyone else is quiet.
All the while, you have no idea what is going on, or how any of what is being spoken about holds relevance to you at all. Everyone is too scared to talk to you, and when they do, they don’t talk about anything you are interested in talking about.
No one seems to understand how awkward and uncomfortable you feel.
Sadly, this can happen a lot at church. One of the few spaces where we ought to experience the full love of Christ, in every aspect of fellowship, can be cliquey and terrifying. We can feel ostracized by the very people who should be the most welcoming of all God’s creations.
With this in mind, it is easy to see why people choose to go to churches where people look a lot like them and worship like them. Why they, deliberately or not, become part of Christian groups that care about the same things as they do.
Could you really blame them?
It would be horribly isolating to be a part of a group that didn’t care to talk about or discuss anything you were interested in, or that wouldn’t let you worship God the way that is most instinctive to you. So, we face two choices: conform to someone else’s idea of church and feel disconnected and uncared for by the body of Christ, or find people that we can relate to. The choice seems obvious, right?
But doesn’t the result of this preference also seem weird?
While the rest of the country is slowly pushing through and dealing with issues of segregation, the Church is more segregated than ever.
And everyone seems okay with it.
The Black people have the Black church. The Spanish people have the Spanish church. The white people have the White church. The Chinese people have the Chinese church. The list goes on and on. And that is just the way it is. Sure, not all churches are like this, but a surprising number are. What is worse is that this is the exact opposite of how it is going to be in heaven.
Revelations 7:9-10 gives us a picture of what it will be like when in the new heavens and new earth: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”
Everyone from all of the churches will be there before the throne of God worshiping Him. Will this be a new experience for most of us? Will we feel uncomfortable looking around and seeing a mass of people who don’t look or sound anything like us, worshiping God in a way that is completely foreign to us?
Will heaven be awkward?
When we segregate ourselves into groups, we miss out on the fullness of Jesus. He is distorted. Churches start caring more about the depiction of Jesus’ skin tone than his character. We get white, bearded, and for some reason, really ripped, Jesus. Excited and animated Latin American Jesus. Strong, Black Jesus. Korean Jesus. Even our culture beyond the church notices. One of our jobs as the body of Christ is to show Christ to the world, and this is impossible when each church can only show how their community perceives Jesus, and not the fullness of Him.
We miss out on Jesus.
And even worse, the world misses out on Jesus.
This is a difficult subject, because both sides seem wrong. We can’t expect anyone to be a part of a community that doesn’t care about issues that they care about, but it also seems like Jesus wants us all to be worshiping Him together, and not to separate His body. So what do we do?
Let’s be clear. We definitely should not get rid of all race-based faith organizations. Many of these communities provide a voice and a safe space for people with different pains and frustrations than others. And many people would never know Christ if it weren’t for these groups. But we also shouldn’t just pretend like everything is alright the way things are, continuing to distort the image of Christ. If we are supposed to show Christ to the world, what would that say about Him?
The burden is on us, not on them (regardless of who your version of them is).
We must be proactive, loving, kind, attentive, and graceful. It is our job to spend more of our energy and effort talking about things that we don’t instinctively care about. We must not write off the experiences and feelings of others. We should take time to learn about the problems that our brothers and sisters are facing, and actively show that we will stand by them, even if we don’t fully understand what it is they are going through. Just as Christ listens and cares for us, we ought to do that for one another. Seeing our brothers and sisters in pain, we must reach out in loving kindness instead of ignoring them because we don’t feel the same or know how to interact with their situation. Rather than disagree with others’ feelings through our own lack of experience, we must spend our time learning from others and about others, growing in our understanding of the beautiful and wonderful people God has made. We need to be conscious that our way of understanding and dealing with the world is not the only way. We need to create safe spaces in our communities to talk about difficult issues. So that we can actively engage in conversation about topics that other Christians are concerned about. So that our brothers and sisters can know that we care. So that when the world gazes at us, they do not see a Church divided, but one that loves and cares for each other. So that we can all begin to look more like the full version of Jesus.
This is a good first step. It won’t solve all of our issues, but it hopefully will begin to alleviate some. Then, it may be easier for that person who doesn’t look like you to talk to you, to worship with you, and to love God with you. And hopefully then, when we get to heaven, it won’t be entirely different from what we have experienced here.
Hopefully then, when we get to heaven, it won’t be awkward.
Richard Lopez ’15 is a Physics concentrator in Lowell House. Tiffany Minors ’16 is a Chemistry concentrator in Quincy House. They spent the last year leading the Social Action Team of Harvard College Faith and Action (HCFA), where they provided varied service opportunities for Christians, as well as spaces to discuss racial issues.