Having Good Fun, Making Good Trouble
I serve a very local church. Forty percent of our households live within a mile and over 70 percent within three miles. I serve a very local, very Episcopal church. We are about to have a blow-out 100th birthday party for our organ, and our choir is something out of an English cathedral, and we take the Eucharist seriously, and sermons are 1400 words or less, and we follow the lectionary and celebrate saint days. You don’t walk in the doors of the big stone building and think that you are anywhere else.
But the things that are most exciting in the church I serve are not hyper-local or hyper-Episcopal. They’re regional or interfaith or a combination of the two.
A story for you: It is the hottest of summer days in Chicago. We are sitting on lawn chairs eating an Eastern European cold beet and yogurt soup with dill and lemon and slurping down lemonade and talking about the meaning of reparations. Our host, head of the Buddhist Council of the Midwest, points to her back deck, a wooden structure attached to her two-flat, and says, “That porch was paid for by my reparations check in the 1990s.” Then she told us the story of being born in a Japanese internment camp. We take this information in and look differently upon the deck and her and one another because the moment has stilled and without warning we have entered kairos time and holy space. Then after a beat she says, “So of course we are supportive of reparations because it’s personal for us.” Then the Bahá’i leader talks about what reparations meant at the last place he lived and what it signified in his tradition, and likewise in turn the Jew and the Unitarian and the Catholic and all shades of Protestant who were there.
Working with other faith communities makes my church a whole lot more fun and allows us to have much more impact in our city. There’s no time or place in which I’d rather be serving a church these days.
The sole Black pastor at the lunch listened and asked, “What next then for this interfaith group? We cannot just end with money.” He’s right, of course. We’re figuring it out, what’s next; what that will look like in a way that is not insulting or token as best we can figure it out. And the largely white, liberal, interfaith community and largely Black, Christian pastors’ community will have to figure it out together. For now, though, 17 local congregations have signed a pledge to raise money and internal awareness around local reparations as part of our various faith traditions’ teachings of repentance, repair, and healing the world. It’s a start.
It’s a start that builds on previous work together. All of the houses of worship in town were on a weekly call with the mayor’s office for Covid stuff during the pandemic, but it started long before that in some houses of worship working together on projects in the ’70s and ’80s, and more recently many coming together to lament the shootings at Pulse nightclub and Mother Emanuel and Tree of Life synagogue.
Awkward and Lovely
Also, it’s just so much fun. On the first day of school earlier this fall we spread out to surround the local high school with prayer on all sides, all in our own traditions, for a safe and blessed year ahead. It was imperfect and awkward and lovely and no one got a parking ticket, and it would have been honorable but a little sad to do it on your own, but with 100 people gathered it felt like a powerful witness.
For Palm Sunday one congregation rented a donkey and another a Balkan brass band who riffed on “All Glory Laud and Honor,” and there was a wild outdoor procession of American Baptist, UCC, Episcopal, and ELCA churches before we went off to commence our respective services nearby. After such a processional, few of the young families made it into their church buildings that day, but they experienced worship. And the donkey was very patient as donkeys go.
And because the PCUSA church across town is really good at visual art, we shamelessly host their exhibits after they’re done with them.
Soon I will head out to chaperone a confirmation retreat co-hosted by five churches. I’m not excited to sleep on a bunk bed in a dormitory room of a retreat center. It’s a rare adult who is. But I am excited that between our churches we have critical mass for the gathering, and kids get to meet people from other schools they wouldn’t necessarily otherwise meet or spend time with.
Speaking From My Tradition
Attending an ecumenical divinity school that trained me to speak from my tradition as a Christian and minister of a particular denomination, I learned to partner with other communities. There were lots of discussions at Yale Divinity School about what could and couldn’t count as Eucharist for different traditions, whether or not to recite which creeds, when you could say Alleluia, and who had authority. All of those conversations and liturgy and meal planning forced articulation and listening in a way I continue to benefit from.
Being a public religious leader in the way I choose to live out my call is a constant dance of what is essential and what is flexible and what can and must be translated. In doing so I learn more each day. Just last week I was interviewing a rabbi at the local bookstore about her new book on repentance and I marveled that I had never realized, until reading her book, how quickly and emphatically Christianity tends to jump to forgiveness without doing the full work of repentance and repair. Huh. Working with other faith communities makes my church a whole lot more fun and allows us to have much more impact in our city. In fact, there’s no time or place in which I’d rather be serving a church these days. This really was a gift of an ecumenical divinity school education: allowing people to have good fun and make good trouble in the communities they serve.
The Rev. Kat Banakis is rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Evanston, IL. Before her ministerial vocation, she worked at a fundraising consulting firm, as the head of finance for an education access nonprofit, and as a lobbyist for building national coalitions around affordable housing and community development. She is the author of Bubble Girl: An Irreverent Journey of Faith (Chalice Press, 2013).