Where In The World Is The Church?
Where in the world is the church? Where can you find her? Have you seen her? Have you received any news about her whereabouts? Is the church in the slums with the poor? Is the church in the ruins with those who have tasted the pain of wartime? Is the church with children of the oppressed, those who have been given an unfair lot in life? Where in the world is the church?
There I met God and God was Black. I met God and God was Asian. I met God and God was more complex than I ever realized, and God knew me and accepted me for who I am.
This is the question that I am wrestling with in the wake of a pandemic, pandemonium, wars and rumors of wars, Black death, and a changing church in a virtual world. Where can we find the bride of Christ? What is the evidence that she exists today?
Churches Awash in Lies
My answer to this question is layered, complex, and complicated. I contend that the bride of Christ is being publicly co-opted by a white nationalist ideology that is not committed to being the hands and feet of Jesus. Rather, this ideological church we know today is committed to war, lies, fake news, and oppressing the oppressed among us. What has the church become? So many churches have become organizations committed to institutional structures rather than the dying lives that fill the structures. Many have become organizations committed to a style too intellectual to do any earthly good and yet still insisting on calling it spirituality. Where in the world is the church?
For three years I have wrestled with this question. I have wrestled with this question when reading theologian James Cone, taking courses with Dr. Eboni Marshall Turman and being in dialogue with Dr. Donyelle McCray and Dr. Willie Jennings. I wrestled with this question my first year in the M.Div. program, sitting in Dr. Almeda Wright’s course around Black religion and Black education. I have wrestled and toiled, my faith seeking understanding, seeking to understand when will justice roll down like water for the church, refreshing our souls and freeing us from the spiritual drought we are experiencing today.
Moment of Truth in Chinatown
Recently I had the amazing opportunity to visit San Francisco and immerse in the everyday life of the people of that city—to walk, feel, and be one with my environment there. Most memorably this happened while I was journeying with my mentor, a retired Asian-American Baptist pastor and former president of the American Baptist Churches USA, the Rev. Donald Ng. Don and I walked the streets of San Francisco Chinatown where he served for many years as senior pastor of the First Chinese Baptist Church. While I was walking, seeing people who didn’t look like me, smelling food that was not from my place of origin, smiling at people who never lived the life I have lived, “Where in the world Is the church?” came back to me so clearly. In a seemingly foreign land, I could not shake it this time. Then, while we were eating authentic Chinese food in the heart of Chinatown, my mentor Don got to the heart of my search by asking me, “Do you see God here?”
Seeing God—knowing God is near—is the work that divinity school and churches ought to be committed to today. The only way to answer this question of “Where in the world is the church?” is to be amongst the people of God. Being in San Francisco Chinatown taught me that it’s not important to merely argue about God. It’s more important to be amongst the people of God. There I met God and God was Black. I met God and God was Asian. I met God and God was more complex than I ever realized, and God knew me and accepted me for who I am. In Chinatown I saw God and God saw me. This God reminded me of my grandmother, mother, and sister who all daily remind me that God is found in the lived experiences of everyday people.
Responsibility, Truth, Love
The church ought to ground itself in three things, which will be the only way the church will be able to survive radically changing times: human responsibility, truth-telling, and love in action. Many will say that human responsibility is not the work of theology, that it is humanists who customarily speak of human responsibility, not theologians. I would contend that the work of theology must be willing to stretch in order to show the people whom we serve the importance of human responsibility. It is a fact that the world’s Covid condition could be very different and far less tragic if only humans took responsibility for themselves and their neighbors. The church has to lead by example and avoid the trap of individuality, a merely individualistic relationship with God—and see that God cares about our communal life and wants us to learn to be responsible for ourselves and our neighbors. The survival of the church will not be dependent on whether or not God will save it. The salvation of the church is determined by human responsibility. Humans are the only hope for the church.
Truth-telling is a task the church must adopt and normalize. Many refuse to regard the church as a safe haven because too often the church normalizes lies and denies truth, even denying the importance of persons who decide to free themselves from the chains of ancient lies. Historically, African Americans were told by the white church that they were slaves: this was the great lie of the American church. Historically, LGBTQIA+ persons have been told that their lives don’t matter, and women have been relegated to patriarchal violence, all in the name of God. These lies are fatally exposed by the truth, which is that life is sacred to God, and should be sacred to the church. The church has to be a center for truth, always acknowledging that we are all human trying to make sense of an invisible God. Telling the truth comes with accepting that we all need space to grow.
Finally, the church will only survive if the church is willing to adopt the idea of love-in-action. Being the church means being the hands and feet of Jesus in the world. Being the church means clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and protecting the widows among us. Being the church means being quick to forgive, to listen, and to care. Being the church means that the ultimate ideal and the highest ideal for Jesus’ followers is love. “Love is the greatest force in the universe,” said Martin Luther King Jr.
The One Thing
We must choose love. Love is the only thing that will save us. Love is what love does: love is not mere words but action. One of my favorite hymns of the church declares, “Love lifted me, Love lifted me, when nothing else could help, Love lifted me.”
Where in the world is the church? The church is found amongst the people of God and is actualized through human responsibility, truth-telling, and love. Jesus is found where the ruins lie, and this is where the church needs to be so Jesus’ ministry can be realized in a sick and dying world today. My hope is built on the foundation of Jesus’ love, calling me to be a witness in today’s world.
Jyrekis Collins ’22 M.Div., president of the Yale Black Seminarians at YDS, graduates in May.