Expressions of Community Flavor
While existing under the same umbrella and bound by the same covenant, each community has its own individuality. One cannot visit one of the church communities and know what the others are like. Even the worship services are different, though they may be held in the same place.
The Jubilee Church, which has its worship service in The Potter’s House on Monday nights is more indigenous to the neighborhood and a wild mix of everyone-black and white, the sane and demented, rich and poor, the very young and the old, few and Gentile, the deeply committed and those who wander in just to eat the simple meal that is served. Some say this may be the look of the Kingdom Church.
The service held by The Potter’s House Church in the same room on Wednesday nights is a different experience. Going through the doors of The Potter’s House on that night is almost like stumbling on a gentle clearing in a jungle. Even the sirens in the street seem to bounce off the silence in the walls. Each week a different member gives a brief sermon which is then pondered around the coffee tables over a communion meal of cheese and fruit.
Not many blocks away, but deeper into the inner city, is The New Community Church. Its home is a partially restored four-story house on a battered and stricken street where discarded furniture and old boxes litter the broken sidewalks and half the houses arc boarded up. once the street might have been called Godforsaken, so lacking was it in any evidence of divine grace.
I will not try to describe even briefly each of the worship services of the different faith communities, but I cannot resist telling you about the Sunday when I worshipped with The New Community. The Scripture was Luke 19: 1 – I 0-the story of Zacchaeus who climbed a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus. You will remember that when Jesus reached that spot he looked up and saw him in the tree and told him to hurry down because he wanted to stay at his house that night. The crowd complained because Zacchaeus was the senior tax collector and wealthy to boot. But Jesus told his taunters that he had come to seek out and save what was lost.
Jim Dickerson, the founder and pastor of The New Community, reminded the small congregation of the tree that had grown in the lot alongside their house. The tree, he recalled, had been a favorite hangout for the neighborhood. People could do all kinds of things behind the tree and no one could see them. The yard was also a dumping place for tires and trash and drug syringes. Church members would come to Jim and ask, “What are you going to do about the tree?” What they meant by that was, “What are you going to do about the people who gather under the tree?” One day half the tree was gone. It had been split down the middle and half of it carted away. No one knew what had happened.
Some said it was lightning; others thought it might have been wind or fire.
Jim passed pictures around so that we could see what had befallen the tree, how the rubble-strewn yard lookcd when it was there, and how tidy it looked now that the tree was gone. He pointed out that no one was more lost than some of the people who had gathered around that tree. Even the drug dealers whom we hated were the ones for whom Jesus came. “They are my enemies,” Jim said, “so according to the Gospel message they arc the ones I am to love.”
After this brief sermon members in the congregation were asked to volunteer for parts in a two-page play on ‘Zacchaeus in the Tree.” A small black child volunteered for the part of Jesus and a tall white man for the part of the short Zacchaeus. We, in the congregation, were asked to play the role of “the crowd.” Despite the casting, or maybe because of it, when the presentation was over everyone had a better idea of what the story of Zacchaeus was all about.
Jim then asked Greg Campbell to come forward and present the drawing for the fence and gate that would be across the front of the yard where the tree had stood. When he held up the large, mounted design it was a wondrously professional drawing depicting Jesus reaching out to Zacchaeus who was in the tree and being jeered at by onlookers. The response in the room was one of awe, perhaps because it was hard for this particular gathering of people to imagine that the little yard on their bruised and wounded street was to hold so much beauty.
At Jim’s request Greg told the room of entranced worshippers how the drawing came to be. He said that he did ornamental iron work and that soon after the New Community house had been purchased, Jim had called to request that he come by and put bars on the windows. “When I arrived,” he said, “I couldn’t believe the sight I saw. The rooms were knee-deep in trash that included bottles, broken glass, and discarded drug needles. The smell was awful. When Jim told me that it was going to be a church I couldn’t imagine it. I had never been in a place more repulsive. It was revolting. My helper and I were scared, and we don’t scare easily.”
After Greg had finished barring the windows he didn’t come back until Jim called and asked him to make a fence and small gate for the narrow yard to the right of the house. When he came to take the measurements he again couldn’t believe his eyes-only now it was because of the transformation that had taken place inside the house. The rooms were clean and full of light and color, and the touch of the artist’s br-ush was cvcrywhcrc. When Greg delivered the finished iron gate, to everyone’s surprise, it held a cross with a magnificent descending dove of hammered, polished steel at its center. The gate graced the whole street and became a source of conversation. People wanted to know what the dove meant and why it was descending instead of going up.
Jim, who had never thought art deserved much attention, found himself enthralled by the gate and the dove, and the wonder in the eyes of his neighbors. He telephoned Greg and told him that he wanted an iron railing and gate for the larger yard to the left of the house where the tree had stood. Inscribed on it were to be the words, “The Son of Man has come to seek out and save what was lost.”*
Jim found in Greg a ready and eager artisan. “I had always tried to tell myself, ” Greg said, “that bars are useful, that bars keep people and their possessions safe, but I could not put myself into my calling. Talking to Jim that day I knew I was going to be able to express myself and my love of God through my work, and that this was the meaning of ‘calling.”‘
That was not the end of Greg’s story. Before the images that burned in him could be put into steel and iron they had to undergo the discipline of the designer’s art in which he was unpracticed. It happened that, several weeks before, a Russian immigrant named Nikoli Pakhomov had come to him asking for work. “He told me,” said Greg, “that he was an architect and had worked for Gorbachev and many of the Russian leaders, but could not find work in this country. I did not know why he came to me, since I have only a small business, but I hired him that day.”
After visiting with Jim, Greg had returned to the job where he and Nicoli were working and told him about the church and the new commission he had for an iron fence and gate that would tell the story of Zacchaeus. Although Nikoli spoke little English, had never read the Bible and knew nothing of Zacchaeus, he grasped immediately the importance of what Greg was telling him. A utility man who was laying a gas line close by overheard their stumbling and animated conversation and offered to loan Nicholi a Russian edition of the Bible that he had at home. After Nicoli read the story of Zacchaeus, he and Greg planned the iron fencc and gate and Nicoli created the design that they would together put into iron and steel.
The service ended with the singing of an original song that had the refrain:
Come down, Zacchaeus! I see you in that tree,
Hurry, Zacchaeus, today you will be free.*
The song seemed especially fitting since creativity is born of our freedom and when dedicated to the good is always a liberating act. I would not tell this story of Greg and Nicoli if all the communities did not abound in art, and music and poems, and a growing awareness that each and every one has the exalted vocation to create. When we fail to create we miss out on what Nicolas Berdyaev called “the mystical drama of God and his Other One.” When we create we become one with what is holy in ourselves. The creative act bears the mark of “a new heaven and a new earth.” It foretells a time when “He will wipe away all tears from their eyes,” when “there will be no more death, and no more mourning or sadness.”*
One art work seems to inspire another. Some days I think that in a future time visitors will come to the communities simply to look, and to hear by chance, or so they will believe, the story of the mission groups and their institutions.