The Deacon walked from group to group administering the sacraments. Each family stood masked, in front of their camp chairs, in an empty parking lot. Our church had pivoted during the pandemic, which allowed my husband and I to feel safe bringing our asthmatic 18-month old to worship. But while our church’s new protocols kept him safe, we were not protected from hateful comments on Facebook. Christians in our community, many that I know and had sent me texts during our son’s hospital visits, posted that wearing a mask was demonic; that those dying from COVID-19 were “sick anyway.”
As I thought about how my son’s life seemed not worthy of the discomfort of wearing a mask, I wondered if I could partake in this sacred ritual. Communion is an essential aspect of our worship service. It is the “gifts of God for the people of God,” and “all baptized Christians are welcome to partake.” I think it is vital that we feast together, finding unity in our shared devotion to Christ. My husband and I sought a church that would allow, encourage, and foster debate—not shut it down with dogma. And yet, as I stood there in our makeshift church, I wondered,
Can I take communion with someone whose actions have put my son’s life in danger for over a year?
How does a child who loves her grandparents see a pastor as a teacher of God when that pastor dismisses the virus by incorrectly claiming, “It’s only the old who are dying?”
While these specific questions began with the pandemic, their answers expose sicknesses and suffering that have long predated them. How does a black mom who knows police harass her children, and worries that they will be the next ones lying dead on the street, sing worship songs next to someone who argues that George Floyd’s murderer was justified?
How does an Asian-American family pray with a church that has stayed quiet about the increased violence done against the AAPI community?
How do we pass the peace to neighbors who ardently claim that legitimately cast votes shouldn’t count?
How do we fellowship with one another as the body of Christ when we have seen that some of its parts exclude the sick, elderly, oppressed, marginalized, and different?
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul claims that Jesus tears down the walls of hostility. Meanwhile, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. testifies, “I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation, one of the shameful tragedies, that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hours, in Christian America.” King’s words struck a chord with many, because of the racial divide within the church. We are left to grapple with these coexisting truths.
And, indeed, our legacy is a tarnished one:
By the time the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, members and leaders of the church had defended slavery, fought to protect it, murdered and raped Black people, and created oppressive systems to subjugate and oppress them after slavery was abolished. Even moderate white Christians, those that weren’t “guilty” of the heinous crimes, never condemned the actions of their fellow white brethren. Jemar Tisby wrote in The Color of Compromise, “Christian moderates may not have objected to the broader principles of racial equality, but they offered tepid support and at times outright skepticism.” This silence spoke loudly.
The American Church has never taken responsibility for its part in the terrorism toward Black Americans, leaving it unrepentant of its racist past. The result is a church community fractured along racial lines and Christians who do not fully understand the power of repentance.
Differences of opinion should be allowed—even encouraged—in church. God created different cultures and nations because of his love for his children’s diversity, and we should celebrate all the nations. Diversity brings differences of thought that should be debated, questioned, and explored. Learning to worship in a diverse community is a beautiful gift. But when those differences of thought are harmful, how do we ignore them for the sake of unity?
You can disagree with me on which view of the cross is correct, but if your belief puts my son’s life in danger, then your belief is no longer a value to a diverse church but a threat to the marginalized.
The first church, too, dealt with division among its members. The Hellenistic Jews were the marginalized community in Jerusalem at the time. As the leaders distributed food, they overlooked the Hellenistic Jewish widows. When the apostles gathered, they addressed the issue by giving seven Hellenistic Jews the responsibility of distributing food to all of the widows. The apostles sided with the marginalized. Luke ends this story by writing, “So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.” (Acts 6:7)
How then, can we move forward in diversity and love?
The Apostle’s approach to injustice within the church stands in stark contrast to the white American church.
The Apostle’s approach to injustice within the church stands in stark contrast to the white American church. Had the white church wholeheartedly followed Paul’s example, would it have ignored slavery? Would it have terrorized Black people through murder and rape, or participated in the creation of laws that segregated oppressed Black Americans?
Churches have begun to discuss how we are going back to worship after COVID-19. As members, we’ve thought through sanitation policies and the lessons we’ve learned from technology. And while I believe that all of those conversations are important, I wonder if we’re really asking the right questions?
I want to know how I can worship next to my brothers and sisters in Christ even more than if masks will still be required.
I want the church to ask how we can be the body of Christ.
As we look at our history, the church’s response to their complicity with racial terror and their refusal to repent after the Civil Rights Act should be a warning. I don’t think we can compare anti-maskers with the atrocities of slavery and the subsequent systematic racism of our country. But we can learn from the mistakes of the white church. The example in Acts, is an invitation to see reconciliation in the Church, by seeing the pain of the marginalized, uplifting and centering the voices of those who have been hurt, and repenting.
After the CDC announced that vaccinated people were free to go inside and outside without masks, our church lifted our mask mandate for our outside service. Even though my husband and I are vaccinated, we choose to continue to wear a mask. That afternoon, my daughter was telling me how she didn’t like being different from everyone else, since she still wore her mask. We talked about how she isn’t vaccinated and that we all need to keep both her and her brother safe.
“I know Mom, but it isn’t fair. No one else has to keep my brother safe.”
I gently corrected her, reminding her that we weren’t the only ones still wearing a mask. I pointed out that one of the greeters, who is a leader in the church, was wearing a mask. My daughter asked, “So she isn’t vaccinated either?”
“No, she is.” I replied. “But she said, she was going to wear a mask until everyone could get vaccinated and everyone felt comfortable.”
“She must love me,” my daughter smiled.