a story about a story

April 23, 2009

I went to a conference being held at a church called the Meeting House thirty minutes from Toronto. The conference was called “The Evolving Church Amidst the Powers.” It attempted to address the fact that we are all caught up in an ongoing struggle between God’s growing Kingdom and the defeated (but still dangerous) powers of darkness. As in Ephesians 6:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

Those imperatives at the beginning are plural, that is, addressed to the whole community at once. So what’s at stake is the great “we,” the church. How can the church best live out her calling as the body of Christ, when surrounded by (and often implicated in) a dominion of demons?

I’d learned about the conference from the activist Dan Oudshoorn, whose blog I’ve been following for the last few years. I got to the Meeting House early and had a chance to speak to him before the whole shindig got under way. He was giving a workshop, but graciously told me that he’d make the text of his presentation available on the blog and encouraged me to hear some of the other speakers. (He has indeed put it on the blog.) At midpoint in the day I sought out Dan to see if I could play groupie and tag along with him for lunch. He introduced me to his pastor, a guy named Don Cowie. Oudshoorn couldn’t stay, but Don and I ended up having a fantastic talk. In some ways it was the highlight of the day, so I’ll start with that.

Dan, Don and myself are all three married men with kids. Dan’s still a newlywed, and they have a young infant; my kids are a little older; Don’s children are older still. Eventually I realized that Don and I are both people firmly embedded in middle-class life who share a mutual and ambivalent admiration for Dan’s radical commitment to solidarity with the poor.

Don started out at a church in inner-city Vancouver that had gone from a membership of 800 down to 100. A new pastor started helping the church to reconnect with its surrounding neighborhood, which had been radically altered by the exodus to the suburbs. The death of a homeless man at the church in 1998 pushed them to figure out new ways to minister to the homeless. Don Cowie had been a youth pastor who found passing out sandwiches to foragers in the alley just off his office one of the most rewarding parts of his job. The church gave him a study sabbatical. He came back after steeping in Isaiah awhile to become an official minister of outreach and social justice. One of his projects was a very informal Saturday evening service called “the Mosaic,” which has now split off as a daughter church. They rent the second floor of a warehouse in Vancouver a few blocks from the “Olympic village,” under construction for 2010. The Mosaic has a kind of core of committed members who are themselves healthy and fully enfranchised, and is developing a regular crew of people who are in varying degrees of health and disenfranchisement. His main struggle now is that the church has grown a little, and that poses a difficulty because the street people do not feel safe in a crowd. When the attendance at the Mosaic gets much higher than 50, they start to stay away.

He related to me a service where one of the regulars, who is “really annoying” when he’s drunk, fell asleep on a couch near the front and slept all the way through worship and then started snoring (loudly) during Don’s sermon. Don put it to the congregation: “I could preach over the snoring, and you could try to listen to me. Or we could try to get Neil to move to the back of the room… but I don’t know what will happen if we try to wake him!” Everyone was ok with just letting him sleep. He finally woke up during the benediction or something. That’s just how they roll there. We all want church to be the one place where you don’t have to have it together to go, but what church really succeeds at being that? The Mosaic seems to taking a good shot at it.

Later in the afternoon, Dan O. spoke about a peculiar difficulty shared by those (like Don, talking to me) who try to narrate their experience in a true and helpful way:

Such stories are too alien, too easily romanticised and perverted by both the teller and the listener, to mean much to those who do not share in them. Indeed, I suspect that the listener only comes to know the compelling nature of such stories, when he or she chooses to move into those narratives and personally embody them.

Even in telling in such abbreviated form the story of the sleeping parishioner, I am risking the kind of voyeurism across the socioeconomic chasm that makes Dan so cautious. Or, to put it more simply: you had to be there. There was a spiritual transaction that took place in that community when the accompanist of snores was providing his counterpoint to the sermon. Don could tell me the story, graciously trying to help me imagine what his church was like, and I can pass it on to you, out of a similar desire, but not without acknowledging the huge difference between hearing a story and embodying it.

Before I continue writing about the conference, a moment of (blogospheric) silence is therefore appropriate.


2 Responses to “a story about a story”

  1. Andrew Springman Says:

    I’m curious about how the “demons” theme related to caring for the poor. The story embodied how I feel about it (for the most part): ignore demons and care for the poor. That’s the way to battle. How did they talk about it?

  2. […] long-overdue return to the topic of this particular conference I attended in 2009. Previous entry here. The plenary sessions left me with a lot to chew on, and I may as well acknowledge that I’m […]

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