Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Part 1)
Just recently there was a fascinating article on National Public Radio about a congregation in Raleigh, North Carolina, that had found a “Center” that holds in this highly divisive time: White Memorial Presbyterian Church, a congregation of about 4000 members.
As one member of the congregation observed, this is a “purple” church in a “purple” city in a “purple state.” What is so astonishing is that this congregation remains devotedly “purple” at a time when almost everyone self-defines as either “red” or “blue”, including many of the church’s own members. The pastor, the Reverend Christopher (Chris) Edmonton, credits Presbyterian theology for the church’s achievement. I think he is on to something significant.
The author of the news story, Tom Gjelten, remarked upon the difference in theological orientation of this Presbyterian church from so many other churches profiled by popular media. Like everyone else in our country, Gjelten had heard mostly tales of woe and decline about “mainline” churches. Although what Gjelten learned from Chris’s church is something many of us Presbyterians take for granted, it is something to be celebrated as distinctive and essential.
Gjelten writes: “the [Presbyterian] denomination emphasizes the development of a worshiping community, whereas evangelical churches focus more on an individual’s personal relationship with God.”
Chris Edmonton expounds on this observation: “I think that’s important [a personal relationship with God]… I just don’t emphasize it as much, because that’s not the thrust I see in Scripture. The thrust of Scripture is, ‘I’m calling you to be builders of the kingdom of God.’ We’re trying to build a community that puts into practice what it really means to love your neighbors and welcome them into our spaces.”
John Calvin couldn’t have said it better. A personal relationship with God is crucial. Of course, it is. But the extreme individualism of the modern era has skewed religion so badly that we are faced with the real danger that someday there could be as many denominations as there are individual Christians. However, when our emphasis is on the worshipping community as a reflection of the life of the Trinity, we are in a whole different ballgame.
For the next couple of weeks, I will be writing on how we go about being neighbors. But before we do that, I want to remind us all, if only in passing, of the simple but profound message spoken day after day for many years by a smiling Presbyterian minister from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who understood the wisdom of community.
His was the little television program that could. “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood,” began broadcasting in 1968, a year chiefly remembered for its violence and division, for the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and of Robert Kennedy, for a war that raged in Southeast Asia, a “credibility gap” between the American people and our elected leaders, and an ever deepening crisis of polarization in this country. With a zippered sweater and comfy indoor shoes, this man challenged a culture battered and torn by conflict and he changed the lives of countless children by offering them a community, a place where they could be neighbors, where they could be loved, just the way they are.
In the past forty years, Fred Rogers received his share of condescension even from among some Presbyterian ministers. He may have been mimicked, caricatured and satirized by others, but he is also lovingly remembered and adored by more people than we can count. And anyone who ever saw the face of a four-year old light up when his program came on television cannot but be impressed by the power of his message. This man helped create a community the ripples of which continue to this day with “Daniel Tiger” and his friends.
When I look at the astonishing human resources, the love and fellowship of our congregation at the corner of Saint Charles Avenue and State Street, I am reminded of Mr. Rogers and the Presbyterian tradition that believes there is no higher calling than to be a community that in its love reflects the reality of God’s own Being-in-Communion. If there’s anything our world needs more of right now, this is it.