Holy Struggle with Church at the Square

November 29th, 2017

About a year ago I was greeting people before our church service began. Folks were coming in from the streets, grabbing a cup of coffee or making their way to the finally available restrooms. Most of our participants at Church at the Square in Dallas are homeless or formerly homeless, so having access to a bathroom and a place to sit without being ordered to move along are small but welcome displays of hospitality. As I was shaking hands and checking on people, a friend who lives on the street ran up and grabbed my arm. “Jonathan!” she cried. “Is Jesus God? I think he is because the Bible says he is, but Jesus also prays to God.” Then, with tears flowing down her face, she asked, “If I get it wrong, am I going to hell?” Since we had about three minutes before the service started, I told her that yes, Jesus is God; no, getting it wrong will not send you to hell; and since we were pressed for time why don’t I preach on it next week?

When I think about the nature and work of our faith community, I often recall that story. In many ways, we are like any other church: the gospel is preached, we take the Eucharist, we sing, we pray, we read scripture. We are a campus of Highland Park UMC and therefore have similarities to any church plant. And yet, there is a palpable difference. Church at the Square is a place where people come and lay bare their struggles. I don’t mean to imply that this doesn’t happen at other churches, but too often Sunday morning worship begins with what Yeats called “polite meaningless words.” Church can be a place we go to run through familiar rituals and pretend life is fine. However, church should be the refuge we run to in order to be affirmed and saved. When we are gathered in faith, God gives us the freedom to bring our whole lives to be laid bare. We come with our doubts, our struggles, our messiness, and our failings, as well as our joy, our peace, and our love.

When we gather at Church at the Square on Sunday mornings, the overwhelming brutality of homelessness rips away any temptation we may feel to ignore the struggles of our lives. God strips us to our core in front of each other. We are vulnerable. Then God affirms how much we are loved. God has given us a place to be loved and to love. We often have small groups and Sunday school classes from Highland Park UMC who come to worship with us and to share our Sunday lunch. During our time together, social, economic, and racial barriers are bridged. The Holy Spirit builds new foundations on the ruins of our prejudice, and new life comes alive where once there was only fear.

During every service, we seek to empower the congregation by inviting different people to give their testimonies. Our hope is that people who are traditionally marginalized and voiceless will find their voices in church and will then proclaim the good news to our city and our world. For example, a man volunteered to give his testimony and spoke at length about his struggles with crack addiction. On this Sunday, there was a large group from Highland Park in attendance, including many children. As I sat listening to the gentleman tell his story, I wondered how the parents were reacting. I was both amused by the thought of the children hearing this story and deeply grateful that the diverse community was present to bear witness to this brother, and to affirm him as a member of the faith. After the service, several of the parents expressed their gratitude for the invitation to worship together and thankfulness for the new friendships they had formed.

Church at the Square is a space God creates for struggle. We struggle with existential questions of theology and philosophy. We struggle with building community in a diverse city with a history of failure in civil rights and racial reconciliation. We struggle to forgive ourselves and our neighbors for sins. Many of our members struggle to get up off of the concrete in the morning or move their aching bodies. I believe that this struggle is holy work. In the midst of horrific poverty, drug use, domestic violence, and death, God is proclaiming sovereignty over evil and sin. God is bringing together unlikely misfits and marginalized people and is growing in us a passion for justice. God is empowering the powerless, building relationships among the diverse and distant, stripping away our toxic boundaries, and, having laid us bare, covering us with grace. God is claiming our neighborhood, our city, our church, and each of our lives. God is using our church to take back our neighborhood from hopelessness and homelessness. God is planting seeds of hope and building new homes. Church at the Square is a place for holy struggle. Thanks be to God!

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