Just recently, I was interviewed for the podcast, Faith Thru the Fire, describing the mission of TPOM in helping our justice-involved clients navigate the fires of life. Joining me was John Carter, a recent graduate of TPOM, who shared the powerful story of his 42 years behind bars and the experience of obtaining freedom and reconnecting with his community. One of the amazing stories that John shared in the interview was the overwhelming love he received from the church where he is now a member, the Northside Church of Christ in Nashville.
John described his first Sunday and the anxiety that he experienced being in a crowd of strangers, wondering how he would be treated and whether he would be accepted. With tears in his eyes, John shared how two members of that church and two other TPOM volunteers testified on his behalf at his parole hearing and how the members, on his first Sunday in attendance, were there to shake his hand, give him a hug, and even help him obtain basic necessities. This is truly what Christ calls the church to be, a place where those who are marginalized are embraced and made to feel welcome.
While it is true that numerous churches throughout the ages have failed to embrace those outside the mainstream and those going through the fires of life, Christ has called us to heal the hurts of our community and love those whom society has rejected. In Luke 14, we have the parable of the great banquet which arises when Jesus attends the dinner of a prominent Pharisee and he notices how those who were at the table would seek the seats of honor. In that culture, where one sat at a banquet was based upon one’s status. Those with honor sat in the prominent seats, while the lowly were not even invited. Jesus then says that instead of inviting your rich neighbors, family, and friends, then go out and invite the lame, the blind, and the poor. The parable that follows (Luke 14:15-24) is where the servant was instructed to go the alleys, and streets and bring in the marginalized to the banquet after those in the mainstream made excuses.
Across the nation, churches of all stripes and sizes are facing dwindling numbers and limited resources and a younger generation is mostly turning away from organized religion altogether. While I don’t pretend to have all the answers for these changes across our religious landscape, I do know that whether a church grows or not, it must maintain commitment to its mission. The mission involves sharing Christ with the community, in particular those our society ignores, and loving them in a radical way as we experience the fires of life in community. The love that John felt that first Sunday is what drew him there and gives him the strength to continue life’s journey.