I walked past St. John’s UCC in Columbus, Ohio for months before venturing inside. The church was located behind my apartment building and I couldn’t get to the bus stop without passing its massive wooden doors everyday. There was a large purple banner on the side of St. John’s promising that this was a place of radical inclusion where one could search for God in an atmosphere of safety and welcome.
During my first worship experience, I was gripped by anxiety and fear. I truly believed that I would be struck down in the pew by a vengeful God who condemned inclusion. I was raised to believe that every institution outside of the Kingdom Hall was guided by Satan’s hand. And that my eternal soul was at stake with every encounter with the world.
“Keep on the watch, therefore, because you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. (Matthew 24:42, NWT). Constant vigilance was required to protect the heart from worldly influence and the coercive nature of ‘man’s philosophy.’ At any moment your life could become forfeit.
I know there are others with experiences similar to mine – who enter the United Church of Christ fleeing from the psycho-social torture of a theology that prayed for genocide and unrelenting punishment. Others whose faith was distorted by belief in a hateful deity.
These people are not traditional “nones” – people raised without religious affiliation or who simply assume that institutional religion is inherently corrupt and hypocritical. Instead they are refugees from a vengeful God, survivors of religious abuse.
Our understanding of welcome must encompass the pain and fear of traumatic Christianity.
We must acknowledge the terror of theologies which instituted slavery and encouraged spousal abuse. Some have experienced a Christianity that protected child abusers and preached that rape was the fault of the survivor and not the attacker. Some of our brothers and sisters in faith have been named abominations simply through the expressions of their love. That kind of hurt can’t be solved by a gentle smile and a hearty handshake.
Our God, and hence our theologies, must be large enough to encounter historical pains and living traumas. We not only welcome, we affirm, who the refugee is and where they are in relation to their faith. We welcome their brokenness and their tears. We protect them as they discover what radical inclusion can mean in the light of Jesus as the Christ.
With every act of communion, we signify that our hope for salvation is continually resurrected in the act of worship. Jesus as the Christ, and the community of his followers, assures that we are never alone in our suffering and that we always have a place at the table of heaven.
The United Church of Christ is the first place that I heard a sermon preached on the concept of grace. I was astounded that a God could exist who accepted me because I was loved as a created being. What kind of God is this? And who are these people that worship such a God?
Foster J. Pinkney is a writer, student, and organizer from Columbus, Ohio. He is a recent graduate from Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York and started attending the University of Chicago Divinity School in September 2015, to study for a PhD in Religious Ethics.