Peddling Hope In Dystopia 1

It is 4:30 a.m., I am dreaming. I am stepping over the two-inch elevation in the concrete sidewalk in front of the church, it doesn’t qualify as a step, it’s a flaw. I need to get that fixed, I utter, again, letting the guilt rise in me that some elderly person will trip over that someday, I just know it. Then I glance at the railing, knocked out of its base and made wobbly by a truck backing in to load supplies for a birthday party, it was Hispanic, a very large party, and yes, there was lots of Corona, and no, Methodists do not allow alcohol on the premises, but even though the clause in the building usage permit that says “no alcohol on the premises” was translated into Spanish, somehow, it was not comprehended; so the railing was busted and it’s been two years and no one has really noticed, there are just too many other things to fix. Just as this elderly person falls, they will grab for the railing to secure themselves, I think, and it won’t hold them. They will be reading those two cornerstones to the left as they walk along, 1889/1969, placards to the banner years, and be thinking something fond like, “I was baptized in this church,” and then they will fall. I apologize in advance to those who are injured upon attempting to enter this church, for vanishing feelings of fondness, I apologize that despite my best efforts and my youngest, most energetic years, I cannot seem to make the entrance stable.

As usual, there are McDonald’s styrofoam cups lining the steps by the front doors, wadded up toilet paper, wet from last night’s rain, an empty liquor bottle. I step over the flaw, go get plastic gloves and remove the debris for another day (sometimes I walk past it, just being honest here, and it is secretly removed by someone else, this is grace.)

I have strategically placed incense and those Glade plug-ins all around the church that seems to wreak of “old smell” every time you open the door. I put flowers in vases around the building, too, sometimes. Some kind soul planted knock out roses all around the perimeter, I prune them regularly, pink and red, and bring them inside.

2.jpgThe work is beginning for the day, downstairs, an agency begins its daily pace of working with refugees and their children, mostly from Africa. There will be laughter in the hall ways, women in saris with their babies heaped up on their backs, men dressed nicely, the bathroom doors will slam a hundred or more times in one day, need to get that fixed, too, I pick up the tissues that overflow in the trash can. I am the pastor, I once loomed, that was a few years ago, now I feel invisible, is that progress? I’m not sure.

Another agency that works with families of prisoners, a psychologist who sees clients, will have their clients in, the door bell right beside my office door will ring at least ten times, maybe more, for them, I am pleased that they are thriving, in the beginning, they were also like those refugees. In the other basement, a very passionate woman runs a food pantry, it’s become a close-knit community for those who are on the streets, sometimes they lay in a dead sleep, like seals beaten by angry waves, on the couches, in despair, she has found her place. I have invited them all in to this building that wreaks of old to grow, to be, to do the work of Jesus in a place that time has almost forgotten. Everyone seems to be thriving around a church that is struggling to be. During the week, I feel forgotten, too, like the church itself, though I know I am full, I feel hollow. I remind myself of a beautiful Hafiz poem that tells me to make my ribcage hollow like a woodwind instrument so that God can breath through me, though there is music, I blend with ghosts.

Sunday morning brings a mixture of people, always the fresh eyed, young adult visitors from the re-gentrifying neighborhood who will come once or twice and move on to the larger church down the street with so much more to offer in the way of emotional satisfaction, or just give up completely. It’s a mystery, what they desire, even with my rock and roll persona, I am not hip enough to figure it out. Critical mass, they say, it’s what’s missing. People want to feel comfortable, anonymous, not on display. I get it, I want that, too, sometimes. We just don’t meet the criteria, perhaps. The faithful, those who are on a spiritual journey, those who support and are fed by the uniqueness of this particular haven, a wonderful, bright, group of educators, professionals, activists, writers, editors, students, musicians, workers in the world, the homeless, too. They come together. I love them, I love the light they bring, and no matter how much statistics say their numbers do not warrant me being their full-time pastor, I still say to them that they are enough. I am getting ready to take on another church, part time, just down the street, to make the ends meet for both congregations. It’s just where we’re at in our time, struggling to be the church. I know of no magic formula.

I only know that there is a violence in the world that often seems so much bigger than me. I pick up the trash it leaves behind and I ask God to intervene. I am not sheltered from it, though I have a thin veneer of insulation, I see it. I try and open up some portal in the universe for that to happen. Each Sunday, I break the bread and I say, “take and eat, this is my body, broken for you, as often as you do this, remember me.” We eat it, the ones gathered, we put our offerings in the plate, we believe we are all here for a purpose greater than ourselves, though the evidence is shaky depending on the day.

There is a violence in the world and I feel its reverberations every day, the people who come through the doors are beaten in its wake. The church is a triage hospital on the front lines of the world’s dystopia. The Pope said it, though he didn’t use the word dystopia.

Little flowers under old stepsAs much as I would like to lead another life, one where I am rewarded for my accomplishments, I keep returning to the facts as I cannot help but see them, the darkening spirit in our world. These days, I don’t do more, I pray more.

I am a female pastor at a time when the world’s violence against the feminine is so engrained in our psyche that we even do it to ourselves. I don’t know how to rise above it other than becoming aware of it and letting it pass through me each day. This is healthier than denying it is there. Asking God to make me well, somehow, well enough to become an authentic person when everything is pushing me to be something else. This is an act of defiance each day, stepping over the step that is actually a flaw, shaking off the air of destitution and the pain of utter loneliness to be, for another day, grateful. It goes against every bone in my body, but it is what I know must be done each day, at my altar, surrender. Love is the most powerful force in the universe, still, and I bow before it, knowing it is my only hope of salvation. Some days, this is the greatest act I can do and it is enough.

  • Christina Smerick

    This is beautiful. I’m going to focus on ‘utopia/dystopia’ as my freshman seminar course. I have plenty of dystopia (and utopia) but not from a Christian perspective. So if it’s OK with you, I’d love to use these reflections you’re posting as the ‘Christian worldview’ text to help my kids see the hope in dystopia. That OK? Are these going to be part of your book? I have so many questions! :-)

    • sdcothran

      Christina, glad you liked it! Yes, I’m going to do a series each week, this is the first one to kind of introduce my setting. It’s kind of my overall perspective of ministry in these times. I just happen to be in a context where dystopia is a very present reality for so many. So, yes, by all means, take whatever you can and use it.

  • Rachelle Gardner

    A gorgeous post, I love it. My favorite line (I’d like to quote this one!): “I am a female pastor at a time when the world’s violence against the feminine is so engrained in our psyche that we even do it to ourselves.” Great job here, Sherry.

  • Hal Wallof

    Wonderful! Touched the heart of this retired 78 year old–former pastor, now painter.☺