Thursday morning, before the news of another senseless mass shooting, I was doing one of my favorite activities-leading a tour of our church. Both the International Language Institute and the Center for New Americans come every year with a group of students to learn about local history and practice their English. I began in the parlor, and asked the 30 students to tell me their names and what country they are from. This group included people from China, Vietnam, Congo, Ivory Coast, the Dominican Republic, and Venezuela, some countries I only hear about when there is a coup or civil war. To my surprise, half the class was from Saudi Arabia, and a number of women wore head scarves. My job as tour guide is to somehow convey to people learning English so they can come to a US college, who Jonathan Edwards was and what our church is like.
I think its best to let the Meeting House speak for itself, so I bring people through the narrow, dark stairway on the side and let them walk quietly into open space of Gothic arches and golden light filtered through stained glass. I like to watch people as their eyes open wide and move upward and then all around the space. Many of them gasp in wonder, and I realize most of this group has never been into a Christian Church.
A polite woman in a light blue head scarf asks me if there is anything she should not do here to avoid offence. Feeling touched, I said, “No, just be kind to everyone here.” Another person asks if there is a reason the pews face North. “There is no reason, we just face the communion table and the pulpit.”
What do you do in your worship service? “We sing a lot, as you can imagine with this organ here, because what we sing reflects what believe and influences our memory, lifts our spirits. We read from scriptures and I reflect on how the text relates to our daily lives. Then we pray together for people who are sick, who poor, situations of violence, for our planet, whatever we need.” Several Muslim students nodded and said that is much like what they do. Someone asked about the candles in the Advent wreath and I explained our ritual, what do on Christmas Eve and how we ended in candlelight, all lit from the Christ candle. And I started to tear up when I said the four candles represent hope, peace, joy and love. It felt so poignant in the small global gathering.
Who can come to your church? Can we visit? I, of course, said we welcome believers, questioners and questioning believers. Some of our members have Jewish spouses who attend, and my son is marrying a Jewish woman, I will co-officiate with a Rabbi.
Do you pray for other countries too? I spoke about our partnership with churches in Haiti, and raising money for school scholarships, and that we often had a communion cup from Haiti when we take communion together.
Is the church open at other times for prayer? What popped into my head was our Tuesday prayers for peace that began because we were some of us were troubled by the use of drones to strike in Pakistan. We started praying at noon because that is when we heard the President made decisions about the strikes. Now I really had their attention. Two weeks after we started praying, the Sandy Hook massacre happened just an hour or so away. They all knew what Sandy Hook meant without explanation. One man said, “I wonder if churches like yours and other US Christians are like Sunni and Shia, or ISIS for us.”
At times that feels true, but we don’t always agree with each other in our own pews. But we try to do so in dialog and respect.
We always end the tour giving everyone a chance to ring the church bell. I’m surprised by how much joy this brings out in people. Everyone does it, and they spontaneously clap for each other as they create a ring, especially if the person ringing is under a 100 pounds! Someone asked when we ring the bell. I said Sunday mornings and major events, like the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, and the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality.
Why did I ring the bell then? I said we had been a congregation that supported marriage equality of gays and lesbians since 1996, and that for many members of our church who are lesbian, married and raising children, it brought great joy to feel like their marriages were now affirmed in all 50 states. And I watched a face Saudi women wearing a blue head scarf warm into a smile as she listened.
A student from Congo asked, “What do your scriptures say about this?” Our scriptures say “Love.”
Later, as the news of another unthinkable massacre came in from San Bernardino, I thought about our Gospel text for today.
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5 Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;
Luke evokes the need for spiritual highways to reconnect us to God, and to each other. Where are the highways that lead to peace and understanding? Where is the path over the stark landscape of division and misunderstanding? We can build build a tunnel under the English Channel, so why can’t we tunnel under the bedrock of hatred. We will spend more money on a bridge to nowhere in Alaska than we will spend of global education as a path out of poverty, we can do better than this, if there is the will. When you look at a road map you can see what a capacity we have to connect ourselves from one place to another, when we have the desire to do it.
My hope for peace this week, in a time where little hope is available, is that we built a few small paths of peace and understanding with each other on Thursday. It feels so small and nearly insignificant in the face of violence and hatred, but it is a beacon of light to me that it is possible to create paths towards peace. We have to start somewhere. I don’t have the capacity to build a superhighway, but maybe I can start to create a cow path. I’m told the street of Boston started that way. We have to start a path somewhere, and hope that others will follow and make it wider, until we have the critical mass to lower the mountains and raise the valleys, that we may travel the roads of peace.