Written By Lindsey Boulais, USA
The repurposed wood was the first thing that stuck out to me as I walked into the church. A greeter said “hello” as she handed me a bulletin, but didn’t ask my name or give hers. I sat in a pew where everyone was spaced out like a half-full movie theater, no one encroaching on another’s personal space, no one addressing anyone else. I noticed most of the other attendees were couples, their arms affectionately around each other. During the greeting time, everyone exchanged hellos and their names. Not knowing anyone at this church and not having anyone to sit with—particularly a spouse like everyone else—I felt out of place until a young girl came up to me. “I’m getting baptized today!” she joyfully exclaimed. With a child’s inhibition, she created space for me and her parents to chat. I felt grateful, and the awkwardness of being new and not knowing anyone began to fade just a little.
After the sermon, people were free to go to small stations for communion. Since this was a large church and passing the communion down the row would take too long, groups of participants served themselves the bread and wine. Communion has always been a favorite sacrament of mine. It’s rich symbolism—Christ with us, the bread to nourish our bodies, and the wine as a reminder of Christ’s suffering—has been especially poignant for me. It’s a sacrament that, in some way and in some form, all Christians share. Taking communion with church members, even ones I don’t know, helps me to feel less alone in a new church. Maybe this family will ask me to receive communion with them, I thought with hope. Yet they went up by themselves. After watching couple after couple share communion with one another, I walked up alone to serve myself the bread and wine. I felt loneliness burn in my soul while partaking in a sacrament whose very name means “fellowship.”
My single friends have mentioned how difficult it is for them, as well, to find a church where they can place roots. It doesn’t matter to us how hip a church is, if the pastor wears cardigans, or if they have the latest in modern décor. We want a place to feel connected and known. Where the greeters say our names and the people next to us in the pews don’t feel they must sit at least two feet away. We want people to eat meals with, whom we can call when we need help. We want relationships that are mutual, where our investment and service don’t feel required because we are childless, but because we are all valued and loved members of God’s family.
When I heard a family of Syrian refugees resettled in our neighborhood, I knocked on their door, hoping for a chance to tell them about our tutoring center. They swung it wide open, and before I could say a word, they said in English, “Come in!” This family didn’t know my name, what I wanted, or why I was knocking, but they welcomed me into their home and shared their food with me. Using the Google Translate app on their phone, they told me about their kids and the other countries they lived in. After an hour, I made an excuse to leave, knowing they would have let me stay all night.
I met this family the same week presidential candidate Donald Trump announced his plan to ban all Syrian refugees from entering this country. My heart broke when I realized this ban would mean families like the one I just met wouldn’t be allowed to come here. What would this mean for these places of unhibited welcome? What would our country lose? What would our churches miss out on?
For the past three years, I have experienced open-hearted hospitality from Syrian, Afghan, Somali, and Iranian refugees in both Greece and in the United States. I work for a community development nonprofit that places high emphasis on building relationships with those we serve. I have sat in refugees’ apartments, shared endless cups of tea, listened to their stories, and laughed at their jokes. Where it has been difficult to find a church home, I’ve been able to nearly effortlessly slide into their community. My Muslim friends always ask about me and my family. They call me “aunt” and “sister” and sneak me slow-cooked chicken legs when they think I’m working too much. As someone whose biological family lives fifteen hundred miles away, my Muslim neighbors have become my family here.
Throughout the New Testament, believers are often referred to as each other’s siblings. Yet this often isn’t the experience for unmarried Christians. We set up coffee hour and then go home to eat alone. We are told it’s our duty to volunteer in the nursery since we don’t have children of our own, which makes us miss the greeting time and interacting with other Christians. We hear sermons describing marriage as the ultimate metaphor for experiencing God’s love, leading us to feel we will never fully know God’s affection for us. And after we’re done volunteering and serving, we look through the church’s events and programs, mostly designed for families, and wonder where we fit.
Being from a communal culture, what’s most important to Muslims and Middle Easterners are relationships and family. An Afghan woman once told me how strange she found it that Americans can say “no” or “not right now” when people ask them to hang out. “You could never do that in Afghanistan!” she said, laughing. While every culture has negative aspects, I think the American church could benefit from some Middle Eastern consulting. Instead of instructing churches to use business strategies for outreach, what if they acted more like families? How might this help our churches grow together?
The Muslim refugees I know have shown me hospitality, but they have also taught me about authenticity. In ways that seem healthy, they share with me their struggles and pain, as well as their triumphs and joy. By being new to the country, they need someone to help them with day-to-day life. Repaying me with food and friendship, they help meet my needs for community. This ground is fertile soil for authentic community to blossom. Our personal needs and our desire to care for one another become the place where mutuality can be cultivated.
There are many beautiful things about the Muslim community in my neighborhood. The way I’m always welcome; how their toddlers tell me long, rambling stories; the many meals. But there will always be a gap. We’re from different cultures, speak different languages, and hold different religious beliefs. A Muslim refugee can’t understand parts of me a Christian can. I continue to go to new churches on Sundays. I keep introducing myself and pray for a fit. Then I spend my weekdays in Muslims’ homes, where they ask to see the latest photo of my nephew and how my mom is doing. A girl, who calls herself my niece, hides my shoes, telling me I can’t leave. And I know I won’t, even when I do find a Christian community.
I wonder what it could look like if we sought authenticity and mutuality with those sitting next to us in our church pews, what if our need for one another compelled us into a community of mutual giving and receiving. I wonder, if we overcome our fears of appearing like we have it all together, and let one another into our lives and homes, would church feel more welcoming to those of us who are unmarried.
This article was originally published on Off The Page as “Different Cultures, Same Desire”. Republished with permission.