Outside church, we belong to a community of souls

Tuesday, May 17, 2016 11:31 PM

I’ve been thinking about belonging recently. We humans come into this world with a need to belong. We are born into families and kinship groups. We develop friends and colleagues as we grow. And historically along with belonging to those groups we have been part of religious communities that have also met some of that need.

Nowadays, things have changed. We still have families, but they often no longer bring us into the community of a religious group. So, I’ve been wondering what might be lost as fewer and fewer folks join churches.

Certainly the congregations themselves will be diminished. Many will not survive. But what about us and our need to belong? Where will that happen? I suspect it will be in places and ways that are centered around food and ritual, not unlike church.

In my parents’ day and before, it was the neighborhood bar, places like “Cheers,” where everybody knew your name. Working men (and women?) would stop by on their way home and weave together their stories of the day. They made community out of their individual experiences.

Add to that now the local coffee shop. While many folks go there to sit at their computers and engage in isolated work, they still have “their” tables and “their” drink, and the barista at least has grown to know them. Others meet as regulars, and like in the bar they weave their disparate thoughts and experiences together, and create community.

There are some who may not feel welcomed at these gathering places nor can they always afford them. For those folks, I’ve seen at close hand one other type of place where people gather around food and experience ritual. While I’d rather call them community meals, we most often call them soup kitchens.

If you have never stopped in at Grace’s Soup Kitchen at noon, you might not be prepared for what you will find. This is no hash slung onto a tin plate kind of place. You will find delicious food lovingly prepared week after week, year after year by teams of dedicated, caring volunteers, volunteers who are as much a part of the community as the guests who eat there.

The environment is far more than functional. It is anything but industrial. You will find beautiful art on the walls, and some days guests will provide lovely improvisations on the piano. This is a place to meet and make friends.

Sitting down and visiting with those around you, you are apt to hear any one of a range of stories. You might hear a tale of struggle and destitution. It would be easy to assume that it was a story borne of bad choices and drugs or alcohol, which it might be. But it also might be a story borne as easily of a poor economy and bad luck. In a world of vagaries, Grace’s is a place that people can count on being accepted and heard just as they are.

What might surprise you more would be the many stories of fortitude in the face of unexpected difficulties; the stories of folks pulling together; the stories of hope and resilience; the stories of faith. Grace’s is a place where those stories are woven together and community emerges.

Along with other religions we Christians affirm that there is no place where God is not. We understand the need for community and for ritual. Images of Jesus and his band of twelve sharing a meal come readily to mind. And (not but) society is changing. When we come together, acknowledging our common humanity, supporting one another in our struggles, lamenting our losses, celebrating our joys, and helping those among whom we live, that looks a lot like church to me.

The bar. The coffee shop. The soup kitchen. These are places where those of us who might never darken the door of a traditional church ritually gather, share food, tell the stories of our lives, and weave them together with others’. Whether we think about it or not, we do this in the presence of what is Eternal, what some of us call God. And when that gathering is more than just about ourselves – when it deepens our connections to the rest of the created order and to God, when it enlivens us to turn outward in service to others, when it fills us with gratitude, when it helps others become people who want to do the same – well, maybe what comes with belonging to a church is not being lost. It’s just changing.

Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. She can be reached at 565-7865, or