The first thing you notice as you walk up to Atonement Church in Philadelphia on this winter night is that the front door is open. The second is that it is actually colder inside than it is out on the street. Nothing is much out of the ordinary—the group who meets here tonight normally leaves the heat turned down out so that those who gather here can do so in solidarity with those who have no homes or no heat. So we bundle up and pack the pews tight to share the warmth of our bodies.
And what a group we are, breathtaking in our diversity. Recovering addicts, college kids, professional career-builders, old men leaning on canes, and women with head coverings. People of every color and tribe. Big beards, long dreadlocks, old clothes, and shoes held together with duct tape. And of course all of the kids are running around and playing up front in their warmest coats.
The music and the stories help to warm our hearts, if not our toes. The small stage is crowded with at least a dozen musicians—drummers, guitarists, more drummers, violinists, cellists, and a clutch of vocalists. They play songs from all around the world, and when they can’t sit still any more, they leap up and dance. (Of course, it is no utopia: it’s hard to see the lyrics to the songs we don’t know, and the enthusiastic guy behind me is at least two kinds of tone deaf. But that only seems to add to the beauty here.) In between songs, folks from across the country and the world give short reports about another year in the lives of their respective communities. They talk about the struggles and the joys of their work, and of the milestones of marriage and children, and of the burdens of death and illness.
It’d be easy to categorize the people here, to smirk and shake your head. For folks might look like—depending on your perspective—dropouts, faithless, burnouts, underemployed, back-slidden or scruffy. But look and listen a little longer, and you’ll realize your senses and sensibilities betray you: these are people of razor-sharp intellect, deep commitments, great courage, huge faith, bright hope and bold realism. The kind of people who see the world in all of its brokenness and who give themselves to it, anyway. The kind of people who read a sociological case study of a post-industrial town betrayed by the world, and who decide that they should move there. The kind of people who are recreating the world through music, service, communal living, and art. The kind of people who live with honesty and integrity and childlike faith.
Every year, I wonder why I get invited, and yet it is an invitation that I could never turn down. There are few places where I feel more ‘other’—where I’m more uncomfortably aware of just how white, suburban, mainstream, and conventional my life really is. And yet I can think of no place where I am more embraced and respected for who I am. It is for me what the Celts call a ‘thin place’, and I never walk away without shedding some deep, deep tears of the heart. Thanks be to God.
(photo by Logan)