My ministry context is urban. I mean it is really urban. When I first moved to the city 18 years ago it was to what I would say is an urban “residential” neighborhood. For me that meant there were houses, yards, schools … smaller than I was accustomed to, but they were still there. 5 years ago we moved “downtown”. There are no houses here. There is no school in my neighborhood. There are apartments, offices, restaurants, some churches and, with all of the construction, there are a whole lot of fences. In other neighborhoods around the city I’ve even seen churches surrounded by fences. Sometimes they are security, barbed wire and all, sometimes they are decorative. Every time I pass by one it makes me anxious. I have some serious theological problems with this reality. At the same time I understand the practicality.
My time is currently consumed with how to make our urban “sanctuary” just that … a sanctuary. In order to do that we are in dialogue with the city PD. We talk about things like access and hiding places, security cameras and gates. I can see various cameras through an app on my phone anytime day or night, wherever I am. I’ve been to “active shooter” drills and have to develop security plans that can be coordinated with local law enforcement. We have issues with our local mentally ill residents on a regular basis. I very much understand the practicality of the fences. I just can’t reconcile it to my faith that calls me out from behind the walls to join the Jesus who came in bodily form and “moved into the neighborhood” (John 1 The Message version).
If I were honest, I’d admit that these churches with fences are merely visually being honest with what most of us don’t want to admit to. Too often we live our faith within communities held in by imaginary fences. We hope that things that go on outside never come inside. I’ve even, in past years, had criticism by well meaning congregational members who “come to church to get away from those issues”. They assumed that we had an imaginary fence that would keep “issues” out while we sing well intentioned songs. When asked to go out with our faith, to join Jesus in the neighborhood, we want it to be fenced in safely by a program. If its a church program and not us going out on our own then we can assume safety and happy endings.
If anything has been made painfully clear these last several years in our country, it is that our fences, real or imaginary, will not keep us safe inside nor will they keep the evil outside. My earliest childhood remembrances of church were of a lit candle signifying God was in the building. Many would have said they didn’t really believe that to be true, but their actions said otherwise … they were quiet, reverent, cleaned up their language and attitudes and “behaved”. Many would say that they never saw fences around their buildings, but their actions said otherwise. My adult faith reminds me that God is in fact everywhere. My faith compels me to follow Emmanuel, God with us, into the neighborhood. My theology and worldview tells me that there are no fences between God and people that aren’t of our own invention. And even if there were, they wouldn’t keep us safe anyway.