My 22-month-old daughter had made it through most of evening Mass, but after receiving Communion I was holding her in the back of the church so she could wave to her favorite statue of St. “Shoesoff”“ (Joseph) and kiss his “feetsies.” She waved and beamed to the parishioners walking back to their pews. “Hi!” she grinned at an unkempt man wearing an old military coat and multiple bandanas around his head. He grinned back.
I’d seen him often in the adoration chapel. He’s homeless. He’s dirty. He lights a lot of votives. And he prays out loud and talks to himself. He’s a little bit crazy. But we both go to the adoration chapel for the same reason. To be with Jesus. Jesus is the one, and maybe only, thing we have in common.
My daughter’s happy greeting made me smile. Because I’m not nearly as good as my toddler at interacting with people who make me uncomfortable. My instinct is to stay in my circle of friends who are just like me.
And for years, that held true in where I attended church. I grew up in churches that catered to young, middle-class families. In college my husband and I tried out the “undergrad” church before settling instead on the church where lots of our professors and grad student friends attended. Until our conversion to the Catholic faith, I’d never been part of a church that wasn’t comprised of primarily white, middle-class attendees like myself.
It’s only natural to gravitate toward people who are like us. People we get along with. People who like us and make sense to us. People we agree with. People who make us comfortable. But if I’ve learned anything as a Catholic it’s that the faith will force you out of your comfort zone. As Pope Benedict XVI said, the world offers you comfort, but you were not made for comfort, you were made for greatness.
The same homeless man Baby Gwen greeted stood in line next to us after Mass waiting for the simple lenten meal in the parish hall. Our priest waved him over, telling him to be sure to get some food. And I was suddenly reminded of a conversation with my friend Tyler Blanski about a quote in the news this past week from Rob Bell, former mega-church pastor turned Oprah channel show host, talking about why he and his wife no longer attend a church:
“We have a little tribe of friends. We have a group that we are journeying with. There’s no building. We’re churching all the time. It’s more of a verb for us.”
A little tribe of friends. It makes me think of the gang of pals in How I Met Your Mother–20 somethings who are all besties and hang out at their favorite bar, Maclaren’s Pub. They eat Thanksgiving dinner together every year. They go to each other’s weddings. They’re with each other through thick and thin (well, for the most part). They’re in the same place in life, they’re all white and middle class. They all went to college. They’re a little tribe of friends.
I have great friends. Their friendship is a gift from God. But hanging out with my friends as we journey through life together is a pathetic substitute for the Church. The Church is not where we chill with our besties. The Church is where we are bound together, despite our differences, because of something beyond ourselves: Christ.
What do I have in common with the homeless man who stood next to us in the soup line? The man whose clothes are unwashed, who sleeps in the parish hall when he has no where to go, who talks to himself and, after receiving Communion, gestures erratically as if blessing all the parishioners standing next to him? What on earth do we have in common?
What do I have in common with the old woman whose walker squeaks across the chapel floor, the African immigrant who stops to pray in the chapel each morning on his way to work, the middle-aged woman who sways and whispers to herself as attends daily Mass, the Filipino doctor, the family with 10 kids, the students from the CSU who gather in the chapel and sing while Holy Saturday turns to Easter Sunday, the young couple suffering from infertility, the single guy in his 40s? Perhaps nothing. We may have nothing in common except for the only thing that matters.
In Rumer Godden’s brilliant novel, In This House of Brede, the protagonist Philippa says, “One of the good things about a Catholic church is that it isn’t respectable. You can find anyone in it, from duchesses to whores, from tramps to kings.” Yes. Here we all are. Sinners. All drawn together in one flesh because only in the Church can we partake of Jesus’ Body and Blood. Only in the Church can we receive this grace.
We can stand together in line waiting for lenten soup after evening Mass because we just stood together waiting to receive Our Lord’s Body and Blood. They would probably never choose me to sit at their table at a pub. These people aren’t “my tribe” at all. But they are my brothers and sisters, my family. The Eucharist is what binds us together.
Because what IS the Church without the Eucharist? Why go? If it’s just friendship, fellowship, or sharing ideas, why can’t you get that somewhere (anywhere) else. Why spend your Sunday morning sitting in a pew when you can get the same thing at MacLaren’s Pub on Friday night after work? Why not just enjoy your little tribe of friends?
Rob Bell’s little tribe of friends isn’t coming from no where. Since the Reformation the Body of Christ has been splintered into smaller and smaller pieces due to everything from theological disputes to racial, cultural, and socio-economic differences. This tribalism is simply the final step from the pew to a booth at Maclaren’s.
The Catholic Church is not a little tribe of people like me. It is the immigrant, the lawyer, the blue collar worker, the single mom. It’s filled with people I have nothing in common with. Some of whom I don’t even like and some who probably don’t like me. We are not comfortable together. But we are one. Not broken up according to ethnicity, socioeconomic status, education, and certainly not by cliques.
From it’s inception, the Church was revolutionary for this very reason: it’s unity. Slave, free, Jew, Gentile, rich, poor, meeting together in the catacombs, all eating from the same Table of Grace over the blood of the martyrs. And the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.