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For me, the moment occurred when I was in college serving as a summer missionary.
I had been on a traveling team helping young people be leaders in their own communities.
Upon arriving to one location, our host began to drive us to a church where there was to be a big event later that week.
My first glimpse of the church occurred miles away with the steeple rising above the neighborhoods, businesses, and restaurants shinning as a beacon to its location.
The closer we came to the church, the bigger it became.
As we pulled into the parking lot, I was taken back.
The church was extremely large and immaculate with windows that glimmered in the sunlight.
It stretched for several blocks showing its prominence in the community.
Inside was even grander.
But, this was only part of the picture.
Surrounding the church grounds was a 10-foot-tall chain link fence, so people could not access the church unless the gate was open.
Inside the fence was high class luxury.
Outside the fence was not.
Outside the fence was a different world.
Outside the fence was immense poverty.
There was a visible line between the church’s wealth and the community’s scarcity.
Houses were small with visible need of repairs.
They had little to no vegetation or space for yards.
Even the road in front of the church was different beyond the fence.
From paved and smooth to potholes and dirt.
The difference was stark.
Later that week, at that big event I mentioned above, people gave freely from their pockets – buckets were full of coins, bills, and even jewelry – whatever people could give to the church – even though many of them where the ones in need.
There is nothing wrong with people tithing and giving what they want.
However, I cannot help but wonder at the visible difference.
How was the church benefitting at the cost of their community?
What would it have looked like to invest some of that money back into the community more than the building and grounds?
It does not matter where I was when I saw this.
I have seen it in vast neighborhoods across the US and in other countries.
You may have seen this too where there is a stark difference between a church’s wealth with the community around it – or perhaps the ministers make a hefty salary while many in the congregation earn substantially less.
It occurs outside the church as well – in our families, our friendships, or communities.
I am not talking about having money in general here.
People work hard for their money and how they spend it is up to them.
Rather, I am talking about when one has something at the expense of another.
What do I have and/or what do I do that comes at the expense of another?
Who pays the price for my immaturity, greed, insecurities, fears, selfishness, ignorance, etc.?
When are the times when…
Whether with interpersonal interactions with family, friends, coworkers, employees, and congregants – or on a large scale with systems in society – who pays the price for us to be where we are, have what we have, and be who we are?
Most of the time, we are not doing these things intentionally.
Rather, we are reacting to emotional processes that have been going on in our families, churches, communities, countries, and societies for generations.
At the same time, when we begin to observe our own functioning, we can become more aware of how this affects the systems around us.
This is not easy; it can be hard to open our eyes and see how we can get in the way of another – another’s thinking, another’s ability to take responsibility for themselves, another’s well-being, another’s capacity to enjoy this life to its fullest….
The above example occurred over 20 years ago.
Many things have changed since then.
Rather than being centers of wealth, many churches are now struggling to keep their doors open.
The pandemic has left churches wondering “What does church look like now?”, “Who will come/come back”, and “Who are we beyond our building”?
At the same time, much has not changed.
People still function out of reactivity more than guiding principles and values.
And with increased reactivity, people tend to move towards protecting self at the cost of others.
Mission experiences like this one challenges us to evaluate how we may be living our lives at the cost of others and continuously gives us the opportunities to observe what is occurring, evaluate our role in the overall dynamic, and get clear of how we want to function differently in this world.
May we only have the courage to live so courageously.
Vanessa M. Ellison, MSW, MDiv. is a Bowen Theory Psychotherapist and Coach in Richmond, Virginia. She also serves on the faculty of the Leadership in Ministry clergy training program at the Center for Lifelong Learning. Vanessa has clinical experience with individual, couples, family, and group psychotherapy and community-based services and ministerial experience serving local congregations, missional settings, and non-profit organizations.