By Lisa Sharon Harper
I moved into my apartment in the Petworth neighborhood of Washington, D.C., three years ago with dreams of engaging in the community life of my building. I dreamed of starting a garden out in front of the building. I dreamed of baking cookies and taking them around to my neighbors to introduce myself. I dreamed of having them over for dinner or lunch. I didn’t do any of it.
When I was brutally honest with myself, I had to admit the primary thing holding me back was fear. Fear of being hacked to pieces in my apartment by a crazy neighbor. Fear of being overwhelmed by a needy neighbor. Fear that my cookies would be rejected because the neighbors would fear that I’d laced them with cyanide.
It wasn’t always this way for me. I served as a staff member for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship for 10 years. The first four were spent in the dorms of UCLA building missional communities (before the term was popular). As a community, the students served their neighbors in practical ways. They vacuumed their neighbors dorm rooms, took out their trash, led game nights on dorm floors, you name it. We did it.
But the most impactful moment of missional community I ever experienced was when a black woman was kicked down a flight of stairs in the middle of campus, called a n—-r, and told “We don’t want you here.”
The Intervarsity community processed the incident internally. Students had the opportunity to see and confront their apathy toward the incident. Students of color shared how that apathy revealed a rift in their friendships with white and Asian-American students. Students engaged and repented of their apathy.
The next day, the Intervarsity community joined a march through the campus led by the Black Student Union and La Raza, and other ethnic groups while a multiethnic core of Intervarsity leaders camped out in the UCLA president’s office until he granted them a meeting.
In the past, we had considered our spiritual realm of responsibility to be our fellowship, but we had begun to realize our parish (the whole campus) was our spiritual community. So, we joined campus organizations, worked in the dorms, and stood in solidarity with the most vulnerable students on campus.
What would this kind of missional engagement look like for local churches?
Perhaps it would mean a shift from “The church has left the building Sundays” to “The church doesn’t own a building at all.” The church ministers in the community. The church stands in solidarity with the struggles of the vulnerable there. The church seeks ways to partner with their neighbors in their struggles.
One extremely practical way for the church to leave the building right now would be to begin to engage the issues of racial inequity highlighted by the incidents surrounding the shooting death of Michael Brown. What would it look like for churches to build friendships within black communities, to sit with families who weep for lost loved ones, to stand with communities who dare to use their voices to declare their humanity in the face of those who deny it?
I love the model of the Acts church. We often focus on the fact that they met and broke bread and sang songs, served, and shared resources in the temple. But we must remember the temple was not a church building. They didn’t have a church building. They had house gatherings. The temple was their mission field. The temple was the seat of power that had just manipulated the Roman Empire to crucify Jesus. It was full of oppressed people. And in the days of Pentecost it was full of people from every nation who were hungry to know God. The practice of “church” took place without a building.
Lisa Sharon Harper is Senior Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners and co-author of Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith– forthcoming September 2014, Zondervan.