Incarnation in the suburbs

Hilltown prayer walkby KrisAnne Swartley, Doylestown congregation

My fingers and toes are still somewhat numb as I sit down to write this account of the prayer walk in Hilltown Township (Pa.). I also feel somewhat numb on the inside. I wonder how I got here… the associate pastor who was just interviewed by a local news station for walking and praying on a neighborhood street. This is weird.

Then I remember how I got here. I have been asking God to show me what it looks like to incarnate God’s love in the suburbs because it isn’t always obvious to me. My suburbs look beautiful and well-kept and peaceful when you drive around on the streets. What need is there here? It is hidden under the surface.

I got an email last Friday from my children’s school district office saying that there had been a home invasion and murder in my township and that their school would be increasing security. I quickly looked up the news story and read the report. My first instinct was to lock my doors, hunker down and pray. I felt violated and fearful.

My second instinct was to get outside and be present, to stand in the middle of the darkness and bring the light of hope and faith. I had been asking God what it looked like to do incarnational ministry in the suburbs and I felt in this moment that it meant going against any normal instinct to insulate myself or rationalize away what had happened.

A group of us from Line Lexington Mennonite, St. Peter’s Covenant, and Doylestown Mennonite have been meeting to pray once a month. We called an emergency meeting to pray specifically about this tragedy and discern a response. Lowell Delp, the pastor of Line Lexington congregation, Jim Fox, the pastor of St. Peter’s congregation, and Sandy Landes and I from Doylestown congregation decided that walking Swartley Road and praying for our neighbors there would be a faithful and redemptive way to incarnate Jesus. Lowell and Jim visited some of the residents the day before our prayer walk, to let them know what was happening and invite them to join us.

Today, a group of ten of us met in a parking lot on Route 309. One man who joined us there but could not brave the cold walk said, “I want to see our community come together after this. We can’t change anything by ourselves. Our community needs prayer and our churches need prayer.” I was sure I saw the hint of tears in his eyes and heard a tremble in his voice.

We carried candles in glass jars and sang songs of grace and God’s faithfulness. We walked against the freezing wind to “Amazing Grace” and “The Steadfast Love of the Lord Never Ceases.” We prayed for the woman and the teen boys who were traumatized by the violence, for the neighbors whose street was violated by this horrific incident. We prayed for beauty to come from these ashes, for God’s redeeming power to be at work.

I am tempted to look forward and ask “What’s next?” But maybe for now it is enough to be visible. To be present.  In a community with no sidewalks and few places to be together as neighbors, maybe even that presence is miraculously transformative.  I will keep choosing presence and incarnation over insulation. I will tell my first instincts to step aside in favor of what Jesus is prompting deep inside. And I find I am not numb anymore.

KrisAnne Swartley is pastor for the missional journey at Doylestown (Pa.) Mennonite Church.  She wrote this reflection last Thursday (January 24th).  Read the news report.

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