On December 5 about 50 of us from the larger Souderton area traveled to Philadelphia for the annual Pastorsâ€™ Appreciation Breakfast. For several years the pastors from the Kingdom Builders, an association of Anabaptist churches in the city, have been invited to be part of this pre-Christmas event. A year ago it was agreed that in 2006 we would meet in the city. Our breakfast was hosted by the Philadelphia Mennonite High School.
I confess I was somewhat skeptical about the idea of â€œusâ€ (those who live in Bucks, Montgomery, Berks, Lehigh, and Chester counties) going to the city for this gathering. Would people really attend, or would staff planners be embarrassed by the small attendance? My fears were largely unfounded. While the attendance was less then in previous years, it was significant enough to communicate a sincere interest and desire to be with our Philadelphia brothers and sisters. A yellow school bus transported us to the city to ease the logistics of travel and parking.
What struck me was the enthusiasm with which Barbara Moses, Principle of the PMHS, welcomed us, and the care with which we were hosted. Actually we were incorporated right into the flow of the school schedule. The space where we met also serves as the setting for chapel services. When chapel time came, we simply quieted the conversations and turned our chairs to become participants in the service. Through original poetry, music, and prayer, we were â€œentertained,â€ or I should say blessed by this inter-generational contact. Not to mention the message campus pastor Joseph Dugan (licensed by FMC) shared with us inviting us to â€œcontinueâ€ in our ministries.
Twenty-five years ago when I lived in Oregon, I experienced what it is like to be distant from the centers of church power (Elkhart/Harrisonburg/Newton). Again and again denominational leaders needed to be reminded that it is as far from Oregon to Indiana as it is from Indiana to Oregon. We seem to forget this simple truism when it comes to attending events outside our familiar environment. Why does it seem far for us in Harleysville to go to Philadelphia, while we assume those who live in the city should not mind traveling to meetings in Souderton?
I suspect old feelings and stereotypes control these decisions more than our brains. Of course we know from here to there is the same distance as there to here. But to venture there pushes us out of our comfort zones and demands time to travel that we sometimes donâ€™t want to take. Let the urban people do the driving. The result is a truncated ecclesiology and some injustice to our urban partners. Church becomes what we know, and the people in the city remain a kind â€œmission projectâ€ but not full-fledged brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. (To be sure the same applies to relationships with our churches and leaders in Vermont and northern PA.)
There is much to unpack around this theme â€“ too much for here. And I donâ€™t even claim to understand all the issues. But I do realize that unless we travel this distance to Philly and other places that demand some time, energy and emotional adjustment on our part, our understandings of church risk distortion. Or to put it more positively, going to be with people outside our comfortable point of reference holds promise for enrichment and growth we could not have otherwise imagined.
On the way home in the bus, one pastor was heard to say, â€œWe ought to do this every three years!â€ I favor the idea of the majority of us periodically going to be with our urban friends, with the awareness that sometime they might be the majority, and we the minority will then be expected to travel there regularly since that will become the new â€œcenterâ€ of church life in this region. It might be a good idea to start getting used to it.