By Layne Smith
A friend of forty years and I are taking a stab at gardening this year. We reserved a 10×10 foot plot in our community garden. We discussed long and hard about what to plant. Okra was always at the top of the list.
Recently, I’ve begun listening to the Bitter Southerner Podcast. So naturally, I had to listen to “An Undeserved Gift: Okra.” I was struck by the segment about the Okra Abbey.
It’s a community garden and sacred space in the Pigeon Town neighborhood in New Orleans. A mission of the Presbytery of South Louisiana and a New Worshiping Community of the Presbyterian Church (USA), they host “Grace and Greens” every Wednesday at 12 noon. It’s a free meal that provides “…an opportunity for all our neighbors to gather together around a meal and grow deeper in friendship” (from Okra Abbey website). The meal is served family style. What struck me most about it was the statement by the podcast narrator that “Grace and Greens” fits their church’s mission of providing community building rather than just service building.
And here we are in the midst of a pandemic wondering where we will find community again. Oh we communicate and do business with others via phone, Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, etc. We’re doing drive by birthday and graduation parties, wedding and baby showers, and the like. We’re living in isolation, particularly those of us “of a certain age” and with underlying health conditions. God created us as social beings.
- When can we be with loved ones in person (particularly older ones) without endangering them, perhaps even being an agent of their death?
- When can we enjoy the camaraderie of singing in the church choir or even congregational singing? That’s a great way to spread a virus!
- When can we feel safe to go back to our church campuses and worship in person? For some of us it’s going to be quite a while, months, perhaps a year or more.
That being said, we’ve enjoyed sampling online Sunday worship services from Texas to Virginia and several places in between over the last weeks. But it doesn’t fulfill my need for the possibility of experiencing real, high touch, in person human community.
Living in the midst of a pandemic I have a better understanding of the difference between service building and community building. We now order and pick up our groceries and other needed supplies without every getting out of our auto. That’s a great service! Amazon Prime, USPS, Fedex, UPS, etc. stop at our house regularly (perhaps too regularly) delivering things we need. Those are great services! However, they are not community building.
Whenever we arrive at a new “normal” (whatever that will be), how will we, like “Grace and Greens” at the Okra Abbey, work at building true community? Not just with those who look, think, and act like us!
How will we as the People of God and the Church of Jesus Christ, work at community building with the least and the “other?” How will we work to build community with those who consider us to be their enemies, or we consider them to be OUR enemies?
When I ask myself that question, I remember the words of Martin Niemöller, Christian Pastor, who helped form the Confessing Church in Germany during Hitler’s reign. Niemöller was imprisoned in concentration camps for eight years because of his opposition to the Nazi regime. During this time Niemöller had a revelation. He said, “It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. In fact, God is not even the enemy of his enemies.” My guess is that many if not most of us have a long way to go before we get to that place. However, that’ our calling as Jesus’ disciples.
Oh yes, we’re hoping for a bumper crop of okra this summer from our little garden. How about coming over for a meal of fried okra, fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, green peppers, and eggplant? Who knows? We might create and find true community around the dinner table. We remember that around the table is where Jesus did some of his best work.
Layne Smith serves as the CBF Peer Learning Group Regional Director of North Carolina, Virginia, and the Mid-Atlantic.