A few months ago, Reverend Wint Boyd shared a story on Sojo.net about how his congregation took an unexpected journey with a former clergyman who had been charged with vehicular homicide. Wint said it was “a tangible and daily experience of paradox and tension holding, to be sure.” Below, Wint recounts the story again and uses a Courage & Renewal touchstone to describe what happened.
For a variety of reasons, this colleague from another denomination found us in the immediate aftermath of a horrible car accident that resulted in the death of an innocent and lovely woman in a nearby community. Rather than becoming a setting to explore the details of this accident, Sunday mornings in worship with our congregation became a lifeline for him during the months he awaited his fate and eventual conviction of second-degree reckless homicide.
Week in and week out, he attended worship, sang with us, prayed with us, and sought spiritual solace with us. His presence was quiet but consistent. He didn’t ask for special attention, indeed didn’t want to make us uncomfortable with his presence. As a person of faith on his own difficult journey, he was longing for the spiritual space to worship with others.
On his last Sunday before going to prison, a few of us surrounded him in a small prayer circle, in which we prayed difficult and honest prayers. Amid the tears, this new friend made a point to tell two of us pastors, “Remember that what you do here matters. It matters immensely.’ At the same time, while he was grateful for our pastoral care, most of the healing and solace came from ordinary members, many of them unknown to him before his attendance in our worship services.
When our church receives new members, we share a covenant that includes the commitment to ‘journey together.’ Sometimes this can mean ‘journeying’ into unwanted, dark, difficult, or surprising places with each other.
At its best a church community should be a place of nonjudgmental love. For me, there’s a deep connection to the Courage & Renewal touchstone of ‘turning to wonder.’
TOUCHSTONE: When the going gets rough, turn to wonder. If you feel judgmental, or defensive, ask yourself, “I wonder what brought her to this belief?” “I wonder what he’s feeling right now?” “I wonder what my reaction teaches me about myself?” Set aside judgment to listen to others—and to yourself—more deeply.
Part of what I love about turning to wonder is that it’s an invitation to suspend conclusions. It is to step back from my immediate opinion – pro or con – to say “what is happening here?” How do I sit with what is rather than quickly determine what should be?
The principle of turning to wonder is helpful in community and congregational life because many of us struggle with rushing to judgment. It helps us create a container for deeper listening to the complexity of someone’s story, especially when they exhibit attitudes and behaviors that are confusing. By turning to wonder, we don’t try to fix or save someone. Instead we contribute to an environment for us all to find our voice and grounded center.
I’m grateful for a community that embodied this and pray that all involved – perpetrator and his loved ones as well as the victim’s loved ones – will find this sacred space in their lives.
This safe and ‘wonder filled’ culture in my congregation has been forming over time. I’ve been looking for language to name it and articulate it. The idea of a safe container for our own soul work has real resonance. We are aware that many come to the church curious or even distrustful about the nature of congregational life. We know that many have felt violated by religious communities in the past. We want to welcome them but also let them self reveal on their own timetable. We try to remember that when people come to church, they want to be in control of telling their story.
One way of describing it is ‘invitational.’ Come as you are. Share what you’d like. Show up as much as possible. We are here with our welcome and the Welcoming Spirit. We trust that with openness and honest interaction we’ll grow as a community. But we don’t control the pace or the outcome.
Winton Boyd has been Senior Pastor at Orchard Ridge UCC in Madison since 1999. He has been a facilitator with the Center for Courage & Renewal since 2007. In this capacity he has worked with cross professional groups of men and women in settings across the USA and British Columbia. He and his wife of 30 years, Tammy, have three young adult children.
Join Wint in late October 2015 for a 3-day retreat, Living an Undivided Life: Finding Wholeness in Your Life & Work