We live about 16 miles west of Tulsa on 3 acres along the Arkansas River. Our house is off of a gravel road that borders a horse farm. We are in the country. My preferred grocery store is near the church, but our closest option is a Wal-Mart about 5 miles away from our home. On occasion you will find me there, our daughter riding in the shopping cart on a mission for some forgotten item. Once, before I began wearing my collar, while likely on a quest for yogurt or shampoo, Beckett and I were approached by a woman in her 80's, her long grey hair in a bun and a big smile on her face. “Do you all go to church?” she asked. In a state where our children are asked by other children on the playground if they are saved, it is key to be prepared for questions such as this, even at the grocery store. Looking at Beckett and proud to answer, I said, “Yes, we do. And we love our church. Thank you.”
She went on, “Well, we sure would like ya’ll to come to our church. You are welcome to visit.” I thanked her again and we moved on. The church she invited us to was more than likely a large fundamentalist Pentecostal church nearby. I remember thinking, “If you really knew our family or what we believed, we would probably not be so welcome to visit.” Most of the churches in the area believe in loving the sinner and hating the sin. I would be considered a sinner – I do, in fact, consider myself someone who misses the mark regularly – but not because of who I Iove. Three months later, on another mission for cornbread mix and butter, the exact same woman approached us with the exact same question. What are the odds? I thanked her again and said "No, thank you."
Yesterday, I attended the Day Alliance luncheon at our church for the first time in my collar. The Alliance is primarily a gathering of women who meet monthly to eat, socialize, and listen to a speaker for current events or entertainment. They have a long history of influence in the church and our community. When I approached the podium to make a few announcements, I also explained my experiment and blog. As I was about to step down, the hand of a beloved humanist in our congregation shot up. “Why would you want people in the grocery store to know you are a minister?” I explained that while those at the church already loved and accepted me as a minister, I wanted to come out in the community as their minister where it was less obvious. The group responded with hoots and applause, which was very touching.
The odds that someone from my tradition would approach a person in the grocery story to ask where they go to church are slim to none. Our Association claims that our members invite people to church an average of once every…26 years! Really. In our attempt to separate ourselves from those who evangelize, it seems we have kept others from even knowing we exist. There seems to be this idea that, “If they are smart enough to find us, they can come.” But I managed to graduate from college and land well into my 20s before I knew our free faith existed. I dream about how different my life could have been if I had known that a community like ours was available to me or what would have happened if my 16 year old self had met a minister like me.
Our free faith saves. It is a place where we need not think alike to love alike. It is a place where every person can feel valued. It is a place where we are free to – and held responsible for – crafting our own relationship to the Holy, to what is most important. It is a place where diversity of all kinds is seen not only as an asset but as essential to the community. The congregation has a long way to go before they will be reaching out to others in the grocery store. But maybe my collar will spark a conversation that offers possibilities where there once there were few. And just maybe I can make a dent on that statistic of once every 26 years.