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The Beloved Community

The Book of Acts chronicles some of the stories of the disciples and the early community of believers following Jesus’ death and resurrection. They had their challenges. The Jewish hierarchy still didn’t appreciate their teachings about Jesus, and they were actively persecuted. They themselves had to consider who was “in” and who wasn’t. Did people have to be Jews first (which meant following food laws and being circumcised)? How would all the work get done? How did they manage the growth of their movement? How did they mourn their members who were killed, like Stephen, for speaking boldly about his faith?

One thing was clear, however, they were stronger together. So, they formed a community of believers in which the author of Acts tells us people were of “one mind and one heart.” They pooled their resources and made sure that no one was in need of anything. They were nurturing and caring of one another so they had something to offer others.

Keep in mind this was before Christianity was Christianity. This was still a Jewish movement, intended to rejuvenate the religion. It would be a long time before Christianity became an institution.

Baptist preacher and prophet Will D. Campbell spoke once about his checkered history with religious institutions. “I was a pastor, a university chaplain, an employee of the allegedly most free religious institution in the world. I didn’t keep any job for long. But through it all I discovered one thing. All institutions, every last single one of them, are… self-serving, self-preserving, self-loving; and very early in the life of any institution it will exist for its own self.” 

Philip Gulley challenges us to ask the question: What would the church look like if meeting human needs were more important than maintaining institutions?

From the short description in Acts, I think this is what the early church was aiming for – meeting people’s spiritual and physical needs. They didn’t have creeds they were adhering to, or a building to pay for, or a Diocese to answer to. The Spirit moved more freely in them because they were unencumbered by rules, and tradition, and maintaining everything that goes on within an institution. As the movement grew and they got further and further away from their roots, the more and more legalisms, creeds, hierarchy, doctrine and (sorry) crap came before the actual fellowship of people.

Jesus wouldn’t have cared a hoot about any of those things. What he did care about was people and he tried to bring people together, not under a strict set of religious rules, but under the umbrella of the Beloved Community.

What are the characteristics of a Beloved Community?

The author of Acts said the first community was of one mind and one heart (the NRSV says “one heart and soul”). I think the Acts passage speaks to the early community’s understanding of Jesus more than anything. There are plenty of examples in the New Testament where the early church folks didn’t agree with one another. But in their hearts they wanted to manifest the vision that Jesus had given them.

No, like-minded isn’t necessary for the Beloved Community. We all have our own ideas about God and about life. We bring our own experiences and background to the table. Not always agreeing helps us to grow when we bring those different ideas to the table in a non-confrontational way.

But being like-hearted is important. First and foremost it means that the needs of the people come first. This flows out of mutual trust and respect. People in the Beloved Community feel safe to be themselves because there is no judgment in the Beloved Community. If there is conflict, people stay at the table to work through it. Everyone is welcome, and hospitality is a critical part of the foundation.

Mother Teresa once said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

The Friendship Room at the first church I served was the perfect example of putting the institution over caring for the people. It was a room decorated and controlled by the United Methodist Women. Why they called it the Friendship Room was beyond me because it was the least friendly, and most fiercely guarded room in the church. You got in trouble if you moved the furniture and put new dents in the carpeting. Never mind that maybe the furniture needed to be in a different configuration to serve a class or group that was meeting in there. In the end, it was one of the least used rooms in the church because of the ridiculous consequences. How do you create a Beloved Community in settings with rooms like the Friendship Room? It’s really hard.

Henri Nouwen talks about his time in the L’Arche community in France in a way that makes me think of Beloved Community. He was burnt out, exhausted and felt like his soul was “somewhat broken.” He was trying to discern what God was really calling him to do with his life. Henri needed a break and asked Jean Vanier if he could visit his L’Arche community in France. It is a community where people with disabilities live side-by-side with physically abled people. He went there and collapsed for 6-7 weeks. Then he realized that that community felt like home. The people were radically different. They said, “Henri, why don’t you come and waste some time? Why don’t you just pray? You don’t have to do anything. We are so glad to see you not doing things.” Finally, people were caring for him. He also realized that the disabled people didn’t love or care for him because he wrote books or took trips. They didn’t know that. If they expressed love, it came from God. When he came to L’Arche, his whole life was tired. But God said, “I love you. I want to hold you.” He wrote, “Finally God had the chance to really hug me and lay divine hands onto my heart through this community.”

This is Beloved Community – God hugging us and touching our hearts through a loving, accepting, caring community.

Sadly, there are lots of things that can destroy a Beloved Community. But, there is perhaps nothing that kills the Beloved Community faster than fear of scarcity and maintaining a tight grip on preserving the institution.

In his book, If the Church Were Christian, Philip Gulley tells a story about helping a local congregation with their food pantry because they were notoriously, chronically short of food donations. The first week they contributed food, Gulley drove the food over and stayed to help with the distribution. Oddly, the pantry was only open once a week, for one hour, in the early afternoon, when most people were at work.

Two women from the host church were overseeing the process. They opened the doors precisely at one o-clock, handed out a few cans of vegetables to each family, then closed the doors one hour later, to the minute, even though another family, who had walked some distance to get there, hadn’t yet been helped.

“Come back next week,” one of the women told them.

Gulley was taken aback, but since it was his first time to help, he was reluctant to say anything. Instead, he began helping the women put away the food that hadn’t been given out. When he entered the pantry storeroom, he was amazed to see cartons of food stacked on shelves and pallets on the floor.

“My gosh,” he said, “There’s enough food here to feed the entire city. Why did we give people so little when we had so much?”

“We don’t want to give away all our food,” one of the women said.

“But when people donate to a food pantry, don’t you think they want to see it handed out instead of sitting in a church basement somewhere?” I asked, “What good is it doing anyone down here?”

Neither of them responded.

He returned for the next three weeks, and as he worked alongside them it became evident that instead of distributing food, they were doing all they could not to give it away – limited the hours of distribution, putting such rigid conditions in place that fewer and fewer families qualified for assistance, and changing the weekly hours of operation with little or no advance notice to those in need.

Not long afterward, Gulley ran into another member of that church who asked his perception of their food pantry.

“I have never seen two people work so hard to do so little,” Gulley responded.

“Yeah, it’s a mess,” he said. “We never should have put them in charge of it. Now we can’t get it away from them. They’re dug in, and it would be too big a battle to get them out.”

Those two women kept their fears from letting them live a Beloved Community model where the people came first, where God’s abundance generosity flows, where the compassion of Jesus is extended.

It’s our calling to try and live as the Beloved Community – to live in a like-hearted way that puts people first in love and grace and compassion not only within our churches, but everywhere.

Love & Light!