In the squarish mile-and-a-half suburb of NYC where I grew up, right near the western approach to the George Washington Bridge, its proximity to the city afforded me glimpses into very ordinary lives of the children of “chosen” artists, writers, university professors, movie, television and Broadway actors, musicians, white collar workers and laborers drawn to its small footprint, culture and location. Everyone seemed to know each other. There was a strong sense of belonging, plenty of ethnic blends and flavors, and what felt like ten mamas who had their eyes on you at all times.
In my childish mind it was very much a “we” community. Mrs. Pilkington, the British crossing guard, ushered all of us from one curb to another with her accent, and we’d giggle and repeat her like we were all queens of England that came in a myriad of pigmentation, tones and ethnic backgrounds. Color, race, nor class never seemed to be a primary issue, but culture clearly was an assimilation process. I actually didn’t consider my hometown to be discriminatory, until I reflected on the discovery that my grandma was born in a house on Spring Street. “How could that be?”, I wondered with all the practicality of an eight-year-old who lacked judgement. My grandma was a white woman and Spring Street was the one street where only African Americans resided. I questioned, how did she manage to be born into the exclusive (excluded) neighborhood of Spring Street on the edge of our small town?
Many years later I look back without youthful naivety, and with deep sadness. We all learned together, played together in the neighborhood parks, swam together, shared pizzas together, laughed and cried together. But none of us questioned why “we” went one way and “they” went another to get home to Spring Street.
My lead pastor, Brian Bennett recently made a statement that triggered my memories of the unspoken segregation on Spring Street. “Jesus frees us to identify with others inclusively.”
Deeper than class, culture, color, ethnicity, gender, religion, or political affiliation, the term “they” seems to be the fundamental problem to anything that masks to divide us. The heart of disunity lies in the polarizing pairs of these words: we/us and they/them. Playgrounds, sports fields, workplaces, nations, and yes, churches have become battlegrounds over the words “us” and “them” at humanity’s expense with devastating consequences.
Yet God chose us, not to be exclusive, but inclusive.
Look into the clashing cultures of the Jews and Gentiles in the book of Ephesians; is the church in Ephesus even separated by one degree from whom we are today, as we learn to live out our multicultural calling? Paul wrote to the six-year old church as a reminder that Jesus chose us (inclusive) before the foundation of the world, and we have obtained an inheritance. The law-abiding, Jews emerged from a legalistic background, and worshiped whom they thought was their exclusive God. They suddenly had to learn to shift to “us” and “we” alongside brothers and sisters in Christ who had recently walked away from occult activity, promiscuity, superstition and pagan worship. But if they hadn’t figured out a way to love one another and work together, the church in Ephesus couldn’t stand. Unity was only obtained through God’s enabling power and a shift in their minds from ‘they/them’ to ‘us/we– one church’.
And today, unity can and will again be obtained through God’s power, Christ’s peace and an important shift in our language and understanding of personal identity. We can actually be known by our love, not going separate ways, but opening up our neighborhoods, homes, and lives to learn, embrace and celebrate the differences in all of us, in Christ.