Wednesday, November 09, 2011
Crying for Community
I've recently heard that in the congregation I serve (Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia) an age-old battle is still being waged -- what to do with our babies.
Yes, I understand that some people seek out our sanctuary each week because it is, well, a sanctuary. Those with too hectic lives long for some quite, some solace, and the sounds of even just an especially squirmy baby can be experienced as one more intrusion. I understand that the pitch of a baby's cry can be actually painful for some people with certain kinds of hearing aids. I know that a wailing child can throw off my rhythm as I preach and, I assume, as people listen.
Still, as someone who was the father of both a colicky baby and an especially active one, I know that parents need sanctuary too. There are not too many places where you can go with your child and know that she or he will be allowed to be what they are -- a sometimes noisy, often squirmy, always miraculous child. (So many places in mainstream US culture seem to expect children to behave as if they were miniature adults. They're not.) Shouldn't our faith community be one such haven?
And so the stage is set -- those who want some peace and quiet, who want to be able to concentrate (or relax), and those who want to be fully present as well but who want that presence to include the "messiness" that is their children.
First let me say that while I think having a "comfort room" is a wonderful thing, the experience of worship in there is pretty different than in the sanctuary. (I've sometimes thought of suggesting that those who are really disturbed by the presence of a baby in the sanctuary should be the ones asked to go to the comfort room!) It is a necessary option to have available but it is, if you'll excuse the pun, a far cry from real inclusion.
Second, let me also say that if a congregation wants to think of itself as a "church family" than it absolutely MUST find ways to include all of its members. The individual who wants a respite from an otherwise overloaded week, and the mother who wants this precious hour with her precious child, should both be able to feel that they are welcomed.
So how do we do it?
I once had the privilege of taking a walking meditation workshop in Washington, DC with the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese poet, peace activist, and Buddhist monk. After hearing his dharma talk in the morning, we got on buses and headed to the Vietnam War Memorial for our practice. Before we began, though, Thay had a few more words for us. Unfortunately, his voice was not in any way magnified, and we were apparently directly under the flight path of planes taking off from and landing at Dulles. It seemed as though he could only get a sentence or two out before having to wait again while the roar of a plane passed by. I was eager to lap up every syllable from the mouth of this living Bhodisattva, so you can imagine that this was a really frustrating situation.
And yet, Thay was not in the least perturbed. He would speak while he could, and when the planes went by he would enter into meditation from which he would re-emerge as soon as he could to pick up speaking right where he'd left off. And after a while, his calm became my calm. There was no interruption; there was only speaking, airplane noise, and then more speaking. The "disturbance" became embraced as a part of the expeience -- nothing more or less disturbing than anything else that was going on.
Why do we come to church? Is it to hear a stimulating lecture? (I sure hope not! That's an awful lot of pressure on a preacher!!) Is it to inhabit an oasis of silence for an hour each week? (Then why not go alone into the beautiful mountains and forests that surround C'ville?)
Archbishop Desmond Tuttu once said that the church should be "an audiovisual aid for the sake of the world," showing how community should be. We Unitarian Universalists often talk of "the Beloved Community," and "Building The World We Dream Of."
Our noisy babies (and the parents who are with them) are oftentimes literally crying for community. (And, for what it's worth, I often think of a baby's various noises as "the gurgle of God.") Certainly respect and consideration are called for -- that's part of being in community with one another. And sometimes it makes sense for a parent with an especially challenging child to take advantage of the comfort room (just as it might behoove someone hit with a coughing spell to "take it outside"). Still, at other times, it will be right for the rest of us to adapt, to open the embrace of our welcome a little bit wider.
I look forward to your responses.
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