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Blessed be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love,
The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.
When we asunder part it gives us inward pain,
But we shall still be joined in heart and hope to meet again.
With Family & Friends Day coming up at Imani, I have necessarily been giving a lot of thought to those concepts and to ways that they intersect with things related to church life. One thing that stands out, immediately, is that I serve a population a relatively large percentage of which has had the heartbreaking experiences of being disowned by, or distanced from, family and of losing friends. The LGBT community - and LGBT’s from “mainstream” church backgrounds in particular - know the pain and trauma of broken connections, loss of community, and rejection by those we thought would be friends and family for life.
If there is a bright side to that experience, it is that it teaches us that family is not exclusively determined by blood ties, any more than friendship is limited to those with whom we have long histories. That, in turn, opens our hearts to receive the gifts of de facto family relationships, truly unconditional love, and friendships in which differences are embraced, not deal-breakers. At our best, we learn to give those gifts as well.
Imani continues to hold former members, attendees, and distant friends in our collective heart. While they were here, they contributed something to our history and culture. There is, and always will be, a space reserved here just for them.
In the church context, we have the additional layer of Love-centric ethics, which calls upon us to create and sustain a culture of beloved community which is inherently fluid. By that I mean we don’t just love you if, and for as long as, you are a member or regular attendee of Imani MCC. In much the same way that (ideally) one remains a beloved member of a family even after leaving the family home, Imani continues to hold former members, attendees, and distant friends in our collective heart. While they were here, they contributed something to our history and culture. There is, and always will be, a space reserved here just for them.
Precisely because so many of us have experienced the loss of familial relationships and friendships, I think it is especially important that we all remain open to changes in the form of our relationships without loss of the loving substance of them. It is a part of community life (any community) that some are meant to spend lifetimes as pillars of their community; providing continuity and stability in times of transition. Others pass through a community for a period of time and for a host of reasons as varied as the individuals who pass through. Sometimes the partings are peaceful; and there are unfortunate instances when people leave a church community under difficult circumstances and with bad feelings.
I’m not talking about trying to get anyone to join us again … there is value in writing a new and peaceful ending to the story …
Absent extraordinary circumstances, I firmly believe that it is the sacred duty of church communities to take every opportunity we get to initiate, facilitate, and promote reconciliation and re-connection with all who have spent time as part of us. I’m not talking about trying to get anyone to join us again. Anyone who wants to do that is certainly welcome. But even if that is completely off the table, I believe there is value in writing a new and peaceful ending to the story of time spent as part of a church. I believe that because I have known so many people who have left churches on bad terms. I’m not saying that it ruins their lives forever. They move on. It hurts less, eventually. But I know that, for many, a sore spot remains. Even worse, for some, the pain of a bad ending with a church prevents them from seeking and finding community with another church. In addition to the loss of spiritual nurture, within a population that has to rely on family-of-choice and friends as much as we do, that loss of community is a most unfortunate outcome.
Rest assured that the congregation feels the loss as well. Just as individuals who leave go on with their lives, the congregation goes on, too. But those who remain feel the loss of those who move on. We may not always do the best job of communicating that, but it’s still true. Group dynamics theory tells us that the presence or absence of each individual in a group alters it in some way. Every loss is felt. Every person who leaves is missed.
Whenever people who have shared caring connection part ways, the ideal resolution (when it is possible) is for the loving substance of the relationship to survive a change in the form of the relationship. Sometimes exes can transition into lifelong loving friends; and when that happens, the resulting friendship is beautiful and life-enhancing. Whatever pain was experienced during their former relationship, or as it ended, is forgiven. Wounds are healed. That is so much better an outcome than just learning to live with hurt or bitter feelings, or resolving to never invest in loving relationship again.
I’ve spent most of this space addressing difficult endings of relationship with church community because those who leave churches under peaceful circumstances are much more likely to return occasionally and to stay in touch. Please know that we are grateful for you, and no less excited to see you when you are with us! It has been a topic of joyful conversation every time someone has come for worship who had not been here for a while.
So here’s hoping that Sunday will be a day of many joyful reunions with old friends! May the ties formed between us as past and current members and friends of Imani MCC prove to be sufficiently elastic and strong to keep us connected for years to come!