One of my early heroes in life was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., so naturally I believe that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." I belive that the arc also bends towards Oneness. Oneness with Creation and our Creator. This kind of Oneness is probably a very long way off, yet many of my life experiences suggest that this is, indeed, the direction we are headed.
I laughed when I saw how many of the readings had to do with walking or biking long distances. I, too, have taken a long walk - from Pheonix, Arizona, to Washington, DC (2,600 miles) in 2006 - and had a number of experiences that hint at our ultimate destiny in Oneness. I had vowed to keep this entry short, but can't resist relating a surprising experience that alterned the course of my life and the lives of several friends.
The group with whom I walked consisted of 6 core walkers, a documentary film team, a van driver, and one suprise guest walker (a "voluntarily houseless" man who showed up the day we left and continued with us for the entire walk). We - and the hundreds who supported us through an organization we'd formed called CrossWalk America - were a band of "progressive" Christians who had become fed up with the way evangelical and fundamentalist Christians had, in our view, "highjacked" Jesus and Christianity.
Working with clergy, theologians, biblical scholars, and laity from around the country, across denominational lines, we had penned a document called The Phoenix Affirmations - 12 principles of "progressive" Christian faith and values hat served as the banner under which we walked. (Note: CrossWalk America later merged with ProgressiveChristianity.org.) You can find the 12 Phoenix Affirmations here.
When we set out on The Walk, we were like religious zealots - though happy ones - ready to galvanize the masses to embrace a more open, inclusive, peaceful, and justice-oriented form of Christianity than the kind served up by televangelists and their ilk. We had no idea what was in store for us! We had no idea how everything we were walking for would soon be turned on its head and given new meaning. The surprises started almost from the beginning - as we walked through Springerville, Arizona.
The area around Springerviille was so religiously conservative that we could not even find support in traditionally “progressive” churches. As we walked into Springerville, the conservatism of the area was amply demonstrated by a billboard advertisement. It read “Jesus First Baptist Church.” Two American flags adorned either side of the name where one might expect to see crosses or other religious symbols. As we walked by Jesus First, we found a large American flag posted prominently on an exterior wall.
Since the coming Sunday would be the only one on the entire Walk in which none of us had a speaking engagement, I told the group, “I’d like to visit Jesus First Baptist on Sunday.”
“Why?!” came the universal response.
“It has been a long time since I’ve worshipped in a fundamentalist church,” I replied, “and I’d like to hear what they have to say. After all, we’ll be encountering a lot of fundamentalists on our Walk especially as we go through the Bible Belt.”
“Plus,” I said, “they may introduce visitors in their service. If they do, I’d like to stand up and tell them exactly who I am, what I’m doing, and why I’m walking. I’ll say, “I’m walking to proclaim that you can be a lover of Jesus and love people of other faiths; you can be a lover of Jesus and love the earth and its ecosystems; you can love Jesus and love the poor; you can love Jesus and love gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people – or be one; you can love Jesus and read the Bible non-literally, affirm the separation of church and state, and affirm that faith and science can be allies in the pursuit of truth.”
“Don’t do it!” they replied, “You’re itching for a fight!”
“No, I don’t want to fight. I just want to see how they respond.” I figured the worst thing that might happen was being ignored.
“Who’d like to come with me?” I asked.
Dead silence. I looked around patiently, hoping someone might volunteer. Everyone was looking at their navels.
Finally, Meighan Pritchard, a walker from Seattle, spoke a bit sheepishly, “I’ll go with you.” Clearly, Meighan was stepping outside her comfort zone by volunteering. One of the big fears she was trying to overcome on the Walk was of speaking about her faith with people who disagree with her. Meighan explained that she wanted to observe and learn from the experience at Jesus First, hoping that watching what happened might give her some pointers for later on.
“Great!” I said.
We had a documentary film team with us, and the team lead – a man named Scott Griessel, who eventually became one of my very best friends in the world – added, “I’d love to film that! Would you mind if I called the pastor to tell him you’re coming and see if I can bring a video camera?”
“Go right ahead,” I said, doubtful that he’d be allowed in with his camera.
Scott placed the call. Much to everyone’s surprise, he not only received permission but the pastor invited us to attend a Bible study an hour before services started on Sunday. Scott gave the pastor CrossWalk America’s web address so he could check out the values we were walking for.
At 10 o’clock Sunday morning, Meighan and I showed up at Jesus First Baptist along with Scott and his cameraman, Chris. While we weren’t really expecting much drama, we believed we had prepared ourselves for anything that might happen. As we soon discovered, we had not!
Pastor Larry Rhodes greeted us at the door. We introduced ourselves and gave him our complete press packet containing information about our Walk and a copy of the Phoenix Affirmations which, we explained, were the theological platform on which we were walking. Pastor Rhodes received us warmly and invited us to take a seat. He then went back to his office to look over our materials as a lay leader conducted the Bible study.
Before it began, the lay leader noticed Meighan and I were new and asked us to introduce ourselves to the group. “This will be interesting!” I thought to myself.
I stood up, took in a deep breath, and introduced Meighan and myself in the manner I described, adding that part of our purpose in walking was to meet with people who believe differently than we do, to try to transcend the polarization taking place in our country between Christians, and to find common ground even as we delineate our differences. The lay leader nodded and we took our seats.
For the next hour, Meighan and I listened to the lay leader go over the ins and outs of various theories on Christ’s Second Coming in the book of Revelation. He reminded the class that their church reads the Bible literally. He explained how people like them will be taken up to heaven in a sudden “rapture”; after which time a period of a thousand years would commence in which non-believers who are “left behind” – including Jews, people of other faiths, atheists, and Christians without “true” faith (presumably people like Meighan and I) – would have a chance to convert before the final judgment.
We listened quietly. As the lay leader went over the scriptures one by one, I tried to find as much common ground as possible between us. “What can I affirm here?” I asked myself. Nothing. I wasn’t buying any of it. In fact, I found myself disagreeing with pretty much everything he was saying about the Bible and his interpretation of it!
At the same time, much to my surprise, I found myself also thinking, “I kind of like this guy.” He struck me as a kind, honest, sincere person of faith. He didn’t seem malicious or angry at anyone. Rather, he seemed more like someone who had learned the answer to the final exam – say, it’s 12 – and he was trying to help us understand how 2 + 7 + 11 + 42 could equal 12 so that we can pass the final exam.
“I don’t believe any of your answers,” I thought to myself, “but I do believe what your heart is trying to convey.” His sincerity and genuineness were preaching far better than his words.
At the conclusion of the Bible study before the service began, a woman who had perked up during our introduction when I mentioned that Meighan was from Seattle came over and introduced herself as someone who once lived in Seattle. She wanted to know what kind of church Meighan attended. Knowing full well what kind of church Meighan attended – a United Church of Christ that is “open and affirming” of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people – I wondered what Meighan would say. Would she play it safe, or would she mention anything that might provoke the exact kind of confrontation she was most nervous about encountering?
Meighan glanced at me nervously, then smiled and told the woman exactly what kind of church she attends and how happy she was to be a part of it. She spoke directly and honestly, conveying how much her church’s decision to go “open and affirming” years ago had changed the very nature of her faith community, making it a more joyous, energetic, and welcoming place to be.
The woman was no longer smiling. Instead, her face became quite serious. She told Meighan that her church welcomes such people, too, but that they do not believe in letting people “continue in their sin.”
“What do you mean by that?” Meighan asked.
“I mean that we welcome gay people fully in our church, but after awhile – maybe a year – if they haven’t acknowledged their sin and tried to turn from it, we would have to ask them to leave.”
Before Meighan could respond, Pastor Rhodes stepped to the front of the sanctuary signaling the beginning of worship.
“We have some special guests with us this morning,” the pastor announced. “They’re walking across this country to promote Christian faith.” Those who had recently arrived looked around to find who the visitors might be. “Pastor Elnes, would you mind standing up to tell us a little about your group?”
Once again, Meighan glanced at me nervously as I stood and launched into my “You can be a lover of Jesus …” introduction.
As I was speaking, Scott the documentarian was watching people’s body language. As I listed the loves, he noticed people were tightening up. Their smiles and nods disappeared. They were crossing their arms and looking at one another. Then, when I got to the part about desiring to meet people who believe differently, and to do as much listening as proclaiming, finding common ground within difference, the body language loosened up again. Arms uncrossed. Smiles returned.
As I took my seat, a song leader appeared, leading us in an opening prayer in which she thanked God for “our courageous visitors who are walking for Jesus,” and began to lead us in a half hour of praise music. About twenty minutes into our singing, the song leader did something surprising. She paused momentarily, clasped her hands, and said, “You know, I think our next song seems like a CrossWalk America song. Eric, Meighan, would you two mind stepping up to the front? Let’s gather around them in a big circle, join hands, and let’s sing ‘Shine Jesus Shine” together for CrossWalk America!”
In a matter of moments, Meighan and I found ourselves at the front of the sanctuary holding hands with a crowd of fundamentalist Christians. Their faces beamed with delight as we sang “Shine Jesus Shine” on behalf of CrossWalk America.
We were flabbergasted.
After returning to our seats and singing another ten minutes, Pastor Rhodes stepped forward to deliver his sermon. I was keenly aware of the fact that he had been perusing our materials during the Bible study. “What will he say?” I wondered. “Will he bring up anything he’s read in his sermon?”
He did. At least three times he mentioned CrossWalk America as he preached. Only, he didn’t denounce us, but affirmed us! While he did not bring up any of the affirmations that might be especially controversial to his congregation, he did speak of commitment to the faith, putting faith into action, and having the courage to speak up joyously in the name of Jesus. And he was having a great time doing it, full of smiles and approving nods.
“These people are not the enemy” I thought to myself. “We may disagree on some critical issues, but they themselves are not the enemy.”
At the end of his sermon, Pastor Rhodes paused. He cocked his head to the side, put his hand on his heart, choked up a bit and announced, “Friends, I feel the Holy Spirit upon me. I feel the Holy Spirit is telling me that we need to take up a love offering for these CrossWalk America folks. I tell you what. Can we pass the offering plates right now to help them out on their Walk? And if we don’t make, say, two hundred and fifty dollars, would anyone mind if we take it out of the church treasury?”
“Amen!” we heard from the congregation.
My head was spinning. “What on earth is happening?” I asked myself.
At the conclusion of the service, people were quick to introduce themselves, congratulating us on our Walk. The woman who had turned so stern when Meighan mentioned her church’s stance on homosexuality brought her husband and two teenage daughters forward – beaming – to introduce each one to us.
When the crowd thinned out, I rushed out to our van, took out a copy of my book, The Phoenix Affirmations: A New Vision for the Future of Christianity (which is a commentary on the twelve Phoenix Affirmations), signed it over to Pastor Rhodes. Placing it in his hands, I said, “Sir, I’m sure you’ll find some things we disagree with in this book, but I’m also sure you’ll find we share a lot of common ground.”
Pastor Rhodes nodded, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “Son, at the base of the Cross, it’s all level ground. God bless your journey.”
“Thank you,” I said, shaking his hand.
That afternoon, I spent several hours reflecting upon our “truth is stranger than fiction” experience at Jesus First Baptist Church, trying to figure out what had just happened to us and what it could mean for the future of The Walk. I concluded that what had happened was this: We all gathered that morning in Jesus’s name. After we’d figured out a little about who each other was, knowing full well that we disagreed on some important matters, we each worked as best we were able to get our egos out of the way. And we did it! We got our egos out of the way just enough so that Jesus (his spirit, anyway) could actually show up. And he absolutely confounded us all.
This experiences is just one of many that helped me realize that were are closer to one another than it appears – closer even with those we consider to be our “opposition” or who consider us to be their “opposition.”
If you'd like to join a similar circle, please explore upcoming pods.