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Rev. Gail Bowman

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When the Church Shows Up

Posted: 06/17/11 03:06 AM ET

Don't hate me because I like church. I didn't start out that way. When I was young I assumed church was just a weapon parents used to impose their will on kids without having to do the talking. When I became old enough to make my own decision (go or no go) I just didn't see the point. I took my first voluntary steps into church because I was a stranger in a strange city hoping to find a sense of connection to my "folk who had gone on," all of whom had been church goers. From those early experiences, I learned that church is "leader critical"; good leadership is hugely important. I would come to see the church as "people critical" later.

As proof that irony is still operative in this world, I eventually had one of those odd religious experiences you hear people talking about on the radio when you're driving down South. You know the kind: "I was standing at my kitchen sink when I heard JE-sus on the line." I only told one person what had happened, but one was enough. Within a couple of months I found myself in school as the unlikeliest student minister in the country. Friends and family were 100 percent sure nobody was ever going to put "Reverend" in front of my name, and I shared some of those doubts. But between my seminary and support from a church leader development organization, The Fund for Theological Education, I was able to impose myself on the world with at least a semblance of skills.

When the passage of time found me in university chaplaincy at Dillard University in New Orleans as the University community finally chose to change its attitudes towards LGBT students, and as we mourned following 9/11, I wondered whether those events would be the great challenges of my ministry. Then, in August of 2005, Hurricane Katrina found us, our campus, most of our homes and our city, and I learned just how "people critical" the church can be, and can need to be.

This week, The Fund for Theological Education and I will cross paths again as it brings 108 college and seminary students from more than 40 states and Canada to this campus. The occasion is its annual FTE Leaders in Ministry Conference, the theme of which is "Renewing the Church In Service to the Common Good." The short title is: "When the Church Shows Up," and I'm on somebody's agenda to say something about what happens when the church shows up. But whatever I say will be inadequate.

When the church shows up by praying for you, long and hard, that seemingly mundane practice takes on shocking substance, picks you up off the floor, and carries you around town. When the church shows up by acting on your behalf, that means the situation is pretty darn serious and while you may have been a giver of help before, you are a recipient of help now, and some humility and grace on your part is warranted. When the church shows up and disagrees with you about what to do next in your situation, that probably means that your clear recollection of what once was is not pertinent in a conversation about what needs to be. When the church shows up bringing you everything from tiny handmade prayer mats to hymnals newly returned from retirement, it means that for the rest of your days you will have precious things with a value that may be invisible to anybody but you. When the church shows up, you are encountering those who believe that people-helping-people is not just generous/fair/appropriate; they believe it's holy. Welcome, now, the change of lens.

Church is supposed to be about "things hoped for" and "things not seen," and it's good at encouraging that murky "here but not here, now but not now" walk of faith. But the church walked into a whole bunch of lives and situations in this area, and it did so physically, actually and really -- chewing gum and gutting houses and ignoring blueprints and slinging hammers and pausing at mid-day to pray like it was Sunday then going right back to work again. I still don't know quite what to make of this, or quite what to tell young people who were 12 or 14 or 16 when Katrina happened. How can I capture both how real and practical and messy it was and is, and how stunning it also was and is? Maybe I'll just begin by saying, "I like church."