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Sitting on the edge


July 15, 2011
-Deborah Froese

Waterloo, ONT. — I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34,35)

Each Sunday, Alice arrives at church in a Handi-Transit van with Marie or another assistant to wheel her into the sanctuary. She has become a regular face in the congregation, but only a few people – the same ones each Sunday – stop to say “hello” or ask how her week has been. It probably isn’t the wheelchair that keeps them away, but the fact that Alice has a speech impediment. How do people respond when they aren’t sure what Alice says?

It’s easier to avoid her than to struggle with the discomfort of unknowing.

People shy away from Sam for other reasons. He is a self-confessed schizophrenic haunted by dark and menacing thoughts. What if he should miss his medication and try to act upon those ideas? Better to pretend he isn’t there than to encourage a potentially risky relationship.

Although their names have been changed for reasons of privacy, Alice and Sam are real people in real Mennonite congregations. They represent the marginalized among us, people whom we simply don’t see, don’t understand, or make us uncomfortable. Marginalization is heartbreaking. It isolates individuals from the community God invites us all to experience and deprives the church of their unique gifts.

And even inconspicuous individuals, the kind easily overlooked, have something to offer.

Carson* often wears a blank or even sullen expression to hide his insecurities. Beneath the mask is a thoughtful teenager in the process of discovering himself. Although he may appear shy or withdrawn to those who don’t know him well, he, like most other youth, yearns for encouragement from adults.

Carson resists going to church with his parents. He will join his friends for activities in another congregation, where he feels more strongly connected.

“I don’t know anybody [at my family’s church] so why would I go there?” 

In the “other” congregation, a number of adults have spent as much time encouraging Carson over the years as they have devoted to encouraging youth with more outgoing personalities or outwardly visible talents. As a result, Carson has felt free to speak in worship services with an expressiveness that belies the image he portrays.

Middle-aged singles; the divorced or widowed; the very old; the noisy young; those with mental, emotional or physical challenges; even people who have committed grievous crimes – these are but some of the people we easy to overlook.

Who in your congregation sits on the edges of community?

Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it. - Henri J.M. Nouwen

*also a pseudonym