by Ryan Showalter
A few weeks ago my wife and I took our eight-month-old foster son to Homegirl Cafe in downtown Los Angeles. As soon as we sat down our waitress recognized us from the last time and quickly swept up our son in her arms and proudly showed him off to all the other staff. All the tattoos and hard years of life instantly disappeared behind broad smiles and laughter. Babies have a unique ability to break down walls and reminds us of what it means to be human and to belong to each other.
Homeboy Industries was started by Father Greg Boyle in the midst of the gang wars of East LA and has grown to be the largest gang rehabilitation center in the nation. Father Greg tells the story of Homeboy, and the insights he learned in the book, Tattoos on the Heart. He tells story after story of the hardship of getting former gang enemies to work together. “If there is a fundamental challenge within these stories, it is simply to change our lurking suspicion that some lives matter less than other lives.”
America has become increasingly polarized by the political divide. The mud-slinging once reserved for TV ads in election season, have found their way into daily conversation and even the church–so much so that now when we have conversations about race, gender, poverty, and the environment, we quickly revert to our own echo chambers and our favorite political memes. This inability to have civil discourse is not only wounding our culture; it is also impacting our churches. Father Greg’s prophetic call reminds us that we need to step outside our political agendas of right and wrong. We need to care less on where we stand, and more about who we are standing with.
The church is in danger of losing the profound truth of Genesis: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). The first thing stated about humanity is its reflection of God. All of us have inherent worth and purpose in reflecting the glory of the God who created us. Any attack on human dignity is an attack on the artist who created it.
The purpose of the church is to be the bride of Christ, reflecting the beauty and diversity for which God has created it. Galatians 3 states, “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise (Gal. 3:27-29). This powerful statement was provocative and subversive in its first century context. It had, and still has, significant racial, cultural, gender, and economic implication. The reality is that this simple verse is still a tall order that the church significantly struggles to reflect. We must confess our history of division, and even willful disregard of the outsider and the stranger. Yet if the gospel has anything to tell us, like the thief on the cross, a confession of our past mistakes can be the very grace of God. In an instant our eternal destiny is changed and we begin to displaying God’s redemption from sin, both personal and systemic.
I confess that one lie I have believed is the lie of colorblindness. Although the intent to treat everyone as equal is good, the blanket application often results in whitewashing, maintaining the status quo, and minimizing the beauty of God’s created diversity. It is the equivalent of a colorblind person looking at the Sistine Chapel and only seeing shades of grey. We miss the beauty the artist intended to display. God did not create our world by accident; he created us unique for a purpose. No color, race, or creed is better than another, but each somehow uniquely reflects the glory of God. It is our role to discover it and celebrate it. What is important is that we are all needed in the body of Christ. Colorblindness is the equivalent of saying we should all be a foot in the body of Christ. The idea of kinship is that we all belong to the body and that we each are still unique and inherently tied together.
Kinship is when we truly see each person as integral to the body to the point that no daylight can separate us. Father Greg summarizes the goal of kinship well when he says:
“Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it. Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away” (Greg Boyle).
Ryan Showalter is associate pastor at Solid Ground Brethren in Christ Church, Alta Loma, California.