Seeking Advent beyond church walls

By the Rev. Cassandra Williams, Ed.D.

It is Saturday a few weeks before Christmas 1962. My father has been gone at least a month now. Thanksgiving was sad, and Christmas promises to be bleak. The church’s Sunday school Christmas party is scheduled for this cold Saturday, so my sister has packed her younger siblings up in worn and ill-fitting, multi-generation hand-me-down winter jackets for the trek across town to try to brighten the holiday.

This is the church where, in better times, I had wet through my baptismal gown onto the pastor’s robe. We were a “good family” then, and the church was happy to welcome us into its fold. In more recent days, my sister would occasionally sneak in with her pants rolled up under her coat and slide into a back pew for a bit of solace from the chaos that had become our home life.

Trudging through the snow from our home on the edge of town past the little park where the miniature church played Christmas carols, on across the wind-swept bridge, and around the falling bricks of the fire station, we arrived at the little white Methodist church that sat among the Protestant cluster. Stomping snow from our shoes and shivering off the cold, we are approached by the Sunday school teacher. She makes no effort to conceal her disapproval. Hands on hip, she advises my sister that, unless we regularly attend Sunday school, we have no business attending the party. And so we turn and begin the walk back home, heads lowered against the winter chill that now penetrated our souls as well as our frayed coats — our pockets empty of everything except for shame.

I’ve often wondered where the Christians were when I was growing up. Where were they as my mother choked back pride and tears to call the welfare office only to be turned down because she refused to sign over our house and car to the state? Where were the Christians when I sat at my school desk in agonizing pain with an abscessed tooth and no hope of dental care? Where were they when I lay in bed in the early morning darkness praying so hard that the old battered car — the one whose door had to be tied shut with a rope — would start so my mom could get to work? I don’t where they were.

Sadly, I know where some of the church people were. They were in the church doorway, sending poor children away from a party celebrating the birth of the Christ child. They were in the vestibule, rebuking my sister for not wearing a dress. They were in the grade school principal’s office, announcing over the loudspeaker that my brother had failed to do his homework again and in the hallway outside American history class, admonishing my sister that problems at home were no excuse for neglecting studies.

I had met them as the lady who yelled from her porch one cold January morning, “You kids should have boots on!” and then slammed her door in disgust when we called back, “We don’t have any boots.” As my friend’s aunt who told us that if her son were one of the protesting Kent State students, she’d want him to be shot. And as the local shopkeeper who paid my mother $1 a week to wash and set her hair and then followed me around her five-and-dime as if I were a thief. These are the people I knew who attended church every Sunday and claimed the name of Christ.

I’m often asked why I am a Christian, after what I experienced from church folks. Here’s why. There were moments when, in the midst of it all, my mother found the strength to rise above circumstances and show a kind of love that surpasses human weakness. There were woods out back where I found respite from the bucket-flushed toilet and my weekly bath in fourth-hand water (I was the youngest) in our leaky tub. There were animals, who, although sorely neglected, in their capacity to love without regard, pointed the way toward a God of unconditional love.

And then there was the gospel.

When I was 20 years old, I began reading the Bible — the Gospel of Matthew to be precise. As I read, I encountered a God of love who had special concern for those on the margins of society — for the poor, the immigrant, the fatherless, the imprisoned. Through that story, I met a Jesus who walked, not among church people, but among sinners and people in need. There I encountered a Savior who lived and died for me and whose presence gave me chills that were the antithesis of the chills of shame I felt on that cold December day.

I began attending the local Episcopal church. That December I sang “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” for the very first time. Every year since, with eyes moistened by tears, I re-experience that initial joy as we begin this season of preparation, singing “Rejoice! Rejoice!”

Not all church people are judgmental and unkind. Yet too often those who are the most visible and most vocal do disservice to the gospel; and all too commonly, the rest of us excuse their behavior with suggestions of “meaning well” or “hearts of gold” buried beneath harsh exteriors. Our faith is frequently quiet, while the judgers and condemners are loudly touching lives outside the church walls.

Beyond those walls, children are asking, “Where is God? Why doesn’t God love me?”

Meanwhile Jesus asks, “Where were you?

“Where were you when I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat? Where were you when I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink? Where were you when I was an immigrant and you did not invite me in? When I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, when I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me?” (Matthew 25:42–44).

Where will we be this Advent? Will we be busy about many things inside our houses of worship? Will we be feeling warm and righteous in comfortable spaces? Will we sometimes wonder why others aren’t smart enough or faithful enough to join us in our pews? Or perhaps comfort ourselves with the belief that those who are walking in darkness somehow brought darkness on themselves? Will any of today’s hungry children grow up to join Jesus in asking “Where were you?”

Advent traditions are among my favorites. Yet traditions are not sacred. They point us toward the sacred, providing opportunities to draw nearer to God and grow our faith. At best, traditions remind us that God is not found solely in our houses of worship but “out there,” where Jesus walked, among the lonely, the impoverished, the oppressed and homeless.

It is tragic that so many suffer in this fallen world. It is a far greater tragedy that those who claim to know the Light often choose not to be the light. Jesus dwells beyond the margins of our comfort and stands among those who desperately need us to sing “rejoice, rejoice!” with hands and feet as well as voices.

American Baptist Home Mission Societies (ABHMS) offers a free, downloadable Advent Dedication Service and two sets of weekly Advent readings.

The Rev. Cassandra Williams, Ed.D., is director of ABHMS’ Discipleship Ministries.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.