I spent a few years as a pastor of a congregation of predominately low-income families and unhoused neighbors in a large mostly commuter urban church. A few congregations met underneath its roof: the one I led, a Haitian congregation, and the majority affluent congregation. In many ways, I saw my role as working to mediate the difference between two very different congregations and find ways in which each could encounter the other. I placed myself in a type of liminal space between two worlds colliding. And we would collide often – over what entrance our congregation would be allowed to use, disagreements over locking and literally barring doors, paid security, proximity to the youth group, etc. I remember feeling so alone during those years, frustrated with the incremental progress and the very clear divisions erected. But I also stood in awe of how God’s grace slowly began to work to move us from a culture of fear and toward one of love. We shared a common meal every Sunday evening, doors open, everyone invited. And we became known by people on the streets as a place to get the best food and even better fellowship.

 In the midst of that struggle, I sat down with the Haitian pastor. I’ll never forget his words to me. He said, “We are connected, our two congregations. Because the homeless are like immigrants in their own country.” In that moment, I recognized the experiential fraternity of working out of a liminal posture. But even more than fraternity, I began to better understand that the movement of the church always de-centers itself – a giving up of static centralized positioning and a move toward the unknown periphery.

During the last couple of months, I have begun to see liminal realities all around us, particularly liminal social and political identities. In 2014, there was a 90% increase from 2013 in unaccompanied child migrants (many with justified claims as refugees) sitting at the U.S. & Mexico border. The war in Syria has displaced 4 million people, culminating in what Pope Francis calls “a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War.” Millions of people who have either immigrated voluntarily or been forced to flee now experience the distance between an old home and an unknown reality. The space between fills with a tension not easily mitigated: between being somewhere and nowhere, navigating cultural norms as they collide with a host community’s values, and living in an in-between place within a newly adopted country. The identities of these migrants and refugees will go through a process of change, but it is a change that also impinges upon each of us. Our identities do not remain static, but are always in a process of change. The open question is a change toward what – rising xenophobia or radical hospitality [philoxenia]?

In many ways, the disillusionment of Christendom has forced the church to understand itself as inhabiting the periphery of society and culture. Some mourn these recent developments, while others notice its potential for faithfulness. That is, the church is forever in a position of theological and ecclesial liminality. It’s worth quoting William Cavanaugh at length here, who sees the pilgrim as good metaphor for the church in our increasingly mobile global community:

"Humility is the key virtue of the pilgrim. A church that desires to be a pilgrim does not claim the power to treat every location as interchangeable and impose global solutions on the world. As it was before, pilgrimage is a kenotic movement. The church on the periphery finds itself in solidarity with the migrant and with other people whose identity is liminal. The pilgrim church is itself a liminal reality, occupying the border between heaven and earth…Like the Israelites, whose care for the alien and poor was motivated by remembrance of their own slavery and wandering, the pilgrim church is to find its identity in solidarity with the migrant who travels out of necessity, not in order to transcend all necessity [like the tourist]."1

I would add that this embrace of a liminal existence is the very work of God in the world whose presence in the Incarnation is a complete embrace of the ‘other.’ The church rests in the dynamic space between the Kingdom proclaimed and enacted through Jesus Christ and the “not-yet” of this world’s brokenness, poverty, violence, and selfishness. An embrace of liminality in solidarity with the migrant and all others facing liminal identities is one way to enact the presence of the Kingdom of God, which is the mission of the Church. We can even understand that our possessions, because they are a gift, are only liminally held, to be relinquished at another’s need.

Therefore, an embrace of a liminal posture correlates to the church on mission. A Missionary church always moves toward the periphery, inhabiting the boundaries that exclude. We don’t need to hide that inhabiting these spaces can give way to both hope and anxiety. We pray God’s grace shifts our anxiety toward resolute faith.

So what does this kind of church look like? Depending on one’s location and context, it will take on various forms. But every community struggles in some way with identity changes, and every church should be keenly aware of where those struggles tend toward exclusion and dysfunction. The church makes a home in that tension. I would like to propose three ways to practice living in the world’s liminal spaces, though certainly not an exhaustive list:

1). Physical Nearness: I am actually condoning a move toward entering uncomfortable relationships with those who are different from us – ethnically, economically, religiously, and even sexually. This isn’t a new concept by any means, but I don’t get the sense that it happens all that often. Chris Huertz simply says, “Friends of God love what and whom God loves.”2 And because God especially loves the most vulnerable of our community, those who are pushed to the margins and experience cultural liminality, those are the very relationships we should seek. Visit a prison, hang out at a homeless camp, stop and chat at the corner where the day-laborers are picked up, participate in a Black Lives Matter rally. And do it without wanting to receive anything but the possibility of friendship.

2). Listen and Submit: The last few decades have seen a rising influx of immigrant churches. One of the most overlooked strengths of immigrant communities are the second generation immigrants, especially liminal Christians who straddle the divide between cultures. Soong-Cha Rah simply states, “Liminality means that the bicultural, second-generation ethnic American has had the journeying experience that will prove helpful in the ongoing call to racial reconciliation and multiethnicity. Liminal Christians, therefore, should lead the next evangelicalism in addressing the challenges of multiethnicity.”3 Listening and submission become key disciplines in discerning necessary contributions in shifting landscapes. Find the gatekeepers in these communities and listen to their wisdom.

3). Rootedness: Finally, our place, and the relationships that constitute that place, matter. In a way, the presence of a community committed to the health of the neighborhood acts as an anchor in the shifting seas of postmodernity, globalization, and mass migration. The importance of stability can’t be emphasized enough. Again, Cavanaugh elaborates, “We are, like both the pilgrim and the monk, to hallow the particular and the local. We need to help – in cooperation with others outside the church – to build strong local communities and cooperative social arrangements deeply rooted in their places.”4

These practices will take time to develop on a community scale, but I believe they will allow the church to embrace a radical hospitality in line with the mission of God as proclaimed by Jesus Christ.

 

Eric Paul is currently serving as a missionary-pastor on the Big Island of Hawaii, using his gift of teaching and commitment to community development to prepare the next generation of 'indigenous' leaders. Grieving the lost dream of being a full-time ski bum in Colorado, Eric copes by surfing 3-5 ft waves, eating 2 pound mangoes, and investing in the nearby community garden.

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1William Cavanaugh, “Migrant, Tourist, Pilgrim, Monk,” in Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, Grand Rapids, MI; 2011 (82).

2Christopher Huertz and Christine Pohl, Friendship at the Margins, IVP Books, Downers Grove, Il; 2010, 30.

3Soong-Chan Rah, The Next Evangelicalism, IVP Books, Downers Grove, Il; 2009, 188.

4William Cavanaugh, “Migrant, Tourist, Pilgrim, Monk,” in Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, Grand Rapids, MI; 2011, 86.