“Of course it will be awkward,” I told her with my most persuasive smile, “but it’ll be the best kind of awkward.”
I was trying to convince a woman in my congregation to join me in volunteering in an ESL class, serving as a conversation partner for refugees who recently relocated to our town. She had spent her career in education, but never with a language barrier. I am not proficient or even remotely experienced in helping people with their English, but I had already become convinced that embracing the awkward was part of my new ministry philosophy.
It wasn’t always that way. I do like comfort and the familiar. I like knowing what to say and how to act. I freeze in fear when I discover I am missing important social cues. I don’t like to reveal my own ignorance. I do not enjoy the taste of my own foot. So awkwardness was on my list of things to avoid. And by avoid, I mean it was cause to run in the other direction. The possibility of awkwardness had the power to veto my opportunities altogether.
But then avoiding awkwardness started to get in the way of following Jesus. The more I considered what it might look like to minister in the way of Jesus, the more I started to see that crossing boundaries was an essential way to do it. Jesus was always crossing the boundaries humans around him had worked hard to raise and fortify. When men weren’t supposed to approach women, he talked to them and welcomed them among his disciples. When Samaritans were the enemy, he told one of his most memorable stories with a Samaritan as the hero. When the protocol said not to come near to a leper for fear of contamination, Jesus settled on the opposite and reached out to touch them, sharing his health with them.
We humans still create all kinds of boundaries. We draw lines of separation to keep like-minded people in and different-minded people out. We separate from each other in as many ways as we can think of: age, gender, religion, denomination, nationality, political affiliation, socio-economic status, and a variety of opinions. We like the comfort and familiarity of those who are just like us. We’ve perfected the art of living in designated areas where people are just like us. We like our colonies where we don’t have to wrestle face to face with those who survive without all the things we think are necessary, or who work for opposite political solutions, or who see life through a lens much different than our own. To cross those boundaries or to enter into that opposing dialog or to see that suffering is awkward. We do not know exactly what to do or say, so avoidance is our comforting option.
I started to wonder what would happen if I sat in that awkwardness. What if I embraced it to see what lay on the other side of that uncomfortable emotion? And I discovered I already had some practice. I like to explore, to travel, to enjoy an adventure. All of that also included the awkwardness I was usually trying to avoid, but I saw it all in a rosier light. Exploring, travel, and adventure were all good things. Good things that made the expected awkwardness worth it. I started to wonder if I might see crossing the boundaries in my own community as more of an adventure with Jesus into the unknown that was next door.
But mostly I learned the hard way.
A few years ago my congregation began to embrace our neighborhood in a way we hadn’t in the decades before. The neighborhood had changed around us. We were white and upper middle class. The neighborhood was multicultural and increasingly violent. But Jesus had called us to love our neighbors, and not just ones who were a reflection of us. So we showed up in the park and talked to people and learned names. We ended the summer hosting a neighborhood block party delivering flyers of invitation door to door.
The problem came when it was time to pass the invitation to the studio apartments next door to the church building. When I first came to the church, there was a gruesome murder there. People told me there was lots of drug activity in those cheap, run-down apartments. I was fine with the rest of the neighborhood, but these apartments scared me. I didn’t think there was much the church could do to minister across the socio-economic gap at its widest. So I traded sides of the streets with the man helping me pass out the flyers. In my fear, I let him walk into the midst of that apartment complex and I took what seemed to be the safer side of the street. I was avoiding the awkwardness of entering what I did not know.
I’m happy to tell you that the second year of the block party, I was braver. Some of those neighbors had come to our first block party, I had learned their names, and I wanted to invite them again. So I knocked on their doors and told them we hoped they would join us. And they did.
Sherrie was one of the apartment dwellers I had met. The week before Christmas last year she called me and asked if I knew how she could find all the trimmings for Christmas dinner. A man in the apartment complex had donated a turkey for her to cook and what Sherrie wanted most for Christmas was to make a meal for the men who lived in those apartments, 7 or 8 of them who had no family but still deserved a good Christmas dinner. Amazed at our good fortune to participate in such a ministry, I told Sherrie we’d have all the trimmings to her on Sunday. On Christmas day, in the midst of my family celebration, I often thought of Sherrie and the holy work she was doing. For there was God putting on flesh and moving in our neighborhood apartments.
A few weeks ago, I went to visit Sherrie who has faithfully joined us on the Sundays since Christmas, been baptized, and become a member of our church. We sat at the picnic table in the middle of that not-so-scary apartment complex. I met the other neighbors who lived there, learned their names, and we talked as we enjoyed the beautiful spring sunshine. It was not awkward. It was a delightful adventure in the warmth of their hospitality.
As I walked back to the church, I recalled again the powerful emotion in me that made me avoid these apartments prior to that first block party. I initially thought it would be too awkward to cross this boundary, but now I could see that these apartments and the people who lived in them were such a source of joy in the life of the church and especially in me. Joy that I might have missed if I had let my awkwardness and fear completely veto these neighbors from becoming my friends. I smiled up at God, saying, “Okay, I get it now. You can be found on the other side of the awkwardness in ways I can’t even begin to imagine.” And I gave thanks to the God of adventure who keeps beckoning us to the other side of our boundary lines.
Christa Klosterman is a '02 graduate of NTS and an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene. She is currently on special assignment serving two United Methodist congregations, one in Fruitland, ID and the other in Ontario, Oregon.