What I Experienced at West Middlesex

the welcome sign at the entrance to the West Middlesex campground

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a couple of days of the camp meeting at West Middlesex, Pennsylvania. This was the 107th annual gathering of the National Association of the Church of God, and it was my first time to visit this area and attend services on “Zion’s Hill.”

Zion’s Hill is the name given to the hill on which the campground sits. Zion is a biblical reference to Jerusalem, the holy city of God. You can get a sense, just from the name, how people view this place and value the experiences that generations of Christians have shared there. I heard people use the phrase “sacred ground” multiple times during my visit.

Getting to the campground is a pilgrimage, in more ways than one. West Middlesex is in extreme western Pennsylvania, and the campground is a few miles outside of that town. From our hotel room, I drove through the forested Appalachian foothills along winding roads, which were barely wide enough for two vehicles and were not painted with lane markings. Finally, a clearing appeared along Campground Road, and I pulled into a spacious and beautiful area. Past a large and neatly mowed field of grass stands the sanctuary, a large white brick building. Beyond the sanctuary, further up the hill, I saw a number of houses and cabins where people live during the week of the camp meeting.

the sanctuary on Zion’s Hill

One important thing to understand about West Middlesex and the National Association is that this camp meeting is predominantly attended by African-American Christians in the Church of God. It’s been that way since their first gathering on Zion’s Hill in the early 1900s. We have a great deal of racial and ethnic diversity in the Church of God, more than in many other denominations, but we don’t always visit each other’s spaces. One of the preachers last week said, “We have too many separate spaces in the Church of God.”

We don’t always make the effort to see things from others’ perspectives, to worship in other styles, to experience being in the minority. (I say this from the point of view of a white man who lives in a 98%+ white county in central Michigan).

So I went, and I experienced lots of warmth, welcoming smiles, pleasant conversations, and joyful connections. I arrived alone but was glad to run into many people I’ve met in various places in the past.

I attended three worship services on Zion’s Hill before traveling onward. Much of what I experienced was familiar to me from other African-American worship services I’ve attended. Also, many of the songs we sang were quite familiar – old Church of God standards like “I’m Going On” and “In the Light of God.” But some things were new to me: The role of the chairperson, who actively directs or emcees the service from one element to the next. The offering time, when everyone who gives an offering marches up to the front to drop their gifts in the offering buckets. The ministers’ procession on Thursday night, when all ordained ministers are honored as they process into the sanctuary and sit in the very front pews.

a worship service inside the sanctuary

But one thing in particular stood out to me. It’s something I’ve read in books and heard in talks about African-American worship and probably seen before, but it’s beautiful to observe afresh:

People often sway from side to side in absolute unison with each other while they are singing. Not always, but often, and usually in response to the choir’s movements on the platform. It’s a way for these fellow Christians to embody their unity in worship. With every step they take, they are supporting others and are supported by others who are taking the exact same steps. They carry the messages of hope, sorrow, joy, peace, comfort within their bodies. That embodied sense of connection with each other shines through powerfully in how the people sway – even people who come from different parts of the country and may not know each other very well. The sense of embodiment reaches back through generations of believers who have swayed to the same music in that exact same space. This is a crucial component of African-American Christian worship which developed and grew through the horrors of slavery and the injustices of racial discrimination. This type of embodied corporate worship is something that I, as a white person with a white church background, simply do not have in my cultural vocabulary. It is something I deeply appreciate about the brief time I spent on Zion’s Hill last week.

gathering for the annual Ministers’ Photograph

On Thursday evening, before processing into the worship service, all the ordained ministers gathered near a large church bell for the annual ministers’ photograph. I stood at the back of the group because of my height, and as I stood there, I thought about the generations of pastors, chaplains, ministers, preachers, and servants who have stood there in the past. I am grateful for this first visit to West Middlesex and for the connections I made there. I have every intention of visiting again in the future – hopefully with more first-time visitors, too.

Instead of “another day, another dollar,” today we could say, “another month, another sad story of conflict between police and citizens.”

In recent weeks, we have seen news reports from Texas, where an African-American woman named Sandra Bland was arrested by a Hispanic male state trooper named Brian Encinia. Thanks to today’s technology, we have seen video footage of the conversation, altercation, and arrest. That footage gives us reason to consider our lives and our choices. Continue reading

“But, God, they’re not like me! They come from a different place and worship differently than I do!”

Yet God says, “Take a look around yourself. Pay attention to the people you meet. Watch what I’m doing. And be ready to change your mind and your behavior when you see what I’m up to.” Continue reading

In recent days, an editorial in the Midland Daily News argued that “conservative Christians need to take a stand” regarding the widespread acceptance of same-sex marriage in our nation. The author compared the present situation to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, in which Rosa Parks took a stand (by sitting down, ironically) against the cultural requirement that she yield her seat at the front of a bus to a white passenger. This editorial suggests that conservative Christians are being isolated, quieted, and accused of intolerance when they speak against current trends in society.

A few years ago, on an Easter Sunday, we had our usual lineup of special services and activities for that day. A “sunrise” service – I use the term loosely because the sun had already been up for a couple of hours – began the festivities. With awe and humility, we celebrated the mystery of the empty tomb. And then we shared in a special breakfast, a celebratory meal that reminded us of Jesus’s post-resurrection breakfast with his disciples. Our children participated in games, hunted down dozens of Easter eggs, and won a variety of prizes. Finally, our regular morning worship was full of praise and adoration of our risen King and Savior.

On this particular Easter Sunday, two middle-aged couples visited our congregation. Both couples visited us with other family members who are regular members of our congregation. And in both couples, the partners are of the same gender.

I’m not sure if others in the congregation realized this at the time, but I was aware – and happy – that we welcomed both a gay couple and a lesbian couple into our Easter Sunday worship service. After all, any time we join in worship, we do so in honor of Jesus Christ, not in honor of our particular worldview or political opinions. Everyone is welcome to worship the Lord.

In recent days, a pizza shop in Indiana closed its doors after its owners stated that they would not serve pizza at a same-sex wedding reception. The intense furor and passion around this story – by those supporting the pizza shop and those opposing it – has been amazing to witness. It seems that everyone has an opinion on this, whether or not they can even identify Walkerton on an Indiana map.

A few years ago, in another place, Tara and I built a close relationship with a wonderful young woman who is now in her early twenties. I’ll call her Nicole. She spent a great deal of time with us due to some instability in her own home. She loved us at least as much as we loved her in return – and probably more. And even now that we are far apart, we still remain in contact with Nicole and count her as part of our family.

Nicole is a lesbian. She “came out” to the world last year. She has shared with us some of the joys and pains of her relationships that have succeeded and failed. Because of her sexual orientation, she has experienced some emotional distancing from some friends at her local church, which I consider an unfortunate development in her life.

Nicole has held down a job for the past few years and works hard at what she does. She has purchased her own car, she pays her own rent, and she contributes to society in a number of ways. Nicole is a regular person, with regular needs, regular laughter, and regular tears. And for some reason, she counts us as part of her family too.

In recent days, the Indiana state legislature passed Senate Bill 101, also known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. No small amount of media coverage has accompanied this bill since it was signed by Indiana’s governor a few weeks ago. Again, everyone has an opinion on this, whether or not they are experts in law or politics. I, for one, am not concerned about this law; its worst elements will be corrected and its best intentions will be honored. In any case, I firmly believe that we cannot legislate morality (that is, make people behave by creating laws). Ban same-sex marriage, legalize marijuana, ban assault rifles, legalize gambling: the systems we form do not create morality and goodness. The law is not the ultimate measure of right and wrong. On the other hand, the law should uphold the cause of justice for all people, a goal that is much higher than any Senate Bill.

Many years ago, and in a very different place, a carpenter’s son crouched down and drew designs in the dirt with his finger. The people eagerly awaited his response to the most pressing moral question of the day: what should they do with a woman caught committing adultery? The conservative religious leaders wanted to stone her to death, as the religious law required. And if this carpenter’s son did not give the officially correct answer, then they could silence him as a radical progressive. Rather than taking sides on the issue, this carpenter’s son, this teacher, this divine reformer recognized the humanity of all those around him and called each of them to a higher moral standard:

“If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

“Has no one condemned you? Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 7:53-8:11 NIV)

I believe the recent editorial’s appeal to Rosa Parks is inappropriate. After all, people on the other side of this moral question can make precisely the same appeal as an argument to stand up against discrimination. Comparing conservative Christians (or the LGBT community, for that matter) to Rosa Parks is comparing apples to oranges; it is a rhetorical device intended to create an immediate victory. After all, who can argue against Rosa Parks?

But Rosa Parks’s victory was not immediate, nor, indeed, is her struggle finished. The issue of racial reconciliation and justice has not been resolved in twenty-first century America. Similarly, the gay and lesbian couples who visited our church, my friend Nicole, conservative Christians, and other Christians are all involved in an ongoing struggle over the question of homosexuality.

In some ways, this struggle is similar to the conflict in John 8. Jesus’s answer to the question in that story is not “black and white” or “quick and easy.” He understands both the value and the imperfections of each individual around him. He creates a new way of answering the moral dilemma: not by adhering to religious law, not by accepting sexual immorality as the new norm, but by extending love and grace to everyone. He desires justice for all and calls each person to higher standards of righteousness and holiness.

Perhaps we would do well to learn to imitate him in how we think about, discuss, and act on the important moral questions of our day.