On a recent Sunday, we baptized Jo, upon her confession of faith, in the waters of the Eno River. Jo came to our congregation not long ago, but her story in the church stretches back to childhood. That story is heartbreaking. It traverses through being trafficked for sex before ending up homeless. Around that time, Catholic Social Services entered her life.
Jo shared her testimony with the congregation. As she took us through the harrowing early years of childhood, she said that the church — the physical location of church buildings — became a place for her to be safe from everything that happened in the outside world. Churches were places to hide. Eventually, churches were people — people who would keep her safe.
The Catholic church wouldn’t remain that way for Jo. As she came to understand her sexuality as a lesbian, she left for communities that would sustain and nurture her without exception, without asking her to be someone she was not.
But God has always been with Jo, a constant comfort and care. Now, at 68, Jo is once again in a church that is safe — and now ready, as she told us, to give her heart to Jesus as part of Raleigh Mennonite Church in North Carolina.
I thought about jo as we prepared our worship space for our first in-person gathering in 16 months. We call that place a sanctuary. A sanctuary provides protection and safety from an external threat. It’s the word that guides my life as a pastor.
Not all of my colleagues who lead churches agree with me. They see their role as providing a place of unity for diverse people to be in conversation. Some think of their job as getting people in the door with a radical welcome and then letting relationships do the work of change. Others want to create an oasis, a place to stop by and be fed before returning to the grind of daily life and our intractable conflicts.
I can’t share these visions of church. Jo, and people like her, are the reason why.
Sanctuary recognizes we come to the church with bodies and lives that participate, without our consent or will, in the power and destruction of the world around us. These powers work differently on us because of gender, class and race. My Black church members are significantly more likely to die in childbirth, to be pulled over by the police, to be suspended from school. Our LGBTQ members face harassment and discrimination. Our disabled members live in a world designed for their exclusion. A member of our church spent a month in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention.
Church is a body of these people, gathered, who receive the words of Jesus: “Blessed are you.” Over and over the story of Jesus’ good news pulls people from lives of destructive social and economic violence into a new order alongside these who are blessed, alongside the vulnerable and the heartbroken. In our gathering, we become a new form of life that resists the principalities and powers Jesus defeated.
A decade of pastoral ministry has cured me of idealism about this work. It is messy and complicated. Living out the gospel involves discernment, failure, repentance and trying again. We make space for conflict, and we disagree.
But what makes sanctuary possible is that the foundation of our life is Jesus Christ, and on it we construct beams of solidarity and care. We are here for one another. We are aware of the ways we fail at that solidarity.
This is a sanctuary that can hold our trials and our diversity because it is constructed with love. Not the façade of love, but the tough stuff. The kind of love that costs something. The kind of love that has changed us.
Making our life into that building, shaping ourselves around that foundation, isn’t for everyone. But for our life, for our community, we’ve found the joy of the strong kind of love that turns us into a living, breathing body of good news for those Jesus has called blessed.
Melissa Florer-Bixler is pastor of Raleigh Mennonite Church in North Carolina.