By Danilo Sanchez
Danilo Sanchez has been a pastor at Whitehall Mennonite Church and Ripple in the Lehigh Valley for the past 5 years. In 2018 he started serving as the RCI Village Housing Director for Ripple Community Inc. Danilo also works for Franconia Conference as the Youth Formation Pastor connecting with churches in the Lehigh Valley, New York, and Spanish-speaking churches in Philadelphia. In all of his work, Danilo cares about making disciples and living out God’s justice for his community.
In recent years there seems to be an increase in the number of churches that have changed their name to include the word community. It’s an attempt to let others know their church is about serving the community. Everyone loves being a “community church” until the community wants to come through their doors. Because it’s one thing to go into the community and serve others — you can enter the messiness and leave it behind whenever you want — but it’s entirely different when those you’re serving want to worship, learn, and share life with you.
Ripple is a church that embraces the community, particularly those living on the margins. On Sundays, we worship with many people who have mental illness, are homeless, and/or are stuck in addictions. We work hard to serve and learn “with” those living on the margins. We refuse to believe that the community we serve is the group always in need. Rather, we affirm that everyone has gifts and value, even if you’re homeless or live with mental illness. We invite everyone to participate in worship and the work of the church.
We have observed other churches who want to work with people on the margins put up barriers and limitations. The message they send is, “Okay homeless people, here is your section of the building: don’t touch anything, don’t make a mess, and don’t smoke in the front of the building. If you break any of these rules, you’re gone. I hope you feel the love of Jesus!”
Putting up barriers and devaluing people can’t be the way Jesus wants the church to behave.
Jesus told the parable of the man who held a great banquet and sent out a servant to invite many distinguished guests. But each guest declined the invitation with more important matters to attend to. The owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the disabled, and the outcast.”
“Sir,” the servant said, “what you ordered has been done, but there is still more room.”
Then the owner told his servant, “Well then, go out to the country roads where the bandits dwell and bring in the complete strangers you find there, until my house is completely full. I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.”
We are not God. We are not the owners of the banquet. We are the servants; our role is to invite anyone and everyone to the party. Jesus has declared everyone welcome in his house.
I imagine someone in the room hearing this parable ask Jesus a follow up question: “But Jesus, aren’t you afraid ‘those’ people will ruin your house?! They’re going to take advantage of you, steal your belongings, and dirty up the house.” Jesus appears not to be threatened by this possibility or the messiness it will cause by having all types of people living in his house. He knows the risk and does not qualify his open invitation. He is more concerned with his house being full and people experiencing an abundant life.
As the church, we must trust in the transforming work and power of Jesus when the community shows up at our door. Will the lying, stealing, and messiness still happen? Yes. Will our boundaries and patience be tested? Yes. But if we stay in relationship with people living on the margins and show the love of Jesus, will we see transformation? Absolutely.
At Ripple we continue to find this to be true. We have witnessed many lives transformed. We will not let fear or the messiness of being church together stop us from inviting those on the corners, alleys, and tents from being part of our community, sharing our space, and being part of our lives.
As church leaders, how are we growing and stretching the kingdom of God? Are we willing to live with the messiness of inviting the community through our doors? At Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s School for Leadership Training 2020, we are invited to think about these questions. The theme is Shalom in the Streets: Recapturing God’s Vision in Ordinary Places.
God’s desire is for everyone in our community to experience shalom. Jeremiah 29:7 says, “Seek the peace of your city, because if it prospers so will you.” As a church, we are called to go into the ordinary places, even the unsafe places, proclaiming the good news of healing and hope in Jesus. When this happens, there will be shalom in our streets.
Registration is open for Eastern Mennonite Seminary’s annual School for Leadership Training.
It takes place January 13-15, 2020 on the theme “Shalom in the Streets: Recapturing God’s Vision in Ordinary Places.” Scholarships are available for pastors to attend. Visit: emu.edu/seminary/slt.