I am a mother of young children and wife of a pastor, and I’ve been thinking about spiritual community lately. While I value the truths unique to the New Church, I think it’s important to support the good spiritual practices my neighbors and I share. Belonging to a specific denomination can feel lonely, especially in an increasingly secular country and generation. Humans are hard-wired to find “us-them” distinctions, but I think mental re-wiring is good for me sometimes so that I can look on friends of other religions as fellow members of a “Church-capital-C.”
In this vein, I have two anecdotes to offer.
My dad’s military career meant frequent moves to places without established New Church congregations. My mother joined a Christian homeschool group when we moved to Florida. We attended public school, but she joined anyway to meet like-minded moms and for mixed-age play for her three kids. I have nice memories of trips to parks and beaches, but at some point it stopped. She never mentioned why until I was a young adult.
“The group had asked a nice Muslim lady to leave because she didn’t believe in the blood atonement. Neither did I, so I left too.”
She related a conversation she’d had afterwards with a mom-acquaintance from the group. She tells this lightly, almost jokingly.
“You know I don’t think the blood of Christ paid for our sins.”
“Do you think I’m going to hell?”
With the verbal equivalent of a squirm: “Well, you SEEM like righteous people.”
My mother harbored no anger about the woman’s assumption that she was damned. She was able to smile at the absurdity of the woman’s doctrinal impasse. The story had simply become a morality tale—or spirituality tale, maybe—she was offering me.
I came away with the impression that my mother had no time for exclusive religions, particularly ones that created social division among people who could otherwise be supporting each other in the beliefs they shared.
I have a friend, a Christian Chinese woman, who came to America a few years ago with her husband and two young children. They live a few blocks from my home. She doesn’t speak fluent English, but we chat as best we can while we push kids on swings at the local playground. She almost always has something startling or fascinating or incisive to say.
This woman, I have come to see, is one of the bravest people I know. Declaring yourself a Christian in China is not for sissies. The government will, at best, turn a blind eye. At worst, it’s not pretty. She tells me that she found Jesus at university and later began preaching in a house-church. She met her future husband, a philosophy professor, when he came to hear her preach.
This couple left family, financial stability, language, and culture so that he could attend seminary here in America. They live on very little, as they belong to an unenviable legal demographic: no work visas to earn money, and no citizenship to merit government aid. She has no driver’s license, so her day-to-day is limited to the radius she and her kids can walk. But she doesn’t want to go back to China, she tells me. America is safer, less polluted, religiously tolerant. She was afraid to raise her children back there.
She came to a Sunday service at our church recently, and a congregant who’d been to China kindly asked her about her home town and her husband’s schooling. Then he asked a question that comes very naturally to an American Christian:
“What denomination do you belong to?”
My friend laughed, shook her head, and waved her hand back and forth.
“No denomination in China. Only Christian. In America, so many. I do not know the difference.”
How refreshing, I remember thinking. It’s not that I find doctrinal differences between religious groups unimportant or uninteresting, but what a sense of fellowship that must give someone who doesn’t care what kind of Christian she’s meeting.
Cultural influences feel like currents in my mental river, and I’m especially sensitive to them now that I have kids. That people in my community doing their best to follow their religions means I have to swim upstream a little less. I’m trying to approach friends of different denominations more like my friend from the second story and less like the woman from the first.
I’m grateful for my Catholic neighbors next door who attend mass without fail and whose kids don’t take the Lord’s name in vain on the playground. I love that the Jewish lady one house down volunteers her time teaching Hebrew. That the Hindu wife two houses down explains her bindi to my curious daughter warms my heart. That Sarah goes to synagogue on Saturday rather than Sunday matters less to my daughter than the fact that she attends church on the weekend too. My toddler son sees that the Presbyterian family up the street says the blessing at dinner.
Here’s a passage from the Heavenly Doctrines that brings this all home for me:
“It has been shown in various places in the explanations given already that teachings about charity were the teachings in the Ancient Churches, and that these teachings linked all the Churches together and in so doing made one Church out of many. For they recognized as members of the Church all those people who led a good and charitable life, and they called them their brothers, no matter how much otherwise they differed from them in truths, which at the present day are called matters of faith. People informed one another about those truths, and this was one of their charitable works. Neither were they annoyed if one person did not go along with the opinion of another; they knew that everyone accepts the truth insofar as he is governed by good.” (Arcana Coelestia 6628)