Yesterday we went out for dinner, which cut into my blogging time. I had to enjoy time with the other folks in my team, eat pizza (a Dominican delicacy), and have a splendid, splendid evening. So I hope all of my avid readers (all three of you?) can forgive my writing absence for one evening.
Our team went to a batey to do some construction yesterday. We started very excited, told that we would be working on toilets. Remember, there is not any indoor plumbing in the bateyes, so a toilet is a big hole in the ground with a shack over the hole. In laymen’s terms, it is a “pit toilet.” We were excited and ready to dig, dig, and dig.
When we got there we realized that we were not in for the rock-star work that we hoped to have. The holes were already dug. The shacks were already built. All that was needed was four doors, some paint, and some finishing touches of cement. So the glorious work of ditch digging was a dream that never became a reality. The day was spent standing around, moving something, standing around, mixing some cement, standing around, painting, standing around, driving screws into a door, standing around, standing around, and standing around. There was a lot of standing around. This is a part of the wonderful, sacrificial work we do for the sake of Jesus Christ.
Some of the additional work (read: busy work) we did included painting the front of the local church and putting sod around the church. We were making the church look beautiful. It was very obvious in this batey that the church was the nicest building in the community. The homes (if you want to call them homes) were dilapidated and practically falling to pieces, the yards were without any grass or fauna, but the church was beautiful. The church stood out from the other structures like a shining beacon on a hill, a light shining for the world to see. Isn’t that scriptural or something?
I’ve been in other places where I have seen a beautiful church surrounded by poverty and despair and have thought, “gee, wouldn’t it have better if all of that money was used for the poor around the church.” It looked like the message sent was that the church was important, the façade of the church was important, and screw the poor. In this batey, I could easily reach this skeptical and cynical conclusion.
Here is what I realized. For many of the people living in that batey and many of the bateys we encountered, the church was the center of hope. The church building itself represented a different and better life. The church building represented a mystery of a world out there that can be different than the squalor that people faced again and again in their lives. All they knew was despair and the very presence of the church offered hope. Some of the workers, who did not live in the bateyes, but had a “decent” life commented that they make the church look as good as possible because it shows a better way to live to the people in the bateyes. Others said that we make the church look better because it shows the people that their community is not considered worthless. People have made a commitment to their presence, enough of a commitment to spend time, energy, and money on a building that represented hope.
I know that the church is just a building. I know that the stones and mortar do not capture the presence of God and that God can be experienced everywhere. But yesterday I realized that the church is more than a building. If the church was dilapidated, falling apart, in disrepair, that would be a powerful, negative message for the people. It could easily be seen as a message that God does not care. Christians do not care.
A beautiful building offers a beautiful hope. The grass around the building, the tile inside the building offers to the people a place where, for a moment, they can step out of their batey and enter into something different, something better. In a very real way, the church is the Kingdom of God right there and then.
A powerful image, symbol, and sacrament for a people living without any hope.
Is there any way our churches in the United States could be such a symbol?