This reflection is from the Rev. Maïda Vandendorpe.
The prophet Jeremiah exhorts his people (Jeremiah 29:7):
“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (NRSV)
Our churches have become very good at seeking the welfare of our cities in two ways : as a church and as individuals. Collectively, we often work very well in some very well-practiced ways: we maintain houses of prayer, we fund chaplaincies and community ministries, etc. As individuals, we “seek the welfare of the city” in all sorts of quiet ways: we shovel sidewalks, bring casseroles to those who are sick, volunteer for the humane society, etc – and we usually do not identify ourselves as Christians when we do it!
The church is good at doing what it does. We have awe-inspiring buildings, beautiful liturgies, talented musicians, faithful, loving, and generous people.
And most of us spend most of our time working very hard to keep doing what we do.
Our churches are right in the middle of our cities, suburbs, neighbours, and towns. What does it look like for us to “seek the welfare” of the cities where we find ourselves?
This is one of the questions that motivates our Advent Chapel experiment. What does it look like to go out into a mall and be present and visible, rather than waiting for people to come into our buildings?
One of the realities of being a young clergy person – especially in a place as secular as Quebec, and especially as a woman – is that I am still very aware of the different ways that I am “seen” when I walk around a public place wearing a clerical collar. I am a very visible symbol of the church, for good and for ill. Sometimes it means I get to represent all the good things we stand for as a church: I am an ordained woman. If I do something good or kind, it can be attributed to the church, rather than to me as a person.
But wearing a visible symbol of my allegiance to the church is also a very vulnerable thing. I am a target for people’s problems with the church, their anger, their pain.
I am very aware, every day, that as Christians in North America we inherit a complicated legacy.
To stand in the public square, in a mall, and simply be present is to make ourselves available and vulnerable.
However, we are not doing this for ourselves, we are doing this to seek the welfare of the city. We are doing this because we live in the city, we shop in the malls, and we know how overwhelming, unpleasant, and exhausting a mall can be – and we want to try to do something to change that.
We hope that this can be a non-commercial space in a world that is overwhelmingly commercial. We hope to offer true hospitality: a place where we don’t want their money, we don’t want to convert them, we don’t want or need anything from them.
If we are lucky, out of this experiment will come some insights into what those in this city find and use to make Christmas meaningful for them. In this space, we offer a few things which we have found help make Advent and Christmas meaningful for us. Perhaps we can learn from each other, and, as we do so, better understand this God who sneaks into our lives when we think we are busy doing something else entirely.