Changing the World

SchmaltzIf you were to look at the room and just sit back and watch, you might conclude that nothing extraordinary was taking place. A bunch of guys. Many of them wearing Bears jerseys. Monday night and the local team was on the TV.  A small deli, food out on the table, and and grocery bags of BYObeer.  Animated, even robust conversation. It looked like these guys had been doing this for years.

Except they hadn’t. In fact, for many of them, it was the first time they had seen or talked with one another. The chill of unfamiliarity that might have hung in the air at the beginning of the evening was quickly replaced by the warmth of interaction, even if they didn’t know each other.

What I’m describing is a first ever fellowship event between some of the men of the congregation I serve and the more organized men’s group — a group they call officially The Brotherhood — at the nearby synagogue, Congregation Etz Chaim.

Last night grew out of a community solidarity event that the synagogue hosted about 6 weeks ago, after they had experienced some vandalism in which the perpetrator was charged with a hate crime. That solidarity event was so meaningful for the members at Congregation Etz Chaim, that the president of the Brotherhood went to his rabbi and said, in effect, “This can’t be one-time shot. We’ve got to figure out how to nurture these relationships and make them permanent.”  So, Rabbi Bob reached out to me. “Do you have a men’s group? Our men’s group would like to invite your men’s group to get together; no agenda. Just fellowship and getting to know one another.”

I’m not sure anyone knew if this was going to work. I think a lot of us were a bit nervous. Since our men’s group is at best loosely organized, I wondered if anyone from Faith would show up (I know, I should have more confidence in my people!). I wondered if there would be the kind of mingling and conversation that the organizers of the event hoped there would be. And I think the first half-hour bore out the playful nervousness of folks, almost like the nervousness of the first middle school dance of the year. But eventually, the guys began to grab plates of food (unbelievably great food!!) and a bottle of beer. Small groups of men from both congregations began to gather around the tables while others stood one on one, talking to their counterparts. By the time the night was over, the bonds had been formed and I don’t think anyone was in a hurry to leave. It felt like they had been doing this for years. Ted, the president of The Brotherhood remarked to me as I was leaving, “We’ve got to do this again.”

What I think is most remarkable about what happened last night is that it happened at all. This is just not what we do. We stay with our own. We don’t move out of our familiar and comfortable worlds inhabited by people who are just like us; and we don’t often tend to relationships with them. Now, of course, the men in that room were in most ways more like each other than not. They were all residents of the western suburbs of Chicago, all white, and mostly educated, I suspect. But in that setting, all of them were also sharply defined by their religious affiliation, and for them to bring their religious identity into a room of strangers who were identified by an entirely different religious affiliation, and to do it for no other reason than to hang out together and to foster relationship with one another, is remarkable.

Isaiah’s vision of the kingdom of God is that the lion will lie down with the lamb. Sometimes I think it will be easier for the lion to lie down with the lamb than for 21st century American Christians to sit down with anyone who is the “other.” That’s what happened last night. A bunch of guys. Some good food. A football game on the television that was virtually ignored. And people who had walked off their turf to meet the “other” on common ground for the sake of tending to their common humanity.

You can tell me that I’m making too big a deal out of this. That it’s not going to change the world. Except that I think it is a big deal. And last night the world began to change.

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