Who are you?
What answer would you give if someone asked you this question? Some of my replies would include: I am Noell, Elliot’s Baba, Sally and Casey’s kid, Noe Noe to nieces, nephews, and the children of dear friends. I am a friend, an educator, a student, a listener, an artist, a food chemist. Often when we answer this question, we do so by telling our stories, describing our relationships, vocation, and passions. One of the things I love about being part of a church community, and specifically this church community, is how we all answer this question in ways that are sometimes similar, and sometimes quite different. We don’t all look alike, act alike, or think exactly alike.
In our new elder training, conversation came up about diversity in the church as a sign of a community seeking to listen for God and hearing what the Spirit is saying to the church. Being a part of a community where people aren’t all exactly alike helps us to consider different points of view, expand our understandings, widen our welcome, and develop empathy. I think it takes courage to be in relationship with people who are different from us. Sometimes sameness is mistaken for safety or correctness in our culture – that difference is wrong.
Sometimes difference fuels name-calling, hatred, and dehumanization. Sometimes we use difference as a way of devaluing another person or a whole group of persons, to say they are less than we are because they are different. When we fall into these traps, it’s important to remind ourselves how every single person is alike. When I was in college we spent a year studying the first two questions of a catechism with the children’s class at the church where I volunteered. Every week we would ask the children, “Who are you?” They would respond, “I am a child of God.” “What does it mean to be a child of God,” we’d continue. “That I belong to God who loves me.” Sometimes if a new person asked one of the kids, “Who are you,” they wouldn’t answer like I did above, but would simply say, “I am a child of God.” Saying this part of the catechism every week ingrained these words into our children and ingrained these words into me.
Almost twenty years have passed since I repeated those questions on a weekly basis with children, yet they are always in the back of my mind. They ground me and keep me mindful of the value of every single person, particularly when I’d like to dwell in a place of hatred or name-calling. I try to look at each person whose path I cross and say to myself, “they are a child of God and they belong to God who loves them.” I can specifically remember doing this with a lonely regular in the coffee shop, a bullied teen in youth group, a patient who was dying, a person scanning my groceries, people who have broken my heart and disappointed me, people I hear about on the news, people who’ve come to counter-protest where I protest. When I’m able, I ask them who they are and listen as they share their stories and passions. Sometimes this practice seems easy, other times I really struggle to do it, but I think it’s important, so I keep trying. Embracing a person’s value as a child of God does not mean I have to condone their behavior, back their rhetoric, or agree with them on anything. It’s simply a reminder that at their core, they too belong to God who loves them.
In this complicated, diverse, beautiful world we are all, all, all children of God. We belong to God. God loves us. What would the world look like if we all began each day acknowledging who we are?
Noell Rathbun – among her many “who’s” – can now include elder-elect for the Session class of 2021. They have been contributing reflections in this space. The series continues on August 25.