Prioritizing Proximity

Acts 15 includes one of the most pivotal scenes of the New testament and the early church. Often referred to as “The Jerusalem Council,” a group of elders, apostles, and early church leaders, including Paul, Barnabas, James, and Peter convene and debate whether Gentiles should have to be circumcised in order to be welcomed into fellowship. After much debate, James reminds all that God had long ago looked favorably on the Gentiles, and that they should therefore “not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God…”

Willie Jennings offers a unique and intriguing interpretation of this passage:

“…James weaves a tapestry that strains at its seams as it tries to cover Gentile flesh. This is not a failure of his quilting technique, nor is he resistant to the work of the Spirit. James is groping to conceive the new possibilities of relationship with Gentiles… Yet James powerful recommendation (of table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles) is at a distance. We must never forget this distance… The Gentiles are there, but not there, spoken about but not spoken with. This is a scene of the Gentile-in-theory, not the Gentile-in-reality in conversation, in reciprocal and mutual interaction… The church has been guilty of just such normatlization. We have too often imagined ecclesial deliberations about others in abstraction, even if they have been bodily present…” (Jennings, Acts, 143-44)

This makes more sense to me now than it would have four years ago, and it has everything to do with the power of proximity. Last December, at my Birmingham cohort’s third-year and final focus group session, I shared that prior to joining the cohort, prior to meeting every month for four hours to vulnerably share about life, ministry, our families, and our community, encouraging one another grow as disciples of Jesus, prior to regularly praying for one another and checking in with one-another in between meetings, it would have been easy for me to dismiss the struggles of these other pastors and their congregations in various neighborhoods around the city. Prior to the cohort, had I heard that my colleagues around the city were grieving suicides in their congregation, crawling under tables during bible study to avoid bullets fired outside the church, navigating complex mental health problems among the homeless, and myriad other scenarios, I could have said with good intentions and sincerity, “Wow that sounds difficult. I’m sorry. I’ll pray for you,” and moved on without giving it more thought. By default, it would have seemed like a problem “over there” for somebody else to deal with. But, now, as a result of the cohort experience, these “issues” aren’t just “issues.” They’re lived experiences to which I am now bound, not only by being with these pastors, but by having been in their church buildings, their neighborhoods, their homes. Even though I am in the majority culture and enjoying all sorts of benefits that come with that, the economic, racial, and political crises that disproportionately affect those on the margins are now necessarily my concern. Not in theory, but in fact. Not in abstraction, but in the flesh. These are my brothers and sisters. Their life is my life. I had read Dr. Martin Luther King’s words countless times, but it wasn’t until this moment that I had any real sense of what he was talking about:

“…all mankind is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be – this is the interrelated structure of reality.” (Oberlin College Commencement Address, 1965)

This is the result of proximity.

No amount of reading about, thinking about, or talking about the challenges of my community can replace face-to-face engagement and the development of deep friendship with people who occupy the various sites within that community. The value of these friendships is not just that it opens our eyes to a broader set of lived experiences, circumstances, and dominating narratives, so that we might engage a little more than we used to. Rather, it’s that by encountering, embracing, and learning to truly love and trust one another, we become one body that shares the same life together.

Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative frequently speaks about the priority of proximity.

“The first thing I believe you have to do is that you have to commit to getting proximate to the places in our nation, in our world, where there’s suffering and abuse and neglect. Many of you have been taught your whole lives that there are parts of the community where the schools don’t work very well; if there are sections of the community where there’s a lot of violence or abuse or despair or neglect, you should stay as far away from those parts of town as possible. Today, I want to urge you to do the opposite. I think you need to get closer to the parts of the communities where you live where there’s suffering and abuse and neglect. I want you to choose to get closer. We have people trying to solve problems from a distance, and their solutions don’t work, because until you get close, you don’t understand the nuances and the details of those problems. And I am persuaded that there is actually power in proximity. When you get close, you understand things you cannot understand from a distance.” (2016 commencement address at Wesleyan University)

Over the last four years, I’ve learned that one of the keys to Macedonian Ministry’s success is our insistence that pastors get “proximate,” that pastors from a diversity of social locations and theological traditions come together in the flesh, face to face, eye to eye, occupying the same space together for several hours at a time, once a month for the three years. When pastors make a high commitment to this process and to one another, the learning is deep, capacity for change is expanded, concern and engagement for the broader community is enhanced, and their lives really do become inextricably bound to one another. For many, it is life-changing. Our hope that this model of embodied joining and intimate friendship can be replicated throughout congregations and across communities, so that disciples of Jesus will be drawn and equipped to stand in the tragic gaps, margins, and neglected spaces where hopelessness dominates. Given the tragic walls of hostility that have been erected throughout our communities, I can hardly think of a greater priority. May the Spirit place within us a desire to get proximate and the hope of the gospel to sustain that desire.

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