Many of us have made our resolutions that may not go as planned. The following is a letter I sent to my bishop about events that did unfold as I had hoped. And yet ...
You awarded our congregation $100 with the instruction to reach out to our neighbors. This was enough for an idea that sounded good. Our church on Oxford and Grand (avenues) is right in the middle of student housing. We have a large building with lots of space. We could open it up to students for quiet study during finals. Great idea, right?
As I type this, I am in the 14th hour of the project, and three people have come. Since they came in the first hour of the project, it’s the 13th hour straight without students. I’m concerned about the volunteers who may be sitting here alone tomorrow. The project has not unfolded as envisioned. So what has been learned in the process?
First, in the midst of failure good things also happened. People put themselves out there, giving generously of their time and talents. Our volunteers were philosophical when our expectations were not met. They commiserated with each other and avoided bitterness. They figured we’d just have to try something else.
Second, as we sat underwhelmed, the time scheduled allowed us to have significant conversations about important issues in our church, our world and our lives among ourselves. I learned new things about people I already knew fairly well. (In fact, I had a wonderful conversation with Bill Benson, who unexpectedly died shortly after serving at the event. What a gift for me!)
Third, a few people ended up in our space who were not the people we had prepared for. We got to listen to the troubling times they had going on in their lives and their resilient responses to those challenges. Maybe they have other listeners in their lives, but I saw that they felt heard and knew some relief in the midst of difficult times.
Fourth, I hold out the hope that some of our neighbors who did not join us still saw our posters and had a small hint that we care about them even if they were not ready to have us set the terms of that caring.
Fifth, a very small group of students went into their molecular biology exam better prepared than they would have been otherwise. Maybe they will use the learning they deepened on that night to save a life.
Sixth, I learned that you cannot cook real relationships in a microwave. You best serve people not in instant acts done on their behalf but through the persistent, regular and determined showing up in their lives. If we really want to connect with our neighbors, lots of time and energy will be involved. People trust people who show themselves trustworthy again and again. A friend once told me that the Holy Spirit often calls us to do things that will not work. That might could be! So with total sincerity, Bishop, I thank you for funding our failure.
— Phil Ruge-Jones
P.S.: On the third day, more students came. We talked with some professors who also showed up. We now have a better strategy for spring finals.
The Rev. Dr. Phil Ruge-Jones is a pastor at Grace Lutheran Church, Eau Claire.