We had been in Pretoria for a few months. One of my best friends was visiting and we threw a party to introduce her to our small social circle. To reach our house, you needed to drive through a gated community guarded by armed men at a checkpoint on the main road below. The road climbed, opening out into landscaped grounds maintained by a small army of staff who also looked after the family that owned and lived in the six other houses on this mini estate.
It was more than the usual awkward start. As the locals arrived, some were visibly surprised to meet us as a couple for the first time. This was 1998, after all. Apartheid was still firmly embedded in the culture. So we were a shock, as our fellow expats had to explain to us. Interracial marriage was still a crime for South Africans. The shock was mutual. My friend and I watched in amazement as the locals naturally segregated themselves, forming clusters by race around the lounge room and around the pool. We had a few stilted conversations while people tried to work out how to talk to us as a couple and I realised that this policy of separation had done its work well. Only the expats moved freely.
So we said our awkward welcomes, offered drinks, made introductions and watched people collect with their own kind. Then we had a power cut. The lights went out, the music died and there we all were – black, white, mixed-race, locals, foreigners. Indistinguishable in the dark. All stuck there in this fancy hilltop house on a hot summer night, trying to find our way to the food and drink, seeing the funny side. Our guests gathered around the candles and torches we quickly found and began sharing blackout stories. There was a splash outside, followed by shouting and laughter. Someone had walked into the pool.
After a while the power came back on. Once we had lights and music the party was on.
I think of this often. It’s one of my favourite memories from that time. And the conversations that followed for months afterwards. People meeting and connecting with others they had never socialised with. Finding common ground, friendship.
I am working in an organisation now that prizes unity in the church. In those awkward conversations I have with those who distrust or dislike seeing different expressions of church honouring each other, I think I see the same pattern as at this party. Stick to your own kind. Play safe. Those people over there are not like us.
What’s true is that we are like them and they are like us, if we believe and trust Jesus. And we are also different. We are, I dare to say, meant to be different. To take slightly different roles. See things slightly differently, even. The eyes in our heads don’t see from the same angle. We need them both to see correctly. The church is the body of Christ, a complex organism, not all ear or eye or hand – let alone the systems that sustain it. We all need each part of it to function healthily.
Paul writes to the Philippians that the focus should be on progress, ‘pressing ahead to take hold of that for which Christ took hold of me,’ at the same time acknowledging that others may see things differently and trusting God to make things clear to them.
It seems a difficult thing to do, but where it happens, the largeness and the mystery of God becomes both more obvious and less ominous. I can more easily believe that Jesus really does have a place for me when I see the place of others who are not like me or each other. As I learn to work and worship with believers from different parts of the church, I am challenged and enriched by new language, approaches, and practices. My prejudices are exposed as unloving and parochial. I am growing.