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Editorial note: I am quite emotional as I write this — sad, angry, frustrated and disappointed. Wiser peeps may take some time to cool down before pounding their fingers on their keyboards. Sometimes I believe that it is a good thing to be transparent (and appropriate, of course) with one’s feelings. To God be the glory!

Rigoberto Perez (from left), Kyle Simpson and Miriam Nissly participated in a roundtable discussion about religion with NPR's David Greene at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. (Photo credit: Coburn Dukehart/NPR)

Rigoberto Perez (from left), Kyle Simpson and Miriam Nissly participated in a roundtable discussion about religion with NPR’s David Greene at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. (Photo credit: Coburn Dukehart/NPR)

Last week, NPR did a fantastic series on the state of religion in America. It was titled “Losing Our Religion.” It featured statistics from the Pew Research Center, intimate looks into people’s lives, and interviews from those who struggle or have lost their faith and clergy alike.

One theory for the growth of the “nones,” people who say they have no religious affiliation, is that social issues are driving folk, particularly those under 30, away from the church. (According to the series, One-fifth of Americans say they’re nones, as are one in three under 30.) Nones are socially liberal. They see the most visible religious leaders moving to the right on the issues that they hold dear, and consequently they move in the opposite direction, away from religion altogether.

This from 30-year-old Melissa Alderman who spoke to NPR’s David Greene. She was raised Catholic, but “does not call herself one today because she cannot embrace the church’s core beliefs on social issues:”

“To me a church that would be welcoming would be one where there wasn’t a male-only hierarchy that made all the rules, and there weren’t these rules about who’s excluded and who’s included and what behavior is acceptable and what’s not acceptable.”

With this in mind, I am honestly befuddled about the news of some Brooklyn, New York residents complaining about a neighborhood church that is embodying Jesus’ imperative to serve the poor and love people as we love ourselves about as good as I’ve ever seen it.

Rev. Ann Kansfield, co-pastor of Greenpoint Reformed Church, works in the soup kitchen with actors Keanu Reeves and Vera Farmiga who dropped by to serve in 2009. (Photo credit: Philip Mauro Thursday, November 26, 2009)

Rev. Ann Kansfield, co-pastor of Greenpoint Reformed Church, works in the soup kitchen with actors Keanu Reeves and Vera Farmiga who dropped by to serve in 2009. (Photo credit: Philip Mauro Thursday, November 26, 2009)

Greenpoint Reformed Church (GRC) is well known in its neighborhood as a church that helps. It hosts a food bank and soup kitchen to feed anyone in need. It was the only Brooklyn church that stepped up to become a “safe space” in November 2012 when the Department of Homeless Services called for organizations willing to host a respite shelter. The church is reimbursed for program-related building expenses, which amounts to 44% of the utilities and someone to clean 2 hours per day.

These pesky social services are raising the neighbors’ ire.

Greenpoint Reformed Church is located on Milton Street. Milton Street has, like many urban areas in the US, been in the process of regentrifiying. One resident of a nearby neighborhood told a local newspaper last October that she has spent her whole life helping make her community “a decent place.” To this person, the homeless shelter within GRC is a “dumb idea” that could ruin her life-long work.


Another Greenpoint resident, Margaret McMahon, wrote a letter to her neighbors.

“I’ve held my breath when walking by crates of produce that were delivered to the Church that sat out on the curb in the sun,”she wrote, according to The Greenpoint Gazette. “[A friend once said to me], ‘What concerns me most is this is just the beginning, first a food bank – what’s next, a homeless shelter?’ I laughed and I said that would never happen. Well, here we are, Milton Street is now the proud owner of a food bank, a soup kitchen, and a homeless shelter.”

And yet another neighbor, who was quick to distinguish himself as benevolent enough to advocate for homeless shelters (some folks don’t), belied his NIMBY (not in my back yard) attitude. “I’m not against the homeless having someplace to go, but not like this,” he told The Brooklyn Paper.

I certainly do not dismiss the heart of a community volunteer. As a matter of fact, I applaud those who look and act beyond themselves for the betterment of environs. I do not doubt the validity of the residents’ concerns — vomit and urine-drenched sidewalks, catcalls, yelling and other intolerable changes to the street since the homeless shelter opened. Also, I shudder at these people’s comments. The lack of humanity and humanitarianism saddened me.

Blatantly biased journalism usually bothers me, but the article’s closing paragraph helped restore my hope in humanity. “The implication being that housing the poor would somehow make the neighborhood a bad place, that the homeless are somehow not decent, and that they are not our responsibility, even as their numbers swell—in 2012, the number spiked to more than 46,000 adults and children—in our rapidly gentrifying city.”

As a solo pastor for six years, I read articles about the rising of the nones and feared. I heard people’s broken hearts and confused minds in my head as I read their indictments against the modern church. Perhaps this is my “stuff,” but I discerned that the onus is on the church to welcome or welcome back those who have left.

“You know what’s wrong with the church?” I heard someone ask rhetorically once. “Christians.” I empathized. Some of the painful stories that people shared with me in confidence would curl anyone’s hair. Even as a pastor, I have been on the receiving end of believers behaving badly.

I’ve come to understand, though, that the fault of the nones/church fracture is not wholly the church’s. There is hardness of heart within the people on the outside of the church who look upon religion with scorn, as evidenced microcosmically by the situation in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn. There is selfishness, short-sightedness, and judgment outside the church, too. Who knows what experiences have poisoned people against religion so much so that they are utterly unable to tolerate a neighborhood church doing what they believe churches should be doing?

Luke’s gospel tells us of Jesus speaking clearly to his disciples as he taught them on the plain. He talks about giving away one’s life for others in 7: 24 – 42. Perhaps the paragraph that rounds out this section speaks best towards this apparent church/nones stalemate:

“It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, ‘Let me wash your face for you,’ when your own face is distorted by contempt? It’s this I-know-better-than-you mentality again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your own part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor” (Luke 7: 41 – 42, The Message).

Let the church be honest about its prejudices and behavior, and let the nones and all struggling with religions institutions do the same. Maybe if we take an honest look at ourselves, we’ll be better able to see one another.

I believe I’ll start with me.