How do you deal with Easter?
I am often asked what it is that we do at West Hill for Easter. It is one of the keystone events in Christianity. As such, it’s expected that every church will address it in one fashion or another. Sometimes, it is a gruesomely bloody re-enactment of the crucifixion. Sometimes its all bunnies and chocolate (no link required). The interpretation of the story is so broad now that unless you’re part of the team putting the program together, what happens on Palm Sunday and the days following may surprise you.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that West Hill treats the most famous week in the Christian story in its own unique way. We dig beneath the biblical narratives and find the human story that wrestles its way to the fore through the Easter story. It is the same story of countless people who have poured their lives out to make their world better, more humane, more peaceful. And while we don’t mention the characters, places, or details of the Passion narrative, those who know the story will resonate with the underlying themes found in our two Dream Away services.
One of our dreams
It was several years ago, that West Hill created a visionary program we believed was desperately needed by the wider church. Recognizing that Sunday morning services were no longer enough but that many congregations, because of dwindling resources, couldn’t provide much more than that, we imagined ways to distill the crucial work Christianity did in community and share it with those who would never be interested in attending Sunday morning worship services.
We were privileged to work with one of Toronto’s visionary leaders in industry change, Bill Bishop. Through a powerful and evocative process, we developed a three stream, multi-tiered template that could be used by any church or community group seeking to instill the progressive, empathy, and justice-oriented social values of liberal Christianity in their neighbourhoods, towns, and cities.
We applied to a fund in our Presbytery for a grant to get the project going. After the initial three years, we believed the project would be self-funding and eventually provide sufficient income to subsidize individuals and areas that couldn’t afford it. It wasn’t a ton of money, but it was significant and likely more than the granting body to which we applied was used to giving out. We created a slide presentation to accompany the presentation of the application and prepared to meet with the group and discuss the project with them. It was an exciting time.
As soon as the application was submitted, the grant body decided to change its criteria for grant approval. We had, of course, written our proposal to the existing criteria but felt confident that we’d still meet whatever came forward. We waited to be invited to present to the committee. We offered to come to a meeting and discuss the proposal. We waited some more. We reconnected and offered to come to share the slide presentation and answer questions. We waited some more. And some more. And some more.
The dream shattered
Five months later, I received a phone call to advise me that, at that evening’s Presbytery meeting, West Hill’s grant would be denied funding because it didn’t meet the new criteria (a perspective with which we disagree) and because the project, as far as they were concerned, was really only a plan to set up a secular organization. Clearly, the committee had either not understood the proposal or not read it at all. Without seeking clarification, they had dismissed it in the easiest way they had at hand. I was stunned.
I went to the meeting saddened and ready to defend my congregation. There was no discussion. The court was simply advised that the grant was not being addressed because it was about creating a secular organization. No one said anything. Indeed, no one but the committee knew what the proposal was even about.
The Mission Articulation Project
At the same meeting, just after the grants were discussed, a member of the court stood and shared news about the new Mission Articulation Project being undertaken. Its purpose was to encourage congregations to dream a vision for themselves and then to develop strategic plans to achieve that vision. Presbytery was providing leadership, mentors to help congregations who weren’t quite able to do that work for themselves. The presenter spoke with passion and excitement.
It was a challenge to listen to him, I’ll tell you. What he was saying was so troubling. My colleague was encouraging congregations to do exactly what West Hill had spent eight months doing – dreaming outside the box and creating a road map to achieve those dreams. Sure, we didn’t say that we heard God calling us in that direction and we didn’t preface it with scripture verses that would embed it in the old narrative. But it was definitely a vision accompanied by a strategic plan to achieve it. We’d done it and we’d been shut down. Perhaps we were just a year early.
The letter I never sent
So I wrote this letter to the presenter. I never sent it. I’m sharing it now, three Easter seasons since, as a way of sharing who West Hill is and why the story of Holy Week is so important to us.
No, we don’t replay a crucifixion that paid the ultimate cost for our sin and no, we don’t celebrate a bodily resurrection. We untangle the very human story that time has witnessed over and over again: the recognition of exclusion, injustice, brutality, and wrong; the rise of resistance, truth-telling, visionaries and their bands of dreamers; and the forward surge of courageous dreams, carried by the lot of them into a treacherous and fractious world. We acknowledge the very real death of those dreams in a world unwilling to see, allow, or encourage them because that would mean that power recognized its flaws and power rarely does so. Then, on Easter morning, with dreams strewn around us, beaten and broken and without life, we enter. And we find within us the power to lift those dreams up, broken as they have been and dropped over time by hundreds of hands and hearts and lives, and we take them into ourselves, breathing our own life into them. We resurrect them, if you will. Our soloist, this year, sing Amanda Marshall’s, I Believe in You. It seems that we’re all “dreamers looking for a dream”
West Hill has had a challenging couple of years. We don’t know what our future will be. We can’t imagine what it might look like. But no matter what happens to our dreams, we will continue to witness, resist, experience brokenness, and dream. It’s what we do. Even if we are just a band of rebels too stupid to know when to stop.
I want to share with you the work that West Hill has done in reviewing the realities it and the neighbourhood in which it is situated face and in considering the impact on community that the loss of mainline liberal congregations has on well-being and civic discourse. I want to share, too, the work they have done exploring the positive ideals and values that have grown out of our great tradition, and how they have framed a vision of how church might get out of the Sunday morning rut in which it is spinning its wheels or slowly dying. It is a vision of how church can still touch and transform individuals lives and offer them the positive, inspirational benefits that might otherwise be permanently lost if we do not find a way to create accessible, transformational community. It is, to me, one of the most inspiring things I have seen come out of the church in a very long time and I am immensely proud of the people who stretched themselves outside of the box, imagined new ways to be church, and then built a reasonable and achievable framework for making it happen. Futhermore, it is the vision of a structure and program that could be replicated in any community, allowing it to be reflective of the social and theological diversity the United Church serves.
I was inspired to send you this during the last couple of slides of your presentation last night when you showed great enthusiasm and encouragement to congregations that had already done the work of considering their mission and constructing a strategic vision. You suggested that, if a congregation had made it as far as a strategic vision, it might even offer leadership to the presbytery.
What you will read is what the Ad Hoc committee of the Executive and the Executive itself agreed was the development of a secular organization that could not be supported by church. The Chair of West Hill’s Board, and I were advised of their decision yesterday afternoon. It was a disturbing response to a congregation that, under their own steam and with no coaching or encouragement, had undertaken the very journey you promoted last evening, the journey every congregation is encouraged to undertake through the Mission Articulation Program.
For Easter, we do a two part service called Dream Away at West Hill. The first part, on Palm Sunday, builds on the energy of triumph experienced when dreams are set in place and we step into our moment; it’s the ride into Jerusalem and the party atmosphere that ensues. But it ends with the destruction of the dream and the reality that we all live those moments – big, small, life-shattering, bone-chilling moments of loss. The following week, on Easter morning, we start from that same place and work to pick up the pieces knowing full well that you cannot breathe life into an old dream or give strength to those who, dreaming it for so long, have lost their passion and are no longer able to carry it forward. Each dream must be taken in, owned, resurrected inside a new dreamer. And we remind ourselves that, in community, the fragments of broken dreams, millions of them, glitter and beckon. And we work to find hope and rebuild.
I urge you not to take congregations through the MAP process as it currently stands unless the presbytery makes a commitment to support and struggle with the congregations that do the dreaming and commits to risk journeying with them, whatever they understand church to be. If presbytery is only willing to support ministry as they currently understand it, then the MAP process, if it is truly engaged by a visionary group of people, will end as our first Dream Away service ends, with dreams broken and a hollow sense of loss, or, if not quite so dramatic, a slow leakage of hope. Perhaps that is what is already happening in the church, that almost imperceptible deflation of what the UCC might have been.
It may be part of our heritage, but Good Friday is not supposed to be the last word. It won’t be for West Hill; we will regroup and consider our options and the strong and courageous people I have the privilege to work with will continue to care for and support one another and that will be enough despite their dream that so many others currently ignored by church, too, need that same kind of care. Still, right now, it feels a lot like Good Friday and the stunned disbelief of a band of rebels too stupid to know when to stop.