When I began working at the inner-city organization I almost immediately noticed something interesting. I say interesting to be polite because what I actually mean to say is scary. On every city block corner there was a church or a sign indicating that some sort of church meets in that run-down home now converted to a place of meeting. It is not that I am against religious meeting places or churches. Far from it actually but the more I learned about these places the more it made my skin crawl. It would seem that the prerequisite required to set up such a place was an extroverted charismatic person, wearing nicer clothes then the rest of us, talking with religious overtones and even more importantly declaring that they were called by God to be a church leader or pastor. There was no covering for their ‘ministry’. No accountability apart from a trusted few that they had gathered about themselves, and no integrity in how they went about setting themselves up as leader over the faithful few who were seeking some safe place in which to find acceptance and intimacy in community.
The more I looked the more I was running into this so I stopped looking. I was distraught by it all as it seemed that what had been happening in this neighborhood was that the poor were traded as commodities, passed along by the religious oil salesmen from one tent to another, until the poor’s usefulness had been depleted. What exactly was the ministry that was going on? Certainly it couldn’t be the conversion of the wicked or the discipleship of the faithful although such claims were made numerous times against a weary soul looking for a place to call home. Friends, family and neighbors all passed about like trading cards, calling on their god to save, to heal, to prosper, and once milked of their usefulness, or until prosperity called the religious person away, the poor and broken soul was tossed out into the wilderness once again to find their own way.
My own organization could not even escape such a description for it had purchased its own discarded church building a few years earlier, pressing upon some wealthy donors to do so with the promise of providing them a stage upon which to perform, albeit a shared stage with the husband of the executive director taking the lead role. It would seem that although this husband and wife team had been involved in inner-city mission work for some time what the husband really wanted to do was to be a pastor. And when prosperity comes along why bother with such formal accountability structures affiliated with mainstream denominations and organizations but instead why not just make yourself the pastor? Fortunately this heretical structure was almost over when I began with the organization, the founders moving on to greener pastures and the building now becoming too expensive to maintain, forcing us to sell the building and to ‘close the church’. It of course did not stop the church from functioning, as those affiliated with its leadership only gathered the flock and moved into another building in the same neighborhood, but they at least had no further affiliation with the organization I worked for.
But, as time has gone on I have stumbled upon a larger problem rooted deep within all of the evangelical churches in this city and that problem is called nepotism. It would seem that in several instances, especially within the larger churches in this city I have now been here long enough to see the passing of the torch from the senior pastor to… well, their sons. And if it wasn’t their son it was other family members or close friends close enough to still be classified as nepotism. Such a passing of the torch has been sanctioned, even celebrated with much pomp and circumstance upon many an occasion all throughout the city in religious buildings not even affiliated with one another. In other words this isn’t just one denomination that has gone off the rails it is a systemic problem that has plagued this place and it has made me sick with disgust.
The repugnant smell of this nepotised form of Christianity, mixed in with the entitlement mentality of its leaders setting themselves up above a group of wanton lowly searchers has driven me out of the church’s front doors. In this place and in this time I have to secretly confess my faith to people out of fear I may be grouped in with this larger system, feeding off of the discarded lives of those giving tithes each Sunday. I love God but it has gotten difficult to stand up and say so when surrounded by gluttonous individuals feeding themselves off of the meal meant for all – like the Corinthian church. I am repulsed by the candid nature of their blatant abuse of power, numb to the devastating effects it has on the peripheral.
I have left the church. My heart grieving for those longing for a sense of community and intimate connection within its four walls. Occasionally I take a peek inside, myself still yearning for shared experience, shared communion, shared worship, but because I am no longer interested in meeting behavioral expectations, nor subjecting myself to the self-appointed leadership, the door resounds with a thud behind me each Sunday morning. I have discovered who I am now. I have found language for those unlanguaged emotional experiences from my past. I can look at an abuser of power and say no you have no authority over me. I have grown so much in my faith, in my understanding of God, of Jesus Christ and the good news of the gospel but I have no one to share my joy with in this place. I stand alone. With self-indulged bellies and gloating outstretched arms the self-serving nepotised leadership points its condemning finger at me and proclaims, “Away with you rebellious one”, echoing the words of the cult leader from years ago. Not much has changed I suppose. Years ago I was fleeing a cult, now I flee the church.