(Photo Credit: Bronx Councilman Fernando Cabrera’s office)
“Blessed are you when people…exclude you…on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven.”
–Jesus of Nazareth, Luke 6:22-23
Until recently, the Village Church rented for its Sunday service the J.M. Charrette School on 490 Hudson St, otherwise known as PS3. The auditorium was spacious and boasted easy access from the street, while allowing Sunday school for the children next door in the gym. The school lacks air conditioning and occasionally used the space for other functions on the weekends—we certainly were not top priority—sometimes causing annoying relocations, but it was a place to connect in the community. Through the good relationship with the school came opportunities to serve the people and, especially, the parents of the Village.
The recent court ruling denying churches access to NYC Public School space rental, in spite of the stay and pending state level counter-legislation, inspired reflection at our church as we considered what makes our worship worship.
On account of the unique Christian tradition of Sunday worship, when school buildings are unused, and the vibrancy of the Christian churches that rent space in New York City, the court judgment to exclude religious services specifically targets Christians worship. Despite lip service about preventing all faiths from renting similarly, others tend not to, so the effect is to stifle Christians’ public influence and effect on communities in which they reside. As such, it seems a genuine instance of discrimination, described by Jesus in Luke 6:22-23 (above). We truly are being excluded from public space because we are worshipping the Son of Man.
What then should be our response? Situations such as these demand the Church to step carefully. There is a spiritual gap between the train and the platform. If this event qualifies as genuine persecution, albeit low-level persecution, it is a weighty event. How often does the Church in this country get an opportunity to bear some hardship for Christ? The last time we read the New Testament, we saw only one appropriate response to persecution of ourselves: to rejoice. On this point, the apostles do not equivocate. Their instruction is fairly forceful (Matthew 5:10-12, Matthew 10:39, Acts 16:22-25, Philippians 1:29, Hebrews 11:26, James 1:2, 1Peter 4:12-14).
The danger for the Church is to respond instead with indignation, demanding our rights, making ourselves indistinguishable from any other special interest group in America. But we do not find Jesus’ above words to be ambiguous. Do you? He is rather crystalline. We are to rejoice. Nay, not just rejoice but to leap for joy. In other words, this rejoicing is not to be a weak-kneed, half-hearted ‘hurrah.’ Nor is it to be a well-I-know-I’m-supposed-to-do-this-so-I’m-going-to-get-it-over-with effort. It is to be a full-throated, deep from the diaphragm praise. It is to dance while uttering interjections with abandon. The city should know our happiness. That is “leaping.”
How could we do this? Why would we do this? Jesus said to do it because of a greater reward that is ours for the gift of bearing discrimination. In such a situation we are at last dealing with the real currency of His Kingdom. The veil is being pulled back to reveal the Son of Man. The fact is that it is an honor to bear inconvenience for the sake of our Lord. He is worth it.
The Church’s response on this point is indicative of her health. Can she take Jesus’ direction? Can she trust God to take care of His churches? Unfortunately, one cannot rejoice at persecution while fighting for one’s rights in persecution. The two cannot go together, even if one mixes one’s protest with prayer. The Village Church recommends Jesus’ words instead. We have moved our Sunday service to Greenwich House, another venerable Village institution on Barrow Street. We are leaping there for joy.
The real loss in this situation, of course, is born by the schools and the children in them The Counsel to the NYC Board of Education, in pursuing their theoretical ideal of a secular society, is actually working against the youth of this city. Their lawyers seem unexplainably pleased to tear apart relationships, between churches and schools, which work for the children’s good. The children lose once again. This is the one grief in our joy.
Alas, we have taken our leave of PS3. We were sure to leave their piano tuned, their fire wardens better off and, especially, their children blessed. But to all the sword fights, Narnia romps and chess games, we bid adieu.
Listen to sermons about how the church should respond to cultural challenges: