Monday, February 11, 2008

Crashing Charlie's Party: Thoughts About Interlopers, Tolerance & Evolution

Revival 2006 at Asbury College, Wilmore, KY.

"The mission of Asbury College, as a Christian Liberal Arts College in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition, is to equip men and women, through a commitment to academic excellence and spiritual vitality, for a lifetime of learning, leadership and service to the professions, society, the family and the Church, thereby preparing them to engage their cultures and advance the cause of Christ around the world. "

Asbury College is just down the road a piece. It took me a few years, after moving here from California, to figure out why all of the Methodist Churches here are so conservative. In CA, I'd worked closely with progressive clergy and laity from United Methodist churches. I even attended Wesley Seminary in D.C for a year with other UUs, including our beloved late Marjorie Bowens Wheatley. Yes, they were theologically conservative, but there were women clergy, gay and lesbian members, and what appeared to me to be great diversity and vigorous life in the churches. Not so here in Central Kentucky. Both Asbury College and Asbury Seminary are among the most conservative for their denomination.

You can imagine our discomfort when we were first visited by students from the college~ students carrying Bibles and sitting together, and upon discovering they'd been sent by a professor to observe our services. Still, they were given the same warm welcome as anyone, at least at first. I still have not determined whether the incidents that occured were encouraged by the teacher, or initiated by the students. I am guessing the latter.

But, on several occasions now, I have had to ask students to leave when, after services, they have cornered members & (more likely) other visitors, and attacked our church in a hostile, aggressive, and most evangelical manner.

Some UUs probably think it's fine for them to come and question.. after all, aren't we tolerant and open? Don't we encourage debate and don't we have "freedom of the pew?"

Here's what I think: it's fine for them to come. If we happen to offer open discussion that weekend, they'd be welcome there, too. But to enter into the sacred space of a worshipping congregation with the express intent to accost people about their views is an invasion, an unacceptable transgression of boundaries. So.. even when no one else wants to confront them, I do. I simply tell them that this is our time of worship, and whether they approve or not, we also don't agree with their beliefs, but we would never invade or disrupt their time of worship. Then I ask them to move on. Usually, they are rude, call me a hypocrite, and the like.

I will never forget the time we engaged in a meditation where people were asked to make eye contact and those students tried to avoid participating. One young father from our congregation turned to them and with more Christ-like love and compassion than I have witnessed in a long time, included them in his care. It was a transcendent moment.

Since then, two former Asbury students have joined our UU Church, and have helped me understand, and, on one occasion, have taken on the interlopers.

What bothers me most is when they insist upon talking with visitors, who have no doubt gone through a long process of deciding to come. Anecdotal evidence tells me that here in Central Kentucky, people are confronted with such negative propaganda about UUs that just taking the risk to visit is a huge decision. And, then, to be cornered, and aggressively proselytized? Not on my watch.

Yes, I have contacted the school and the teacher, and the evagelism seems to have abated, but they still visit. I have requested that the students identify themselves, and yesterday they did. I don't know whether it was intentional, but they picked "Evolution Sunday" this semester. Interestingly, they left before the homily piece, a (hilarious, if I do say so myself) readers' theater/skit called "Charles Darwin meets the UU Barbies and the Code Pink Team."

Maybe they or others from the college (by the way, the Seminary, though also conservative, does not engage in this behavior, and actually has some outstanding, almost progressive, faculty) will be on hand tomorrow night, when the Kentucky Association of Science Educators and Sceptics present a talk de-bunking the wildly successful and very scary "Creation Museum" recently built in Northern Kentucky.

Then the gloves will be off, and KASES can take on the faithful. Funny how little humans have evolved when it comes to civility.