“The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”—Martin Luther King
Once upon a time, the first Christians, convinced that their slain leader, Jesus, was still alive and very much present in their midst, formed a community based on a simple concept—there was total equality among people, no distinctions between men and women, no racial divide, no rich and no poor. “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.” (Acts of the Apostles 4:32-35)
Too bad the Christian Church didn’t just quit at Acts 4. They had it right: the Beloved Community, bound together by their love for each other and a common faith. But the ensuing two millennia happened. And while the Church has usually been an impediment to the existence of the Beloved Community, every once in a while, it pops out in delicate bloom. I’ve lived in it a number of times: in a young adult group in the late 1980’s, in a college group I ministered to at the turn of the century, and, for the past four years, in a very traditional Episcopal parish in Upstate South Carolina. And every time I’ve thought that this was just what Luke must have been describing back in Acts, I’ve had to say good bye.
I arrived in Greenwood in 2002, wondering what I could possibly be doing in this out-of-the-way place. Then I met Peter Hawes, Rector of the Church of the Resurrection, an ex-conservative intellectual, who slugged back bourbon with a grin, who regaled me with tales of his God-haunted family, and who became a friend like few I’ve ever had. He had come to Greenwood a year before, after fifteen years as pastor of a mega-church in a wealthy Memphis suburb. We were an unlikely pair—the lifelong churchman, the ex-cultist, the priest and the deacon. But it was a match made in heaven.
And then there was Resurrection itself. A century old, low church congregation, that had a few long-time families dominating its membership and a smattering of Greenwood’s tiny Left Bank. But suddenly, as if it was Acts 4 all over again, the growth started. We took a big hit when about fifty people left after the 2003 General Convention and started a not-quite-Anglican parish, but the new people kept coming. They were mostly younger families, refugees from the stifling conformity of Southern evangelicalism, and they filled the place up with babies and toddlers and the excitement of a community one in heart and mind. And it seemed that much grace was upon us all.
I had to say good-bye to them today, as a new ministry beckons in Columbia. Of course, you never say good-bye in the Beloved Community. You say, “See you later,” on that the shore of the future, near or far. But you always say it with a catch in your throat, as if you really aren’t sure it’s true. As if hope itself is enough to create a future where the Beloved Community exists everywhere.
Martin Luther King, in his vision of the Beloved Community, spoke about the love which brings about miracles in our hearts. I saw those miracles each week at the Church of the Resurrection, where the people, rich and poor, liberal and conservative, straight and gay, old and young, broke bread together and laughed in joy. The miracles will go on there, only next week, they’ll go on without me.