One of my husband’s best friends, John, recently got back from a nine-month stint in Sierra Leone. He and his wife, Sam, moved to a town outside of Freetown last December to teach at an academy for young boys who are athletically gifted. This past week, my husband and I were able to share a meal with them and hear a few of their stories; from soccer riots to mango flies (do yourself a favor and don’t google that until you are back from Africa if you are planning on going any time soon…) they had some fascinating tales from their time abroad.
Sam teaching science in her classroom in Sierra Leone
The academy where they lived and taught was a pretty isolated community, so they only had the chance to go to a church in town about once a month. Each month, they would battle traffic into Freetown and attend a service at a church with an international congregation, full of ex-pats, Englishmen, travelers and Sierra-Leoneans. As Sam recounted the stories of the church experiences they valued so much, she mentioned that the one thing that consistently struck her was how global the church was. This church experience shifted her mindset about what our community as Christians really looks like;
“I realized that fist and foremost, I am a citizen of the church, and very secondarily I am a citizen of my country”
Sam’s insight on citizenship stuck with me, and I have been thinking about the concept all week. What does it look like to be a citizen of the church above all else? I think it is dangerously easy, particularly in American culture, to get stuck in a homogenous rut in our vision of the church body. I constantly find myself in the shoes of the Pharisees, asking the Lord “But who is my neighbor?”
When I make an intentional effort to slow down and think about the church body in a holistic way that is inclusive and timeless, I think I can remember the answer to that question and begin to imagine what the Kingdom of God really looks like. One of the best instructions on how to live as a citizen of the church comes from Hebrews 15;
“Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering… For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.”
Embracing strangers, suffering (and rejoicing!) with the larger community of Christ; that is what being a citizen of the church looks like. It looks like a counselor, sitting with HIV+ men and women, when their physical neighbors have neglected them. Being a citizen of the church means that Kenyans living with HIV are my neighbors, and I must care for them as I would care for my own family. I am so thankful for CARE for AIDS, and for the community of supporters, counselors and clients who constantly show me how to be a citizen of the Church.