Belonging, Recovery, and Community

Matthew H. Russell

Jerry first came to Mercy Street, a recovery church in Houston, and like most regulars, he settled into his weekly spot in the fellowship hall. He listened intently, didn’t sing many of the worship songs, but participated in the “Recovery and Spirituality” group that followed worship. Jerry was on the van ministry that picked up folks from various halfway houses in the city. He was a congregant that any pastor would love to have – consistent, eager to serve, and generous, and he brought a slew of friends with him each week.

Jerry was also Jewish. He was a member of a local temple and embraced his religion and heritage with affection.

Over the years this type of ecclesial fusion became quite common at Mercy Street. There were Catholics who still went to mass on Sunday but never missed a Saturday night. There were folks who were raised Southern Baptist, Eastern Orthodox, Presbyterian, and Pentecostal, who quit going to church when they got hurt or when their using got too bad. There were folks who would say they were “spiritual, not religious.” Yet on Saturday night they would show up to work out their faith and recovery in the context of our community.

I’m not exactly sure how this happened, but early in our formation Mercy Street became known as a safe place for the countless “spiritual refugees” in Houston’s recovery community. What most of these people needed was a church that would fully embrace their past and would support them in their spiritual journey. They needed a community that would ask as many questions as it was prepared to answer. They longed for a place of worship that had room for doubt, not as contrary to faith, but as a legitimate pathway of faith.

I found the candor and authenticity of those showing up to be as refreshing as it was startling. These folks were not liturgically housebroken or religiously savvy. On the contrary, many were messy, loud, and opinionated. But they came with spiritual hunger and curiosity, and were prepared to wrestle with the “Jesus question” and the claims of the gospel. I rapidly began to see that the church needed them — their dogged honesty, recovery, and curiosity — as much as they needed the church.

One night after the service Jerry approached me with a broad smile and said, “Matt, I’d like to join Mercy Street.” In the minutes that followed, I explained to him the best I could a theology of the church – that the church was an embodied extension of Jesus’s ongoing ministry of reconciliation to the world, that those who joined the church were joining themselves to this person who was God and who proclaimed to be the messiah and savior not only of the Jews but of the entire world, and that membership in the church was a move toward solidarity with Jesus in the world.

Jerry was not thwarted, “Matt, I’ve got a lot of questions about Jesus, but I’m open and committed to work those out at in this community. All I know is that since I’ve been coming, there are pieces of my recovery and spirit that are fitting together in ways that I can’t explain.”

When I met Jerry, his outgoing and gregarious personality made it easy for us to become friends. He was warm, inviting, and full of faith questions. Early on he told me the story of how alcohol had ruined two marriages, a few jobs, and countless friendships, and had left him with a lifetime of bad memories. And then he told me how, through the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, he had been able to reclaim much of what had been lost. What I began to understand through the help of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was that the person of Jesus stood in the incognito within the process of Jerry’s recovery. The Spirit of the risen Christ, who is the basis by which all humanity is transformed, stood shrouded yet connected to Jerry as he made his way from the bottom of his addiction. Alcoholics Anonymous had provided a safe place for him to confess things that were long hidden in his life. Meetings had given him courage to face his character defects, to speak honestly about his life, to take responsibility for his actions, and to begin the process of making amends. All the while, the redemptive presence of Jesus was present to Jerry through the experiences of forgiveness, honesty, and freedom.

What Jerry needed now was a place to ask his questions about the nature and character of Jesus, not as an outsider but as a participant, not as an undocumented seeker but as one willing to uphold the commitments of the church while he asked his questions and worked out his faith and recovery. His desire for membership was a response to take hold of what had already taken hold of him.

At the bottom of Jerry’s struggle was the issue of belonging. Could he belong to the community of Jesus, working out his faith and recovery inside the church?

Jerry’s questioning, his relentless pursuit of God, his commitment to contending with Jesus the Messiah, and his utter audacity to think he could do this at such a proximal space to Jesus within the life of our community – well, it confused me. I was raised in the shadow of the Four Spiritual Laws. I learned the graduated phases that allowed a person to gain intimate access to Jesus. Jerry and the other addicts that were showing up were getting these out of order! I was not interested in “dumbing down” the gospel message. I was shaped by orthodoxy, by the historical claims of our faith. But Jerry’s request left me theologically disoriented. I knew that “confession of faith” was essential, but I also understood that, while agreement with doctrinal statements could produce conformity, it could not produce transformation.

I knew this because it was my story. I had believed in Jesus for years. I gave my life to Christ during (at least) two summer camps and a few revivals in our church! I could recite the Apostles’ Creed in my sleep. I had memorized the book of James, the Sermon on the Mount, and countless Psalms by the eighth grade. I was a model Christian but with a burgeoning secret addiction that would control my life for years. All the belief that I could muster was not strong enough to defeat the shadows in my life.

The philosopher Michael Polanyi says that “our believing is conditioned at its source by our belonging” (Personal Knowledge:Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy [Routledge, 1962], 339). He suggests that what we come to know and believe is embedded within the experiences of our relationships. It is within the context and process of our relationships that we come to believe and know. Belonging precedes and constitutes the conditions for believing. An example of this is the word grace. Grace is a longing until it is animated by encounter. In my own life, it was through an improbable meeting and relationship with a recovering addict who walked me through the steps and into sobriety that grace took on meaning. Grace, in these relationships, moved beyond rationality and became autobiography. And the movement from knowing about grace to encountering and being undone by embodied grace is everything.

It was Jesus’s invitation in the Gospels to “Come and see” and then, later, his question, “Who do you say that I am?” that began to open up a theological horizon for me. The Gospels suggest that the disciples did not have a clear picture of who Jesus was or the exact nature of what they were being called into. Each of them entered into this relationship with their own agendas and ambiguity. Yet it was the years they spent with Jesus, day-in and day-out, that revealed who he was. The scandalous truth that God had put on flesh and become human was revealed within an intimate encounter of belonging.

Jesus did not start by asking, “Who do you say that I am?” He began with an open invitation: “Come and see.” What they saw was the sick healed, the hungry fed, the wind and waves calmed, the lost found, sins forgiven, and the dead raised. It was through the “coming and seeing” that they came to believe. Their belonging to Jesus did not start with affirmations concerning the virgin birth, the Trinity, or the incarnation. Through the very process of encountering, contending with, befriending, questioning, and knowing Jesus, they came to believe that he was indeed Savior and Lord.

The issue for many people is that when they come to the church and attempt to touch Jesus in a way that moves beyond seeking they are promptly asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Yet, how can they utter, “my Lord and my God,” like Thomas, without the same access to Jesus?

Many recovering addicts have told me that their experience with returning to church was like trying to get into an exclusive hip-hop club – partitioned by a red rope and a bouncer. If these addicts wanted behind the rope, if they wanted to belong, they had to affirm words they had not yet experienced. In this form, the healing life of Jesus is sequestered behind the words. And the words – the correct theological assent, the undistorted meaning in correct combination – unlock not only the presence of Jesus but also the acceptance of the community.

As I befriended recovering men and women, it was evident that many had experienced, as Step 12 says, a “spiritual awakening as a result of these steps.” The same Spirit who had awakened them was now leading them to the person of Jesus within the life of the church. They were coming to church in response to the activity of the Holy Spirit, who invited them to “come and see” the God of their own understanding whose face is Jesus. They had encountered the incognito of Christ in the program of Alcoholics Anonymous.

As a result of these discussions, we began to discover that the ritual and covenant of membership into our community was a powerful conduit by which the name of Jesus and the presence of Jesus came together. As a result of this process, we began to open up the aperture of membership. This process allowed people like Jerry, who still labored with questions of Jesus’s divinity and the cost of discipleship, to do so as part of the very relationships that constitute the body of Christ.

If Dietrich Bonhoeffer is correct and “Christ exists as community,” then the process of belonging to the community is indissolvably bound to the process of coming to believe that Jesus is Lord. At Mercy Street, this movement became critically linked to the essential question of Christianity: “Who are you, Jesus?” As members given to each other, these men and women work this question out together from the posture of intimacy, and belonging.

What I discovered as the pastor of a church of recovering addicts is that Christ was pursuing these folks long before they reached the bottom of a bottle, and the track marks on their arms healed. Christ pursued these addicts long before they knew his name or acknowledged his presence. The same Jesus who “descended into hell” (1 Pet 3:19), also descended into the depth and darkness of their addiction and was bound to them in redemption. As they entered recovery, it was the presence of Christ who stood behind the words “God of your own understanding,” beckoning them to take the next step. What these addicts were desperate for was a community that would meet them at the same depth and humanity that the Program had. What they needed was a community in which to belong, in order for the “God of their own understanding” to emerge as the same Christ who exists as community. For the church to stand in solidarity with the world that God loves and gave himself to, it must be willing to commit itself to those who walk through its doors as treasured companions, teachers, friends, and guides. It must be willing to descend to the same depths that Jesus has. To elicit fixed and final affirmations of faith as the only door by which people can belong creates an exclusive space that Christ himself did not and will not inhabit.

Posted Feb 01, 2017