When You Think Your Work Isn’t Making a Difference
We are telling our stories.
We sit in a circle, two ceiling fans overhead, one humming silently in spirals, and the other standing still. We can’t figure out how to make the paddles of the one ceiling fan stir up air in this small, blue room with its overstuffed couches and wing chairs. So, I kick off my shoes and fold my legs beneath me, and cool myself with the fan my husband bought for me in Pennsylvania.
For the past two years, our church congregation has been exploring issues of race, ethnicity, culture, and language, as they relate to our downtown congregation. Over the past eight years, for many different reasons, the demographics of the people who show up each week have changed.
We’ve gone from being mostly white, to a congregation of people with different skin colors, born on different continents, speaking different languages, and with different worship preferences. Sometimes, mostly tongue-in-cheek, I secretly call us the church for people who aren’t in any other church’s target audience.
I am passionate about this work of tearing down the church walls we’ve built to keep one another at a distance. Race, ethnicity, gender, age, socioeconomic status, educational pursuits, politics, language, and on and on. I write about it, talk about it, think about it, dream about it.
It’s my thing.
Somewhere along the way, I took to heart the passage of scripture that tells me the world will know we are Christians by our love for each other. Call me crazy.
And so, I sit in circles like these and listen to people in our church tell their stories to one another. We share what our parents taught us about people who are different from us. We tell stories of discrimination, either as the one being discriminated against or of the realization that we’ve been the discriminator. We hold our stories up against that ancient mystery of Jesus Christ leaving heaven to become like us, to move close and huddle right here with us in our unkempt, unredeemed, unlovely humanity — and all this, before we even realized we had a problem.
We compare our stories to that one, beautifully emptied life and we’re compelled — like Paul, perhaps — to continue on the journey.
On this Saturday, I have a confession to share. It’s the kind of confession a person holds close to herself because to speak it is to give it life.
“Here’s the thing I have finally realized,” I say to the group with the one fan spinning circles overhead. “Really, two things,” I clarify. “First, I didn’t realize just how layered this would be.”
“Yep,” I hear someone in the room agree.
“Labored?” someone else asks. And yes, it’s labored. But...
“No. She said ‘layered,’” another person interjects.
“Layered,” I confirm. “I also didn’t realize how much time this is going to take.”
Truth is, I’ve realized I may not live to see the dream come true. I know I’m no Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but sometimes I feel a deep connection to his words about not reaching the promised land together. Some days I realize the honest truth is I may never see the church in America live beyond the boundaries she imposes on herself.
I might spend all my years turning soil, or watering seeds, and never see the harvest for myself. If I let it, that one recognition is enough to make me call it quits, just like that ceiling fan hanging silent and still.
But then, I’m probably just like you.
I’m probably just like the father who keeps praying for his child, even though that child keeps making choices that lead further and further away from the truth. Or, I may be just like the scientist, working long hours in a lab, convinced a cure for cancer lies just within reach. Or perhaps I’m like the pastor of a tiny, country church with a few people who show up each week, and that pastor wonders if she’s making a difference, but she keeps on preaching anyway, Sunday after Sunday.
Ask any farmer out there, and he will probably tell you turning the soil, planting the seeds, and adding water are critical elements that lead to the harvest. Without the continual turning and planting and watering, the harvest isn’t going to be anything to write home about.
Sometimes, we think we’re coming up empty when really, the harvest is a long way off. We might not even live to see it. But what a gift we bring when we keep stirring up the air, right in the places we find ourselves.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Just across the street from my home, the field of corn that grew to block our view most of the summer now lays flat after harvest. The stalks have been stripped bare and fallen; the ears full of grain have been plucked and seeded. It's that time again, at least here in the Midwest. It's the season when the work pays off. On Thursday mornings in October, we are exploring the harvest. Join us as we save seeds from flower pods, fight pests in the garden, and keep working even when the harvest is a long way off. And if you have a minute to spare, drop us a note in the comments to tell us what you have been harvesting this fall.
Other posts about the harvest:
- The Hard Work of Harvest by Cheryl Smith
- Rediscover the Quiet Joy of Patience and Baseball by Laura Boggess
- When You Think Your Work Isn't Making a Difference by Deidra Riggs
- Dying Well: The Ultimate Harvest by Dena Dyer
- The High Calling of Harvesting by Charity Singleton Craig