March 26, 2001

"Here is the church, here is the steeple;
Open the doors and see all the people!"

While walking to my neighborhood BART station yesterday, I passed a church. I'd walked by it before, for months actually, without its church-ness being all that obvious. It sits on its own artificial hill, squatting over its parking lot. The building itself is a marvel of non-traditional architecture, with three parallel roof segments, and a front wall entirely of glass, revealing a spider's web of steel support beams inside. It reminds me of those collapsible plastic spheres you see in toy stores these days. In a condensed state, the sphere is almost solid and is surrounded by spiky protrusions; expand it with a gentle pull or a skilled wrist-flick, and it opens, huge and spacious.

It was yesterday, though, that I noticed the fence. It's probably mostly a required safety precaution, something to keep the children running off the edge of the flat topped artificial hill, falling to the sidewalk below. The gates, however, are impressive. They are heavy looking things with doorknobs and large steel locking mechanisms. They say "keep out" without mincing words. They encourage a separation between believers and the rest of the world, something I've heard urged from Sunday morning pulpits more times than I care to count. (I've often wondered how Christians are supposed to make any difference in the world if they are not supposed to interact with the world.) These gates are serious about keeping a sinful world out of God's house.

Locked churches bother me. The locks seem to contradict everything the church claims to endorse. One night in Santa Barbara, I went walking, more out of depression than any interest in exercise. I passed a church, a beautiful stone thing with arched doorway, and thought I'd try working through my troubles in God's house. Since it would not be full of people, maybe I would ask for guidance and perhaps God might have time for me. But the door was locked; not just locked, it was heavy wood bound with iron and utterly immovable. I had never, in my whole career of feeling cosmically isolated, felt so cut off, so abandoned.

What ever happened to the notion of Church as sanctuary? What if it hadn't been just my psyche tormenting me that evening? Once upon a time you were supposed to be able to seek refuge, protection, or aid from the Church, whether from drunk soldiers intent on rape or from the tax collector threatening your freedom rather than working out a payment plan. You could go inside and throw yourself on God's mercy, and the soldiers and the tax collectors couldn't touch you.

Perhaps I watch too many movies, or perhaps I have romantic notions of history. But if Jesus, the very person the Church claims to honor, said "Come unto me, all you that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28), then it would seem that fences and doors have no place in a church. How can anyone come if the doors are locked?

Of course, most churches lock their doors to keep out the vandals and the homeless. No believer in any faith likes to find spray-paint and splinters marring his place of worship. Nor is America's Puritan heritage very lenient when it comes to giving "handouts" to people who don't work and who want assistance. ("He who doesn't work, doesn't eat." -- Captain John Smith) So, the doors are locked. There isn't the budget to keep someone on hand at all hours to chase away "the bad people," to give a meal and a warm bed to someone who needs help (conveniently forgetting the parable of the good Samaritan), to talk with someone angry and disillusioned, to comfort a person feeling small and forgotten. It's never been a Sunday morning when I needed a little touch of heaven.

What a sorry state to come to: judging and turning away the very people Jesus, "anointed... to bring good news to the poor" (Luke 4:18), loved. By closing the doors and minimizing the staff, churches may be ensuring that their sanctuary is always pristine or that there is the money for that really fabulous youth retreat to Tahoe at the height of ski season. They're also ensuring that the only people whose lives they will ever touch are the ones whom they've already saved.

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