Community Life After a Year of Pandemic

As I’ve been talking with some of you this past week, I’m thinking about how differently we have experienced this past year’s pandemic and how differently we’re experiencing this spring’s reopening. Of the hundreds in the Reservoir Church community, some of us suffered significant losses this past year. Others of us were not impacted much at all. And now, as summer approaches, some of us are back out and about living our more or less ordinary lives, while others of us still live under significant precautions and limitations – chosen by ourselves or required by others. 

All of us, though, have watched daily tallies of sickness and death from our news media for over 14 months. For those same 14+ months, we have not met together for worship in our sanctuary. Most of our kids and most of us who work have had our routines dramatically upended. Many of us have lived with heightened levels of fear. 

And now, we are being given permission, freedom, invitation to get vaccinated – if we haven’t yet – and to live in person, out and about, robustly connected lives again. Obviously, this is great news. I’m so very happy and thankful about all this! 

But it’s complicated too. For years, trust in government and media and most public institutions has been declining. All aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic have also been heavily politicized. Some of us wonder if we can trust the guidance we’re being given. Many of us have a lot of international connections, and we are aware of how badly COVID is still raging in other places. We wonder what to make of that. Most of our kids, and all our kids under 12, have not been vaccinated, and we wonder what that means for them. Others of us have various reasons beyond what I’m mentioning that we are still very cautious and concerned. 

What does this mean for a diverse church community of several hundreds as we prepare for return to in-person community life?

There are at least two things that it means. 

  1. We will continue to have online options for community groups, Sunday worship and teaching, as well as kids and youth programming for the foreseeable future for people who aren’t ready for in-person community, live further away, or have fallen in love with pajama life. 
  2. We have an opportunity to practice good news community, love for one another. Many of the last parts of the Bible are letters to small, first century churches and church networks. Like us, these communities were diverse by every measure of their times, and like us, these communities were living through complex and hard times. Amidst their troubles and differences, their founders and pastors told them things like this:

Galatians 6:2 “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

This is referring to Jesus’ command to his followers that they love one another as Christ has loved us, seeking one another’s good, and sometimes even laying down our lives for our friends. 

And this:

Romans 14: 13, 15:7 “Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.”

And “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you.”

This whole conclusion to the letter to the Romans is a call to non-judgemental acceptance and hospitality. When it comes to the Jesus way to do faith community, it’s more important to do things that remove barriers to people’s welcome and safe participation than to have things go our own way. 

Our reentry, and our different feelings about mask wearing and many other things, give us the opportunity to choose not to insist our own own way but to welcome ways of being in community this summer that support and welcome one another, and that particularly extend love and grace and care to those of us who are most cautious, concerned, or vulnerable.

We’ll get into the details of what our summer in-person services will look like at the members meeting on June 13th, 11:00 a.m. – immediately following that Sunday’s online service. But please prepare yourself for a moment by thanking God for accepting you – all of you, just as you are – in Christ. And commit yourself to extending hospitality and understanding to those of you who are going about life differently than you this summer, and specifically for a season in our church community where we joyfully welcome our different temperaments and levels of precaution without judgment but with love and grace. 



No Place for Sexual Violence – Speak Out Sunday

On February 4, as part of our current series on sin and redemption, we will be holding a special service we’re calling “Speak Out Sunday.” This will be an opportunity for our church to speak about the very important topic of sexual violence – its prevalence in our society and in our scriptures, and our desire to heal from our own past experiences of it and have no place for it in our future.

That Sunday, I will preach on why there is no place for sexual violence in the love of God and the family of God. Before my talk, we will hear a personal story about suffering sexual violence from a trained speaker. We will respond in worship and with communion together, and our prayer ministry team will be available to pray for you. Additionally, we will share resources that Sunday for people with past or current experiences with sexual violence or domestic violence. After the service, the trained speaker will also be available for a time of Questions and Answers.

We will follow up with a free training for the afternoon of Sunday, February 18th, on how to helpfully respond to someone’s disclosure of an experience with sexual violence.

This event has been months in coming for us and is undertaken with the partnership and support of a number of other clergy and social services resources. Given my own experience of sexual abuse as a child, and given the rising waves of disclosures regarding sexual violence in this #metoo and #timesup season in our culture, I have had a desire for us to address sexual violence together for months. My wife Grace and I have also been speaking with friends and mentors Ray Hammond and Gloria White-Hammond, senior pastors of Bethel AME Church in Boston, who are planning their own version of this experience on another Sunday this month. Our own plans are influenced by the powerful work of We Will Speak Out.

In preparation, Ivy and I have spoken with staff at Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC), who will partner with us in the event, providing a speaker from their trained speakers’ bureau, holding an optional 20-minute Q and A after each service, and leading the training for us that I mentioned. We also have spoken with other mental health clinicians, researchers, and experienced clergy on how our community can address sexual violence clearly and safely, working to prevent future trauma and navigate people’s past trauma with gentleness and care. All of these professionals have shaped and encouraged us in our plans and are so thankful our church is addressing this topic.

We will not be holding group conversations on Sunday on this topic and are not urging you to share whatever story you may have regarding sexual violence or domestic violence with anyone you are not absolutely comfortable and safe speaking with. In fact, if you have your own experience of sexual or domestic violence, our hope is that you will not need to experience any more disclosure than would be most helpful for you. We hope you will be empowered to seek whatever disclosure and help you need from God and appropriate professionals and trusted friends. We will give related guidance to our community group leaders in this regard.

We are compelled by the Spirit of our good God and by the times we live in, though, to speak out on this topic. We hope that you will join us on February 4th, at either our 9:30 or 11:30 AM service, and pray that God works through this service to increase safety and health and healing in our community and in our region. In addition to the resources we will share on Sunday, our pastoral staff remains available to speak with you, should that be helpful for you.

I pray that you will know Jesus close to you, born into our world to be our wonderful counselor, our prince of peace, and God with us all, and specifically with you, today.

Peace, Steve.

How Cognitive Generosity Makes You a Better Neighbor and Citizen

This is part three in an occasional series on being part of diverse communities. These blogs are meant to explore in brief some of the why of diverse community involvement – why such a thing is great for us, great for the broader worlds we live in, and even central to the story of what Jesus is doing on earth, as I understand it. It’s also meant to speak to some how’s – how we can be more effective in our participation and building of diverse communities, how this can go better and more enjoyably for us and others.

We’re starting by reviewing some of the key insights from the powerful book by Christena Cleveland, Disunity in Christ. Cleveland is a social psychologist and public theologian who thinks and writes and speaks about the things that keep people apart, and the work of justice, empathy, and reconciliation that can bring people together. I’ve found her book really helpful and hope these entries will entice you to read it yourself! She says far more far better than I ever will on this topic.

While she’s discussing how humans erect divisions between groups, Cleveland introduces one of the antidotes to these divisions, which she calls cognitive generosity. Cognitive generosity involves developing a more positive perception of other people and groups. We tend to think less generously of people and groups we are not familiar with, or who we perceive to be very different from us. Cognitive generosity intentionally reverses this process, helping us consciously think better – and so likely more honestly – about these same people and groups.

Let me illustrate.

I grew up in the last years of the Cold War. My childhood and teen years were still full of movies and media portraying Russians as cold-hearted enemies of the great American way.


But then, in the opportunity of a lifetime, I had the opportunity to travel to Russia during the waning days of the Soviet Empire. Along with a couple of dozen mates from my high school chorus, I sang in St. Isaac’s Cathedral in Leningrad. I stayed with a host family in the 1000-year old city of Yaroslavl. I made my first ever black market transaction, trading American blue jeans for an old Russian army uniform. I traveled to Estonia in the month they first flew their own country’s flag. And while touring an old watch factory in Uglich, I was abandoned by my group while hobbling on a sprained ankle, only to be helped down some long stairs by a Russian factory worker.

That single act of hospitality, alongside many others on that trip, taught teenage me that Russian people were… well… people. They weren’t a class of foreigners, or spies, or enemies, but men, women, children, parents, friends… human beings. And some of them were inclined to show tremendous kindness and hospitality to this non-Russian speaking, clueless American teenager who had stumbled into their country on a choral tour.

This led to an increase in cognitive generosity in my attitude toward Russians, which in turn led me to study Russian language and literature in college and take another trip to that country. I had moved past entry-level stereotypes of a whole people group and on to the capacity to think well of Russian culture as a whole as well as individuals within that culture.

Here’s the thing. Cultivating cognitive generosity takes reflection and positive exposure. Even progressively minded White Americans, for instance, tend to harbor negative racial stereotypes toward Black Americans. However, positive interactions with and even viewing positive images of Black Americans has tended to lower these stereotypes by producing cognitive generosity. White people with little opportunity for actual relationships with Black Americans can also read books and watch films that focus on reality based, humane, or even heroic portrayals of Black Americans.

Certainly for White people in America like myself, the cultivation of cognitive generosity is an important practice. Whether it be going to a multi-ethnic church, living in a diverse neighborhood, or working on a diverse team, looking for positive interactions with people different from us gives us the opportunity to develop more respectful, reality-based assumptions about cultures we are not part of.

For all of us, we might examine if there whole classes of people we’ve begun to view with any level of disdain. If so, we can consider how to regain cognitive generosity towards others, cultivating a positive view of them unless they deserve or prove otherwise.

You can find the first entry in this series here. 

The second entry on the outgroup heterogeneity effect is here. 

One Reason You Want to Be in Diverse Communities

This past week, a number of us attended a Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) event called “Out of Many, One.” The inspiration was the United States founding motto, E Pluribus Unum, which translates as the title of this gathering. The founding fathers wrote this, envisioning a unity of the original 13 colonies, and also a united nation of people from various Western European ancestries. In the pledge introduced at this recent gathering, we had the opportunity to affirm the significance of this aspiration for all peoples of the United States. I gladly signed, as did many clergy and members of faith communities, as well as some prominent civic leaders.

This vision of one people emerging out of difference is core to the hope of the good news of Jesus as well. The first century faith entrepreneur, Paul of Tarsus, was animated by a vision of faith communities that brought previously separate and hostile cultures into a shared community of love. Paul wrote, For he (Jesus) is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (Ephesians 2:14) The two groups Paul is referring to here are Jews and Gentiles, i.e. Roman non-Jews. Paul himself was both ethnic and religious Jew as well as Roman citizen, and so this Jewish/non-Jewish divide that was significant to the first century Roman empire was for him the great separator of human cultures. Throughout his letters, Paul argues for an end to such division, for communities to find common ground and practice mutual acceptance. This appears to be one transformation that will authenticate the good news of Jesus.

Two weeks ago, I wrote that community building across difference is one of the two big things I want to be part of and think God is doing at Reservoir Church in post-Trump-election America. Today, I’d like to follow-up on that post by introducing one of many tools from the powerful book by Christena Cleveland, Disunity in Christ. Cleveland is a social psychologist and public theologian who thinks and writes and speaks about the things that keep people apart, and the work of justice, empathy, and reconciliation that can bring people together.

In her book, Cleveland writes that “group separation and prejudice have a bidrectional relationship – that is, prejudice tends to result in division between groups and division between groups tends to result in prejudice.” (33) In other words, diversity isn’t window dressing. Being in diverse relationships and communities, or not, makes us different. When we’re around others more, we are less prejudiced, whereas when we’re around less diversity, we’re more prejudiced. Whether we want to be or not.

One reason for this, Cleveland explains, is a dynamic called the “outgroup homogeneity effect.” We tend to view groups we’re not part of as made up of people who are all similar to one another, while we tend to view members of our own group as unique.

For example, I was raised in an almost entirely White small suburb, with almost entirely White classmates, friends, neighbors, and family. I never thought that White people looked alike. I also knew several White people with various regional or national accents and different speech patterns and levels of education. I noticed these but never defined people by them.  The people in my group were obviously all very different from one another.

When I went to university, I became best friends with a Chinese-American woman and started attending a large Chinese church in Boston. At first, I noticed that Chinese people looked more alike to me. It wasn’t as easy for me to pick someone I knew out of a crowd of hundreds of Chinese-Americans. Everyone, for instance, had black hair. After years of membership in this faith community, though, most of my friends and social acquaintances were Chinese-American, and it seemed ridiculous to think they looked alike. After all, most of the human race has black hair! This outgroup becoming part of my ingroup had changed my perceptions. (I’ve also had the reverse experience now, being part of a Chinese-American’s process of discovery that White people don’t all look and act and think alike!)

This is a relatively small example and wasn’t, in my case, tied to any particular damaging effects. We don’t have to look far, though, to realize how the outgroup homogeneity effect impoverishes the experience of people that hold it and harms those who are subject to its resulting skewed perceptions. When we stereotype others, we don’t benefit from their strengths and experiences and we are potentially suspicious of or hostile to them. And when we combine the outgroup homogeneity effect with imbalances of power and privilege, we get discrimination and injustice.

Clearly this is one reason (not the only reason, but one) that White men maintain such disproportionate power in our society. We (we for a minute being White men) see people like ourselves as unique and different, and we lump all others into the same category of “other”, people we are less likely to hire or mentor or promote or vote for. White men like myself make up less than a third of the United States population. But based on our representation in positions of power, you would never know that. Picking just two data points, over 90% of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are White men and that the US Congress is overwhelmingly comprised of White men as well. There’s a hard but important phrase for the racial side of this dominance, which is White supremacy.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to unity amidst difference and the outgroup homogeneity effect.

One simple way we can be part of a more just society is to be part of more diverse communities. By being a robustly multi-ethnic community, Reservoir Church gives our members the opportunity to be in relationship with many people who are not like ourselves. In doing so, we benefit from the riches of human culture that we weren’t born into, and we also stop assuming that people who aren’t like us are all the same. “They” become part of “us”, non-uniform, interesting people God loves and that we might as well.