Most people know or intuit that pastors are trained to read texts, and specifically to read the bible. It's true. Go to any seminary and there'll be plenty of classes on how to read--closely, carefully, critically, lovingly. However, what many don't know--and I didn't really know until I went to seminary--was that pastors in our tradition are also trained to read audiences, and to read communities. One of my first classes in seminary was "Reading the Audiences." We looked at demographic information, tools for reading communities, etc. Good stuff.
Since arriving in Fayetteville, I've spent as much time reading the community as reading Scripture, and I think this is a good thing. Part of loving a place is getting out into it, knowing it close at hand. Census data is great to read through, and I've done so recently, but it's never a replacement for hitting the streets.
So this is a summary of my second day of intentional walking in and around the environs of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. I hope it inspires readers from around the country and foreign shores to meet their neighbors in their own locales, and I hope it inspires parishioners in my own congregation to get out and walk their own neighbors. It takes a bit of chutzpah, but the Spirit gives you chutzpah, so go for it!
After coffee with the Love Bears group (where I was reminded that I really ought to be wearing a big brimmed hat on these walks--duly noted, and I will do so next week), I headed up the hill to try to meet staff of the three churches that are at the corner of Old Wire and Old Missouri. These churches are cute little places but I seldom see activity at them. Today was no exception. No luck meeting anyone. On the walk down Old Wire, I met a friendly young woman and recent graduate of the grad program at the U of A out playing with her two small children in the front yard. They attend Wednesday worship at St. Paul's Episcopal, and they were married by Pastor Bob, the pastor who preceded me at GSLC.
Then I stopped at the "undenominational" church on Old Wire, http://www.oldwireroadchurch.com/ Here's where I had my first good cultural experience of the day. I walked in the front door, which was open, and called out, "Hello?!" I got an answer, "Hello!" But no face. Walked down the hall, called again, and then had to crack open the door of the study of the preacher, who was still at his desk poring over commentaries on 1st Corinthians. This young man is the preacher at Old Wire Church, and we had a great conversation. He was doing what I always imagine real bible church pastors doing. They do battle with the devil locked away in a study reading commentaries and writing sermons and bible studies. It's a noble calling. I have an avuncular urge to boot such people out the door to walk the community, but I suppressed it.
So here's me, the gregarious Lutheran, intruding on his study. He was kind enough to chat with me for a while, we discovered some common theological interests, friended each other on Facebook, and I headed off to continue my walk. He, I assume, returned to biblical exegesis.
Walked down through a more gentrified part of Fayetteville right next to Gulley Park, well-kept lawns and lush fauna. Met a gentleman who works for AT&T and has no religious affiliation, learned a bit about the history of AT&T (it's 100 years old, etc.), then continued on down, giving a blessing to some construction workers putting in new sidewalk that is extending the already extensive Fayetteville trail system. Ran into the mother of the woman whose wedding I officiated two weeks prior. She was out with grandkids, on the second full day of summer, checking the stream between their house and our church, for snapping turtles, crawfish, and frogs. The definition of what all children should be doing weekdays in the summer. Good work, grandma!
Our carrilons tolled, so I headed in to interview custodial candidates. Then, back out for the walk. It's at this point that anyone reading this will realize that reading the community really actually includes not simply cultural discovery or attention to landscape architecture, but actually serious and intentional pastoral and theological work. The next gentleman I encountered was in town from Huntsville visiting his brother. His father had just had major by-pass surgery. He needed help backing his truck hitch under the post of his mother's camper (long story), so I helped him with this and heard a good portion of his life story, including every trip he'd ever made to Iowa. He didn't have a high opinion of Iowa (his loss), but I didn't contest it. Really nice chatty guy. His family wasn't church going, but they had a reverend in their life, a former baseball recruiter turned preacher, who apparently has a personal ministry with families in the Huntsville area.
About this time, I had become really really hungry, so I headed for Flying Burrito. En route, I stopped in at Fleet Feet to greet the workers there and confirm their Thursday 6 p.m. group run. Although my plan this summer is to cover a lot of ground every Tuesday, and get to lots of new places, I also think it is good to have some intentional haunts, places that are truly your places where you get to know workers and people by name. So far Mama Carmen's and Fleet Feet fall into that category for me. The Fleet Feet staff are university students, and share a common interest in running. I can connect well with them, so I'm giving it my best shot.
Behind the shopping mall is a mysterious looking building I had never stopped in at, so I walked to it, and discovered it is a day care and preschool, My Other Mother. There were about 70 children there, from 4 weeks up through 5th grade, nice open and engaging and friendly place.
Finally, I turned to Flying Burrito. Sat in the air-conditioning, ate their standard burrito with a special lime-jalapeno salsa, and cooled off a bit. Chatted up the staff, including a Fleet Feet worker who had followed me over for lunch, a kind of second career university student and runner who was a dead ringer for Sam Beam of Iron & Wine.
In the meantime, a university student and regular worshipper in our congregation texted me and asked if he could join me for awhile. He came over, we ate together, and then we started our walk up College.
I stopped in at a new natural paint and home improvement store on College with Tom. I think it is called Natural Building Solutions. The woman working the desk had just started the day before, is studying nursing, was feeling stressed out, but was still kind enough to give us a tour and tell us what she knew about the products. Cork flooring, natural limestone wall coloring, paints, toilets that use the water from hand-washing as the water for the flush, counter-tops made out of recycled paper.
All of that was interesting all by itself, but then it turns out this woman is Pentecostal. Ended up in a fascinating conversation. She wanted to know, since God gives the gift of tongues, why Lutherans don't speak in tongues. If we get the gift, do we just stifle it? Does God just pass over Lutheran churches and not give that gift?
Similarly, although she has been edified by the gift of tongues and interpretation in her own church, she herself doesn't speak in tongues. Good conversation, and was the first conversation I've had in Fayetteville with a Pentecostal on Pentecostalism in comparison to Lutheranism.
The university student, when asked how to define Lutheranism, said, "Catholic lite." He might be right. It's at least not an overly wordy and theological response.
Then, we tried to stop in and see a parishioner who manages the Fed Ex, but he had his day off, so we headed back up College, our student back to his work and studied, myself on to Mama Carmen's for a cup of joe. Finally, walked down Rolling Hills and met another neighbor, an older woman who attends the Church of Christ church downtown, just lost her husband last January, and was very pleased to meet a neighbor in the area. She had just moved into her house about four years ago (has everyone in Fayetteville just moved into town four years ago?) Then a quick stop to say hi to Steve Shelly pastor at Rolling Hills Baptist (with whom we do VBS each year), then the walk back to church, noting on the way in that a robin had built a nest directly above the entryway of the door none of us ever enter by--little baby robins peeking out.
So by my count, I met with an undenominational pastor, a non-religious telephone operator, a lapsed Catholic, an unchurched visitor who has a freelance pastor connection, a "hippie" runner, a Pentecostal from Rogers, walked with a Lutheran university student, met a neighbor from Church of Christ, and always the topic of religion came up naturally--I don't have a set of intentional questions leading anyone in any direction or trying to get them to come to our church, although I have thus far each Tuesday worn my collar.
You may wonder, what do you ask people on such walks? Well, it really varies, but I tend to ask people things like: How are you? How long have you been here? How do you like your neighborhood? Who are your neighbors? What's your store for, or what do you do here? If I'm standing in someone's yard, I like to talk about their garden and foliage. They're typically proud and eager to share.
Often you can tell very soon in the conversation whether people are open to a conversation. However, just like chess, although there are a limited set of opening moves that work well, once you're into the middle of the game or conversation, complexity sets in and there are all kinds of places you can go. That's why it's really like reading a text or Scripture. Knowing your mid-game is a complex art not acquired easily or quickly. It's a lifelong process.
Next week I plan to walk to http://butterfieldtrailvillage.com/, perhaps the nicest condo, assisted living, nursing home complex I've ever been to. Lots of interesting neighborhoods up that way, plus the country club and shops. Until next week.