Because it is Beautiful

In my 20s, I briefly served as the junior-most member of a church board. My implicit assignment may have been to bring new energy and a fresh outlook to bear, and while I might have done those things to a passing degree, mostly I learned an awful lot. I loved this church, my home church in Washington, DC; it was an urban congregation located in a stretch of the city blighted by the riots of the late Sixties and left fairly desolate for decades afterwards. Several of our older members would drive a ways in from distant suburbs, but the younger members tended to live within the city limits, and we were all looking to be good neighbors.

A portion of our income stream came from renting out the church building to neighborhood groups, to the local Rosicrucians, for instance, and to a drag-show fundraiser. We considered this a form of outreach. The church was situated at the edge of a gay neighborhood in Washington and we made a concerted effort to be a welcoming and affirming congregation. We had some success. It also helped to have active church members who were open and out; a couple of them sat on the church board alongside me, the ministers, and a handful of church elders.

So on the board, there was a great deal of institutional memory and a bit of new blood. Ironically, though, my pet project was one that the Ladies Auxiliary could easily have championed in days gone by, namely: church beautification. My peculiar twist on this perennial concern was an outside-in approach. Inside the church were truly lovely spaces, but you’d never guess that if you were walking past it on the city sidewalk.

From the outside, the church resembled a kind of fortress, with its heavy wooden doors hung with iron fixtures and an expansive stone front. We had a series of gorgeous jewel-toned stained-glass windows, but these were hidden behind squares of bulletproof Plexiglas that had grown increasingly opaque with each passing decade. It appeared as though we inhabited a church under siege. How I hated that! Whatever war we imagined were fighting was already over and it seemed clear that no one had won.

True, other buildings in the neighborhood bore similar battle scars – window bars, locked gates, shatterproof plastic. Years of social unrest and economic hardship had taken their toll on block after block. But that was changing, however slowly and unsurely. With recent waves of younger residents, things were getting better. Empty buildings were being renovated or converted; bright new coats of paint were carefully applied. It was at last starting to look like that Biblical place beneath the vine and fig tree, where people could live in peace and unafraid. I wanted our church to try to embody that hope on our own corner of the block.

My sole agenda item during my stint on the board was to bring the Plexiglas down and let the stained-glass windows shine. I sincerely believe our congregation owed the world that beauty. The religious sentiment and the aesthetic sensibility have always closely related; most of us readily recognize the sacred dimension of art and the artful dimension of the sacred. Describing the soul of his mission, Mahatma Ghandi once said, “Real beauty is my aim.” It struck me as sinful to deny people glimpses of beauty in their lives, especially if they had lives that were otherwise quite hard.

While the church board was certainly sympathetic to my point of view, they were decidedly not convinced that this beautification project was a priority.  Removing the Plexiglas would be an expensive undertaking and church finances were not exactly flush. Plus, what if anything should happen to one of those windows? We could never afford to replace it. A few church members remembered pretty desperate days in the neighborhood. What if those should come back around again? There were what-ifs upon what ifs; the upshot was that nobody really felt comfortable opening up our window to and on the world.

Of course, the symbolism of this bothered me mightily. I had not yet started seminary; I had not yet been ordained; I had not yet undertaken any formal ministry. As one on a church board of many, though, I objected. One evening, after our board meeting had ended, I caught a ride home with Greg, a fellow board member who lived out in Maryland with his partner. As we debriefed in the car, I once more rehearsed my objections to him.

“Those windows are beautiful,” I told him. “Our corner could use a little more beauty, right? This whole city could! Why should the church stay in bunker mode? The times are changing, the neighborhood is changing,” I said. “But we are living in the past. We are living in fear. Is that a wholesome choice for a faith community, really? Besides, those windows really are beautiful,” I repeated. “Who would want to destroy something that beautiful?”

While I spoke, Greg listened quietly. He was patient, kind and generous in indulging my youthful enthusiasm and absolute certainty. He did not quarrel with me; he did not contradict a word I said. He waited until I was done and then stayed quiet for a few moments more. “Sometimes,” he said softly, “people will destroy a thing because it beautiful.”

This gentle observation punctured my heart. It stole my breath and left me silent. Sometimes people will destroy a thing because it is beautiful. Sometimes they will; Greg was completely correct. I was chagrined by how reckless I must have sounded to him. I had nothing more to say. Greg and his partner left the city when they grew weary of being scared. They both had friends who had been assaulted, robbed or otherwise violated, brutally, violently targeted, beaten, stabbed, even shot by their assailants. They each knew of instances of gay-bashing that resulted in senseless death. What other rationale existed? Sometimes people will destroy a thing because it is beautiful.

That line has stayed with me ever since that night. At the same time that it explained everything to me, it explained nothing satisfactorily. But it is one of the most powerful illustrations of evil that I have ever encountered in all my years of theological study. It is the blessing upon every innocent victim who has ever been devastated by an especially ugly event, and I have found myself repeating it – word for word – to those coming to me for pastoral counseling.  Just as I considered beauty holy, I understood that anything unholy would seek to undo it. That fact did not change my opinion about the future of our stained-glass windows, but it illuminated my subsequent understanding of history and tragedy alike.

Time and again, scripture commands us to be not afraid. Angel after angel repeats the refrain, but not because angels are sucker-chumps, and definitely not because there is nothing to fear. There is plenty that is fearsome in our world, but we could actually decide to not be afraid anyway. That is the truly radical, counterinstinctual claim of faithful living. We ought to at least make attempts to live unafraid, doomed though they (and we) might be. Our faith communities may need to be heartbroken even more than they need to be safe. Above all, they need to not be afraid to be beautiful in a broken world. Because if beauty can someday be beheld in all its glory, that might finally be the very thing that can save us all.

© 2012

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