So that all can come to God
A review of Rohadi Nagassar’s new book, "When We Belong: Reclaiming Christianity on the Margins."
Intrigued by the description of Rohadi Nagassar’s book When We Belong: Reclaiming Christianity on the Margins, I read the book eager to learn more about enfolding those on the margins into the church. For ten years I was a chaplain and pastor to people on the margins of our society: those who live in Long Term Care Homes. For a while, the global pandemic put Long Term Care Homes in the headlines and there was a push to “fix” Long Term Care in Ontario. Over two years later, people are tired of hearing about the pandemic and its effects, and those in the margins are once again pushed back into the shadows. The church is supposed to be different, welcoming those on the fringes of society. Unfortunately, the church is usually not different. Usually our elderly, sick and all those in the margins struggle to fully participate in the life of the church.
Although Rohadi concentrates on those who are on the margins because of race and sexual orientation, he acknowledges that what he writes about stands true for those on the margins for any reason, including those who live with chronic, life-limiting illnesses. As I read the book, I struggled to find a frame of reference for Rohadi’s words. He names the issues, deconstructs the church and then seeks to find a new, beautiful way forward. After reading through the book, I heard a sermon given by Rev. Mary Hulst of Calvin University on Jesus clearing the temple courts. Suddenly, for me, Rohadi’s journey to reclaim Christianity for those on the margins found its place in Jesus’ story.
A market in the church courts
When Jesus cleared the temple courts of the money changers and those selling animals for sacrifices, he was clearing the way for those on the margins of society to come to God. The temple in Jerusalem had three courts meant for prayer and worship. The inner court, closest to the Holies of Holies – the place where God’s presence appeared, was where Jewish men who were ritually pure would worship. The middle court was known as the Women’s court – that is where the Jewish women prayed and worshiped. Then there was the court of the Gentiles, or the outer court: this is where those who were not Jewish and those who were unclean were able to come before God. In other words, that is where those on the margins of society met with God. This was the space in which Jesus unleashed his righteous anger.
The tables of the money-changers and the benches of those selling doves (Matt. 21:12) were not those of just any market. These were the tools needed for all the people to follow the rituals of their faith. People from all over came to Jerusalem to worship and so needed to change their foreign cash for money that would be accepted as they gave their offerings to God. And those who wanted to give a sacrifice needed to purchase their offerings. What made Jesus so angry was not in what the people were doing, it was where the people were doing these things that caused outrage. It was most convenient for the pure, Jewish people to be able to come to the temple and find everything they needed to worship right there as they made their way into their places of worship. In their attempts to make things streamlined and easy for their own worship (and to make some money), the sellers and money changers blocked access to God for those on the margins of society. The outer court was supposed to be a space for ALL nations and ALL people to worship God, but it was overrun with a market.
Clearing the barriers
Rohadi Nagassar’s book When We Belong clears our modern places of worship of the barriers for those on the margins to come to God. Rohadi does with the pen what Jesus did with whips (John 2:15). He argues that for many people “Christianity has become an impediment to finding true belonging” (9). Our church structures, worship and way of being in the world are usually set up for the convenience of the majority and those on the margins are left on the outside.
“It is not supposed to be this way” (4); “It does not have to be this way” (6), so Rohadi pushes against the roadblocks to finding true belonging for all, but especially for those on the margins. Rohadi starts by discussing what true belonging looks like and then outlines the options for belonging that people on the margins have now. He names and exposes barriers to true belonging but then “reclaims Jesus.” Rohadi encourages the reader to find a way to build something beautiful in which broken things are repaired and all things are brought into right relationship with God, with each other, with the self, and with the land.
For those of us who live a life of privilege and power, When We Belong is not an easy book to read. Most of our worshiping communities work well for us; they are convenient and allow us to come before God in ways that are comfortable and comforting. But, as Jesus demonstrates in the clearing of the temple, true worship is not about convenience, power or privilege. Rohadi seeks to reclaim Jesus: “the multiethnic brown middle Eastern man, who is God, and unceasingly stood with the marginalized because he too was on the margins” (67).
Embodying Christ to the world around us
As I read When We Belong I found myself longing to share it with those in positions of power in my own church setting and in the larger denomination. But I fear that those who need to hear Rohadi’s message most would not make it through the second chapter. The root foundations that keep people on the margins from experiencing God (white supremacy, malformed power, patriarchy and disassociation from the land) are not themes those in power want to name or change. As Rohadi points out: “Institutions are not designed to change, they’re fundamentally designed to keep things the same” (46).
After the initial despair over this admission, I came to realize that this book is not for the keepers of the institutional church and “their dominant way of thinking and being” (46). This book is for people like me who walk with people on the margins or are on the margins. This book is for people like me who are willing to ask difficult, scary questions. This book is for people like me who long to embrace the incarnate Jesus, whose life teaches us how to love, belong and give life to community. This book is for people like me who do not have control over the institutional church but do have choices to make about how we will embody Christ to the world around us.
I do not know if I will come to the same conclusions as Rohadi about how to move forward given the realities of the church. I do know that When We Belong will play a part in discerning the choices that lie ahead of me as I continue to journey with those on the margins because of age and health and those on the margins for any other reason. In all that I do, may I embody love like Jesus did as he overturned the tables in the temple that were keeping those on the margins from coming to God.
Get your copy of When We Belong from the author or your favourite bookseller.
As a volunteer who has the privilege of leading some singing at a long-term care home, I suggest that your review is right on the mark. Except for one pastor who comes when I lead music (he practices “the ministry of presence,” the witness of local churches is largely towards “their own,” which might mean visiting a resident of the home, but not those who are on the margins, who have no family, no community, etc.
I think you are correct that “those who need to hear Rohadi’s message most would not make it through the second chapter.”
Thank you for this fine review and the challenges you present.