By Luiz Coelho
Fifty years ago, in most of Brazil, it was still common to see people watch the sunset sitting on a comfortable rocking chair on the porch of their houses. Families and neighbors were usually invited over, and food and refreshments were widely available. In more urban scenarios, people would bring tables and chairs to the sidewalks, and chat before dinner. After the Second World War, these moments had an important effect: they helped build communities, often composed of people from different backgrounds and ethnicities, and offered hope for a better future.
On colder days, if the weather allowed it, hot coffee or black tea, accompanied by a few slices of carrot, orange or corn cake, was just enough to bring families around the outdoor table, and soon neighbors and friends would join them. They would eventually bring more snacks, and conversation would go on until it was time to go inside and have dinner. On hot summer days, hot coffee was replaced by cold juices and mate, a special Brazilian tea cherished by many in its cold and sweet form. Sometimes, this happy encounter would be followed by a garden dinner, which could go on for hours and hours.
As a Southerner “by adoption”, I soon learned that some traditions are ubiquitous everywhere, especially when it comes to “Pan-American late afternoon environments”. Some of the foods were probably slightly different, and mate was surely replaced by intese doses of freshly brewed sweet tea on the rocks. However, the feelings and bonds of affection were the same, and long nights of laughs and conversations helped foster the sense of community here and there, especially at a time when the future seemed to be uncertain.
In churches, similar events also happened. From “dinners on the grounds” to Shrove Tuesday pancake suppers, food, community and conversations have always been part of our Church life. The rich noise of children running around the parish hall and vivid conversations between parishioners of different sorts still can be heard in many of our Churches across the world. In many places, however, this community life centered around food and conversation is dying, often substituted by an innovative “consumer Gospel”, which produces short term growth, but in the long run has increasingly contributed to empty houses of worship.
Sadly, I do not belong to the slow sweet tea generation. Raised in a middle class apartment, I did not have the possibility of playing with neighbors on the street and hearing my mother’s call to come inside for dinner. To be true, I barely knew my neighbors’ names. Only in the summer, when I would spend some free time at my grandparents’ cottage, did I have the opportunity to enjoy the slow life of “the good old times”: playing with their pet (a dog named Perigoso – “Dangerous” in English – who was anything but dangerous), helping my grandfather harvest fresh vegetables, playing with the neighbors’ kids, jumping in trees and getting dirty. And, at the end of the afternoon, we would always drink refreshments and chat for a while in front of their house. The neighbors were always invited to join the conversation, after all, everybody was part of a “big family.”
That’s how Churches are supposed to be: a big family. However, the “community” aspect of church life is emphasized in our “modern” world less and less. Many search committees now expect priests to be much more like business administrators who are able to celebrate a quick liturgy rather than spiritual leaders called by God to announce the Good News of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, with a schedule filled with committee meetings, there is little time for visiting the sick, talking on the phone with parishioners or even enjoying a cup of coffee or a glass of sweet tea at the end of the afternoon.
Parishioners also have less and less time for Church affairs. Sunday school is rarely heard of in some places. Coffee and refreshments, usually served after the main service of the day, are taken “to go” as people run to their cars, ready to drive to the nearest restaurant. There is little time for weekday activities, including longtime parish programs and traditions, which risk being extinguished within a couple of generations.
It is necessary to reclaim the “spirituality of sweet tea” in our world: the long talks, the hugs, the common meals and warm conversations. Yes, the world has changed, and the Church inevitably has to adapt to a fast-paced society. However, the essence of Christian community life cannot change. Some regard it as the strongest aspect as the early Christians’ most impressible aspect and wherever it still persists, the Church is strong and active.
Maybe it is time, then, to use community life as a tool for church growth and evangelism. Younger generations, often so technologically savvy, lack the “people” aspect of daily life. If the Church will provide a warm and welcoming environment, where all are known and cherished by their brothers and sisters in Christ, it surely will be able to reach the unchurched. Our Episcopal/Anglican identity provides a solid and traditional liturgy, complemented with a comprehensive and inclusive theology. When allied with intentional Christian community, which naturally flows from our liturgy centered around the Eucharist, Christ is made truly present among us and a conduit is created that enables people to find wholeness in God in Christ.
Luiz Coelho, a seminarian from the Diocese of Rio de Janero, spends part of the year in the BFA program at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His Web site includes his art and his blog, Wandering Christian, on which he examines “Christianity in the third millennium, from a progressive, Latin American and Anglican point of view.”