Mihee Kim-Kort: Church? An answer with inspiration from Rachel Held Evans

A recent conversation with a dear friend, Gail Song Bantum, Lead Pastor of Quest Church in Seattle, Washington, brought a lot of warmth and light to me one dreary afternoon. During this season of quarantine, despite feeling some major Zoom fatigue, it was good to see her, to be seen by her, and to catch up, laugh, share and dream a little together. At one point, she asked me a very plain, but ultimately poignant question, especially in this day and age, something I didn’t expect—what is something that keeps you in the church/Church?

A number of images, smells, and voices flitted through my mind: fellowship hour in the basement of my childhood church with the smell of steaming rice and pungent kimchi, savory dishes or fishy, hearty soups, and all our moms in the kitchen cooking and cutting it up together, but each one making sure that everyone had enough to eat. Working and worshiping in 90-degree heat with Pentecostals in the Dominican Republic, playing games in Spanish with children and passing buckets of mezcla for our awkward and inept attempts at construction work. My children’s baptisms. Ash Wednesdays.

And then, remembering one of the connections Gail and I have is through a conference called Why Christian? which was hosted by Rachel Held Evans and Nadia Bolz-Weber for five years. It was a space that held this question of “Why Christian?” and in holding the question, it was the answer in some ways, too. It recognized both brokenness and wholeness as inevitable parts of our faith journey and how essential it was to care for each other in it. Afterwards there were more conversations around the simple question of “why Christian?” and “why Church?” The answers that emerged from people’s experiences continue to stay with me.

Rachel has since passed away—we have just marked the one-year anniversary of her death, and I continue to grieve and be grateful for her presence in the world. I now realize the answer to the question Gail posed to me is presence. It is the cloud of witnesses, it is the saints and sinners, and angels, it’s God’s Spirit—how it shows up over and over with a casserole when a family has dealt with an illness or new baby. How it shows up at someone’s bedside before and after a surgery. How it shows up when the homeless community needs shelter during those unforgiving winter months. How it shows up to celebrate and lift up, to anoint and heal, to witness, to listen, and to give testimony.

This is not to erase the Church’s unspeakable destruction and oppression of various communities—LGBTQ+, people of color, people with disabilities, people of other religious faiths and beliefs, and more. I know. I’ve witnessed how a church has shown up and it was ugly and hurtful—it was violent. These days many still are. So, I deeply believe this is a part of the wider Church’s work today—to confess, to lament, to repair, to make amends because this is one way we can be faithful to God’s loving and listening presence in the world.

I’m thinking a lot about compassion these days because it seems we need it in spades. Millions of people are out of a job, thousands of people are sick, hundreds are lonely and isolated. Compassion strikes me as an extension of presence—it’s the quiet solidarity that emerges when confronting an injustice. It’s the weepiness that accompanies a moment when encountering pain or loss. It’s that wordless gut-wrenching that happens when you walk in someone’s shoes for even a moment. But it’s not an individual act or experience, it’s meant to be communal. I’m struck by these words by Crina Gschwandtner, Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University:

If we truly believe in compassion, we should be at the forefront of creating such change. We must move beyond private acts of charity to address the deep social, economic, and racial inequalities that perpetuate poverty, homelessness, and disproportionate rates of illness and death. There can be no “spiritual” salvation that ignores the suffering bodies of the poor. [1]

Our salvation is tied up in each other. For the church to be the hands and feet, the presence of God in the world, it will require a radical kind of curiosity about the neighbor and stranger, a brave willingness to live out God’s generosity, a passion for telling and listening to authentic stories, and the kind of compassion that involves heart, mind, spirit, and bodies. I continue to be thankful for the artists and poets, pastors and teachers, activists and advocates who quicken our imaginations so we might dream and live out these different possibilities.

[1] Gschwandtner, Crina. “Compassion in Crisis: Challenging a Culture of Injustice.” Public Orthodoxy, April 30, 2020. https://publicorthodoxy.org/2020/04/30/compassion-in-crisis/


Mihee Kim-Kort

Mihee Kim-Kort is a Presbyterian (PCUSA) minister, speaker, writer, and slinger of hopeful stories about faith and church. Her writing and commentary can be found at TIME, BBC World Service, USA Today, Huffington Post, Christian Century, On Being, Sojourners, and Faith & Leadership. She is a PhD student in Religious Studies at Indiana University where she and her Presbyterian minister-spouse live with their three kids in Hoosier country.

Twitter | @miheekimkort
Instagram | @mkimkort
Website | mkimkort.com

Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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