About a week ago, I returned to Memphis after spending my summer interning at a Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC. I went to the nation’s capital to immerse myself in alternative forms of ministry and to explore the diverse ways one can “do church” in today’s society. The diversity and hustle of DC provided the ideal location for such an experience.It’s the type of city where the local and national news pretty much say the same thing. It’s the type of city where your work day only begins once the Vice President’s motorcade thunders by the church on his way to the White House. It’s the type of city where a simple walk to the metro station involves passing the embassies of five countries. My internship allowed me to engage the city in ways most visitors to the nation’s capital don’t give a second though to and afforded me opportunities I never would have thought possible.
One Friday about midway through my summer best illustrated this point for me. I began the day leading closing workshops for two out-of-state youth groups who were staying in the church during their mission trip to DC. Throughout the morning, as I lead the youth in discussions on homelessness, poverty, and gentrification, my phone continuously buzzed with text messages from friends across the country asking, “Did you hear? It finally happened!” Apparently some court downtown had been busy making some pretty big decisions or something about marriage equality.
It all culminated in a text message from my boss saying, “Get out of that stupid church building stat. Take a cab down to SCOTUS.” I realized my time had come to do ministry in a new, creative, non-traditional manner. So naturally, I quickly acquired a large poster board, wrote “FREE HUGS” on it, in rainbow lettering of course, and headed downtown to see what would happen.
Over the next seven hours, I stood in front of the Supreme Court of United States hugging what must have been hundreds of people (I’m not exactly sure how many, I lost count after like three). From the second I arrived until the sun disappeared behind the Capitol, I never went more than a minute without someone enthusiastically embracing me or asking to take my picture. I must have dominated the social media that day for how much attention I received. No joke, I googled “Free Hugs Supreme Court” last night and I was the third picture to come up. I could feel all the barriers we put up everyday between ourselves and those we deem “outsiders” come crumbling down with each hug as we each shared the moment. I met people who had both waited for that day for decades and people who had no idea what was happening but saw a crowd so they thought they’d join in. I met people who were in the process of hiking the Appalachian trail in its entirety and thought they’d stop in the city for the day.
I met people who had travelled from across the country just for the occasion and others who were just stopping by on their lunch break. I met a woman who dressed as a mermaid just because she felt like it. I met a father whose lone wish in the world was that he could share this good news and his affirmation with his son who had passed far too young. I have never before encountered such a pristine example of the diversity of the world we live in, affirming once more that the best celebrations are done as a community. In each person I met and in each story I heard I saw the face the God.
As I continue to grow into myself, I continually realize how easy it is to get lost in the monotony of life. To let your actions be governed by what others may think of you. To let ourselves be overcome with messages of passivity and intolerance. But if there’s anything I learned in DC, it’s that the time is always right to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world around us, to radically welcome all of our neighbors, and to do so without fear of what others may think, for there is a promise of hope in God.