We seek out allies when we’re in conflict because allies make us feel strong and right and reasonable. But in trying to be helpful, our allies may actually help perpetuate the conflict by boosting our certainty. When we’re being tested by a conflict, what we want isn’t an ally, it’s a loving provocateur.
Nadia Bolz-Weber was fit to be tied by the swell of new people who’d shown up for services at the Denver church she’d founded. She said to her deacon, “We’ve got to get the hell out of this neighborhood because it’s attracting the wrong element.”
It was 2011 and Bolz-Weber’s church, House for All Sinners and Saints, was mostly young adults. Hip, urban young adults, many of whom didn’t feel particularly welcome at the traditional churches of their parents. The Gay Denver blog once wrote this about the church: “They rocked a chocolate fountain in the baptismal font for Easter, they do a blessing of bikes, and they have something called Beer & Hymns.”
The congregation was small and the church was struggling to grow.
Then Bolz-Weber preached sunrise services at Red Rocks on Easter Sunday. Ten thousand people attended and The Denver Post ran a front-page story about the service and the tattooed, spiky-haired Bolz-Weber. The next Sunday, attendance at services in her little church doubled in size.
You’d think this would be good news for a church that wanted to grow. But it wasn’t all good news to Bolz-Weber:
We were excited because we were really struggling to grow, but what happened was it was like the wrong kind of people. I mean, it was the wrong kind of different for us, right? Like some churches might freak out if the drag queens show up, but these were like bankers wearing Dockers.
To Bolz-Weber’s thinking, the new people could show up to any mainline Protestant church and step into a room full of their own tribe. Instead, here they were, invading her tribe, the tribe she’d founded this church to welcome, support, and serve. They were ruining, she said, “our thing.”
She began calling friends to rant and rave. We do this, too, right? We turn to the people who are going to echo what we’re experiencing, who will make us feel like our response is reasonable in the face of unreasonable circumstances. We turn to the people who will say, Oh, I’m so sorry that awful thing happened to you! and You’re not going to let him get away with that, are you? and I’ve had that experience with her, too. Isn’t she terrible?
Wondering if he’d ever had normal people take over his church, Bolz-Weber called Russell, a friend who ran a church in Minnesota. She expected him to support her experience with something like, Man, that sucks.
But he didn’t say that. He was a friend Bolz-Weber had to know would push her thinking and it was smart and brave of her to seek his counsel. And Russell’s response set in motion what Bolz-Weber calls a divine heart transplant.
He said, “You guys are really good at welcoming the stranger when it’s a young transgender kid, but sometimes the stranger looks like your mom and dad.”
Then, at a meeting Bolz-Weber set up to discuss the seismic demographic shift in their community, one of the original church members said, “Look, as the young transgender kid who was welcomed into this community, I just want to go on the record as saying I’m glad there’s people who look like my mom and dad here, because they love me in a way my mom and dad can’t.”
Heart transplant complete.
When we’re girding for battle, and we feel sure we’re right, we could all use a Russell. Who is that person for you?