To Exist for Others: Embracing the Call to Encounter
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we interact with our neighbours, co-workers, and church family. Given these changes, many now recognize the profound importance of human encounters in our lives. We miss hugging our friends, running into our neighbours, and chancing upon strangers. We see, in ways we didn’t before, that simply encountering others can lead to unlikely relationships, moments of genuine transformation, and—sometimes—genuine social change.
And that leads us to ponder whether the recovery from this pandemic is an opportunity for the global church to orient its mission toward the practice of encounter, to recommit to creating spaces where we can encounter our neighbours—both near and global—and begin to recognize them as God’s image-bearers.
But first, another question: are we prepared to be changed by this moment?
Where we (Annie and Jonathan) write from, the pandemic has exacerbated an uncertain economic future. Many of our neighbours are profoundly anxious about what comes next. In uncertain moments like this, there is a temptation to stick with the familiar and comfortable. The ground beneath our feet is shifting, and we need something solid to grasp.
But we wonder: is that a faithful response, given the call of Jesus to pursue a kingdom of joyous delight and deep justice that moves beyond ourselves and towards our God and our neighbours in love? A life of encounter may be risky, but it is also an expression of gospel fidelity.
The stories of Jesus we find in the gospels are brim-full of encounters: a marginal woman encountering Jesus at a well; would-be disciples from working class neighbourhoods and fishing villages encountering each other in the presence of this new Friend and Stranger; Jewish Christians encountering Gentile Christians who were once strangers—enemies, even—in the wake of Jesus and discovering in them a new family.
We (Annie and Jonathan) have been shaped profoundly by the gifts that encounters can give us.
For many years, I (Jonathan) led a men’s group comprised of inmates, parolees, and community volunteers. We prided ourselves on the fact that newcomers had a hard time distinguishing inmate from volunteer on their first visit. The only prerequisite for joining the group was an openness to being changed by the others. I still carry with me the stories of change that I witnessed in that community, as living arguments for the sacred power of true encounter.
I (Annie) was privileged to facilitate engagement in communities facing the challenges of addictions, street prostitution and deep poverty. During a particular difficult meeting, a member of the church in which the meeting was held spoke up and reminded everyone that the persons who we were speaking about had all been made in God’s image. The moment changed the discussion that evening and later encounters with the “least among us” in that community.
What might it look like for the church to move through the world with an openness to deeply encountering others? How might the church cultivate a posture—or, better, a spirituality—of encounters?
First, a church of encounter must be open to risky solidarity. To encounter our neighbours, next door or across the globe, requires meeting them as they are and not as we would have them be. It requires meeting others in their pain, their need, or their anger. That sort of encounter is risky, because there is a possibility that we may be asked to give up our comfort for the sake of another’s good. A recent example for many in North America was our encounter with the Black and Indigenous communities’ profound anger and suffering since the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Joyce Echaquan. This painful anger spoke to a need for change, and called many of us to address the deep and abiding racism present in our churches, our institutions, and our own souls.
If the church must be a people of risky solidarity, we must also be a church that learns—or, re-learns—how to see. It is so easy to look at our world and not see the myriad ways that we already encounter others. A simple breakfast meal is an experience of encounter with the lives of our global neighbours, as we eat bananas from Honduras, oats from Manitoba, coffee from Ethiopia, and sugar from Mexico. A church of solidarity and risk that encounters our global neighbours will intentionally learn to see that network of mutuality and be changed by it.
Finally, a church of encounter will be a public church. If we come out from this strange pandemic season committed to encountering our world in all of its interconnection, its suffering, and its potential to change us, then we will likely be called to recommit ourselves to a public witness. There are a number of ways we can do this. We could use our choice as consumers to shop for direct or fair-trade goods guaranteeing that our global neighbours earn a living wage. We could support the building of affordable or supportive housing in our neighbourhood. We could engage within our churches on the common work of economic justice, creation care, harm reduction, and more. The particular shape of our work will depend on who we are, where we live, and who we encounter.
To choose encounter over the comfort of our bunkered enclaves is a tall task. We are encouraged in this task by the witness of so many, from the earliest Christians who created new communities across ethnic and class difference to those many Christians who have creatively persisted in the work of encounter throughout this pandemic.
What we are suggesting is for the church simply to be the church—the people of God, following Jesus into the unknown and toward our neighbours, in the power of the Spirit. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it so well in one of his prison letters, “The church is the church only when it exists for others ... It must tell those of every calling what it means to exist for Christ, to exist for others” (Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison).