Yesterday, I rode the last leg of a 5-day, 414-mile tour called the Aids Red Ribbon Ride – a fund-raiser for AidsCare. If you follow me here or on Facebook, you know that I intended to blog throughout the ride, but as things worked out, blogging on my phone was difficult and my 3g/4g coverage was a bit more limited than expected.
I’m a little at a loss of words regarding how to best describe the trip (although, you’ll notice I’m full of words in the coming paragraphs trying to do so!). Let me start with the easy stuff: There were about 20 riders and about the same number of crew. The riders varied in ability (I was, in all honesty, toward the end of the pack), and the crew was essentially split up by responsibility (i.e. camp crew, food crew, SAG crew, marking crew, etc.) Most of the riders were repeat-riders; about a half-a-dozen of us were new. Most of the crew had done so before too, but a handful of them were new as well.
You know me… I’m an extrovert. I like people; I like groups; I’m generally comfortable around people I don’t know, and I seldom find crowds of strangers disconcerting. All of that said, I was a little nervous. It took me a total of approximately 2 seconds to realize that this was an intensely close group with deep commitments to one another. In my line of work that is both a coveted and concerning reality. Coveted, because we-pastors are always trying to figure out how to help facilitate that kind of community and commitment. Concerning, because that kind of togetherness often crosses the line to in-group cliquishness and becomes exclusionary rather than open and welcoming. Considering the fact that the church (which I, in some ways, represent) has generically responded to the reality of HIV/AIDS abysmally and many of the people directly affected by the disease in the US have been equally-as-abysmally mistreated and and, yes, abused by the church, I wasn’t sure what my welcome would be.
This is where I’m at something of a loss of words.
Perhaps a little equation might help…
Less-than Stellar Rider
[plus] pastor of a rural congregation from a little-known denomination with a spotty reputation on the subject
[plus] a tight community not always affirmed or loved by the church
[plus] an unknown outsider
[equals] –> the potential for a long and lonely week – albeit for a good cause.
Yet I felt more welcomed, more supported, more encouraged, more cared for, less judged, less criticized, and less “outside” than at any other time I can presently remember. This is, I believe something very close to the love Paul was talking about in 1st Corinthians 13.
Some of you will scoff at the suggestion, but I kid-you-not: amidst all the sweat, the grime, the jokes, the costumes, the laughing, the sore muscles, the hills, the bugs and so much more… I experienced something, perhaps… something holy. Somehow it was the world as it’s supposed to be. A world that, I think made God happy (despite the fact that many of my friends and colleagues wouldn’t have liked – or probably approved – of it at all).
Don’t misunderstand me. It wasn’t always pleasant. I’m not ignorant of the reality that there were some relational hiccups; things didn’t always go as planned, and I do know the difference between a short-term experience and the daily living of “real life.” None of that changes anything. God smiled, I believe. So did I… more than I have in a very long time.
I won’t presume to imagine that the experience can be “harvested” to give a “plan for community building,” but I did notice a few things that obviously contributed to the week:
(1) Every single individual sacrificed time, money, and self (vacation, registration fees, fund-raising, donations, training, etc.) I occasionally heard a crew member suggest that the riders were “remarkable” or “admirable,” but I’d argue that wasn’t what made the week work. The riders rode, yes. But the crew did their thing too. They worked; they sweated; they sacrificed of their limited vacation-time and their personal resources. They spent long days meeting the riders’ basic needs (and generously surpassing those basics by leaps and bounds)… all willingly, even eagerly. Each one benefited because Each one sacrificed.
(2) Every single individual was committed to a single, selfless cause. At some level, the ride was for AidsCare – but even more, the ride was a show of love and support for people affected (in a myriad of ways) by HIV/AIDS. Some have friends with the disease; some are living with it; some have lost family, spouses, loved ones, and friends. The uniqueness of this group isn’t that we’ve all been affected by HIV/AIDS – everyone in the world has been affected by it! The uniqueness of this group is that every one of the people involved believes 30-years is too long. HIV/AIDS is now a disease that people can live with (rather than just die from), but with work and commitment it can, instead, be both preventable and curable.
(3) Every single individual was tolerant. The concept of tolerance has been completely misunderstood, in my opinion. Tolerance shouldn’t be confused with approval, support, or begrudging acceptance. Tolerance is living out the understanding that – with very few exceptions – someone else being what they are and believing what they believe does not require me to stop being what I am or stop believing what I believe. We had wealthy and poor, married and single, large and small, vegan and meat-eater, straight and gay (and more), introvert and extrovert, religious and non-religious, alcohol drinkers and non drinkers, etc., etc. That does not mean there were no rights or wrongs or that no one was in charge. It meant each had to make a personal commitment to operate with the best of the community in mind – even in the midst of substantive (even foundational) differences.
(4) Every single individual was – to one degree or another – committed to an attitude of welcoming and cooperation. An event like this does not happen, at least not successfully, unless each person makes an effort to ensure the others feel welcome, and each is willing to cooperate even (perhaps especially) when flexibility is needed. There was no “welcoming committee” – the entire community welcomed each of us – especially the newcomers.
Anyhow, I’ll post some pictures and perhaps even some more thoughts. For now, I wanted to offer my initial observations.
My appreciation goes out to each of you who wished me well and prayed for our safety, to each of you who helped ensure I raised the funds necessary, to each of you who epitomized the above 4 realities over the past week, and to each of you committed to helping them continue into the future.
Grace and peace,