It’s 2:30 on a Sunday afternoon and I’m trying to figure out who’s more surprised: the SWAT team peering in at our congregation or our congregants staring back at the officers. We’ve heard helicopters whir and police sirens wail since our congregational meeting began, but the crowd of law enforcement staring through our sanctuary windows is new. This interruption is as a stark reminder of our church’s adjacency to one of the most contentious places in the country today—UC Berkeley.
Built into the hillside of one of our country’s most progressive cities, Cal Berkeley has been the epicenter of student activism since the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s, when student protesters persuaded the university administration to grant campus space for unrestricted political speech. This commitment is made explicit on the Free Speech Monument, a six-foot granite circle that greets those entering campus with this message: “This soil and the air space extending above it shall not be a part of any nation and shall not be subject to any entity’s jurisdiction,”
UC Berkeley’s promise of free speech has made it an increasingly sought-after space by a number of divisive speakers in the past year. Clashing protesters and counter-protesters have descended on the campus, their fights culminating in city and university property destruction, physical violence, and increased campus security. Last fall, students walked to class across a campus lined with barricades and peppered with police officers.
Like many cities across the country, our national political drama has pulled our local community into its polarizing, partisan narrative, where enemies are cast in terms of political commitments. Yet Berkeley—and the rest of our country—needs the voice of the local church now more than ever. After all, it is in these worshiping communities where our voices can be shaped in unison beyond political parties and where we can learn to recognize those with differing political views as neighbors we’re called to love. If we have practiced relating to those different than us in a church context, these spaces can also be where we learn the fundamentals of loving our non-Christian neighbors well Sadly, local churches have done little to deflate the escalating tension. One reason: We continue to compartmentalize our lives as sacred and secular.
The God of Berkley
Since arriving two and a half years ago to serve as a minister for university engagement, I have overheard conversations tinged with fear and confusion about being a Christian at Berkeley.
“Be careful,” parents caution their children. “Don’t lose your faith!”
Admittedly, I understand that this fear comes from stories of those who parted from their family’s faith somewhere along the transition from high school to university. Still, my body cringes when I hear these warnings. Well-meaning parents do their best to prepare their children for life as adult Christians, but, in speaking of Berkeley as godforsaken, they paint an inadequate picture of God. As the early church’s account of God’s movement in space assures us, God is no more present in the small towns, suburbs, and cities in which our students grew up than in Berkeley.
In the climactic moment of the gospel narratives, Matthew, Mark, and Luke note that the veil that had previously separated the holiest space in the temple from the rest of space was torn from top to bottom (Matt. 27:51; Mark 15:37–38; Luke 23:45–46). Biblical scholars have long interpreted this account as a sign that God’s unique presence on earth is no longer confined to an exclusive space reserved for some. Instead, in Christ’s death, God’s holy presence has been poured out across the world. All space is now holy. All ground is now saturated with God’s presence.
This was not a superficial reality true for some space or people, not for others. It is a new ontological reality for all.
“God is here,” I often tell our students, “or God is nowhere.”
In his insightful account of liturgy and the sacraments, For the Life of the World, Orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann notes that our first parents’ sin was living as though the whole world were not a means of communion with God. In their ill-fated relationship with the tree in the middle of the garden, the first humans assumed that God was somehow absent, which changed their relationship with creation, one another, and with God (Gen. 3:1–6). In our efforts to set aside sacred space for worship, we Christians have at times unintentionally perpetuated what Schmemann describes as the “original” sin by claiming some space for our own, apart from God. In building “Christian” spaces, by negation, we have recapitulated the sin of thinking, speaking, and living as though there is so-called “secular” space: non-religious ground where God is not worshiped.
We are at least partly responsible for prayer chapels buried somewhere in airport basements, where Holy Scripture and prayer are removed from “real life,” and for book titles like How to Stay Christian in College (as though “staying Christian” was God’s hope for us). The solution, of course, is not to stop treating some spaces as sacred but to stop treating other spaces as less than sacred. When we name public space as “secular,” we reify it as such. When we speak as though worship is confined to limited space, we live like it. But God has always intended a broader vision of worship for us, one that expands not only our relationship with God but with our neighbors.
Unfortunately, rather than live as though all ground is hallowed and appropriate for a worshipful response, I have met many Christian Cal students who assume that worship is reserved for church buildings. Unfortunately, this assumption is affirmed in unhelpful ways. The Christian engagement I often see on campus tends to look like antagonistic street preaching or campus ministries setting up tables and posting fliers for upcoming events, competing for attention like one more student group.
But UC Berkeley currently has 1,245 registered student groups. If our ministry is reduced to student group number 1,246, we can expect the student response to continue to look like indifference and apathy. (After all, UC Berkeley does not need one more student group!) But if our life together creates a space where those who feel invisible in their day-to-day lives can be seen; where lives can be transformed from despair to hope; where enemies (political, ethnic, or otherwise) can become neighbors and, eventually, friends; and where we find the One toward whom our deepest longings point, people will notice.
Worship as our response?
One evening last winter, I was waiting on my coffee order when I noticed a live-streaming video on a student’s laptop: The UC Berkeley campus was on fire. As I left the coffee shop and headed to mid-week worship with a number of students from our Christian fellowship, we could hear the helicopters and police sirens responding to protests and counter-protests over a divisive speaker’s plans to speak on campus. Our destination: the 2:42 House.
Run by First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, next door, the 2:42 House sits a few blocks outside of UC Berkeley’s campus. The home’s name is drawn both from its street address (2423 Haste Street) as well as a New Testament text: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). In addition to being the rumored inspiration for the balloon-elevated home in Up—Pixar director Pete Docter worshiped next door for a time—it’s also home to a small community of undergrad students seeking to cultivate intentional Christian community. On Wednesday nights, students welcome in strangers, extend hospitality by way of tea or a meal, and lift their voices in unison to God.
On this particular evening, a handful of students chose to stay home. Others arrived late, delayed by the events on campus.
“I just don’t go on campus unless I have to,” one student told me.
“I’m exhausted by the sound of helicopters,” another said. “They make me anxious.”
“Worship is not an opportunity to retreat nor to bury our heads in the sand,” I told the students gathered together in the dim living room. “Worship is our response.”
When the formal part of the evening had ended, two of our seniors—on opposite ends of the political spectrum—spent the next hour talking in the middle of the living room. In the midst of tense national and local political climates, a few blocks away from violent conflict on campus, they patiently discussed how to lovingly respond to a controversial speaker while a number of other students listened in. This living room worship was re-shaping their relationship. Their interactions looked profoundly different than their non-worshiping peers just a few blocks away that night.
Many places come to hold a distinct, palpable presence, a location where we acutely remember something significant that God has done. But there is nothing inherently sacred about the house at 2423 Haste Street. There is no ontological distinction between it and any other home in Berkeley. But in encouraging university students that the 2:42 House is appropriate for their worship, those engaging with this space are now thinking, speaking, and living differently—not just toward God, but toward their neighbors. The hope is that our students will extend this posture to their non-Christian neighbors, beyond the 2:42 House’s walls.
A primary identity
“Look down the pew to your right,” I told our congregation while preaching the Sunday morning before the last presidential election. “Now look to your left. There’s a 50 percent chance that your neighbor is voting differently than you.”
Awkward laughter trickled through the sanctuary.
“It’s a difficult way to do church, but it is also a beautiful reminder of what it means for the church to be the church and not an affinity group.”
When we gather as the church, we are reminded that our political commitments are not what unites us. God is. Naming Jesus as Lord does. Gathering as the church reshapes how we relate to one another.
Perhaps the most damaging consequence of dividing space according to sacred and secular intent is that it inclines us to think of ourselves in “secular” spaces as, first and foremost, political bodies. When we assume public space means secular space, we aren’t quite sure how to be Christians in public, and our nation’s all-consuming, polarizing partisan narratives mean we resort to our political identities. In this way, when I encounter an individual on a “secular” campus with whom I disagree politically, my first response is to think of myself in opposition to her or his political position. Secular conceptions of space encourage me to forget our Christian narrative—one reason we need worship.
Christian worship reminds me of our Christian story: in the unique Christ event, the boundaries between God’s holy presence and our political life have all come down. Worship reminds me that my Christian identity precedes any political commitment. Before I am a member of a political party, I am an enemy invited to be a neighbor who became a friend. In worship, I am reminded that being reconciled is my new ontological reality, and then I am sent out to live into this reality, regardless of the space I find myself in. When I encounter others on campus and elsewhere with whom I disagree, Christian worship invites me to start from my reconciled and reconciling identity and to extend this invitation to others.
“There are other communities where I’d find people who share more of my political views,” a fourth-year student preparing for graduation shares with us at the end of his time at UC Berkeley. “But they wouldn’t care for me like this community.”
By inviting us to remember our primary identity, worship reshapes our posture toward others. When so much of our world is tearing itself in two—politically, religiously, ethnically, or otherwise—worship reminds us that the one we call Lord gathers us into one body. Before I am a member of a political party, I am a member of this body. Those who are unlike me politically, ethnically, socio-economically are, I learn in worship, essential to God’s work in and through me.
“I couldn’t believe it when I pulled into the parking lot and saw a Trump sticker beside their First Pres bumper sticker,” a congregant confessed. “When I realized whose car it was, I realized not only am I in a small group with that person, but I love them.”
When our identity is rooted and renewed in worship, we encounter those with whom we disagree elsewhere differently. As Christians, we must avoid perpetuating the myth of secular space by reserving worship for “sacred” space. Instead, our call is to invite others to remember and live into their primary, reconciled, and reconciling identity, wherever they find themselves.
Recently, our five-year-old daughter and two-year-old son attended a Christian graduate student event at UC Berkeley. Meeting together to start another year of ministry, we gathered on the lawn for tacos and games, followed by worship in a lecture hall when the sun had set over the bay. With my young children peering over the rear-most row of seats, I grinned at the thought that they will grow up knowing that a UC Berkeley lecture hall is not space to fear but appropriate space to worship their Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer. It is in this kind of space that I hope they will see their peers not as political, religious, or ethnic enemies, but as neighbors, remembering how they were themselves once invited to be a friend.
Ryan J. Pemberton, MA (Oxon), MTS (Duke Divinity School), is the minister for university engagement at First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley. He is the author of Called: My Journey to C. S. Lewis’s House and Back Again(Leafwood Publishers) and Walking With C. S. Lewis: A Spiritual Guide Through His Life and Writings (Lexham Press). Follow Ryan at @ryanjpemberton or RyanJPemberton.com.