This blog post is based on some thoughts shared by our pioneer minister Danielle Wilson as part of our gathering on Sunday, 6th June 2021. You can watch the full gathering here or listen to the talk as a podcast here.
I remember our first-ever gathering as Inclusive Gathering Birmingham (then known as New Inclusive Church). There was honesty. LGBTQ+ people and identities were affirmed and celebrated as deeply rich and spiritual. I felt like I could relax in church for the first time in a long time.
It was in this space that a switch was flipped in me. I’d come along because LGBTQ+ inclusion was vitally important to me and I wanted my LGBTQ+ friends to be welcomed and safe in church. But those early gatherings converted me to the need for radical inclusion – an inclusion that leads us to actively, overtly include and celebrate and centre those who are left out or pushed to the margins. I learned that the way of Jesus can and does lead us to form spiritual community based on who is in, not who is out. These words from theologian and minister Brandan Roberston describe it well:
The gospel calls us to abandon our fear-based versions of unity through exclusion, and embrace the way of Christ. That way calls us into proximity with “others” through acts of radical hospitality and service, for Jesus knew that it’s hard to demonise from up close. When we serve our “other,” we quickly recognise our shared humanity, and we are drawn to a radical inclusivity rooted in love. Whereas the rest of the world is inclined to create unity through separateness, Jesus proclaims a much more difficult but also much more generative path: unity through inclusivity. Whereas exclusion breeds only harm, inclusion leads to abundant life.(True Inclusion: Creating Communities of Radical Embrace by Brandan Robertson)
As we begin to emerge (we hope) from this strange and painful pandemic season, it’s worth talking about what radical inclusion and welcome looks like for us now in our new reality at Inclusive Gathering.
Some of us have been through trauma, grief and illness. We’ve lost people. Some are desperate to gather in person. Others are not ready. Some have found connection with church in the digital space that has become a lifeline. Others did not get on with online church at all and are just beginning to reconnect.
With our vision of radical inclusion and celebration at the heart of who we are – some of the ways that we pursue unity have changed, but the desire to be one community together has not. If our desire is to build back ONE community (rather than a fractured one) what does it look like to love and welcome one another NOW with these variety of experiences, emotions, griefs and discoveries?
For me, this is bound up in creating an atmosphere where we learn together and even make mistakes – encouragement and love isn’t just words or saying everything is okay if it isn’t.
Claiming our identity as a learning community has been key – we have collaborative leadership that is broad and a willingness to hear and change and adapt. We want to listen to the spirit and create space where God can guide and bring us together. We want to be humble about it and learn from one another if we get things wrong.
But what does this look like in practice in our everyday relationships with one another, whether in person or online?
I have a wonderful ‘coach’ (and some times counsellor and butt-kicker) named Beth Estock who helps me to think through challenging questions like these in our monthly chats. We were talking about this the other week and Beth put some language to this ‘building back’ that I thought was really helpful, so I’ll share it with you.
Beth names the different kinds of spaces we inhabit as humans, both on our own and in community with one another as I, You and We. Identifying the difference between the ‘I space’ the ‘You space’ and the ‘We space’ helps us know where I end and where you begin. And it can inform and strengthen our ability to love and value one another in community, even when life or relationships get tricky or painful.
The I Space
The I space is who we are individually at a deep level. These questions help define the I space, and you might want to take some time to reflect on yours. (Beth has written about these concepts in her book Discernment: Spiritual Practices of Living a Life of Faith and the bullet-pointed questions I ask throughout come from this book – thanks Beth!):
- What is it like to be me?
- What are my preferences and desires?
- How do I see and experience the world around me?
It’s important to know who you are – many of you have worked hard to know and be yourself. As you get clarity about your own internal world, you may then feel able to allow yourself to step into shoes of someone else – maybe someone else in our community at IGB, or in your family or workplace. Who are you thinking about right now?
The You Space
The You space is, essentially, someone ELSE’s I space. Of course, you can’t fully get in someone else’s head, but here are some questions that can help consider what it’s like to step into the shoes of someone else:
- What are their histories and contexts?
- What are their desires and fears?
- What is it like to be them?
- What is unique about them?
I shared a story on Sunday about a friendship that I had years back that was particularly difficult and frustrating for me. This was a person that I loved on one level, but that drove me around the bend and sometimes to despair! We were different, we clashed continually and it was hard.
In the midst of this awkward relationship I felt that God gave me some words to pray for this person. I began to pray regularly for God to give me a glimpse of how they saw this person. I asked God to help me see this person primarily through their strengths and gifts, not their weaknesses or the things about them that were difficult for me.
Over time, this began to transform my heart and how I related to this person that I struggled with. And in the last 20 years, praying these words for others has become part of my spiritual practice. Don’t get me wrong … It’s still not easy for me to love everyone – I am someone who feels conflict very deeply. But these words of prayer have helped me to fear conflict less and they move me in the right direction by inviting the spirit to help me when I am moved beyond the limits of my own love.
What prayers might God give you to pray for the flourishing of someone else that you find difficult? What boundaries do you need to relate to this person well?
(Important Note: I’m talking here about personality conflicts, quirks and disagreements, rather than suggesting that you find ways to live with abusive behaviour. Abuse, whether physical or emotional, or challenges to your personhood is not okay, and you should seek out help or support if you find yourself in a compromising situation.)
The We Space
The We Space is the shared community space that we co-create together.
Now that we’ve talked about the I and You Spaces, the next brave step is to look at the ‘We’ we make together. Inclusive Gathering Birmingham is a We space – it is a dynamic, learning, evolving space rooted in our shared values.
Think back to the ‘You space’ you explored above and imagine how the other person experiences this We space we currently have.
I think this is a particular challenge now for IGB as some of us will have struggled with online church, while others have found their place in it. All of us have experienced trauma in the last 18 months through the pandemic. Some have endured trauma and difficulty on a massive scale that you might not be aware of. Some of us had difficult histories before this happened that impact the ways we relate now.
Here are some questions you can ask about our We space at IGB:
- What is required in order to have a healthy and functional ‘we’ space?
- What would each perspective (I & you) have to say about IGB now?
- Could you hold a space inside yourself that would allow these other perspectives as possibilities?
- Could you hold a space in which you might not have all the right answers?
The We space is NOT an I space where any individual can set out to move the whole space to their personal optimal conditions.
The We space is NOT a You space where I give up everything that is important and healthy for me in order to please or benefit someone else.
The We space is NOT an immovably top-down institution. Yes, we have leaders who make decisions and curate gatherings, but we are inherently a collaborative space where multiple voices shape what we do and are.
The We space is created collectively by what we all bring and (yes) even in some of the individual desires or ways of relating that we are willing to lay down for one another. That’s where inclusion and celebration of difference is found. That’s how love happens. That’s how we create a happy, healthy We space.
Knowing ourselves and our desires and needs is part of it. Protecting ourselves from stuff that is damaging to us is important, but to create a we space – we go beyond that.
We invite God into the We space and allow them to grow our love and our relationships. There’s this myth that inclusion is the easy route – it’s really not. Our discipleship and our shared relating is based around how we love one another. Even when we have to enforce boundaries to keep people safe. Even when we hurt one another and have to seek out forgiveness.
To me this is deeply spiritual – spiritual growth isn’t me alone in a room with God. It can be. But in my experience, my spiritual growth has come through relationships with other people. It’s come from inviting God into that experience of love and learning. It’s come from desiring the flourishing of other people who I find difficult or who push me to deeper, more radical inclusion. It’s come from humbling myself and owning it when I get it wrong. Some of that humbling is also creating boundaries when needed out of respect for myself and for others.
What are our hopes for our IGB ‘We Space’ in the years to come? What is your part in co-creating it?
Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for God who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:23-25
Danielle Wilson (she/her) is Inclusive Gathering Birmingham‘s pioneer leader/minister and loves to help create safe spaces to discuss life’s deepest questions …particularly over food. She believes that loving Jesus pushes us to pursue social justice and inclusion in our communities. Danielle is also the Co-CEO of Red Letter Christians UK’s and curates their blog. She has more than 20 years experience in mission leadership and communications and an MA in Contemporary Missiology: Reconciliation, Justice and Advocacy. She’s been a singer for many years with the all-female acoustic soul band Eeek (who play at our special events from time to time). She’s married to Joel and mum to Evie and Josie.