Kyle and I had become best friends. We made a point to have lunch together at least once a week. I watched his children when he and his wife Jen needed a night out, and often was a fixture in their home for days on end. About once a month he would want to get away from his sermon preparation in the middle of the week, so we would go see a movie together, and we also developed a tradition of having a drink at a local bar before he had to go to important church meetings. We had inside jokes, a shared history of growing up in East Texas, and a genuine camaraderie with each other.
We spoke on the phone the morning in 2003 when the statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in the U.S. invasion of Iraq. We talked about how we couldn’t believe what was happening and had a sense that we were witnessing history being made. In the years after September 11, 2001, many of us assumed that we were all on the same page with regards to world events. Bush was in office and when he wasn’t in Washington, he was hosting world leaders at his ranch in Crawford, just 20 miles west of Waco. Kyle and I were on the same page—we leaned politically conservative, even if theologically we were shifting leftward (relatively speaking) as every year passed. He was less interested in world affairs than I was, but was wrestling more with how to communicate to the congregation ways in which we can be faithful in the midst of everything that was happening in the world.
I was finding, though, as the wars raged on that the rest of the church was not in unison, or even in harmony, with those of us who took for granted that the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan was either good, or a necessary evil.
To facilitate community, the leadership of UBC created “Community Groups.” Other churches in the evangelical world, for several years, had been experimenting with what some called “Cell Groups,” based on a model of multiplication. (Just as cells multiply when they are healthy, so do small groups multiply and grow a church.) Many churches (including at least a couple in Waco) called their groups “Life Groups,” and these were meant to facilitate discipleship and spiritual formation among the congregants. I assume UBC’s use of the term “Community Groups,” and the diverse nature of each of them, was meant as a counterbalance to the more evangelical phenomenon of cell groups. Community groups didn’t have discipleship as the stated goal, nor was it even implied. Rather, they were intended to facilitate community through shared interests. There were book groups, cycling groups, even a group on Sunday morning for people who hated to wake up on Sunday mornings, which did nothing but drink coffee and hang out.
One particular group that I helped lead was called “Coffee and Culture.” We met on Tuesdays at JD’s Coffee House, located in the historic Sironia building on Austin Avenue. The agenda was to drink coffee and to talk about the issues of the day. In the early days of the group we discussed a wide array of news stories, journal articles and even ideas about art and music. The goal was to have a conversation about these things with our Christian faith informing, but not necessarily dictating, the outcome. As we approached the election of 2004, it became clear that one conversation would dominate all others: Politics.
At its height, Coffee and Culture was made up of over a dozen people with myriad different approaches to life and faith. There was Greg, the doctoral student in Education who was bombastic and sometimes rude, but could always be counted on to provide an in depth analysis of an issue with precision and care; Gabe, the loves-to-hang-around-the-margins DJ, who was passionate and could bring ideas from out of left field and make them sound sensible and palatable; Stephanie, the attractive blonde coed with a high, squeaky cheerleader’s voice, who would surprise us with memorized quotes from New York Times’ op-eds; Michelle, the quiet, gentle soul who was content to listen and to guide when needed; Chris, the literature student; Jen, the journalist; Ben, the pastor whose political views were evolving; and Lance, the mystic.
And there was me. I grew up in a home that was very politically aware. My dad was a unionized factory worker and my uncle was the labor president. As such, I grew up a Democrat. Old School, yellow-dog Democrat. In college I rebelled and became a Republican. It started off as a severe reaction to my upbringing, and I embraced Rush Limbaugh’s fiery brand of “logic” and “common sense” conservatism. During college I interned for, and after college I worked for, U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. Senator Hutchison was a relatively moderate Republican, which was perfect for me as I naturally drifted (after the rebellion) slightly back to the center of political thought.
By the time I ended up at UBC and leading Coffee and Culture, I was a conservative Republican who was anti-abortion and pro-death penalty. I believed in “small, but smart” government, which means I wasn’t completely opposed to government spending, but thought it should be done sparingly and wisely. And then there was war, which quickly became the main topic of conversation at Coffee and Culture.
The war in Afghanistan was already well under way by the time we started Coffee and Culture, but the one in Iraq was just beginning. The range of opinions about both, though, startled me. Pacifism was an idea I only knew in theory, but had never met an actual pacifist. (Since there were about 25 years of my life without any actual large-scale wars being fought, I suppose there was rarely an occasion to meet one.) That changed with this group. Gabe was a pacifist, as was Chris. I think Ben was moving in that direction. Greg wasn’t, but he was against the particular wars we were fighting, especially the one in Iraq. I was not a pacifist, but an apologist for both wars. I believed that Bush was doing what he felt necessary to protect the country.
I embraced the proverbial “separation of Church and State,” but for me this is what that meant: I thought my political views and my Christian views could exist on islands, completely separate from each other. So I became defensive when Gabe and others would dare to quote Jesus’ sayings about turning the other cheek and loving your neighbor. That was for me to worry about, not the government. On a personal level, with regards to violence, I was also a pragmatist. Though I owned no guns (except for a rifle I inherited that, at the time, was at my parents’ house,) I felt that people’s decision to carry firearms should not be swayed by the impracticality of Jesus’ words. I rationalized and compartmentalized Jesus’ teachings into something that was tame and required very little of me.
Our conversations at Coffee and Culture were extremely colorful. Heated at times, and on at least a couple of occasions, toxic. But there was something strange afoot. All the different conversation partners, though incredibly diverse and holding views that sometimes went counter to the core of other’s closely held beliefs, approached each other not just with civility, but with affection. We loved each other and, more strangely, we actually liked each other. We could be verbally at war with each other on Tuesday nights, at a party laughing together on Friday nights, and at church giving each other bear hugs on Sunday mornings, only to repeat the process the next week.
This was something altogether new to me, and unusual in the larger scope of evangelicalism. In my experience with other churches, the ones that had any sort of diversity with regards to politics and culture were ones that didn’t speak much about politics and culture. The church in which I grew up likely had an equal number of Democrats and Republicans in it, but talking about politics in any form or fashion was anathema. (This probably explains how my views on the separation of Church and State developed.) The adults knew each other’s voting habits, so why bring it into church? Congregational life, in our view, was meant to address the spiritual side of life, not the political. Churches that did talk about politics and other cultural issues were made up of people, either by their choice or the command of their leaders, who held similar positions as each other.
As I look back on those times leading up to the end of 2004, I’m amazed at how grown-up everything felt, yet how the church was still barely a decade old. We were young people with little-to-no experience, or real knowledge about how congregational life worked. We were making it up as we went along. Our improvisation (as will be seen later) set in motion some tendencies that were unhealthy and set us on a path of heartbreak. But it also set in motion some tendencies that made, and continue to make, UBC a place of incredible beauty. We were not only politically diverse, as was made known in the Coffee and Culture community group, we would eventually discover how different we were theologically and ecclesiologically (i.e., what we understood church to be.) And these differences were never a source of contention to the point that we begin to question whether we could worship along side each other or not. In fact, they served to enrich our worshipping life together.
We were becoming a People.