Every September, I do the Braking AIDS bicycle ride from Boston to NYC. It is 3 days and almost 300 miles, so it is quite a challenge. Two years ago, the ride lost use of the space in Griswold, CT where they had traditionally set up an oasis. Oases are where riders take breaks over the course of the day. It is very important to have one every 10-18 miles to keep riders nourished and hydrated, and to allow us to use the bathroom. Most oasis sites charge us a fee, and we staff them with our own volunteers - they just provide the space. In serious need of a new space, our ride director approached First Congregational Church of Griswold, which is a congregation in the United Church of Christ tradition. Not only did they say yes to hosting us, but they told our director that they would staff the oasis with church members, and they would not be charging us anything to use it. When we arrived, they had prepared hot soup, homemade pie, and ice cream for us. Their children had made cards for each rider during Sunday school. They had a wooden cross that they asked us all to sign to memorialize the ride. And to top it off, they had a special offering the Sunday before the ride and made a donation to the event. They truly reflected the love that Jesus taught at the heart of the Gospel.
Today, one of their members posted on our Braking AIDS community page on Facebook. Here is what she wrote: "The lives of the riders are not the only lives that change with this ride. The lives of the volunteers from First Congregational Church of Griswold are changed, too. You, the riders and crew, have enriched our faith. You have provided us with more smiles then you could ever know, and you have made us a better 'church family.' We will be praying that God keeps you all safe until we meet for 'soup and pie' next September."
This church was the high point of my ride. It was the most Christ-like encounter I have had in a church, and it didn't involve a formal service. Jesus taught a message of radical love and grace. Those on the margins were his primary audience, and his message was incredibly potent and attractive to those in need of healing. It challenged and enraged those who were enthralled by the prevailing systems of domination and power, and they sought to destroy him and his message. This didn't work. The message was so potent that it took on new life, resonating in ever larger ways. At times, the message has come under duress, but it has always found new expressions and ways to continue to reverberate in the world.
We live in a time when the message of love and grace is under terrible strain. For decades, conservative Christianists have allied with powerful voices on the far right of American politics, distorting Jesus' teachings in order to affirm their own righteousness and condemn those who are different from or disagree with them. The damage has been enormous. Communities like First Congregational Church of Griswold stand as a beacon of hope and truth during these turbulent times. What they do isn't easy, yet I know where I am placing my bet, because love always wins.