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As Christians—and most certainly as Trinitarian Christians who believe that God is a vibrant community of love and mutuality among three distinct Persons—we know that human beings created in the image of the Triune God were created for community. But sometimes you need community—or a form of it at least—to crop up in an unexpected place to realize afresh this basic theological truth: As chips off the old divine block, we are (at our best) drawn to commune with one another.
For me across most of this past year, such an unexpected burst of communal spirit busted out in, of all places, a mall. Starting last January and in the dead of a dark and cold Michigan winter, I heeded my doctor’s advice to get serious about daily exercise and so began to hoof my way around the Woodland Mall here on the southeast side of Grand Rapids. Although I did not know this, it turns out the mall opens seven days a week at 7:00am for walkers, a full three hours before stores open. The mall even provides a long corridor outfitted with coat hooks and benches so that those who walk have a place to put their coats and boots in the seasons when such attire is necessary.
So I began to walk, discovering on any given morning there in the dimly lit early-morning mall a fair number of other folks, many of whom, but by no means all of whom, are older. After a few weeks, I was able to recognize the score or so of regulars, most of whom seemed to know each other by name and some of whom soon began to ask for my name as I strode past (or in the case of some, as they strode past me). Over time, it got so I looked forward to seeing Mary and Pat, Bill and Terry. I became charmed by the oldest folks there: Wally and Dee. Wally just turned 90—I know because he was serenaded with “Happy Birthday” in front of the Williams-Sonoma store around 7:45am a few weeks back—and although he and Dee walk somewhat stooped and move at a mighty slow pace, they do a couple miles every day and always, always they are holding hands as they do so.
Slowly it dawned on me: this is in its own little way a community. People clearly are glad to recognize each other each morning, hail each other, occasionally even stop to chat or catch up on this or that piece of news from their lives. Sometimes pictures of grandchildren are shown off or—as happened some months ago—a picture of a son’s and grandson’s champion Lake Michigan Coho Salmon was displayed for anyone who cared to take a look. Near as I can tell, most of my fellow mall-walkers are like me: they don’t know each other all that well in actuality, and aside from a chance encounter at the grocery store at some other time in the week, they have no other contact with one another. Some of my fellow walkers are black, others white, still others Asian. A couple whom I believe to be Muslim are often there with the wife of the couple striding through the mall covered head-to-toe in a traditional hijab outfit.
And yet across those mornings, five or six days a week, people whose common bond is nothing other than taking advantage of a level, temperate walking environment encased by Sears, Macy’s, the food court, and a bevy of shoe stores manage to relate to one another and in some strange way even enjoy one another’s fleeting company. I am no different. A while back on a decently nice day, my wife asked me why I didn’t just walk around the neighborhood first thing that morning. I told her it was because I need the discipline of getting in my four miles and at a pace I can measure inside the mall. That’s true but what I did not mention at the time is that the first thought that occurred to me unbidden was, “Well, I’ll miss seeing Wally and Dee.”
We’ve all met people who seem to think that the church is a great place except for the people who populate it. Once in a while one runs across the Lone Ranger Christian, the one who claims “It’s just Jesus and me” but who has no use for the communal expression of the faith in your average congregation. There is much that is wrong with such an attitude, of course, not least because such a loner existence is at odds with the vibrant community of verve and zest and love and unity that just is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
But even shorn from such heavy-duty theology, my mall experiences of late have reminded me that somewhere not very far down in the human spirit is a desire to connect, to commune, to fellowship. Such bonds of relationship can pop out most anywhere, and it’s telling that this is so. This trait hooks us back to the God in whose image we were fashioned. Seeing that divine spark emerge—even if it’s in a dimly lit pre-dawn emporium of consumerism—is something I find very encouraging indeed.