North State Voices: Letter to the church: Stop singing louder
By Joanna O’Hanlon

wailing wall

An open letter to the Christian church:

I heard a story recently about a church in Europe during the Holocaust. The church was situated right in front of the railroad tracks. They would meet for Sunday services and the parishioners could hear screams as the trains chugged closer, approaching their house of worship. They were the screams of human beings being lugged like cattle to the camps — to their deaths.

So the congregation would sing louder to drown out their screams.

I heard this story at a conference tied to an outreach opportunity on a recent Saturday in the Tenderloin area of San Francisco — a place known for being home to many who are down and out. Local legend says the Tenderloin even gets its name from the corruption that pervaded the area back when the police’s blind eye to what was happening there could be bought with a choice piece of meat. Now it is “home” to most of the city’s homeless.

In the closing conference session, a local pastor and nationally acclaimed Christian author, Francis Chan, related the above story of the church on the railroad tracks.

He told the simple truth that once he saw the lives of the people living on and around the streets of the Tenderloin, he couldn’t handle the idea of just singing louder, so he stayed there and is doing something about it.

Unfortunately, much of the Christian church still has the habit of ignoring the injustice of the world. In fact, we often use religious things to excuse or make up for our complacency.

The problem in the church is our love of comfort. It drives us to choose to remain ignorant because it’s easier on our minds, our lives, our time, our wallets.

I’ve done it more than I can stomach. You may have, too.

But more than anyone, Christians are very clearly called to care about social injustice. The Jesus of the gospels was not one to ignore oppression. He called injustice out. He cared about the cast-outs, the dropouts, and the not-good-enoughs. If I know anything about the God of the Bible, it’s that he cares about people. All people. Deliberate ignorance has to stop.

Why do people dislike the church? Because when victims of injustice scream for help, we have historically stayed inside and drowned them out with our hypocritical melodies.

The next day after the conference in the Tenderloin, I was sitting in church in Granite Bay, and a pastor was speaking from the pulpit about an organization that fights against sex trafficking in Asia. He was saying, “They are pulling girls out of brothels and liberating them and rehabilitating them. But do you know how young some of these girls are when they are first trafficked? As young as 4 years old.”

As he said that last part, the woman sitting next to me closed her eyes tightly, made a foul face and plugged her ears. She waited until he was done talking before she tentatively opened one eye, saw that he was through, and then unplugged her ears, letting her face return to a relaxed smile.

Maybe, like Mrs. Bennett in “Pride and Prejudice,” the harsh truth was just too much for her nerves.

But maybe if she had listened, that vomit-inducing, heart-wrenching truth about 4-year-olds being sold and raped repeatedly would’ve been too much to ignore. Maybe she would’ve been disturbed as some of us were for the rest of the day. She would’ve thought about it that night as she tucked her daughter into bed. Maybe it would’ve been enough to spur her to do something about it.

But because she plugged her ears, when the next song was played, she just smiled, and she sang loudly.

To those who have been the victims of injustice while the people of God did nothing, my heart breaks for you, and so does the heart of God. There is no excuse. To those in the church, let’s write a new story of the church where we are willing to abandon comfort for the sake of people, because people matter to God, and they should matter to us.

Joanna O’Hanlon is an adventurer and story-teller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.  Other places are

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