I’m a library nerd. Along with bookstores and coffee shops, libraries have always been one of my favorite places to hang out.
A few weeks ago, as I strolled in to my local branch, an ad in the lobby brought me to a halt. It read: “Human Library.”
I meandered over and asked the twenty-something behind the counter about this new service being offered and discovered that I could check out volunteers—real, live people—for fifteen minutes at a time and interview them! She pointed me to a board on an easel listing “books” to choose from, such as “veteran,” “a woman who changed careers in her fifties,” and “transgender experience.” I walked away disappointed that I already had plans that afternoon.
But soon after, I realized I would have a similar opportunity the very next day when I walked into church. On Sunday morning, standing in the middle of the spacious lobby, there were couples with young children running circles all around them, a cluster of teens off to the side laughing, an elderly gentleman sitting on a bench with his walker, and a curious middle-aged stranger wandering in for the first time. Every week looks different, but the church is always a living, breathing assortment of people.
The church is a human library if there ever was one.
READ MORE STORIES
Christians have a long history of reading. Where the Bible has gone, literacy rates have almost always increased. Sometimes believing bibliophiles though miss the books we can read through the lives of others surrounding us. Within our own doors, when the church is gathered, it is a sanctuary filled with living stories. God has designed an extensive library that testifies to his character and his work in the world.
Just like my local library, the stories that are gathered together in the church are not a collection from one particular genre. Library shelves contain short stories next to long novels, textbooks alongside fairy tales. Those who come into the church have such a variety of experiences that shape them. These stories look, feel, and sound very different from one another. But are we too busy and distracted to notice that this stack of books even exists?
I was in ninth grade when I realized the value of others’ stories for the first time. I took up a life-changing volunteering opportunity. For four years, about once a week after school, I caught a public trolleybus and got off in front of Queen Elizabeth Park, a top tourist destination in my hometown of Vancouver, Canada. But instead of heading into the pristine park, I crossed at the crosswalk towards an overlooked sub-culture of people—a home for the elderly.
My main job, week to week, was to spend about an hour with one to three residents, one-on-one with them in their rooms. Based on my fluency in French, they matched me with three elderly ladies who also spoke French. I asked thought-provoking questions and kept digging until we found “the good stuff” in their treasure box of memories.
As I approached the end of my senior year of high school, I encountered my favorite assignment. Every morning, I got to play pool with a ninety-something-year-old man named Mr. Duckitt. He was a peculiar resident; too intelligent and inquisitive for his own good. He often provoked the other seniors with his challenging comments and questions as they all sat in their wheelchairs around square tables sipping tea in the dining hall. Many of the residents were content discussing the weather and the next activity on the day’s calendar. Mr. Duckitt dismissed such topics as boring and instead chatted with friends overseas late into the night using a transistor radio he had set up in his room.
When I showed up that summer, he was thrilled him to have someone to play pool with him each morning. Neither of us knew then—despite the seventy plus years that separated us—by the end of the summer, we would become good friends!
Every time I made a trip to the senior residence, I was also making a trip to a human library. I was taking out large tomes, flipping to random stories right in the middle. I imagine each story comprising chapter after chapter, full of plot twists all over the place. Long-winded. Complicated. Messy. And that’s the beauty of it.
READ MORE GENRES
There is a place for de-cluttering and keeping things simple, but it’s not in relationships. The more we open someone’s else’s book of life, the more we will get emotionally attached to the characters involved and become invested we will be in the dramatic outcome. This is in line with Scripture, which instructs, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God” (1 John 4:7). Sometimes when need to be ready to engage with a genre that we don’t particularly love to read. We might feel uncomfortable, overwhelmed, stretched, or maybe even worse, bored.
I’ll admit that although it was often a joy to get to know the people at the retirement home, there were also those who weren’t able to articulate the events of their lives coherently which made for an exercise in patience on my end. It’s in moments like these when temptation strikes. This is when our transactional, consumerist tendencies signal to us that someone is not worth our time if we don’t get something out of it right away. It’s easy to forget our calling to “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3).
In God’s economy, when we invest in people by showing interest in their stories, no matter what we get out of it, we uphold their inherent worth as image bearers and we resist the urge to show favoritism.
There has always been a temptation to stick to our favorite genres of people. When walking into the human library of the gathered church on a Sunday morning, our preferences can get in the way. James addresses this in his letter to Jewish Christians when he says,
My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ while you say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there,’ or ‘Sit down at my feet,’ have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? (James 2: 1-4)
The point isn’t limited to people’s clothing. It speaks to the motives that drive our social interactions. When I gather with my local church, is it my habit to look for those I find interesting? Do I gravitate towards those who stand to benefit me?
In the “Liturgy of the Ordinary,” Tish Harrison Warren writes about this internal dilemma:
We are drawn to those we find lovely and likable. Yet those Jesus spent his time among—and those most drawn to Jesus—were the odd, the disheveled, and the outcast. Those who were winning at life saw no need for this life-disrupting Savior. The people of God are the losers, misfits, and broken. This is good news-and humiliating. God loves and delights in the people in the pews around me and dares me to find beauty in them.
READ MORE BROADLY
Here are some ideas to get us started in engaging stories we might tend to overlook. First, look around in church and try to find one person whom you don’t know well. Take a moment to pray for them and ask for an opportunity to become better acquainted with them. Second, consider asking good open-ended questions. This skill can be inviting to others, if we’re intentional about it. Third, think like a reporter in search of what God is doing in the lives of fellow congregants in your church. Ask yourself: who lives on the fringe here? Who goes unnoticed? Who seems more difficult to get to know?
Next time you walk into the human library that is your local church, take notice. We are surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) of saints who have gone before us but all around us are living stories of what God has done and continues doing as he is building his church.
Don’t miss out on the vastness of his redeeming work by only reading in one or two genres, but look outside your normal spheres of interaction to broaden your engagement with the community of believers he has specially chosen to put you among that day.
Read broadly and don’t neglect the great shelf of witnesses placed on the pew next to you.
Karen Kessens is originally from Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada. She moved to Baltimore, Maryland in 2003 to take a nursing job at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She is now married to Chad and stays home with their four children. They worship at Cornerstone Community Church in Joppa, Maryland.