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Grace (and garlic bread) at Philadelphia’s Oxford Circle

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Melissa Florer-Bixler

Just before the service I open the bag of bread, and the smell of garlic overpowers me. "Uh-oh," I think. I've accidently bought garlic bread for today's Communion celebration.

Fortunately, Oxford Circle Mennonite is a church that can take garlic bread in stride. Fifteen years ago Oxford Circle was a primarily white, middle class Catholic neighborhood in NE Philadelphia. The community experienced radical change as the previous generation was replaced with Latino and African-American families moving from low-resourced areas to their first owned homes.

Because of this change, Oxford Circle Mennonite congregants display a variety of socio-economic, racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds. Our first-Sunday-of-the-month anniversary celebrations are always a microcosm of this diversity. An interracial couple announces their second anniversary while a couple from an ethnic Mennonite background announces their fortieth year of marriage. Four of the churches many children excitedly shout their birthdays: Four! Seven! Twelve! Two! The man beside them quietly shares that this is his sixteenth month of sobriety.

It's beautiful and it's also hard. This diversity means we balance the worship desires of young evangelicals who love praise music with the congregants who grew up singing four-part harmony. We negotiate the pastoral reverence of the Black Church and the Anabaptist commitment to the priesthood of all believers. We work hard to retain the distinctives of our Anabaptist heritage while meeting the challenges of incarnational ministry.

At Oxford Circle, I'm often reminded of the church Luke writes about in the book of Acts. These early Christians also worked through the difficulties of ethnicity and religious tradition, sometimes painfully, sometimes having to give up their own cherished ideas about God and faith. There are no easy answers.

Breaking Bread Image

So, really, garlic bread for Communion is a little thing in light of the ways this church has grown, changed, and been challenged and transformed by the God who promised that in Jesus Christ all our differences would be overarched. This Sunday we enact this unity as the church gathers in a circle around the sanctuary and I lead us in Eucharist. "What do you bring to Christ's table?" I ask. The congregation responds, "We bring bread, made by many people's work, from an unjust world where some have plenty and most go hungry." I break the bread and it passes around the circle. The old serve the young, the young serve their parents, doctors serve day laborers and alcoholics serve police officers. Men and women who a generation ago could not swim in the same public pool offer each other an edible expression of our new reality as one in Christ.

Right now the garlic doesn't smell that bad. In fact, it smells a lot like grace: grace for a careless bread-choosing pastoral intern, grace for the ways we have historically looked for easy ways out of being the body of Christ, and grace for the ways we fail as we travel on this new way.

As we close our Communion service I say the prayer on all our hearts: "Hospitable God, who opens the food through bread and wine, may we see the place set for us so that, in turn, we may welcome others to your table. Amen."

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