The little girl with generous eyes and small teeth set in a wide smile, drifted from one side of the parade to the other. She offered a small pamphlet to everyone watching the parade, an invitation to a pageant at the African Methodist congregation. Courageous young spirit, I thought to myself.
The marching bands, floats and gallantry of the moment, reminded me of the refrain from an old battle hymn:
“We’re marching to Zion,
Beautiful, beautiful Zion.
We’re marching onward to Zion;
The beautiful city of God.”
Small town parades are a lot like the church in the world; a wobbling mass of humanity taking strides with gusto, and all headed to Zion.
A curious world watches us. There are moments when they see us stumble, and are eager to call it out. Other times, though, when one of us offers a ‘pamphlet’ in Jesus Name, they find an attraction in the light of our eyes. That’s when it happens, when they see the embodiment of God in the world, the many faces of what Jesus left to be His image bearer. It’s the whole church in step, marching to a destination. A reminder that the church is not a noun, but a verb, summed up in a single word—love.
The little girl who handed me the white slip of paper came to mind that afternoon on a run. I saw myself marching in a different kind of parade, and this is what I imagined:
“Up ahead I hear cries of pain from the lips of those marching. Onlookers on both sides of the street are throwing rocks, jagged and heavy, they rain on the stricken army, and many fall. “They did not love their life even unto death.” Behind me I hear shouting, jeering and laughing. A group of onlookers have pulled one of the marchers, a fresh- faced brown skinned man, out of the parade, are slapping him, spitting on him, beating him. Other marchers try to intervene, and they too are bullied. It’s chaos, and I feel afraid, small like a knot on a large oak. I scan the rows of onlookers. I don’t want to miss a step, but so much noise, so much distraction. I stumble to my knees, but someone lifts me by the arm, with the help of another. They don’t look or sound anything like me.
I scan the teeming mob of onlookers, and my eyes settle on a child, her eyes glued to me. I move toward her, and notice she is moving toward me. Our eyes speak, no words between us. My invitation is met by willingness. She leaves her place on the edge of the parade, and joins it. We take hands in the march. Marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion.
“How long will we march,” she asks?
“Until we see Zion,” I tell her.
“But how far is that?”
“Not far now, soon we will see it’s glistening walls.”
It was just my imagination, but then I recalled how the real parade in that small town had finished. The little girl with the pamphlets was still in sight. But there was a pause…
Voices grew quiet, movement stilled. The air felt on fire, an invisible heat all around us. We listened, and not from one direction, but from many it seemed, music of trumpets. They announced the final float, a silent manger scene, the re-creation of the moment God entered the world. Suddenly, it all fell into place. On this march, musical notes can fall flat, steps miscue, banners droop, and balloons fly away, but nothing matters accept the invitation, handed out by those in the parade who muster courage to touch calloused hands, and offer a smile to those who watch.
Thank you little girl with the generous eyes. We are world’s apart, you and I. Your rich African tradition in the AME church, my nonsensical journey out of unbelief. Both of us are marching to Zion. We are separated by worlds, yet deeply connected. You’re doing your part, and I mine. We are the church.
A reminder of everything, ever important, defined in a single exchange.