Melissa Florer-Bixler is licensed for ministry in Virginia Mennonite Conference, although she currently serves the people of Duke Memorial UMC in Durham, North Carolina as Minister of Nurture. She parents three small children with her husband, Jacob. They worship as a family at Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship. Melissa is active in a group working to found a new L’Arche community in Durham.
It was difficult way to start my first sermon. Walking to the pulpit just as the sermon hymn ended, I saw Adam out of the corner of my eye. His hands were outstretched as he took shaky steps towards me, his whole body convulsing. Adam was in the midst of a complex partial seizure. It was the first time I’d seen Adam seize and I tried to compose myself for preaching while another house assistant rushed to his side.
A few months earlier I had driven across the country, fresh out of graduate school to spend a year living with men and women with intellectual disabilities who shared common life in a home called L’Arche.
In L’Arche we call people like Adam “core members” because they make up the center of our common life. But in the process of providing daily support, praying together, celebrating anniversaries, birthdays and holidays, we learned to see and care for the brokenness in one another. Eventually we chose each other as friends.
My time in Portland was marked by another community – the people of Portland Mennonite Church. Friends of mine told us about Portland Mennonite. They grew up in that church. Their parents, Bruce and Kathy were members there. Maybe I should check it out. I went to Portland Mennonite my first Sunday in Oregon. I’ve worshipped in a Mennonite church almost every Sunday since.
Like L’Arche, Portland Mennonite received me as I was, confused about my vocation, newly dating the man who is now my husband, wrestling through my denominational identity. It was this church that first invited me to the pulpit and into leadership in the church. It was this church that gathered around me during some of the biggest decisions and transitions of my life – getting married, having my first baby, discerning a call to pastoral ministry.
They received all of me at a time when I most needed friends.
Looking back, I cringe to think about the content of that first sermon. Years into pastoral ministry I can laugh at how dry, academic and confusing I must have sounded. But there was grace that Sunday. And the grace that covered me extended to my friend Adam. In the face of Adam’s differences, this seizure in the middle of church, times when core members from L’Arche would bring disruption and disorder to Sunday worship, my church embraced us.
Soon after Adam’s seizure, our L’Arche home was filled with the familiar voices of our Portland Mennonite friends. We were having an open house. The house was hazy with close-packed bodies, laughter, and warm food. Adam diligently shook hands with each new “buddy” while another core member, Marilyn shared her many thoughts about life in our community.
It struck me that night that we were in midst of God’s presence. At the time I was reading Rowan Williams book Resurrection. In it he writes that,
“to let the other be strange and yet not reject him or her, to give and be given attentive, contemplative regard – this is all part of our encounter with the risen Lord.”
To be strange, to receive another – these were the gifts of friendship, belonging, and strangeness that embraced us all.