“Everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else.” ― David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
In David Foster Wallace’s gargantuan, dystopian, 1000-page behemoth of a novel, Infinite Jest, characters linked to the family of deceased filmmaker James Orin Incandenza battle through the banalities and the difficulties of everyday life in a tennis academy, an addiction halfway house, and on the trail of a film — known as The Entertainment or the samizdat — that is so entertaining that anyone who sees it becomes unable to stop watching, amusing themselves, quite literally, to death.
It’s Hamlet-meets-Neil Postman in novel form, writ very large, foreseeing the massive time waste of social media, Youtube, and clickbait in form, if not exact manifestation, from the technological vantage point of 1996, the year it was published. Wallace balances satire and cynicism with pathos and deep human emotion as he builds the disparate storylines into a loose convergence around, amongst others, Joelle van Dyne, a now-supposedly-disfigured young woman who veils her face, whose unbearably beautiful, unblemished visage was the subject of The Entertainment.
Last January, I offered a reflection of my first six months in ministry at St. Augustine’s Oak Cliff, a new church formed in 2014 from the merger of three congregations from the ethnically and economically diverse neighborhoods of Oak Cliff and South Dallas. When I began at St. Augustine’s, aside from my basic hopes to grow a vibrant and viable church to serve the community, I was hopeful that this merger and new mission in the rapidly redeveloping neighborhood might provide a laboratory and model for mission in a diverse, post-Christendom church. To paraphrase the David Foster Wallace quote above, in a world where everything is different, maybe we can find some similarities to share. A year-and-a-half into this project, I am beginning to see some of our successes, opportunities we have yet to engage, and a few challenges that we as St. Augustine’s will need to answer if we are effectively to serve either the needs of our neighborhood today or the Church of tomorrow.
St. Augustine’s ASA has grown by 35%, year-over-year. Pledged and unpledged giving has expanded. New members are joining, babies are being born and baptized, and families of long-time members are coming back. Our typical new member reflects the changing demographics of our context: a 20- or 30-something Anglo, college-educated creative entrepreneur or professional who had not been attending any church before visiting us. But we have also gained members in their 40s, 60s, and 70s who are African-American, Latino, and Asian. We started a nursery and children’s chapel, and a small groups ministry serving over 40% of our ASA.
In a world fractured by globalization, and haphazardly re-knit by social media, the networks of face-to-face relationships many of our members have in the neighborhood are essential to this success, along with a generous dose of the Holy Spirit’s renewing work. However, as much as a “neighborhood church” has purchase in a part of town with a strong local community like Oak Cliff, it is easy to wonder whether a true neighborhood or parish church is possible in a highly transient and mobile society. As a merged church, we had the benefit of being multi-generational from the beginning. While this offers a sense of depth that church plants often lack, we are now rich in young and elderly adults, but thinner in middle-aged parishioners who often provide the lion’s share of volunteer help, giving, and leadership in a traditional church model.
In the future, we face opportunities to continue cultivating our diversity and to commend to a post-Christendom mission context the parts of our Anglican tradition that are not easily understood. First, our church began with a healthy balance of almost equally African American and Anglo membership, and we are surrounded by a very diverse neighborhood: our lay and clerical leadership needs to reflect the culture and ethos of the neighborhood to accomplish effective ministry in this context. If we are successful in reaching de-churched young Anglos in the area, but don’t grow with Latinos or African Americans, can we call ourselves truly catholic, proclaiming a whole faith to all people? Second, even though the imprint of the Bible belt has left still-visible marks on Dallas’s proverbial waistband, striking the balance between worshipping in a tradition that reveals its greatest treasures after sustained repetition, and remaining evangelistically supple to a generation fed by instant-gratification, remains as much of a challenge as ever.
But this is where Infinite Jest has sharpened my expectations, and reshaped my tactics. Last year my reflection on St. Augustine’s progress was anchored around this quote from Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter, “… it is by the place we’ve got, and our love for it and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven.” I remain convinced that location matters, and that a neighborhood church celebrating the Eucharist in a place, for the life of the world is essential for the flourishing of both the place and its people. However, aspiring to Berry’s agrarian, locus-oriented ideal is not what the Church or the fractured mission field of post-Christendom culture lack. What we lack is either the hope or the creativity to believe and work to find the places where we could come together in Christ, in the face of this fracturing.
Surprisingly, in Infinite Jest I see glimmers of this hope. Though we may be fractured, different from everyone else, as Wallace puts it, there still exist places where we forge communities that can unite us. Wallace finds them in the recovering addicts of Ennett House, the troubled tennis prodigies of Enfield Tennis Academy, and in the places where grace and love visit and surprise the most disfigured and unlovable of us all.
I find it in my neighbors and parishioners, in the people who share my love for this corner of our city: in the Eastern Orthodox layman who talks with me about the neighborhood and the Church, the Baptist pastor who knocks on my door caroling at Christmas, and the Byzantine Catholic priest who offers book recommendations and timely words of encouragement. Maybe this is the new ecumenism: we are different, and for now we may remain so, but if what St. Augustine of Hippo said is true, that “a ‘people’ is… bound together by… the objects of their love” (City of God, Book xix, 24a.) perhaps our love for this neighborhood and the risen Lord we worship here may be enough to overcome the estrangement after all.
Paul Wheatley‘s other posts may be found here. The featured image was supplied by the author.
 David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, 10th Anniversary edn. (2006), p. 205.