Years ago, while working at a camp, Scott Wylie started referring to his safe space, where race or economic status didn’t matter, as “the bubble.” Whenever he left the camp, he would put on his metaphorical armor to deal with the world. Now, when it’s time to meet his monthly men’s group for brunch, he excitedly tells his wife, “I get to go into the bubble!”

“It’s like an exhale,” said the vicar of New Covenant Lutheran Church. “I get to leave the world behind to be with these souls and interact in the way I believe God wants us to interact.”

For almost three decades an interracial men’s group from New Covenant in East Cleveland, Ohio (a predominately Black suburb), and First Lutheran Church in Strongsville, Ohio (a predominately white suburb), has met to create a broader vision of what they believe God’s kingdom looks like. Chuck Knerem, who retired as pastor of First in 2022, said the group is “intentionally racially diverse and has been that way from the very beginning. Our primary goal has been to express God’s diversity in real life.”

Once a year the men go on a retreat together. Wylie, who attended his first one last year, said Friday evening was spent learning more about each person and their congregations, then on Saturday morning they discussed tough questions around race. “[Participants] cried as they remembered things from their past, but the men knew they were safe and could be vulnerable,” he reflected. “We could see what path this person walked down to get where they are today. Pastor Chuck said he doesn’t know if we could have had these conversations five years ago.”

“If we are willing to do the work and open ourselves up, allowing the Spirit to work in our midst … there is power that’s capable of changing and transforming lives.”

Even though they’ve been meeting since 1997, Knerem shared an “epiphany moment” from a retreat held about five years ago. A synod staff member joined them and had them pair up with a person from the other church. The prompt was: “Tell the other person how you grew up, what your experiences were, and be totally honest about it.” Knerem said it was the first time the men talked about who they really were and what kind of biases they brought with them.

“It broke open the whole group,” he added. “We started asking questions we might have been afraid to ask. It was mind-blowing and really paved the way for all future conversations.”

The men have learned that it doesn’t matter what side of town they live in or how they were raised, they have had similar life experiences: job losses, deaths, divorces, retirements, extreme losses and great joys. They have built deep relationships, challenged their own understandings, and grown to trust each other. “There’s not only a connection, but a one-ness,” Wylie said. “It’s not a ‘they/them.’ It’s a ‘we/us.’”

When the Black Lives Matter movement gained international attention in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd, Knerem called a friend from the men’s group. He wanted to know how his friend, a Black police officer, was processing it. Knerem also asked for help in expanding his perspective and understanding so that he could be a more effective pastor in his white congregation. They processed things theologically, too, with Knerem saying, “Following Jesus is hard” to do. Without the years of building relationships and hard work, Knerem believes these conversations may never have happened.

The men’s group is just one way these two congregations have been doing the hard work of building relationships. They have participated in pulpit exchanges, service events and more. “We’ve created a feeling of welcome in both congregations for people who don’t look like us,” Knerem said. “We see each other as family.” So much so that when Knerem retired, New Covenant closed that Sunday morning so members could join the celebration at First. “That says something,” said Knerem with tears in his eyes.

“You are welcome in the bubble. Let’s make it bigger.”

While this men’s group may sound like something special, members wish it wasn’t. “The church needs to stop playing church and be the church,” Wylie said. “The men’s group is a church. There are no games. I love you because you were made by the same creator that made me. We are far from perfect, but we are connected beyond our differences.”

Knerem agreed: “If we are willing to do the work and open ourselves up, allowing the Spirit to work in our midst … there is power that’s capable of changing and transforming lives.”

When asked how another church should begin if they wanted to start a similar group, Wylie responded: “If you’re in a congregation that is giving money to this cause or that cause, maybe to people that are economically disadvantaged, I ask, ‘Do you know them? Do you visit them? Do you talk to them? Or do you know of them? Do you make an effort to get to know your siblings?’ The church can lead the way. Be the church.”

Then with a big, warm smile, Wylie gave an invitation: “Come in the bubble. You are welcome in the bubble. Let’s make it bigger.”

Jenny Frantz
Jenny Frantz is director of communication and formation for the Northeastern Ohio Synod.

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