If I were to describe the people sitting around my table, you'd think I was starting a bad joke: a Hindu, a pair of Orthodox Jews, a Roman Catholic, a Buddhist, a couple of evangelical Christians, and a self-proclaimed atheist/anarchist all here by choice. And so far, no blood has been shed. In fact, they're getting along rather well. They disagree about quite a bit of course, but frankly, that's why we're all here. This is another weekly discussion event sponsored by Midrash.
"Midrash" is a Hebrew word that means "commentary." And that's what these discussion groups are an opportunity to comment on what is happening around us. We have all heard that it's not polite to talk about religion and politics in public. Well, Midrash aims to fly in the face of that conventional wisdom by tackling topics such as "Bush, Faith, and War" and "Poverty in St. Louis." Why ignore important issues simply because they are difficult or people have varying opinions? And what's more, how boring would it be to surround ourselves with people who think exactly the same things as we think? Instead, Midrash provides a forum where it's okay to disagree an environment where each opinion is respected and hopefully each opinion is challenged.
The twist that many people are surprised to hear is that Midrash is sponsored by a local Christian church called The Journey. (They're even more surprised when we host topics like "What's wrong with Christianity?") The Journey is a community committed to reaching out to those who are far from God and disillusioned with the church. Those of us who call the Journey home know that most people have had some kind of interaction with a church and it's likely that interaction has been negative. We would be the first to admit that no church is perfect. At the same time, we hope to be a community that is authentic and honest about those shortcomings but still has something positive to contribute to the lives of people with whom we interact. This is where Midrash comes in.
Midrash has several different incarnations throughout the month and throughout the city. Our primary focus is on discussion-oriented settings where people can stop by to weigh in with their opinion on the night's topic. So coffee shops are our most frequent setting. Each Tuesday night from 7-9 pm. at the Coffee Cartel in the Central West End and each Wednesday night from 9-11 pm. at Border's Café in Brentwood about a dozen people show up to discuss a new topic each week. Some people we've met are regulars and come every time. Others see our Midrash signs announcing the topic or overhear the conversation as they walk by and sit down to join us for all or just a part of the discussion.
Once a month (on the third Wednesday), we take a break from the normal coffee shop routine to scale it up a notch for what we call "Theology at the Bottleworks." Anywhere from 50-100 people fill the Crown Room at Schlafly Bottleworks in Maplewood from 7-9 pm. The conversation is moderated by one person up front, but made interesting by the varying opinions presented by everyone in the room. And with upcoming topics like "Controversies in Modern Art" and "The Impending Legal Battles on the Abortion Issue," conversation is always lively all while eating good food and enjoying good drink.
We also think that movies are a huge part of the dialogue that goes on in our culture. So on the last Friday of each month at 7:30 pm, we meet at Hanley Road Baptist Church at the corner of Hanley and Maryland Roads in Clayton to watch a particular film and discuss it afterwards. The conversation usually includes everything from the movie's cultural significance to its artistic merit.
At these events, we meet people from every possible walk of life. We often hear about how surprised someone is that a church would sponsor an event like this. It's unusual to see a church do anything outside their own walls, let alone in a local brewery. Sadly, our culture has grown accustomed to churches saying, "You must look like we look and think what we think, not do what we don't do, and come to our building. Only then will we welcome you in to our community." The Journey is proud to stand against this attitude and engage people wherever they are with whatever they think. And since pubs and coffee shops are where people meet and hang out, it is the natural place for Midrash conversations.
The community's response to Midrash has been overwhelmingly positive. People really do want to talk about the hard issues of the day and hear what others have to say. Newcomers to Midrash often comment that they thought the discussion would be preachy, but were pleasantly surprised at the fair and accepting nature of the evening that it did really feel like a conversation. Although no one has easy answers for why something like Hurricane Katrina happened or what to do about the sky-high poverty rates in the city of St. Louis, everyone knows that if we never talk about these tough issues, we'll never get closer to understanding them or begin to address them.
For those of us that lead Midrash events, we believe the world is drenched in God and that he speaks in ways other than what any one person might think on their own. So Midrash at its core is a set of community forums to broaden all of our perspectives, find common ground, and let God speak however he wants. For a list of upcoming topics and locations or to hear our trademark Midrash whisper, find us on the web at journeyon.net/midrash.
Ryan Wright is a St. Louis real estate professional who would much rather be hanging out in a coffee shop talking about important stuff.