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Pictures of Diversity and Unity

August 16, 2022
Sandra Van Opstal speaking at Inspire 2022
Sandra Van Opstal speaking at Inspire 2022
Joani Veenstra

Murals, said Sandra Van Opstal, are sociocultural interpretations of people who have lived through something together. Van Opstal is a second-generation Latina pastor, activist, and author who shared with Inspire 2022 attendees how she likes to walk through her Chicago neighborhood and explore what the murals on buildings tell her. She also painted for listeners a mental mural, based on Scripture, about what the church can and should be in the future. 

Van Opstal is the executive director of Chasing Justice, and she speaks often about the intersection of faith and justice. She was asked to speak at Inspire 2022 on the theme “Inspired to be one . . . with our neighbors,” which connects with the third milestone of the CRCNA’s Our Journey 2025 ministry plan: Grow in diversity and unity by seeking justice, reconciliation, and welcome, sharing our faith as we build relationships with and honor the cultures of our neighbors and newcomers.

“[This topic] is one I have been clinging on to for 20 years of ministry, especially for the last two years as I have watched the church in North America struggle to find its footing with one another,” she said. “To inspire is to fill someone with the urge to do or feel something new – especially something creative. When we inspire someone, we help them to imagine something that doesn’t exist yet.”

Van Opstal is inspired by the murals she sees on her Chicago walks. They speak to her of the realities of gun violence, the struggles faced and overcome by immigrants, and the hopes and dreams that young people have for the future. 

“Murals help us to imagine,” she said. “As God’s people, we have a story. We have murals that tell us who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. I am going to look at two murals, or pictures, in Scripture that remind us that we are created, redeemed, and empowered to be one – and three practices to help us live that out.”

The first mental mural Van Opostal shared was from the book of Revelation -- where a “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, [is] standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9) and where “God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4).

This mural, said Van Optstal, shows that we have an ultimate destination. “We are God’s people – plural. This is a mutliethnic, multilingual, multinational people who are flourishing in God’s presence,” she said. “There is redemption, healing, and liberation – this is the goal; this is the promise.”

But, Van Opstal added, this is not yet our current reality. Revelation shows us that there will be a new heaven and a new earth, but in the times where we currently live we are not there yet. 

“I like to say that we are in the now and not-so-much-yet,” she explained. “It is in this place of tension that we journey in life. It is this tension that we are sometimes inclined to ignore, but much of the world cannot. This tension leads us to acts of justice.”

She used the metaphor of flight to explain this point further. When people first invented air travel and later space travel, she said, they began with acknowledging reality and used that to spark creativity. 

“The question was not whether or not gravity exists. The question was ‘How do we defy gravity?’” she said. 

In the same way, she argued, as we think about our lives in the “not-so-much-yet,” we need to acknowledge reality before we can move forward toward the Revelation vision that God has set for us. 

“The question is not ‘Is there pain and sin and suffering in the world?’ The question is ‘How do we move through it? How do we name it? How do we acknowledge it? How do we lament it? And how do we overcome it?’”

The second mural Van Opstal shared comes from Ephesians 2, especially verses 14 and following. All too often, she pointed out, we focus on the first part of that chapter but ignore what happens after verse 11.

“We spend a lot of energy talking about the fact that we are saved, but so little energy and imagination describing what we are saved for,” she said. 

What are we saved and redeemed for? “So that we can belong to one, new humanity,” she explained.

Van Opstal argued that achieving this oneness as God’s people takes work in the same way that it does in a marriage. When a couple prepares to get married, they often have premarital counseling, are encouraged to have good communication throughout their marriage, and may later go to marriage counseling when they hit a rough patch.

“We know the theological reality of oneness in the mystery we call marriage, but we acknowledge that the practical expression takes work,” she said. “How do we not do the same in the church when it comes to our oneness?”

Van Opstal used her own marriage as an example. She said she and her husband are very different in their backgrounds, their personalities, and their approaches to life. And they acknowledge and talk about those differences. 

“It doesn’t affect that we are in love,” she pointed out, “but it does impact how we love.”

In the same way, Van Opstal encouraged the Christian Reformed Church in North America to acknowledge and talk about the differences that are present in its churches. 

“Oneness is not politeness. Oneness is not agreeing. Oneness is not lack of conflict,” she said. “Oneness is the grace and truth of recognizing that every headline that hits the news hits all of us differently. There are multiple Chrisitan views on a headline – multiple responses. Those differences are racially, culturally, and generationally divided.” 

When we acknowledge these things, she said, it allows us to bring our anxieties, frustrations, hopes, and dreams to the cross, come together, and explore a way forward as God’s people.

Van Opstal presented three practices to help us live into the murals that Scripture has painted for us. The first is hospitality, which she described as “not an act. It is a lifestyle and a culture where we create environments of welcome – and where, when there isn’t, we speak up to create that welcome.”

The second practice is solidarity. “Solidarity says that ‘we stand with you,’” she said. “It sees, names, and stands with people in their experience.” It also includes lament, she said. 

And the third practice is mutuality. “Mutuality communicates not only that we welcome you and stand with you but also that we need you,” Van Opstal said. It assumes reciprocity with the other, and it acknowledges that we can learn from people who are not like us. 

If we embrace these practices, said Van Opstal, we can begin to live into the murals that God has painted for us in Scripture. We can be a multiethnic, multilingual, multinational church that has been created, redeemed, and empowered to be one. What’s more, she argued, we can paint a picture that is a witness to others.

“In our reality, the church is a mural that tells a story,” she concluded. “We can be a foretaste of heaven that points the way to the future of God. What might we inspire one another to do?” 

Van Opstal’s full talk is available here