It’s Sunday at Nueva Creación, a Spanish-speaking church in the Chicago suburbs. If you are coming here for the first time, you might be taken aback, as I was, by the standard greeting.
After a warm handshake, the other person leans in for a hug and to exchange a kiss on the cheek. Just about every person in the room will greet you this way. When the service is over, goodbyes are handled in the same manner. On any given Sunday, you might receive a total of over 60 hugs and kisses in this small congregation.
It took a while for this practice to grow on me when we first started attending Nueva Creación. Having grown up in American society, I was fine with handshakes and sometimes hugs, but kissing grown men and women I barely knew? Not so much.
I would lean forward rigidly and place my cheek next to theirs, making the appropriate kissing sound, but careful not to make contact between lips and skin. Most of the congregation approached me without reservation. Elders graced me with bold smacks. Older women held me captive in their generous bosoms much longer than I thought necessary. I often leaned in on the wrong side, resulting in head bumps and apologies.
Though I probably could have resisted, signaling with my body language that I preferred only a handshake, I continued with the hugs and kisses, wanting to respect and integrate with this group. After a few months, I noticed I left church always smelling like a mixture of perfumes, but I also noticed something else: I felt loved in a way I’ve seldom experienced at other churches I’ve attended.
While the general warmth of people in Latino cultures might partially account for this, there is something to be said, I think, for the power of touch.
Research has shown that touch is an extremely effective way to communicate emotion and care.
Research has shown that touch is an extremely effective way to communicate emotion and care. In one study, participants were asked to communicate various emotions to a complete stranger through a one-second touch on the forearm. Remarkably, the person receiving the touch guessed compassion correctly nearly 60 percent of the time. They guessed gratitude, anger, love, and fear right over 50 percent of the time as well.
Another study demonstrated that preterm babies who received just three 15-minute sessions of touch therapy each day for 10 days gained 21 to 47 percent more weight than premature infants who received standard medical treatment.
It makes sense that the more you are touched in a respectful, caring way, the more loved you will feel.
Yet in many social situations in North America, including in some churches I’ve attended, we shy away from touching each other for more than the briefest of handshakes. We worry about things getting awkward, about the other person or bystanders misinterpreting our intent. Our worry is rooted in a fear of bodies and a misunderstanding of their role in our lives.
“What are bodies for?” Elizabeth Lewis Hall asks in an article by that title. Modern thinking gives bodies no ultimate purpose—they are simply to be controlled and transcended—while postmodernity turns bodies into commodities to be marketed, sold, and consumed. Both approaches divide our bodies from our selves. We aren’t really our bodies, the thinking goes, so we try to escape their limits and messiness, or we do whatever the heck we want with them, because what happens in our bodies ultimately doesn’t matter.
The fact that God raised Jesus’ body, not just His spirit, points to the truth that our bodies are part of our eternal being.
Christians have perpetuated and at times aggravated this concept of a body/soul division, which has been around since before the church began. Second-century Gnostics, identified as a heretical Christian sect by later church councils, adopted the Platonic idea that the material world is an impure shadow of the perfect world of ideas, casting the body as an evil trap the spirit must strive to escape.
Versions of Gnosticism have haunted the church ever since. Since bodies can get us into a lot of trouble, it’s best, we often think, to not pay them too much heed. Even if our bodily needs and desires aren’t leading us into sin, they are distracting us from holier, more “spiritual” pursuits.
The Bible gives us much reason to resist this body/soul divide. Jesus’ incarnation as the God-man forever joined body and spirit together. The fact that God raised Jesus’ body, not just His spirit, points to our own hoped-for bodily resurrection and the truth that our bodies are part of our eternal being, not just a temporary shell that we will one day shed.
Far from being a burden on our spiritual lives, our bodies can actually aid us in connecting to God and others. Hall explores this idea by using 1 Corinthians 6:13-20, where Paul talks about our bodies as a physical part of Christ, among other metaphors. Because we are joined to Christ and to the other members of His body, what we do with our individual bodies affects the whole. When we use them outside of God’s intention (uniting with a prostitute, being Paul’s example), this distances us from Christ and His people. But when we use our bodies according to God’s intention—to love and care for others, to serve, to worship—this glorifies God and strengthens the bond among believers.
At Nueva Creación, this truth is readily apparent. Through each hug and kiss, I am reminded that the body of Christ is not some ephemeral essence out there, but this woman in front of me with her warm, glistening cheeks, and this stocky man with his poky moustache and robust hugs. Together, we are joined to one another as Christ’s own body, not just through creedal statements and doctrine, but also through the touching of arms, skin, and lips; through the receiving of bread and wine.
With each touch, this knowledge is planted more deeply in my bones: I am not an isolated, disconnected individual, but one knit together with others. I am loved. I am enfolded. I am part of a mystery bigger than myself—the mystery of God in flesh and blood. When I reach out to kiss Lupe or Alma or Oscar, I am touching the body of Christ.
Photograph by Ryan Hayslip