Intentionally Welcoming

“Why do you always say ‘Everyone is welcome’?  It’s everywhere – on your website, on the Facebook page, in the bulletin.  Isn’t that a bit overkill?”

 The answer is simple – we say “Everyone is welcome” because not every church does. When the United Methodist Church voted to ban openly gay clergy and to refuse same-sex marriage, a clear message was sent. Everyone is, actually, not welcome there.

So we’ll say it with symbols – the rainbow wreath on our front door, the rainbow stripe on our church sign out front, and posters throughout our church – and we’ll say it with our actions.

 We need to say out loud what we wish was simply true everywhere. “Everyone is welcome” ranks right up there with the phrase “Black Lives Matter” in terms of expressing important truths.

Yes, we wish it wasn’t necessary to say that “everyone” is welcome, but lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender, and queer folk hear people debating their worth and value every day.

Yes, we wish it was clear that “all lives” matter, but too many people of color have been wounded by unequal treatment and by obstacles in housing, education, and employment.

Our congregation is called to proclaim that everyone is a beloved child of God, created in God’s image, and cherished by God. Every day we need to wonder – What if we treated everyone with grace and forgiveness? What if we took Jesus’ words to heart and really loved our neighbors?

We’re not perfect as a church. We don’t always get it right and there is still much we need to learn and do. But our intention is to be welcoming. Our mission is to learn from those on the margins and to listen to those who often feel overlooked or unheard.

This is not a time to declare our church or denomination “better” or more open than another. It is simply time to redouble our efforts to be even more intentional and more extravagant in our welcome.

May we take these words to heart, “Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we.”

Open Letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions

Dear Mr. Sessions,

You are a lawyer. I am a minister. Can we agree that I won’t attempt to sway your opinion by citing legal precedents if you won’t (mis)quote Scripture to support your claims?

My training tells me to be wary of anyone who selectively chooses verses out of context to prove a point. Our country has a sad history of misusing Scripture to promote abhorrent practices such as slavery, subjugation of women, and child abuse. That trend cannot continue.

Instead, let’s celebrate overriding themes that exist throughout the entire Bible. These include

  • Instructions to care for the “aliens and strangers” among us. That is repeated 36 times in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible.
  • “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” One way to demonstrate love for God is to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

There are lots more. There are stories about Jesus disregarding laws that caused God’s people to suffer and Jesus breaking every social code to include the outcast, the forgotten, and the unloved. There are stories of God’s people wandering in the wilderness and being dependent on the kindness and mercy of others in order to survive.

I don’t have to be a lawyer to know that we need laws to govern our land. But you don’t need to be a minister to know that those laws must be compassionate, just, and fairly executed.

Mr. Sessions, we could work together on this. You and I don’t need to share a faith. Our country is not ruled by religious law; we are not a theocracy. But basic human decency should inform us that children need their families. We should not inflict fear and suffering on the most vulnerable.

Terror, loss, and violence are driving desperate people to our borders. Let’s meet them with compassion and work to find a just, humane solution.

Sincerely,

Rev. Dr. Susan J. Foster

Holy Moments in a Secular Celebration

“Why does your church host a Fourth of July celebration?” I was asked in the midst of the joyous din that is our Fourth of July Jamboree. “Don’t you believe in the separation of church and state?”

I believe in it and give thanks for it daily. Our faith and beliefs cannot be dictated by any government. Our religious practices cannot be defined by outside forces. Separation can be a good thing. We are grateful for our country that allows us those freedoms. The Fourth of July offers the opportunity to give thanks for the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Life can rarely be neatly separated into “holy” and “secular” moments. God is bigger than particular dates on a calendar. If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we can become aware of the holy, even adorned in red, white, and blue.

During our Fourth of July Jamboree, there were games for children, a parade, the firemen’s water polo, chicken barbeque, hay rides, and an eclectic mix of music from our bandstand. The day was quintessentially Norman Rockwell, an old-fashioned celebration that brought people together.

Yes, the Fourth of July is a secular celebration. Yet in the midst of it, I witnessed some holy moments.

  • Hush. There was a blessed quietness that spread through the crowd as we prepared to sing the National Anthem reminded me of a sacred moment of worship. For just a moment, there was a lull in the chaotic cacophony of crying babies, exuberant children, and enthusiastic adults as together we paused to lift up our voices together.
  • Respite. People took a break from their busy lives. The psalmist urges us to “be still” in order to experience God’s presence. “Still” is not the word that comes to mind while the Cornet Band plays and hundreds of people mill about the common. But the pace was slower. People went on hay rides, enjoying the beauty of farm fields with corn and cows.  Families relaxed with picnics as they listened to the music.
  • Jamboree 4
  • Fellowship. People took the time to talk and laugh while meeting old friends. One of the ironies of our modern media age is the experience of increased isolation.  We communicate with computers on a daily basis yet often long for simple, human interactions.
  • Real – not virtual – life. There was not a computer in sight. That in itself is a blessing. Children played games, colored pictures, and giggled in the bounce house while adults pitched horse shoes, and people of all ages lounged in the shade, content to gaze at puffy clouds dotting the deep blue sky.Jamboree 3
  • Encouragement. As our somewhat rag-tag parade wound around the common – twice – we cheered each other on. The parade offered an opportunity to admire beautifully restored antique cars, gratefully applaud the platoon of volunteer firefighters, and clap for children riding decorated bicycles, and little ones riding the homemade “hobby horses” they had created earlier. Wouldn’t life be better if we were always freer with our compliments and praise?
  • Community. There was at least one woman there who joined our congregation because of the Jamboree. When her husband passed away, her only experience with a church was the joy she discovered at this secular celebration on the 4th of July. She reached out in her need and discovered a congregation glad to offer support and companionship.

God can’t be regulated out of existence. On secular days, holy days, good days and bad ones, God can be found where God is needed most – with God’s people.

Radical Hospitality

On May 2nd, I led a workshop about “radical hospitality” at Hartford Seminary.  Here are some quotes and images that I shared to emphasize my belief that God loves and welcomes everyone.

You’ve heard me say it before and here it is again: each one of us is known and named by God. The name God gives us is “beloved.” Because we are God’s beloved, we are always welcome in God’s sight to receive God’s gifts of love, forgiveness, new life and hope.

The question for faith communities is – how do we intentionally share, demonstrate, and announce that welcome?  That’s where hospitality comes in.

Henri Nouwen says, “Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy.   Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.”  (Reaching Out)

Hospitality and welcome are intentional acts.  People will rarely just “happen” to come t our places of worship.  We must provide an inviting website, an engaging Facebook page, and be proactive about creating a welcoming atmospher in our buildings. A book that offers very helpful insights = Side Door: How to Open Your Church to Reach More People by Charles Arn

Do our buildings reflect our welcome?  If someone walks into your church, what do they see?  Are there signs and symbols that reflect your eagerness to meet them?

Here is a sign that is on the door of my office:

Jesus didnt reject rainbow fish

And – how do we reach beyond our doors?  How do we go out and meet God’s people where they work, play, meet, and relax?

safe space for everyone

 

Here are some quotes that remind me of the importance of hospitality:

“If we could look into each other’s hearts and understand the unique challenges each of us faces, I think we would treat each other much more gently, with more love, patience, tolerance, and care.”      (Marvin J. Ashton

“Do not despise those faithful who come to you seeking hospitality. Receive them, put them up, and set them on their way with kindness, treating them as one of yourselves.”     (St. Cuthbert)

Welcome sign

“Not all wounds are so obvious. Walk gently in the lives of others.”    (unknown)

“Always leave people better than when you found them. Hug the hurt. Kiss the broken. Befriend the lost. Love the lonely.”   (unknown)

“In order to unite with one another we must love one another;  in order to love one another, we must know one another; in order to know one another, we must go and meet one another.”   (From the testament of Cardinal Mercier, Archbishop of Malines- Brussels, 1926.  Growing Hope by Neil Paynter)

Hospitality angels

 

Hospitality = Welcoming God’s People

Welcome sign

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it (Hebrews 13:1)”

My Doctor of Ministry thesis was all about hospitality. Together with my congregation I asked the question, “Who is missing from our church and how can we make them feel welcome?”

In this era of suspicion when fear and distrust are pervasive, hospitality urges us to open our hearts, our homes, and our spirits to God’s people, especially to those who might seem “other” or “different” than we are. “Truly I say to you,” Jesus reminds us, “as you did to one of the least of my brothers [or sisters], you did to me” (Matthew 25:40). Offering someone a safe haven or a seat on the bus or a place in our sanctuary can be life-changing.

My role models are courageous pioneers who have been on the forefront of radical hospitality. They have forged a path of welcome with their compassion for the plights of others. I am not sure I am as brave as those people who have stood up to tyranny, stared down injustice, and added their voices to the cry for freedom, but I am inspired by them.

I think about

  • People who offered shelter along the Underground Railroad, who provided food, water and encouragement to escaping slaves.
  • Suffragettes, who protested, went to jail and endured abuse so their sisters would be welcomed at the polls.
  • Individuals and families who rejected the Nazi claim to “racial purity” and opened their homes and hearts to Jews trying to escape certain death.
  • Freedom Riders – black and white – who rode into the segregated South to advance Civil Rights.
  • Straight men and women who have joined their gay sisters and brothers to demand equal protection under the law.

Real hospitality – the realization that all of God’s children are loved and precious in God’s sight – demands that we continually widen our welcome and intentionally make room for everyone at the table. Hospitality creates space for every person and leaves enough silence so all voices can be heard.

On November 2nd I will lead a workshop at Hartford Seminary entitled, “Proactively welcoming the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgender, Questioning) community into our congregations.”  When I am there, I will be thankful for those who went before me and made this day possible.  I will be thinking about people who were ridiculed, shouted at, reviled, imprisoned, and even killed because they were convinced that God loves all of God’s people. They lived a message of love, welcome, and hospitality.

I want to try to do the same.

Thoughts for Today:

Who will we welcome today?

Who will we encounter that needs to be reminded of their value and unique worth?

How will we live out God’s hospitality?