Housing the Holy

We will begin our celebration of Advent on Sunday. In our congregation, uur Advent theme this year is “Housing the Holy.”  Christmas begins with the familiar story of Jesus’ parents searching for a place to stay at this critical moment in their lives. We have only the barest description of their plight; we are told simply that “there was no room for them at the inn” (Luke 2:7). We can only imagine the fear, worry, and concern they experienced as they sought for a place for Mary to give birth.

            The “innkeeper,” a popular figure in most church pageants, does not actually appear in Scripture. Our imaginations have ranged between a belligerent gatekeeper who refused entry to the inn and a creative, out-of-the-box thinker who recognized the stable as a worthy substitute for these desperate parents. Whoever directed Mary and Joseph to their hay-filled accommodations changed history forever. Suddenly it became clear that the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, the long- awaited Messiah, would enter the world humbly. He didn’t need a pristine resting place. Jesus’ arrival foreshadowed the way he would live his life – he surprised the wealthy, powerful king by being born in the simplest surroundings. He was prepared for a life of living amongst the outcasts, the forgotten, and the overlooked.

            Advent, it turns out, is an opportunity to celebrate hospitality.  In these weeks leading up to Christmas, we can wonder how we can make room for God in our lives and how we can house the holy in our lives.  How do we welcome God’s Spirit of new life? Hospitality is all about inviting someone in.  It is about making room in our hearts – and in our overbooked schedules. When we encounter an obstacle (“the inn is full”), do we imagine other ways to accomplish our goal (“the stable could be a birthing place”)? Are we prepared to be surprised by a God who appears in unusual places? 

We live in a world that is often inhospitable and which does not always welcome the outcast or the stranger.  How can we open our doors and our hearts?

The days between now and Christmas often fly by. We can get so busy with activities that we don’t notice the quiet whisperings of God. How can we make room for God who is always seeking us?  Can we pause? Slow down? Listen?

During this special season of Advent, let us make room so that we can house the love, peace, and hope of God in our hearts.  And then let us share those gifts freely with others.

Worrying about the children

I can’t get the children out of my mind. Refugee children in detention centers without soap or toothbrushes and sometimes without beds. Children who have been separated from their parents and who barely have enough to eat. Children forbidden to go outside to exercise or play.

            We didn’t invite them here. These children did not ask to be caught up in this violent and dangerous situation. Many do not want them here (I would urge the wealthiest country in the world to consider its obligation to help those less fortunate but that is an argument for another day). The fact remains – the children are here.  They are in our country. What will we do? The way we respond to the weak and desperate defines who we are as a nation. The world is watching. How will we react?

            When I think about the children in the migration centers, I think of my own children at that young age. I remember vividly how vulnerable they were when they were frightened or lonely or sick. When I think of these migrant children who are alone, cold, and afraid, I imagine them crying without comfort or care being provided.  It breaks my heart and makes me furious in equal measure.

            The argument has turned petty. Withholding toothbrushes? Refusing to allow them to shower or bathe? Rationing soap and confiscating blankets? Some would argue that harsh treatment will discourage additional refugees from entering our country. The idea that people are risking their lives in order to be treated inhumanely in detention centers defies logic. No one is crossing the border to get a clean toothbrush. Desperate parents are trying to save their lives and protect their children. They are risking everything in search of safety, security, and a chance for a new life.   

            Responding to thousands of refugees fleeing from countries filled with violence and danger is a huge challenge. Fear is driving them to our border. Our country needs to take action in this very human crisis. We don’t have to agree on immigration policy before we recognize our obligation to provide basic care for these homeless, hurting children.

Our country was founded by immigrants. We are known as a generous, caring country who rushes to the aid of people across the globe. Now those people are on our doorstep. We may not be able to find homes for all of them, but we can treat them with the dignity that all human beings deserve. If Congress cannot find a way to provide toiletries for children, the government should turn to faith communities and other non-profits. Provide 2000 toothbrushes?  We can do that in a heartbeat.

In the meantime, if you, like me, are looking for a concrete way to respond, you may choose to donate to agencies that are aiding refugees. Here are some:

The Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project  

KIND: Kids in Need of Defense  

UCC Refugee Relief 

            I will pray that we will learn how to put “love your neighbor” into action.

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.


Rev. Dr. Susan J. Foster

Loving the “other”

Have you ever had the experience of being “other than” everyone else? Have you ever felt like an outsider or been excluded because of some characteristic that somehow defined you?

Even after all these years, I clearly remember how it felt to be the only 7th grader in an 8th grade gym class. Some scheduling error determined that unhappy fate for me. One might think that a year’s age difference was not insurmountable. My parents cheerfully assured me it would be a learning experience. The teacher was uninterested in my reluctance. During that very long year I endured “missing” sneakers, my (incredibly ugly, yet required) gym uniform repeatedly disappearing, cold water being poured over the shower curtain, and endless snide remarks. I was the “other” and thus, easy prey.

Years later, while working in Germany, I was searching for an apartment. In those  pre-internet days, one would write a note in response to a newspaper advertisement. If an apartment was still available, the landlord would then call. Time after time, when the apartment owner heard my accented German, the apartment suddenly became “unavailable” and the phone call ended. No one wanted to welcome an “outsider” in.

Perhaps you know what it’s like to be the “other” because of your

  • gender
  • skin color
  • nationality
  • sexual orientation
  • age
  • beliefs or political opinions

We humans are too ready to divide ourselves up, to single someone out, and to ostracize those who seem “other than” how we define ourselves. Perhaps it’s a defense mechanism. Maybe life seems safer that way.

Jesus defied those rules of segregation and lived a life of welcome instead. His dinner table would have been empty if he hadn’t invited the outcasts, the shunned, and the misfits to join him.

His teaching stories reminded people that all of us are God’s children. One of his best-known parables is titled “The Good Samaritan” because it was so shocking to his 1st century listeners that a despised Samaritan could share compassion and embody loving kindness. Jesus reminds his followers that this unlikely hero lived the message of the Gospel.

The Samaritan knew what hate felt like. He offered kindness instead.

The Samaritan had experienced being “the other.” He offered a helping hand instead.

Sometimes people feel called to “give up” something for Lent.

This year, let’s try to give up hate. Or judgment. Or just being mean.

Instead, let’s take on love. And compassion. And kindness.

The poem “Outwitted” by Edwin Markham speaks to me during this Lenten season:

They drew a circle to keep me out,

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.

But love and I had the wit to win,

We drew a circle that took them in.


Good Samaritans I have known

Jesus told us, “Go and do the same” as the Good Samaritan.  Go and

  • Be that caring.
  • Recognize the need right in front of you.
  • Be willing to reach out to someone who is different than you.
  • Break down the barriers and go the extra mile.
  • Dare to speak up.

That’s what it means to love God and our neighbor. How do we do that?

Maybe we can be inspired by Good Samaritans we have encountered in our lives.  Have you met one?  I know I have.

  • The stranger who paid for my coffee in the drive-through lane.
  • The kind lady who allowed me to go ahead of her in line at the grocery store.
  • The thoughtful person who left scones at church for me and my secretary, with a note, “You are appreciated!” It made our day.

There was the family who gave me a ride to a distant city when I was in college. When I missed the bus to my summer job, they brought me to their home, fed me supper, let me stay overnight, and then delivered me to the correct bus in the morning.  I don’t remember their names, but I cherish the memory of their kindness and hospitality.

Good Samaritans are all around us, if we look.  I see them in

  • The volunteers who cook for our community kitchen each week.
  • The man who brings the newspaper in every day for his homebound neighbor.
  • The child who draws a picture to cheer up a sick friend.
  • The knitters who create prayer shawls.
  • The young mother who breastfeeds an abandoned baby in foster care so he’ll have a healthy start on life.

None of those actions change the world.  Neither did the Good Samaritan; he simply helped one wounded stranger by the roadside. But the story of his compassion is being told 2000 years later because he made a difference.

There’s much we can’t do.  That shouldn’t stop us from doing what we can. We need to share kindness. We need to love our neighbor. We need to go past our comfort zone and reach out to others. We need to recognize that stranger as another one of God’s beloved children.

We need to go and do the same.

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


Proactively Welcoming the LGBTQ+ Community into our Faith Communities

Jesus didn't reject people. Neither do we. United Church of Christ.
Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we. United Church of Christ.

On November 2, 2015 I led a workshop at Hartford Seminary entitled “Proactively Welcoming the LGBTQ+ Community into our Faith Communities.”  With about 20 people in attendance, we had energetic conversation about how to widen our welcome to include all of God’s people.  Below are some of the good ideas and resources that were collected during our time together:


Eric Elnes  Darkwood Brew   DVD about LGBT issues


  • Fish out of water Vanderbilt University.  “A spirited documentary that explores the seven Bible passages notoriously used to condemn homosexuality and justify marriage discrimination.”
  • For the Bible tells me so. “A compassionate and insightful documentary about the contemporary face of an old conflict between Christian fundamentalists and gay and lesbian people.”  Among the interviewees is Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson.
  • Bridegroom. “On May 7th, 2011 a young man named Shane Bitney Crone tragically lost the love of his life, Tom, to an accident. Because they weren’t married or prepared for the unexpected, Shane lost all legal claim to Tom after he died.” Struggles of a same-sex couple living in California during Prop 8 (which banned same-sex marriage).
  • Out Late. This featurefilm looks at five individuals who made a decisive change later in life-to come out as lesbian, gay, or transgender, after the age of 55.
  • Milk. Depicts life of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk.
  • Before Stonewall. The history of the gay and lesbian community before the Stonewall riots.
  • After Stonewall. Historical retrospective of the Gay Rights movement from the 1969 Stonewall riots.



Denominational resources:

Local resources:

  • Find a PFLAG meeting near you. Look at their  website
  • The Loft (Fairfield CT). Associate Pastor of First Church Congregational, the Reverend Jennifer Campbell and her colleague, Dr. Liane Nelson facilitate a youth group called The Loft for lgtbq teens (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning) and their friends every Friday from 4-5:30 at The Community House of First Church, 148 Beach Road.   More information about   First Church Fairfield

If/when a congregation is feeling “stuck” – they don’t know how to revitalize their Open and Affirming welcome or perhaps haven’t even begun the conversation about formally declaring their welcome, that church needs to

  • Talk with other ONA churches
  • Listen to the stories of the LGBT community and remember why this welcome is so important

The feeling of being “stuck” is often related to fear – fear of losing members, fear of offending someone, fear of losing money or pledges.  Take the time to name the fear – by unmasking the fear we can take away some of its power.


  • Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two by Allan Berube


Example of Morning Welcome in Worship; this can be crafted to fit any week and church season and can be adjusted to include a variety of descriptions:

Although the temperature may not feel like it, the spirit around town these days feels like Fall is here. Welcome to you if you have been away for the summer and now are coming back; we hope your summer had some Sabbath moments in it. Welcome to you if you are new to town, or just decided to visit us for the first time; we are glad you are here and look forward to getting to know you, and to you getting to know us. We actually mean it when we say everyone is welcome here, because we represent a wide variety of folk of different races and ethnicities, gender and sexual orientation, age and marital status. A few of us have lived in greater New Haven all our lives, but most of us are from somewhere else originally. Many of us live in New Haven now, but we also live in Hamden, North Haven, Cheshire, Cromwell, Bethany, Milford, Wallingford, Durham and East Haven! We vary from one another in sports teams we support, musical tastes, favorite movies or books. We also differ in theological views and in religious backgrounds or lack thereof. So we hope you will stick around after worship for some iced coffee and lemonade. Wherever you are on your life and faith journey, you are welcome here.

(written by the Rev. Dr. Rochelle Stackhouse, Church of the Redeemer, New Haven CT).

church with banners

Please share your ideas and resources in the comments!

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?