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.”

“Excitement” – Part One

On Epiphany Sunday I received my star word – “excitement.”  Everyone in our congregation is invited to reflect on one of 150 words. During the coming year we can ponder what God might be saying to us. How will God’s light be reflected through this simple paper star and how will it encourage us to be more aware of God’s presence in our lives?

I have an entire year to consider what the word “excitement” might be inviting me to do, learn, and experience. I have to admit, I was thrilled when I flipped the star over and “excitement” appeared. Even as a pastor in a small town in the Quiet Corner of Connecticut, it seems to me that the possibilities are endless.  I’m being invited to experience excitement! It may not be heart-pounding, dare-devil activities. I’m not sure sky diving is in my immediate future. But I can choose and seek things that make me laugh or bring me joy. I can take time to discover what brings a smile to my face and offers me a sense of satisfaction and that feeling of  “I’m glad I did that.” 

So far I have tried “bumper boats” (if you’ve never heard of it, I recommend it!  I couldn’t stop laughing!), I helped host a benefit concert in our sanctuary, and attended a talk about bald eagles in Connecticut followed by a thrilling walk where an eagle flew right by us! Last weekend my husband and I ventured out for a frosty walk at our local park and watched the ice fishermen bundled up in the cold. I have to admit, my adventurous spirit stopped at the shoreline, so I didn’t join them out on the ice, but I loved walking through the quiet woods and listening to the dramatic cracking and creaking of the ice responding to sunlight and temperature changes.

Since we worship a Creator with unlimited imagination, I’m looking forward to what the year will hold. Here’s to new adventures!

As fun as that is, I’m not sure that God means to be my tour guide through an endless array of new experiences. This word could also be inviting me to explore the excitement of learning new things. I have set myself a goal to learn more about racism – what it is and how it affects people. I think this will be “exciting” because it will expand my mind and introduce new ideas and thoughts. I suspect it will also be challenging because there is much I do not know; I anticipate that it will be humbling and eye-opening. It can be good to learn just how much I have to learn.

I have not accomplished as much in this part of my “excitement.” So far I signed up for a discussion group about the book Waking up White by Debby Irving which promises to be enlightening. I watched the movie “Green Book,” which I highly recommend; it is both entertaining and educational. Once again, I was astounded by how much of our own country’s history I do not know.

I have a whole year to enjoy “excitement” in whatever form it comes to me. I believe God is always inviting us to be more aware – aware of blessings, of God’s presence, of what we have yet to learn.  I’ll let you know how it’s going.

And – if you have a star word, I’d love to hear what it has meant to you so far this year.

If you would like a star word, just let me know and I’ll send you one.

Who is at the table?

Not many people can say that their Thanksgiving table actually resembled Norman Rockwell’s iconic depiction of the all-American holiday, but I have to admit, the Thanksgiving table from my childhood was pretty similar to the one in his painting. The people who gathered around the table were all white, heterosexual (as far as we knew),  and part of families formed with a mom and a dad, with mother cooking and father presiding over the carving of the bird. Gender roles were clearly defined and not (openly) questioned.

Thanksgiving 3

Just one generation later and our family has evolved. We look a bit different now. As we anticipate gathering with our children, cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents, we can look forward to racial diversity, hair dyed in startling hues, tattoos galore, and conversations that touch on topics like gender identity, sexual expression and fluidity, and the roles of men and women.

It is not Rockwell’s America any more and perhaps it never was. Many folks reminisce wistfully about “days gone by” while conveniently forgetting that many people in Rockwell’s era were not welcome at the table. Or at many schools, clubs, or businesses. That festive depiction of Thanksgiving only looks “ideal” if you happen to fit into the narrow roles of acceptance.

Thanksgiving 1

These updated versions of Rockwell’s painting, featuring a gay couple and a multi-ethnic gathering,  makes me wonder – who is at our tables?  Who is in our churches, our organizations, and our schools? Do we only gather with people who look like us and think like us?  And if we do, what are we missing? Can we accept the joy and challenge of widening our welcome?

This year, whether your table is filled with relatives or whether you create a family of your own choosing and design, or whether you celebrate a “Friendsgiving,” I hope you pause to give thanks for the blessings those special people offer to you. Let us also remember those who are not with us this year and give thanks for them, as well.

Wishing you a very happy Thanksgiving.

The Face of America

The American women’s gymnastics team won first place in the World Gymnastics championships last week in Qatar. These fabulous young women vaulted, tumbled, leaped, and braved death-defying moves to outshine competitors from across the globe. While I often feel like I should raise my arms in victory any Sunday I manage the three steps up to the pulpit without tripping – yes! She stuck the landing! – they perform gravity-defying moves daily.  And they smile while doing it.

Their faces are captivating

When I watch this group of accomplished, determined, strong young women, I feel a sense of hope.

Their gymnastic ability is unparalleled.

They are world champions.

And they are the face of America.

Gymnastics 5

This team with skin tones of varying hues, with a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds – this is America. The true face of America is a collection of people from a wide variety of backgrounds who come together for a common cause. Our country has never been “white”. When the first immigrants arrived on these shores, they discovered native people who did not look like them.  And that was the beginning – for better or worse – of a new America.  Perhaps America was once racially pure – but that was long before European settlers came to this land.

Our country has a complicated history with race – the displacement and slaughter of Native inhabitants, the brutality and horror of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the ongoing racism against people of color. Our country continues to struggle with race.

But our gymnastics team demonstrates what is possible. They remind us that people from different backgrounds can work together to make a difference. They set an example of building bridges, of being united, and of finding (or creating) common ground.

Most of us will never cartwheel on a balance beam or fly between uneven bars. But all of us can be inspired by the determination and hard work of this young team and vow to represent our country with the same grace and unity.

Welcome – everyone!

This sign, spotted on the restroom door in a Portsmouth NH restaurant this week,  made me smile. The message of inclusion was clear. Female, male, transgender, bisexual folks, wheelchair users, and yes, even aliens are welcome there.

There is something very simple and heartening about a sign that wants to include everyone. It is the opposite of the hateful messages that appeared in stores and restaurants in the not-so-distant past in our country. Signs that announced “Help wanted. Whites only,” or “No Irish served here.”  Signs that designated particular water fountains, restrooms, or waiting rooms for particular races.

In contrast, this cheery green and black message defines the only threat that we all must combat. That would be germs – no matter how you identify, germs are an equal-opportunity menace. So please – wash your hands. Once that is done, we can stand united (even hand in hand), confident that our shared humanity is more important than any outward distinctions.

What you look like, who you love, how you define yourself – those are all details compared to our shared identity. Child of God, created in God’s image.

We live in a funny world when a sign on a bathroom door can teach a lesson about how to treat one another. Let’s take the hint and offer one another the respect, welcome, and dignity that all of God’s people deserve.

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  Galatians 3:28

God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”…God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.  Genesis 1: 26-27

No coffee today

Over 8000 Starbucks shops will be closed today. Water will cool, grounds will sit in the filters, creamers and flavors will remain in their bottles, and the mangled and misspelled names will not be written on cups. It is estimated that $12 million in sales will be lost.

Today is a day to learn about racial bias.

Before we jump on the cynical bandwagon to label this as a publicity ploy or as “too little, too late,” let’s congratulate Starbucks on doing something. Too many people and too many organizations – businesses, schools, churches – persist in ignoring rather than engaging the difficult and overwhelming topic of racism.

We came to this place because on May 2, 2018 two African-American men entered a Starbucks and sat down to wait for a friend to discuss a real estate deal. The white manger asked them to leave. When they refused (after sitting for a total of two minutes in a coffee shop where patrons are known to spend hours sitting, reading, conversing, and staring at their computers), the manager 911 as if some kind of emergency was taking place. When the men refused the cops’ request to leave the building, they were arrested.

Starbucks Corporation responded immediately.  The manager was fired, a public apology was given (a real apology, where guilt was admitted and responsibility taken), a $200,000 program for young entrepreneurs was funded, and this day of racial sensitivity training was established.

Is it enough? Of course not. I know that because in the weeks since the Starbucks arrest, there have been several other incidences where people of color have been harassed, challenged, or even arrested while engaging in everyday activities.

  • A white woman called police to report an African American family having a barbeque at a public beach.
  • Three African-American artists being reported while renting an Air B and B in a predominately white neighborhood.
  • The black Yale student taking a nap in a public area of her dorm awoke to find campus police staring down at her after receiving reports of an “intruder”.

It isn’t enough, but it’s something. It’s one step on a very long journey towards awareness and the recognition of a serious, deep-seated problem.

If you don’t happen to be a Starbucks employee, how can you engage in racial sensitivity training? Seek out stories from those who have experienced racial bias. It isn’t hard. The stories are everywhere – read, listen, watch.

If the experiences you hear about are not your experiences – wonder about that. I have never been asked to leave a restaurant, never been pulled over by a police officer for no reason, and never been told that I don’t “fit in” because of my skin color. No one is scared of me or intimidated by me because of how I look.

In order to correct these injustices, I first have to be aware that they exist. I can learn and I can respond. All of these small steps – like an afternoon of racial sensitivity training – can add up to make a difference so that all of God’s children are treated with dignity and respect. Let us begin.

Standing up for Peace

Does standing on a street corner change the world? I wondered that as I stood with about 15 other folks at an intersection in a quiet New England town, population 4,124, with a racial diversity score of about zero.

What was I accomplishing? Was anything achieved?

Maybe not. But two days after the white supremacy rally in Charlottesville VA, I felt the need to do something. And standing with signs that read “Peace” and “End Bigotry” and “Love is louder than hate” helped us bear witness to the powerful vision of hope. It was a way to say “no” to that hate-filled rally.

One man in a truck shook his head and gave us a “thumbs down” signal. I wondered exactly what he was disagreeing with. Peace is not a good idea? Diversity shouldn’t be encouraged? But it was not a place for conversation so I’ll never know what his thoughts were.

Mostly we heard horns honking as drivers smiled and waved or flashed the peace sign. One bicyclist shouted, “Good job!” as he sped past. Several people shouted, “Thank you!” as they drove by.

The world didn’t change on that Monday afternoon. But our voices of hope and determination were heard. A witness to peace, unity and love was given.

I stood up for peace because I didn’t want the marchers in Virginia to have the last word. In our media-saturated world where images of angry torch-bearing racists fill our screens, it’s too easy to believe that their voices were the only ones speaking.

But this ragtag group of women and men, one little girl and a couple of dogs stood together for peace. And that action was repeated in towns and cities across our country. Those gatherings – big and little, at rural intersections and city parks – are a reminder that every action of kindness, love and welcome is important.

Peace 6

It’s time to do what we can, in big and little ways. In some ways, it’s easy to stand up against obvious hatred like Nazi flag-wielding thugs. It’s clear they are on the wrong side of history and that their message has no place in a fair and equal democracy. They are dangerous and disturbing, but in a loud, in-your-face kind of way.

Subtle forms of racism are more challenging to recognize and rebuke. I hope our street-side gathering also reminds us to be aware and stay attuned to the many ways that too many people are treated differently.

  • One kind word
  • One small protest
  • One refusal to allow hate to have the last word

These actions, taken together, can change the world.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead