Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it. – Hebrews 13:2
There is a difference between tolerance and welcome. To tolerate is to allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of (something that one does not necessarily like or agree with) without interference. Whereas, welcome stems from the Old English wilcuma meaning ‘a person whose coming is pleasing,’ from wil- ‘desire, pleasure’ + cuman ‘come’ – a person who is well come, whose presence is desired.
Like all Episcopal congregations, we think of ourselves as a welcoming church. As a congregation we are friendly, warm, cheerful, outgoing. We claim that “All are welcome – come as you are.” But as one who is new to the community, I think that we have some work to do when it comes to welcoming others, to showing hospitality, especially to strangers.
Last year I came across an article (https://careynieuwhof.com/5-tell-tale-signs-your-congregation-is-insider-focused/) that made me ponder this notion of welcome and hospitality in congregations. As it relates to Holy Cross, my question is this: are we too insider-focused? “Certainly not!” I hear you say. And yet, in the two months I’ve been here there are some signs that perhaps we are not as outsider-focused as we like to imagine ourselves to be.
One example that recently came to my attention has to do with children in worship. I have heard several people say “We want to grow, especially our young families.” But I’m not convinced that we’re ready for that. Because with growth comes change, and change is disruptive, much like children in worship. Wiggly, active bodies have a hard time keeping still and reverent. I have heard that some members of the congregation have made comments to several parents about the fact that their child was too wiggly, too energetic, too disruptive, not reverent or quiet enough during communion. Of course there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to behave, but I wonder if we’ve granted enough time and grace for the child to learn the appropriate way. What such comments reveal is a desire for children to be “seen but not heard”. Their presence is tolerated, but not welcomed. Their energy, their voices, their activity is not seen as a gift, as a sign that the congregation is alive. Instead such comments convey the opposite – children, at least, are not welcome to come as they are. Perhaps only a few members hold this sentiment, but it has been conveyed often enough to be a stumbling block for some of our parents, who feel tolerated rather than welcomed.
I have heard similar sentiments in regards to conversations around music or screens to aid visitors in worship. What we like or are comfortable with is prized over what might appeal to outsiders. I have noticed that when visitors show up, very few people will actually go up to greet them, either before worship or at the Peace. Very often, those visitors end up sitting alone, attempting to juggle the books and find what page we’re on, without someone offering to sit next to them and show them where we are. I don’t think it is a conscious effort to exclude them, just that we are too busy catching up with our friends to notice the outsider who has joined us. Although our church is very social, on Sunday mornings few people linger to visit over coffee after the service, the place where visitors might be asked about their experience or make connections with members of the congregation.
These may seem like little things, but it is the little things that often convey much. I don’t point these things out to induce shaming or guilt, but, as a newcomer to the community myself, to show where we might have some growing to do, especially in the area of hospitality.
Hospitality means going out of your way to show the other person that they are well come, that their presence is desired. Think about when a guest comes to your home. You clean your house so that they will feel comfortable in it. You plan meals around their allergies. You provide the best towels and nicest sheets, you let them use the fancy soap reserved only for guests, so that they will feel special. You focus on their needs and wants, not just your own. Church ought to work the same way. What might it look like if each of us welcomed the outsider, instead of just the designated greeter? What might it mean to be focused on the other’s needs, helping them juggle the books, showing them the page we’re on, smiling at those wiggly little bodies that have a hard time keeping still?
Jesus was an agent of radical hospitality. Jesus was adept at noticing the people that no one else noticed or wanted to acknowledge. Jesus invited the little children to come to him. Jesus healed demoniacs and lepers. Jesus invited the powerless, the excluded, the sick, the poor, the unmentionables to be in relationship with him. What might happen if we were to do the same? What would it look like for us to be radically hospitable to those no one else notices or want to acknowledge in our day and time?
Hospitality starts with thinking about the other more than we do ourselves. Romans 12:10 exhorts us to “outdo one another in showing honor.” Let’s start paying attention to those “outsiders” within our community, show them that they are well come and that their presence is desired…and perhaps that stranger will find Jesus in our midst.