Saturday, August 20, 2016

what do you mean, "welcome"?

I drove all over town running errands on Thursday and passed at least a dozen church buildings of all different sizes and denominations that shared something in common: their marquee or banner out front declared, "All are Welcome". I struggle with this tagline for all kinds of reasons and here are just a few...

  1. I should hope so. When our congregations feel the need to explain that everyone is welcome, it reminds me that our history, theologies, and communities have done a poor job embodying this basic truth in all kinds of destructive and disappointing ways for which we struggle to fully acknowledge and seek forgiveness. I think this statement is meant to be innocent and friendly, but can also remind our estranged and unfamiliar neighbors of our great hypocrisy throughout history. It can fall a little short of what's necessary to redeem our reputation for hospitality.
  2. Really? Everybody? To be true, this assumes we have interpreters at worship services, elevators and ramps for accessibility, trama-trained staff and leaders, gender non-specific bathroom facilities, braille bulletins or hymnals, and much more. But we don't have most of these things - at least my congregation does not. There are several subsections of the population who know what it's like to show up only to feel unsafe, undignified, and unexpected. Perhaps that marquee feels like salt on a wound that's been festering for awhile now. And perhaps we hope they don't show up because failing to welcome them well really kills morale and the easy going nature of this one-way slogan. We'd prefer an easy welcome that doesn't require our failure or shame.
  3. Sweet assimilation. What, exactly, are welcoming them into? Our ways and traditions? Our worship style and membership protocol? Our budgetary needs and priorities? Um, no thanks. That sounds just as rigid and painful as getting on board with a new company health benefits plan. We are so quick to say folks are welcome, but our motives are mixed and completely unclear to passersby. What if I bring more need than benefit? What if I have ideas and gifts that cause too much change or discomfort for the core? If my welcome is contingent upon adaptation into this ecosystem, are you willing to be changed by me, too?
I searched for images online using the phrase, "All are Welcome" and found this arrow piercing a heart. It has been become a symbol used by communities all over Europe and Asia to show unambiguous welcome to Syrian refugees seeking a new beginning. I was taken by it's simple clarity: the arrow of welcome cuts to the very center of the heart. It seems the heart has been changed by the arrow - it's pain and plight and courage - and it is welcome in the very soul of this new place where it will cause discomfort and change while forming an entirely new shape.

If our church is to declare welcome to our neighbors and the world in the name of Jesus, then it is like this heart which says, "Come unto me. Pierce me with all of who you are so that we can transform and become more together. For you belong just as much as anyone else and we, of course, will make room for you in the middle of this great love."

Since my marquee sign can't hold three sentences, the message is often and tragically stunted into fragments. But I mean it with my whole life and I am not afraid of failing miserably at this pierced welcome while writing, singing, and declaring it from the pulpit and street alike.

How do you understand the phrase, "All are Welcome"?
What, exactly, is this catchy slogan inviting people into 
and do they understand the invitation as we intend it?