I was the parish deacon at a large city parish for nine years. We were across the street from a university and a good mix of humanity lived, worked and went to school in the neighborhood. Sitting in my corner of the chancel, I used to look out at the congregation and was always amazed by, given the neighborhood’s demographics, at how white the membership was. I’d been raised in a non-church environment but attended a Roman Catholic church and we had a good cross-section of the community there. I was naive to think that all churches would look like my hometown church.
While I gazed at the nave I wondered, “How would we react if John the Baptist came up the nave dressed in his animal skins, barefoot, dirty, smelly?” Without know who he was, would we welcome him just as we welcome the well-dressed, impeccably coifed woman visiting from out of town, or the university student with back pack and ear buds? We surely had our share of homeless men and women coming in with their grocery carts full of their lives’ possessions. They’d come in and the ushers would attend to them quietly and efficiently, sometimes they’d stay in back rows, often they’d leave. What if, during a wedding, a homeless woman came into the church dragging a Hefty bag of belongings and took a seat on the aisle?
I could imagine the horrified stares, the looks of consternation. That led my thoughts to wander to my days in the Roman Catholic Church when a poor divorcee and her eight children would take the first pew on the right every Sunday. The children were shabby and tired-looking, the mother was equally so. She knelt for her prayers and the children sat quietly. Yet, there were people in the church who felt offended by their presence. Why? Because she didn’t conform to our town’s idea of what was good and proper? Surely I was a figure of curiosity to some: my mother was divorced, we lived in the projects for most of my childhood, and there I was in the church, unbaptized, unconfirmed. If anyone said anything or disapproved, they didn’t say it to me.
I should have been paying attention to the sermon with that look of serenity glued to my face as I sat in my pre-appointed spot in the chancel. But I was reflecting on the differences between people and how it affects them, how Jesus didn’t care about that, how God didn’t care about differences but saw us as children of God’s own making.
Jesus, in his teaching at Luke 14:1, 7-14, instructs his followers to welcome visitors. He goes as far as to say to give the poor guest the same respect and dignity as the wealthy person at the table. In other words, treat everyone with the same and equal love, the same respect. A revolutionary thought, given the time and tradition, but we expect no less from him.
Have we taken to heart this request? Are we truly a welcoming community?
I believe that we are insofar as our hearts, minds, and resources are equipped. We’ve had to unravel centuries and decades of societal discrimination, tradition, and thought, to recognize that we are all truly equal. 53 years ago, we were fighting in the streets of America for equal rights and unfortunately, we still have to engage in that battle today. Yet, more and more see the other person in the crosswalk and in the coffee shop, the McDonald’s as someone familiar and someone like them and look past color, age, sex, economic class. We struggle all the same. The achievements made and strides taken to give everyone equality are being picked apart. We all need to break down the barriers more than ever, because a small sector of our population led by a man who, to my knowledge, has never experienced discrimination or poverty, feels the need to pull us back to the good old days of 1940s-1950s America – days that weren’t so good for most of us, even a lower middle class, white girl like me.
What we need to do is welcome more people to the table and not care where they sit. Then, and only then, will our society resemble the Kingdom that Jesus welcomes us to be a part of.