Some congregations have begun to open their services with an extra prayer of welcome for all who are present and a commitment to open doors for all who desire to enter. I like it. It’s a nice gesture, but I wonder if that’s all it is. What I mean is that it’s an easy thing to voice words of welcome for those who are not really wanted.
The idea of welcoming the other is one thing. Actually wanting to discover the neighbor in those who are not like us is another altogether. At bottom, it is mostly a matter of race, ethnicity, language, economic and social class, and customs. We are more comfortable welcoming others who look like us, speak like us, have similar life styles to ours, and who are familiar with our ways of worship. Other than that we are very open minded and certainly not prejudiced.
Yet there is something even more subtle at work, and I have no doubt that you have experienced it. I know I have. Consider a time you were invited but not wanted. It might have been to a party. Maybe a meal. Possibly to be on a pickup team. I know you remember the peculiar feeling of recognizing that the invitation was authentic, but your presence was not really wanted. The invitation to you was an obligation that had to be honored. There was no real warmth to it.
We do that in our congregations all the time, and it goes beyond the self proclaimed ownership of certain pews. Not too many years ago, many of our parishes made efforts to welcome the rapidly growing Hispanic population into our services and worship. The occasional prayer was offered in Spanish. Sometimes the gospel lesson would be read in both English and Spanish. Spanish language prayer books were piled on a table in the back near the ushers. They certainly were not distributed in the pew racks. The signal was clear. You are welcome but not wanted. It works both ways. My wife, who speaks Spanish, attended the Spanish language mass at the local R.C church one Sunday. It was a very uncomfortable experience for her. She was obviously welcomed, but not wanted.
How different the Christ whom we follow. The gospel record is clear. Jesus welcomed and wanted the full, authentic friendship of all who came to him. Even when he was invited, but probably not wanted, to dinners with Pharisees and others, he seemed to turn the tables to become the host rather than the guest. How do we move more in that direction? I don’t think it’s easy. In our own minds, welcoming the other tends to be framed as the superior welcoming the inferior, and that does not work. In our own minds, being the other is to feel our place as the inferior receiving the charitable but obligated largess of the superior. That does not work either.
We say that the way around this is to seek and serve Christ in the other and to be the Christ for the other. Easy to say. Hard to do. Perhaps you have some helpful ideas. I’d love to hear them.