A Welcoming Congregation? Maybe Not.

A recent day long gathering of congregational lay and clergy leaders focussed its attention on conditions that favor and oppose inviting and welcoming newcomers into the fellowship of worship.  The usual menu of all the good things they do to was posted, with everyone nodding that, yes, these were good things.  In addition to coffee hours, greeters at the door, follow up with personal contacts, new signage, and better access, there things like soup kitchens, room for AA and other community groups, and a variety of other social service activities.  Each and every one a good thing indeed.  Yay for us. 
Conditions that were unfavorable to inviting and welcoming were a little harder to come by.  Compliance with ADA standards was a big one.  Poor signage, and lack of good things mentioned above of course.  One brave soul admitted that the matriarchs and patriarchs of her congregation didn’t want any new people because they knew everyone in town, and anyone new would be someone they didn’t want.  She was grateful that none of old leaders were in the meeting with us.  Another admitted that, in spite of the congregation’s financial support of community needs, few knew where they were located, or wether an Episcopal Church was even Christian. 
The common denominator linking all the discussion was the subconscious assumption that new people, invited and welcomed into the fellowship of worship, would probably have the same cultural values and expectations of church as did the congregation.  They would certainly know who Jesus is.  Even those who desire to open the doors to people not like us tend to think about what would be more welcoming from their own point of view, which includes assumptions about what “those others” would find attractive.  
It’s not our problem only.  It’s the same set of assumptions shared by every organized assembly wherever, in what ever culture.  We, mostly white Episcopalians from the intermountain west, are not unlike a congregation in Nigeria, Lakota lands, suburbs of a big city, or the rural deep South.  It’s human nature.  What we stumble over is our inability to look at the question from the point of view of the other whom we think we want to welcome.  The real question is: what is it about what we offer that the other will find uncomfortable and unwelcoming?  What is it that will make them feel vulnerable, not fit for the likes of those present, embarrassed or humiliated?  They’re hard questions to answer because it requires us to step out of our area of comfort to see things from an alien perspective.  To experience it for yourself, go to church in another denomination in another part of the country where you are a stranger.  Better yet, make it a church attended predominantly by a race other than yours.
The dean of the Episcopal cathedral in Portland, OR was featured in a Whitman College magazine article, in it he described the difficulty of opening the congregation to the others who are a part of the neighborhood.  It’s already an LBGTQ friendly congregation, so how hard could it be?  Very.  The poor, unwashed, and mentally ill – what is it that prevents them from feeling welcome?  What makes non-whites feel uncomfortable?  What makes the never-gone-to-church-know-nothing-about-Christianity feel uncomfortable?  What makes the straight, white newcomer feel uncomfortable?  You can’t know unless you ask them, and you can’t find out from them unless you’re willing to engage with them in listening conversation.  Engaging in listening conversation is an active way to encourage others to open doors from the outside and come in.  It’s not easy, and it can raise anxiety to a high level.  
There’s a more passive way to open doors from the inside, and that’s by losing the anxiety associated with trying too hard.  It means giving up on cultural projections and expectations.  The congregation from which I retired struggled with how to attract some of the growing percentage of Hispanics in the community.  Some suggested adding Spanish prayer books, reading the gospel in two languages, or maybe hosting a popular Mexican saint’s day.  It was all well intended.  No one noticed that the church is in a part of town not frequented by the Hispanic population, nor that what the expected was their easy adaptation to the warmth of our Anglo Episcopalian ways, albeit with a Mexican touch.  It was all well intended, but nothing happened.  
Curiously, with that failure behind them, they became less uptight about who they were, and less anxious about welcoming the other not like them.  They began to discover gay couples among their number, a few Africans (not American), some struggling with behavioral issues, and a number of odds and ends who were definitely not your typical middle class whites.  They even discovered that noisy children, who sometimes wandered around the nave during worship, could be welcome with only an occasional tsk-tsk and tut-tut.  It’s remains a struggle.  A large apartment complex of low income elderly on the same block remains an untapped well.  The twice weekly luncheon for any who are hungry is oversold, except for an invitation to join worship, which remains undersold. 
The point is, we can sometimes allow our anxieties about not being welcoming enough get in the way of being more welcoming congregations.  How about simply opening the doors and welcoming whoever comes in?  What really gets in the way is reluctance to make the open door more well known in the neighborhood.  Maybe it’s fear of looking too evangelical, in the worst sense of what that means.

A final point.  Some, in their desire to welcome all, absentmindedly obscure the special characteristics of our Anglican tradition.  Denominational differences are important.  We Episcopalians have a particular way of expressing our faith within a tradition that has real meaning.  Diminishing what makes Episcopalian polity and worship different demeans what is important in our understanding of what it means to be Christian.  We aren’t more right than others, but our Anglican tradition has value.  We are not just another vanilla variation.  We’re reformed Catholics for a reason. 

1 thought on “A Welcoming Congregation? Maybe Not.”

  1. I once belonged to a women's organization that was known for being lily white and waspy. We wrestled over how to become more diverse. It was the topic of every board meeting. Much like your story of the congregation we tried everything we could think of. Once we relaxed our active pursuit and made known what we were doing in the community, one-by-one, folks who didn't look like us began to join in. And were welcomed. And they brought their friends. And today, the organization has become a group of women, from all groups, who just want to work toward making their community better. It takes time and patience and true welcome. Change can't be forced.

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