When Radical Welcome Gets Messy

It’s easier to guide the vision and mission of a church you start. It’s another thing to help a 135-year-old congregation re-imagine what it means to be a downtown urban church in a world that has changed dramatically all around it. At Milagro, the church we founded in our living room some nine years ago, we set the course for what we wanted that community to look like: a refuge for the spiritual walking wounded, safe haven for questions, doubt, and a culture of mutual encouragement, support and accountability that would allow people to explore their own relationship with the Divine. We have since set that community free and already, it is becoming something different.

As well it should.

Now we find ourselves at First Christian Church in downtown Portland; a different animal entirely. In some ways, the two communities are very complementary, in that one has what the other tends to lack. But we’ve discerned that, first and foremost, our job is to help cultivate a spirit of radical openness and welcome. But what does this mean, and how do we even begin to change the makeup of an institution that has exited for more than five generations before us?

Sometimes, it’s the simplest things that say the most. We had a tradition at Milagro of “mugging” people when they came for the first time. This meant one of our hospitality stewards (AKA, “muggers”) would approach them and give them a coffee mug filled with candy and some information about the church. With First Christian, however, most people know we’re here; the bigger question lingering in the public mind is why.

In this case, instead of a brochure describing programs or institutional history, Amy included the welcome statement that follows, which she borrowed and adapted from a Catholic community:

Thank you for coming to First Christian Church.
We extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, straight, filthy rich, dirt poor, no hablan Inglés. We extend a special welcome to those who are crying newborns, broken hearted, or in need of a safe place.
We welcome you if you can sing like Andrea Bocelli or like many of us who can’t carry a note in a bucket. You’re welcome here if you’re “just browsing,” just woke up or just got out of jail. We don’t care if you believe in God or if you’ve never been to church.
We extend a special welcome to those who are over 60 but not grown up yet, and to teenagers who are growing up too fast. We welcome soccer moms, NASCAR dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters. We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems or you’re down in the dumps or if you don’t like “organized religion,” we’ve been there too.
If you blew all your offering money at the dog track, you’re welcome here. We offer a special welcome to those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or because grandma is in town and wanted to go to church.
We welcome those who are inked, pierced or both. We offer a special welcome to those who could use a prayer right now, had religion shoved down your throat as a kid or got lost in traffic and wound up here by mistake. We welcome tourists, seekers and doubters, bleeding hearts … and you!
We are First Christian Church – a social justice congregation – and we love you.

There are some other little things we’ve adjusted, which may seem small to those coming in for the first time, but which involve a rethinking of years upon years of tradition. For example, no one is called a “visitor.” Instead, there are “newcomers.” This is because the term “visitor” suggests both someone who is passing through, and who also is somehow on the outside of things. Along those lines, we no longer invite people to membership; instead we invite people into covenant (a holy promise) with one another. Again, though it may seem a minor difference to newcomers, it suggests we’re entering into something new together, rather than you, the newbie, coming into our existing institution.

After all, if someone new enters in, it’s no longer the same community anyway. We are made new by every newcomer, and as such, we should recommit to the ever-evolving community which we promise to support and hold up.

All of this sounds really good, but it’s not always easy. What happens to radical welcome when someone joins us (like last week) who seems to be suffering from untreated schizophrenia? Or how about when someone becomes verbally abusive (like several weeks back) and begins threatening people in the sanctuary? It would be easiest simply to invite all who make us uncomfortable to leave, and in the case of the abusive man, he was warned that, if he didn’t leave or change his tone, the police would be called. He chose to go.

But we’re a downtown church. People sleep on the steps of the building some nights. On any given Sunday, half a dozen people who live outside will join us for worship (or at least for coffee hour!). But this is the community we’ve chosen to be a part of, and it will not change in the foreseeable future. So if we’re to be christlike to this community, we have to learn how do deal with the challenges that come with our chosen community.

For starters, we do a weekly street sandwich ministry, in which we make and hand out more than a hundred sandwiches (along with toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, hats and gloves) to people on the streets. In doing so, we get to know them as people, much like us, rather than as foreigners invading “our space” on Sunday. We see them outside during the week, stop and chat, and the relationship not only changes us; it seems to change how they engage us when they come into the church. We’re also coordinating with the local police department and social services to equip our people with the skills that will help them more capably and confidently help people who are struggling. We also want to keep referral resources at the ready for those who need them and are willing to accept help.

It’s messy and complicated. It’s hard work. It’s unpredictable. And sometimes it can even be a little bit unnerving. But we choose this community, and if we also choose to live into the welcome message we offer in the mugs, it’s the call into which we have to strive to live.

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • Rod Reeves

    Having engaged with the 135 year Portland First Christian covenant community, since the mid ’60s (when moved from Seattle after Chapman, Yale & the US Army), I can assure one & all, that although movement into new life/vitality has waxed & waned, from time to time, the overall trajectory is clear — more living into “the more” (William James term) inclusive diverse eclectic life. The community of FCC is blessed that the Piatt family has chosen to live with and journey into new expansive life as we seek to incarate the passion of Jesus of Nazareth in the University/Cultural District, our immediate home parish, in particular, the greater Portland, and our national & global community, in general. In the words of Clyde Reid, my sense is that PDX FCC is with intention, is venturing into “choosing Christmas”. I hear FCC responding to our own inner collective voice, and to the nudging of Amy & Christian, with saying “I want Christmas. I want something to happen. I choose Christmas…and hope. Cristmas is a birth…the coming of new life. What infant is waiting to be born in You?” What renewed and new missional life if being midwifed by PDX? Christian some of that in his above blog post. Within the community of FCC, “What infant is waiting within? What new birth trembling to be released? What new potentiality wanting fulfillment.? Christmas is a birth…the coming of new life in you (and in FCC). May we not be of faint resolve you, me and Porltand FCC chooses Christmas this year and beyond!

  • Luke Sumner

    Thanks for what you all are doing in Downtown Portland for our friends living outside

  • AshleyQuinn

    Is your church locked at night?

    • http://www.facebook.com/christiandpiatt Christian Piatt

      when unattended yes. Our “opening up” is a gradual but steady process.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Thierry-Moro-Phillips/535703691 Thierry Moro Phillips

    I love your welcome message.
    For those who need a definition or expansion of examples.

  • Mary

    Wow. If more churches were like yours then there would be no need for them to “guilt” people into coming. Good job!

  • http://www.facebook.com/DumbsheepThoughts Tom Pappalardo

    I attend a downtown church in Pittsburgh,PA….a church with a strong message of hope, help and healing through the transforming power of Jesus Christ. Numbers or racial diversity are not the measure of all things good. Yet, over a period of 30 years this congregation has gone from 300 frightened caucasians to over 3000 (you name the race) engaged Christians. The community around us has felt the power of Christ. We are an evangelical community of believers that cares for the poor and brings people together in His name. Indeed, messy…..but good.

  • http://guidingvision.com Sandra Sims

    Your phrase about being “christlike to THIS community,” the one that the church is physically located resonated with me. I like the terms newcomer instead of visitor and covenant instead of membership. In our congregation we have many whom do not have stable housing. If we refer to the ministry with them we say unhoused instead of homeless. Our church community is their home.

  • http://www.facebook.com/woemcat Kristin Elizabeth Barr

    Very well written! Enjoyed the article and words of wisdom.

  • Tony

    Excellent. You are being Jesus to your community. As an aside, I used to find that sitting and chatting with the homeless on the street was welcome in some ways – because of the company – but unwelcome in other ways, because the homeless person relied on being seen as ‘alone’ to get maximum begging takings. I can sympathise with that! :)


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