When Radical Welcome Gets Messy

When Radical Welcome Gets Messy January 14, 2013

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.

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