Earlier this year, I was at a conference for the senior ministers of the largest churches in my denomination. Predictably, I was one of the only women there. I was also one of the few pastors representing a congregation that is Open and Affirming.
In many mainline denominations, “Open and Affirming” is code for “we welcome gay people.” Although it’s not just about welcoming the LGBTQ community. That “affirming” thing is key. Most moderate mainline churches have no issue “welcoming” LGBTQ folks to worship. But that doesn’t mean that those folks will be fully integrated into the life of the community. For instance, they might be “welcomed,” but never affirmed for a leadership position. The church might “welcome” someone while still preaching that something about who they are is sinful. And in many cases, a person could be “welcome” to worship in the sanctuary, but would never be allowed to get married in it. Some churches don’t even let gay folks take communion. (How they police the bread, I could not tell you … but I just really don’t want to know.)
Point is, you don’t have to be Westboro Baptist to be unwelcoming.
So anyway, during this conference, I went to lunch with a few colleagues. Some of us were from more progressive churches, and some from more conservative circles. And this topic came up. For what it’s worth, I appreciate these spaces where we can get together and talk in person with people who disagree with us. It sure beats the echo chamber, and it also beats the framework of social media, where things like nuance, compassion and humanity get lost in the noise.
Whatever we were talking about, the conversation somehow turned to the difference between welcoming and being truly open. Some of our more conservative colleagues talked about how they had gay visitors/members at their church. They love them and they welcome them and they don’t shame them. “But,” they said … “We would never perform a same-sex wedding. Because we don’t want to condone sin.”
The more progressive voices among us nudged a bit. What must it be like, we wondered aloud, to go to a church where you are told that you’re loved … but then, when it comes right down to it, finding that the church won’t love who you love? Won’t bless who you love? Doesn’t really believe that you are an equal and whole and worthy member of the body?
Predictable responses about loving the sinner and hating the sin, if I recall.
I’ve had to reach a point, in my professional world, of respecting where people are on this. More change happens that way. I can be in the same space as people who are not where I am, philosophically or theologically, and have a collegial relationship and … you know what? I love the sinner and hate the sin.
At this point in the conversation, others of us said: “You know where those folks go, once they have realized they aren’t really welcome at your place? They come to us. They come to affirming churches to find healing. To know that they belong.”
It’s what we do. And we love doing it. But mercy, I wish there was not such a need for this particular kind of healing. Because it is utterly avoidable. Unlike so much of the world’s suffering, this particular ill is completely a choice. Homosexuality is NOT a choice. But loving the neighbor in front of you, as they are—that is a dang choice.
This time of year, our churches see an uptick in refugees. Not those fleeing the persecution of foreign governments; but those fleeing the persecution of the church. If we are lucky, they will be brave. They will try again. They will take us at our word that “all are welcome here,” and they will come to sing Silent Night, and breathe in the greens, and come weeping to communion—where they have not felt welcome in so long.
If we are lucky, they will give us that chance—to help them heal, and to be a part of their lives. To enjoy all the gifts and goodness they bring that others have turned away. But far too often, those who have been rejected from one church—however passively/kindly/innocuously—will never darken the door of another.
LGBTQ friends and neighbors—we see you. We love you. We know you are hurting. Know that there are places where you will be met as the whole and holy people that you are. If you aren’t close enough to visit my place, PM me. I will help you find another. But I hope somewhere, some way, you will find it in your hearts to forgive those whose faith has been small, and whose welcome has been thin. If you never give church a chance again, we’ll sure understand. But if you want to—some of us have a place for you at the table. Christmas or whenever.
And church folks—like-minded or otherwise—as you celebrate this season in your communities, please be extra mindful of those who come with deep damage from some other lifetime. Share a kind word; a casual conversation; pass the bread in their direction. Maybe, by some miracle of baby Jesus and our own broken selves, it will be enough. These candles we light in love might call somebody home again. And when you get right down to it, keeping that light on is our only job.
Because welcome with a caveat is not very welcoming. And love that’s conditional is no love at all.