A few helpful thoughts on welcome by Rev. Bill King, pastor at Luther Memorial Lutheran Church in Blacksburg, VA.
Last week Luther Memorial’s Visiting Theologian, Kristin Largen, shared many stimulating thoughts on inter-faith dialogue, but the quip I most remember was not specifically focused on that particular topic. It was almost a throw-away line, “One hundred per cent of congregations say that they are welcoming, but most of the time that means they are welcoming to people just like them.” When you stop to think about it, of course that is true. Few people get up in the morning and say, “Today I am going to be unfriendly; I really want to communicate how little I care about other people.” We all intend to be welcoming and friendly, yet that comes a lot more naturally when the other person looks, thinks, and acts like us.
Psychologists often observe that the message sent is not necessarily the message received. What we say is not always what others hear. Others may well perceive something different than we intend. It’s easy for us to think we are reaching out to others when that is not how it feels to the strangers in our midst. We think we are respecting their space; they feel ignored. We think we are flashing a winsome smile; they feel like we are smirking in judgment. We think we are opening our community to them; they feel the implicit condition for inclusion is their conforming to our way of doing things.
As an introvert I understand how hard it can be to cross the line and put yourself out there. You are not sure exactly what to say. Maybe there will be an awkward pause. Some of us naturally have the gift of gab; those folks could engage a brick in stimulating conversation and make a skunk feel like an honored guest. I envy people for whom welcoming is an instinct not a skill. We do not all have that gift, but we can cultivate concern for those on the edges. Hospitality is less about techniques than about caring.
In the gospels Jesus heals a woman with an issue of blood. We don’t know what exactly her problem is; all we know is that she is embarrassed and feels shame because of her ailment. She sneaks up behind Jesus, touches his garment, and immediately experiences healing. We call this a miracle story, but I have always thought the miracle is that in the mist of a crushing crowd, Jesus noticed that soft, fearful touch. In fact, it is not so much a miracle as an example of how Jesus was attuned to those on the margins, the folks who were not sure they belonged.
That awareness of a hardly expressed need is the first step to being genuinely welcoming. This week, at worship—or wherever you spend most of your days—look around. Is there someone on the margins who might be hoping for an unambiguous expression of interest and welcome?