This post is the first part of what will be a series that looks at what constitutes a welcoming faith community. There will be some overlap with my post Tolerance, Acceptance, Inclusion as all three ideas do relate to how welcoming a community is.
When looking at communities, and especially many faith communities, they often bill themselves as a “welcoming community”. Most, if not all, of the communities that make this statement believe that they are welcoming. In a cursory review of a number of faith community web sites most that I looked at included, somewhere on the site, a statement that they are a welcoming community. This raises the question: What do we mean when we say we are a welcoming community? It is when we ask this question that we can start to unpack the meaning both as perceived by the community and the person who is either planning to, or already is participating. In this discussion I am going to provide examples and thoughts from my own experiences plus observations and reflections that come from many discussions and interactions with a wide variety of people.
First, I am going to look at this from the perspective of one who is visiting an area and looking to attend church. This is a position I found myself in while I was visiting Boston in July. Being somewhat technically inclined (or as some might put it, myself included, a geek / nerd) the first place I went was the Internet. As I am a member of The Anglican Church I decided that I wanted to attend an Episcopal church. I had various criteria for a church that related to my travel schedule, but I also was looking for other things. Ideally, I wanted to attend a church that sees itself as being progressive and open to LGBT people. As a feminist woman who is also transsexual and lesbian I wanted to be reasonably sure I would feel comfortable, after all it was a vacation. So using a combination of search engines and the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts web site I was able to narrow down my selections.
Many of the church web sites I found proclaimed on their web sites to be welcoming. What I did notice that was of particular concern is that many churches did not have directions and / or times of services. This is not unique to the churches I was looking at, I have found it a common problem regardless of where the church is located. First lesson about church web sites, if you want people to come to your church, they need to know where and when services are. After spending a fair amount of time looking online I found two churches that I ended up attending. One I attended a late afternoon / evening service on the Saturday, and the other I attended on the Sunday morning.
The two churches I attended were quite different from each other. The one I attended on the Saturday was St. Luke-San Lucas which is a mission church in Chelsea Massachusetts that serves people from diverse populations. When I arrived for the Saturday service there were only a couple of people plus the priest, not surprising for a hot humid Saturday afternoon. I was warmly welcomed (no pun intended) by the priest and, given the small congregation for the service, was invited to read the second reading which I did. After the service I spoke briefly with the priest and was invited back. I did not feel any pressure around this and overall I got the sense that people will be accepted and welcomed for who they are when they attend there. Although this wasn’t a main service I think the feeling I got from those present and the atmosphere of the building would follow through to the main worship services.
The church I attended on Sunday morning, St. James in Groveland Massachusetts, was quite different from the one I attended the previous day. It is a rural church in a beautiful part of Massachusetts. One of the things that struck my attention right away on their web site was the inclusion of the rainbow flag. I arrived fairly early for the service which I like to do to have some time to sit quietly prior to a service starting. When I drove up to the church the sign for the church also had the rainbow flag on it. When I entered the church I was greeted by a couple of people. After I had been in my pew for a while someone said hello, introduced themselves, then asked if I minded if they sat beside me. It was not intrusive, and I got the sense that if I would have needed help navigating the service they would have provided it. The priest also welcomed me prior to the service and inquired where I was from. Overall, the welcoming was not overwhelming and their actions were guided by my own responses. I got the sense that had I needed time for myself to pray and meditate I would have been given the space to do so.
These two churches, in very different locations, are both good examples of how churches can be welcoming for people travelling through or on vacation and looking for a place to worship, or even just wanting to visit another church in their own geographical area for a change. What about the other side of the coin, faith communities who don’t do so well at welcoming the visitor?
I have been to churches where there is a sense when one walks through the door that even though they claim to be welcoming, outsiders who are not part of the church community are not welcome. Or, the people greeting are almost overpowering and one can feel intimidated by the welcome one receives, especially if one is looking for some quiet time to pray, meditate and just be with God. I’ve also visited places where the reaction is almost one of glee and excitement at the prospect of having a new member and they wanted to sign me up before the service started. I don’t think I went back to any of those churches.
So, how can we be better about being welcoming in our own communities? Listen to feedback. Try and find out what other people thought about how we welcomed them.
On top of these concerns, we need to look at how we deal with people that might be seen as undesirable are welcomed or not welcomed when they come into a church for a service. Do we welcome the homeless person, or do we send them away? Do we work with the person who comes in who has delusions and may be talking to people who exist only for them? Or, do we ask them to leave thereby telling them that no, they are not really God’s children and welcome at zir table? I’m going to leave these questions for another day. There are no easy answers to how we welcome the “undesirables” of our society. The people whom Jesus welcomed into his own presence and did not turn away.
Part two in the series: “Welcoming the person seeking a community“