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“ALL ARE WELCOME HERE!”

I’ve seen this neighborhood church sign greet passersby for years. I’m sure you have, too.

Every time I see it, I think it should read this way: ALL ARE (MOSTLY) WELCOME HERE!

The signs remind me of a funny scene in the Princess Bride where Wesley, the hero, is thought to be dead from torture. His friends carry his limp body to Miracle Max, a wizard played brilliantly by Billy Crystal.  Miracle Max says, “It just so happens your friend here is MOSTLY dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.”

Switching the church sign words: “It just so happens your friend here is MOSTLY welcome. Mostly welcome is slightly unwelcome.”

That subtle difference is largely unseen by church congregations, but it is clearly visible to a first-time visitor who is not part of the congregation’s core demographic, whether that be age, race, gender identity, sexuality, or theology.  In this blog, I’ll use an appalling story, a fun quiz, connections to scripture, and a few sprinkles of humor to uncover some hidden features of hospitality that separate (TRULY) WELCOME from (MOSTLY) WELCOME. 

What does (MOSTLY) WELCOME look like?

Most congregations believe that anyone is welcome to attend and are genuinely excited when visitors stop by … especially new people moving into the area, with bonus points to young families, and double bonus points to those who plan to donate money regularly, and super-charged double bonus points to those who want to be actively involved on boards and committees.

This isn’t to say the wheel-chair-bound senior citizen who struggles to make financial ends meet doesn’t receive a warm greeting at the church door, or the person of another color, or that frustrating co-worker, or an ex-convict, or an LGBTQ person. All are welcome to attend the service and share a cookie and punch during the fellowship time that follows. It’s just that conversations with people who are significantly different than the core of the church are only MOSTLY welcome.

A true welcome has tangible impact and it is measured 100% by how the new person feels when they first interact with the in-group. This is true for a new school, new job, and new church. It’s like meeting three people from another company at a conference you had to attend and they either say, “Listen – we’re going to the Karaoke Klub after we wash off the PowerPoint glaze from this last speaker. Do you wanna come along?”

OR

 Yawn. Stretch. “Well, it was great to meet you. Maybe we’ll see you next year.”

The difference between these two welcomes is the difference between experiencing an evening with laughter and new friends or sitting on a motel-room bed, watching reruns of Friends after dinner alone at Denny’s.

My point: Our “welcome” isn’t measured by what we think about ourselves – it’s what our visitors and new attenders think about us.

THE SILENT WELCOME OF SYMBOLS

Ever notice that when you think of getting a new car that suddenly you see that model all over the place?  Certain symbols are noticed and say “WELCOME!” to different groups of people. 

Here’s a quick quiz:

Who would feel welcome at your church by seeing these symbols?

How do these symbols create different invitations as to who is “WELCOME!”?

Let’s try again!

 

It’s interesting how familiar symbols are invisible and unimportant to those who are not routinely excluded from social norms and how vital they become to people who are.

I discovered that was true about the LGBTQ flag. Sure, I’d seen it and I knew what it meant, but until I came out as openly transgender, it had little tangible meaning for me. Now, it’s a very big deal. Whenever I see that flag I *know* that I am not merely tolerated or accepted – I am “WELCOME!”   But even with such a ubiquitous symbol of diversity and unity, a new version is emerging. Care to hazard a guess as to the difference?

If you guessed that the second is designed to affirm racial inclusion – you guessed right!

Which WELCOME would resonate more greatly with people of color attending an LGBTQ event?

Symbols of genuine welcome aren’t all signage, though. It’s like that mom who adopts every kid on the street. If you’re anywhere near her house, you’ll see other kids running in and out the doors, playing in the yard, and using the refrigerator like it was their own. The open door, barking dogs, and laughing children are her symbols of ALL ARE (TRULY) WELCOME HERE!

My point: Symbols are important! Look around your church. What says WELCOME! and to whom?

“YOU JUST SIT DOWN, TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES, AND MAKE YOURSELF AT HOME!”

Many churches have sold their souls to Madison Avenue by use of corporate marking to one specific target audience: “Young families.” Christian congregations across America have lost that intangible quality of genuine hospitality – making everyone and anyone “feel welcome” without an underlying agenda. Phrases like “outreach” and “friendship evangelism” and entertainment-styled worship services taint their fellowship punch and cookies with an unabashed grow-our-church agenda.

Our collective first impression is important, but it’s day-to-day connections that makes the real difference for true welcome and church growth. I might see a rainbow flag on a church, but if LGBTQ people aren’t helping lead and participate in the congregation, it feels more like a marketing ploy then a sincere welcome. 

Fellowship time after the service is commonly where church hospitality is extended to new people. Usually, it plays out like this: the regulars go through the lines in whatever fashion is the accepted norm, while new people work to figure it out. The regulars sit at their regular tables and chat about what’s happened since they saw each other in the past week or network a coordination of schedules for the next committee meeting.  The new people look for a wide, open space, hoping they are complying with the unspoken social rules for table seating. They sit and wait to see if a regular attendee will sit next to them and wonder what kinds of questions they’ll be asked and how much to say or not say about what’s happening in their lives. It often feels like waiting in a cafeteria for a job interview.

Remember this passage from the Gospel of Luke?

When Jesus noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited.  If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Luke 14:7-14

My point: “Welcome!” is the only agenda of genuine hospitality. Which best pews and fellowship tables in your church are “reserved” for the regulars, and how often are visitors and new attendees told, “Friend, move up to a better place!”?

LOOK WHO’S IN LEADERSHIP!

The Presbyterian USA church is growing in its inclusion of gay and lesbian pastors and lay leadership. A wonderful gay couple in my congregation is actively involved in various committees and leadership roles. I noticed this. Their active involvement in my small church greatly bolstered my confidence when I felt the Lord calling me out of my transgender closet.

NPR did a recent podcast on Carlton Pearson, a minister personally mentored by Oral Roberts. Pearson grew Higher Dimensions Family Church to a weekly attendance of over 6000, but after embracing an “inclusion gospel” that dismissed hell as a physical reality, droves left. An intriguing part of his tale occurred with his church remnants. Pearson said this:

“Until the Church—the Church, black or otherwise—confronts—not combats—confronts this issue of human sexuality and homosexuality, which is not going away. Homosexuals and homosexuality is not going away. If every gay person in our church just left or those who have an orientation or preference or an inclination, or a fantasy, if everyone left, we wouldn’t have — we wouldn’t have a church.”

When he began to be inclusive toward the LGBTQ community – those people began to attend. The excluded became included. ALL ARE (TRULY) WELCOME HERE!

Unless you are part of the LGBTQ community, it’s hard to appreciate just how often and how ugly many Christians have been to us.  Here’s that appalling story I promised:

Before coming out as transgender, I was invited to the home of an elderly, white, conservative couple (we’ll call them Bill and Barbara). Donna, my ministry partner and I presented Song and Scripture services, as well as in-room visits in several locations every month. We met Barbara in an assisted-living home while she was recovering from knee surgery. After seeing us over a period of several weeks, Bill and Barbara wanted to share their hospitality by inviting us into their home after Barbara was discharged. Donna and I kindly agreed.

We drove into a large, gated community. Their modest 3-bedroom ranch house conformed with all the others around it with only minor differences.  I was glad to have a house number.  Bill and Barbara greeted us warmly into their living room. While we chatted and enjoyed a soft drink and cookies, we learned that their gated community required all persons to be actively involved in an approved (i.e., “conservative”) church, including an annual proof of attendance and tithing.

 “It makes sure we’re in a Christian community,” they said, smiling.

 We also learned that they have a lesbian daughter.

 “She’s strayed from the Lord,” Bill said, and Barbara nodded. Both wore knitted eyes and plastered smiles on their faces. “We don’t allow her into our home, now.”

Donna and I were already ill at ease with the gated community requirements. The distancing from their daughter made us even more uncomfortable.

Barbara continued, “Our daughter (I don’t recall if they even used her name) is married to another woman now, and they have two children.”

 “Do you see your grandchildren?” I asked.

 “No, we can’t approve of our daughter’s sinful lifestyle choice and we don’t believe she’s married in the eyes of the Lord.” 

I was suddenly afraid that I might be in a church version of The Stepford Wives. I quickly said we needed to go. Donna was completely on-board, and we fled the scene. All were NOT welcome there!

Should I have upset their welcome and challenged them in their own home?  Perhaps. It’s unlikely I would’ve swayed their belief, but I could at least be a voice for their daughter who obviously wasn’t going to have an audience with them. Regardless, I learned that for the voiceless to be truly welcome, they need a vocal advocate within the in-group. I intend to do better in the future.

Here’s the thing: stories like this are rampant in the LGBTQ community. As further testimony, I had dinner at The Mews, a restaurant in LGBTQ-friendly Provincetown, MA. It was “open mic” night. The opening act was a man with his guitar. His first piece was “The Trump Blues” which poked at this administration in a comedic way. His second piece was “I’ll Watch Your Stuff” and parodied believers of a divine rapture that will “shoot Christians into outer space.” Both pieces were enthusiastically applauded by the packed room.

Another quality about the LGBTQ community, and it’s probably a good topic for another blog, is that we are tremendously spiritual. There are some that are atheist/agnostic, but a lot are involved in Eastern religions like Buddhism and Taoism or hold to nontraditional beliefs like Wiccan, Pagan, and New Age.  A remnant like me remain connected to traditional Christian denominations, but most of us prefer to model Christ rather than defend doctrine.

Although the LGB part of our rainbow community is making good inroads into both society and churches, the same cannot be said for the TQ. There is a glaring void of transgender and queer/questioning ministers. This vacuum is not exclusive to the Presbyterian Church, but it is true of it. I’m sure there are some TQ people in lay leadership positions, but I’ve not found a way to connect with them. We’re a skittish sort of people on a good day. Many of us are ½ in and ½ out of the closet, depending upon how many social stones we can expect to have thrown at us in a given situation.

The Acts of the Apostles (8:26-30) recounts a story about the Philip being called to clarify the scripture to very spiritual man in a chariot. He was everything Philip was not – Ethiopian, dark-skinned, a Gentile, wealthy, powerful, and without some key man-parts. Even if this Ethiopian converted to Judaism, he would never be allowed into the Temple. All were NOT welcome there. However, the Holy Spirit has wider arms. Philip clarified the scripture and baptized him on-the-spot.

In 1996, Presbyterians embraced our first transgender minister – Erin Swenson.  She was ordained while male, but transitioned and retained her ordination.  In 2015, Petra Strand followed a similar path, but left the denomination shortly thereafter. As yet, no openly transgender or queer/questioning ministers have been ordained by our denomination.

My point:  A visibly diverse leadership shouts ALL ARE (TRULY) WELCOME HERE!

SOCIAL ADVISORY: DIVERSE LEADERSHIP IS COMING!

In June, the general conference will be presented with an overture on celebrating the dignity and humanity of people of all genders. That’s a GIGANTIC step forward!  Another giant step forward must be the ordinations of openly transgender and queer/questioning ministers. I know that many churches in my Presbytery alone are in an interim status. If you’re part of a pastoral search committee, I encourage you to give serious consideration to a transgender or queer/questioning person.

If you do – expect new and colorful people to visit your congregation. Expect changes. Expect growth.

As I was writing this blog, I received a call from my church asking if I would consider serving on the Diaconate. I didn’t plan on being involved in that way, since I do contract work and can’t guarantee that I’ll be around for the next few months, much less a year. But then, God never does give us guarantees – just opportunities. 

I’ll take this one.  Which one is in front of you?

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