Does your church fully live out this statement? Does it REALLY welcome people, especially the stranger?
Sara Miles doesn’t think so.
Last week I had the opportunity to hear Sara speak at the Episcopal Camps and Conference Centers (ECCC) Annual Conference. Sara works at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Her keynote was about what it means to welcome the stranger—like, REALLY welcome the stranger—and she doesn’t think we’re doing a very good job.
Sometimes, I don’t think we do, either.
The group of us who met in California last week all are involved in some way in camp and conference center
ministry in the Episcopal Church. We are all in the business of providing hospitality and serving others, especially strangers. We work with people who we don’t hang out with everyday. And, sometimes, it’s hard to invite these people into our lives.
It’s not easy to radically welcome people into our ministries. It’s so easy for us to show love and compassion to people who look like us, act like us, and think like us. It’s so easy for us to shy away from serving those who are more difficult to love. It is hard for us to show radical hospitality.
In the Church, showing radical hospitality to the stranger sometimes means having to change—something we don’t do well. As Sara put it, “Church as we know it is over,” but we’re not ready for that. We are proud of our tradition and our identity as Episcopalians, so it’s hard to change what we need to in order to really welcome the stranger. Would you change the order of the worship service, the language of your bulletin, or walk across the room and intentionally say hello to every new person while sharing the peace, instead of just shaking the hands of the friends sitting around you?
It’s okay if you aren’t comfortable doing any of that. Honestly, I’m very uncomfortable with all of that stuff,
Showing the kind of hospitality that Sara is talking about is extremely difficult. But, when we serve others with kindness, we can learn so much about ourselves and the world around us. We even receive love back from those whom we serve. In her lecture, Sarah told the parable of the Good Samaritan. But, instead of focusing her story on the Samaritan (who, by the way, just wraps up the hurt man in some bandages and then pays someone else to take care of him… ever thought about that?), she focused on the hurt man. The hurt man received love from people he didn’t know, and that changed him. By receiving the love of a stranger, the hurt man sees the kingdom of God through love, compassion, and kindness. When we REALLY welcome strangers into our lives, the same thing happens to us, too. Welcoming strangers helps us see the kingdom of God that is at hand.
So… what can we do as the church to welcome strangers through our radical hospitality? How can we live out the slogan we oh so proudly print on our logos, signs, and websites? Maybe we can replace a centuries-old hymn with a newer one, or one in another language (and do it more than just once or twice a year). Maybe we can invite the homeless man sitting in the back of the church to the annual potluck, or even invite him into our home for a good meal. Maybe we can tell the single mother with two young kids that it’s okay her little ones are noisy during worship. Maybe we can walk clear across the room to an unfamiliar person during the sharing of the peace, shake their hand, and show genuine care. It might be uncomfortable, and the world might think it’s strange, but it’s what we are called to do.
We are called to show radical hospitality and to REALLY welcome the stranger. That’s what the Church is here for, right? To “seek and serve Christ in ALL persons?”
Let’s live out that slogan. Let’s tell everyone: “the Church DOES welcome you.” Today and always.
And let’s do it together.
Victoria Hoppes is the Associate for Youth & Camping Ministries for the Diocese of Pennsylvania. She has fallen in love with Sara Miles' work. You can learn more about Sara, her ministry, and her writing by visiting her website.