“All are welcome!”
Almost every church displays these words on their websites, brochures and yard signs. These three simple words send a message of invitation, inclusiveness, acceptance and hospitality for all. The skeptic in me wonders how many churches, including my own, really mean the words they say. Because frankly, welcoming everyone is harder than it sounds.
Churches say they want families with young children, but are they ready for wiggling toddlers who are still mastering “inside voices”? Churches say they want new members, but are they equally welcoming of the low-income family as they are of the new professional in town? If a person in a wheelchair or walker arrives and the church entrance has a set of unnavigable stairs, how welcome does that person feel? What if he or she makes it in the door but has to sit in the back or in an aisle because the pews don’t accommodate them? If a worshiper is hard-of-hearing or sight-impaired, does the church offer hearing assistance or large-print bulletins? If a visitor arrives, is it clear how to enter or are there multiple doors to the church with no signs indicating which to use? If a person with a mental illness displays unusual or erratic behavior, is the church committed to the full inclusion of that individual? If a same-sex couple comes to worship, will eyebrows be raised? Will a transgender individual know which bathroom to use?
Back in 2011, following a year-long self-study to discern our core values as a church, Westminster adopted the following welcome statement: “Westminster welcomes everyone, no matter where you are on your faith journey or your life journey. In faithfulness to our understanding of Christ, Westminster affirms the full inclusion of all God’s people in the life and ministry of the church. We welcome persons of every race, gender, age, sexual orientation, family status, and economic status into full participation in our faith community. We value questions as much as answers. We encourage curiosity, discovery, and honest struggling with questions of faith. “
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We adopted our welcome statement in good faith. We desired and envisioned more racial diversity in our pews. We made changes to our building to improve handicapped accessibility. We worked hard to change our assumptions of the so-called “traditional family” (mom, dad, two children), acknowledging that modern families come in many different configurations. We wanted to send a message that we are a safe and welcoming church for LGBTQ folks, especially because many churches are not. We hoped to offer a safe place for diverse religious thought and for people who could ask questions and engage in exciting theological dialogue. We’ve made strides in some ways, but not in others.
Living into this statement has also taken us on a journey that we didn’t anticipate. Our congregation has changed in some of the ways we envisioned, but in some ways we did not. God has sent us individuals with challenges, backgrounds (yes, including criminal), special needs, hurts, diagnoses and “issues.” We’ve had to acknowledge our inherent biases and to understand the different life experiences of others. It hasn’t been easy, and we’ve made mistakes. We’re not perfect, and we’ve fallen short of our ideal. But we do try.
We've also come to understand that it isn't enough to simply invite people to come through our doors. True welcoming is going out beyond those doors to meet people where they are, to allow their stories and truths to change us, sometimes in big and scary ways.
Fortunately, we have a role model in Jesus. His whole ministry was spent on the move, mingling with outcasts, the marginalized, the poor and the unloved. He called fishermen as his disciples. He welcomed children. He advocated for widows and single women and people with no power. He invited a despised tax collector to eat with him. He cleansed a leper. He made a Samaritan — a hated enemy of the Jews — the “good guy” in a story about loving your neighbor.
So when we say “All are welcome!” at Westminster, we are following Christ’s example. Every person is a child of God, made in God’s image and worthy of love. All are welcome in God’s eyes and therefore also in ours.
Jill Fandrich is a ruling elder and clerk of session at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 17 William St., Auburn, where she edits the newsletter, church website (westminsterauburn.org) and Facebook and Twitter pages.