31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
June 28, 2020
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
Over fifteen years ago, the First Congregational Church community began a process the United Church of Christ calls Open and Affirming. The process was designed to help local congregations discern how God was calling them to welcome those in the LBGTQ+ community.
As FCC Bristol took this journey, our community discerned that God was calling this community to welcome all people – “without regard to race, ethnic or socio-economic background, sexual orientation, gender, marital status, physical or mental challenges, or age.” We are now proud to say that hospitality and welcome are core parts of our ministry and identity.
In her book Strength for the Journey: A Guide to Spiritual Practice, Renee Miller writes that hospitality and welcome are more than “simply welcoming others into our space and sharing the simple things of food and conversation with them.” (Strength for the Journey, Miller, pg 40). Hospitality and welcome are spiritual practices, like worship, service, and prayer.
Miller goes on to write:
“At its core, hospitality is an opening of the heart….It really has nothing to do with having friends or strangers over for dinner. Indeed, we can invite the poor into our homes for a meal three nights a week, but if our hearts are not open, we have not offered hospitality. This is what makes many of us avoid hospitality as a practice. We hesitate to open our hearts to the degree required by hospitality…Opening our hearts means we really have to gather others in. Their problems, their dreams, the injustices done to them, the hopes that lie hidden in their souls, the joys that have taken them to heaven’s doors….The challenge of this, of course, is that the contents of our own hearts merge with those of our guest….It’s no longer all about me. It becomes, instead, all about us. That internal shift can be difficult to make. It is particularly difficult when the ones we open our hearts to are completely unlike us. They may be of a different background, have a different educational level, enjoy different foods, have a career that seems strange to us, wear clothes that are offensive to us, have tattoos or body piercings that unsettle us, or speak, think, act, or feel in ways that are completely other than all we find comfortable.”” (Strength for the Journey, Miller, pg 40-41).
Fairly often, I drive by church signs that say “All Are Welcome”. Those words are really important. It is really important for our open and affirming statement to be on our worship bulletin, our website, our social media. It is really important to display a pride flag and a Black Lives Matter banner. These things are important because words have the power to create.
In the beginning, God created the world through words, and our world continues to be created by words.
It is important to show others what we believe, and it is important to make sure our actions back up our words.
For the first wedding I ever officiated, the groom, who attended Sunday morning worship with his bride, asked me when he might learn the “secret” song sang each week during the offering. Not having grown up in a church, he did not know this traditional doxology, and the words were never printed in the bulletin. That church’s worship bulletin had to change to be open hearted to new believers.
Years ago, I attended a UCC congregation that said “All are welcome” and then in their worship bulletin, they specified all of the different places you could take your fussy child so as not to disturb worship for the grown-ups. As you can imagine, I did not see any children in worship that morning.
On the flip side, there are congregations who have removed some of their front pews to create a “pray ground”, a place where children and their adults can sit closer to the action and be immersed in worship, as they play with crayons, glitter glue, and even spray foam. These are congregations that have embraced hospitality and welcome as a spiritual practice. They have opened their hearts to people of all ages.
Three years ago, FCC completed a significant renovation to get closer to being able to say we welcome people of all physical abilities. The elevator and fire code stairwell have added much to our ministry, and at the same time, we lost something. We lost two single use bathrooms – which is a big deal if you are a member of the trans community or are someone who is non-binary and you regularly face the choice of which restroom to use.
The building committee was told that if we did not put up the traditional binary restroom signs, we would not get our certificate of occupancy. And so despite saying we welcome all people, our bathrooms say we require people to fit in the categories of man or woman.
Renee Miller is right when she says opening our hearts and welcoming others in is challenging. She understands why people avoid it. Opening our hearts to others “without regard to race, ethnic or socio-economic background, sexual orientation, gender, marital status, physical or mental challenges, or age.” is difficult and uncomfortable because when we open our hearts, we are changed. Our comfortable and familiar will be changed. And that is scary.
What might worship look like if instead of providing books and coloring sheets to keep them quiet, we accepted children just as they are and created a pray-ground for them in the Sanctuary? What might worship look like if we sang the Hispanic hymns, the African American spirituals, from our hymnal or even truly contemporary music? What might our ministry look like if we asked our high school and college youth for their leadership?
How might our community be changed by the spiritual practice of true hospitality? Might fellowship look different? Be called something different? Might we engage in completely different ministries?
As much as we, as a Christian community embrace the words of our Open and Affirming statement, as much as we celebrate and embrace our identity as a church of hospitality and welcome, we also need to continuously, honestly, examine our ministry and make the changes that gather others in – just as they are.
We need to ask ourselves the tough questions – like why, if we welcome all races, genders, and sexual orientations, how come our community has less than a handful of people of color or members of the LGBTQ+ community? If we welcome all ages, how come we have very few leaders under the age of 50 or families with infants and toddlers?
The spiritual practice of welcome and hospitality is so much more than hosting a fantastic BBQ or dinner party. It means more than saying “We Welcome All” or smiling at people when they come to worship.
The spiritual practice of hospitality and welcome asks us to gather others in, and it also asks us to go “where others are in order to open our hearts to them there.” (Strength for the Journey, Miller, pg 42). It asks us to listen, to let the hopes, dreams, sorrows, and heartbreaks of our guest’s heart merge with our own.
When we practice true hospitality and welcome, when we open our hearts to others, our lives are never the same again; our church community is never the same again; they are better. Our lives are richer. Our community is more Christ-like. We are truly blessed.