Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Welcome (2nd of 6 parts)

As indicated in the title, this is the second of a six-part series on the points I made in my first Superintendent's Address in June. These six points represent what I am most passionate about in our common ministry here in Alaska. These are six areas I am hoping that churches and individuals will be serious about.

That's My Spot!
A good number of years ago, a Filipino couple came to Anchorage as immigrants. Being active and devoted United Methodist leaders back home, they went to one of our UM churches here in the city. They arrived as the service was about to start. The sanctuary was half full and there were a lot of empty pews. They picked a spot close to the back.

Just as they had gotten settled and were reviewing the contents of the bulletin, an Anglo couple wearing name tags (obviously members of that church) arrived, stood by the pew where the Filipinos were seated and sternly said, "That's our spot!"The newcomers apologized and gathered their belongings. But instead of moving to a different pew, they made a beeline for the door, never to set foot in that sanctuary again.

They were embarrassed and truly felt unwelcome in a United Methodist Church that proudly proclaimed in their bulletins that "All Are Welcome!" When I met them shortly after my family and I arrived in Alaska, they were already involved in a church of a different denomination. (Thankfully, when they went back home to the Philippines after they retired, they went back to being United Methodists in their home church.)

It's easy to get angry about this story and at the unwelcoming couple. But before we point accusing fingers and try to find out where it happened and who did it, I believe the greater questions that needs to be asked is an introspective one: How many times have I/we actually said to someone new, "That's my spot!"? How many times have we felt our "spots" in church (i.e. positions of leadership, ways of doing things, favorite church programs, belief systems, etc.) being taken by someone else, especially someone fairly new, not realizing that there is actually room for all of us.

All are welcome?
Most if not all of our churches claim that "all are welcome" there. But is our welcome genuine? When we say "all", do we really mean "all"? Or is there a fine print somewhere that says "all" means "all who think, act, look, dress, worship, pray, serve, speak and live like us. All of those are welcome."? Or perhaps the fine print reads: "All are welcome as long as they don't take our 'spots'."

Are ALL truly welcome in our churches and faith communities? If so, then it begs the question: How are we welcoming them? How are we welcoming the OTHER into our midst? How are we welcoming our Alaska Natives, Native Americans, millenials, young families with young children, our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, immigrants, people of color, the Nones (people with non religious affiliation) and the Dones (people who are done with organized religion)?

The Sacred Circle
Our theme at annual conference was "Restoring the Sacred Circle". God's family is a sacred circle that includes everyone and excludes no one. How do we truly restore and keep this sacred circle? How can we continue to draw the circle wider?

There is a well-known Vietnamese saying: "In order to fight each other, the chicks born from the same mother hen put colors on their faces." Vietnamese buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said, "Putting colors on our own face is to make ourselves a stranger to our own brothers and sisters. When will the chicks of the same mother hen remove the colors from their faces and recognize each other as brothers and sisters?"

When will we as the church, the body of Christ, remove the colors from our faces and remove the colors we have put on the faces of others and recognize each other as sisters and brothers? Another way of putting it is: When will we get rid of the fine print in "all are welcome"?

What's their story?
In the movie Amistad, there's a scene where Abolitionist lawyer Theodore Joadson seeks the legal advice of John Quincy Adams in defending the rights of the African slaves (click here to watch it). Adams asks Joadson, "What's their story?" He challenges Joadson to look beyond Slavery as an issue to learn the specific stories of the individual slaves he was defending: "Who are they? Where did they come from? What are they good at? What is their family like? What are their concerns? What is their story?"

What's their story? This has been a guiding question and principle for me in welcoming the other. I always push myself to find out what their story is. I try to go past the labels to look at the people and listen to their stories. I challenge you to do the same. You'll be surprised what you'll learn. I believe its a way of "removing the color from our faces" and "getting rid of the fine print."

I challenge us to cultivate a culture of genuine welcome as individuals and as faith communities. When we say "all are welcome" in our churches, may our "all" really mean "all". And as we do, may God's kingdom truly come "on earth as it is in heaven!"

Your fellow disciple,

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