May 23, 2011

Being Welcoming

Last week I had a long conversation with the rector of a thriving urban parish with approximately 700 members and no full time staff, other than the rector. “What’s the secret to your success?” I asked.

I never received a direct answer to that question.

Instead, as I listened, I heard stories of a priest and a congregation who served God by openly welcoming the neighbors into God’s house.

There was the story of the party held to honor the 25th anniversary of the priest’s ordination. The congregation, primarily Latino, is known for its parties. Their parties are family affairs, with music and dancing. And food.

A Pakistani family, relatively new to the congregation, came to this party. They brought a Pakistani music CD for the DJ to play. I could hear the smile in the priest’s voice as he remembers watching his congregation dancing – and laughing – as they moved to an unfamiliar beat.

He also told the story of the day he and one of the Vestry, while talking in the Church, were approached by a couple that wanted to join. “She was tattooed and he looked a bit ‘off’,” said the priest. After the couple left, the Vestry member voiced misgivings about the couple to which the priest gave this tongue in cheek reply: “Every night I pray for a middle class couple with two children to walk through this door,” immediately followed by, “This is God’s house where all are welcome. We don’t choose who walks through those doors.”

Instead, they make it easy to walk through the doors.

Having been associated with an urban church kept locked when not in use, I was surprised to learn that this Church is kept open all day. Along with its garden, the Church is available to anyone choosing to enter. And enter they do.

The congregation and the neighbors have a sense of ownership and responsibility for the church and grounds in large part because all are invited to be stewards of God’s house. Each month a new liturgical team is formed, taking responsibility for all aspects of the congregation’s common life from preparing the altar to welcoming people to worship to serving as a liturgical minister and setting up and cleaning up coffee hour. This shared ownership extends to taking care of the kitchen and other common areas.

And, each other.

“It all comes down to respect,” shared the priest. “That’s our number one rule. We are an open community, which can create challenges. Yet, we are not a conflicted parish. People aren’t fighting for power. You might call us ‘antipower,’ we are a congregation that works together. People come in, some stay, some disappear. Sometimes they come back. This is God’s house. All are welcome.”

How does your congregation practice being welcoming?