September 2007
Christian Hospitality

Radical Welcome: Embracing the Other

Nobody knows just what Jesus Christ’s body looked like. But most of us have some inkling, some dream, of how the Body of Christ could look and feel. Here’s my dream: 

In this body there’s love, lots of love. There’s justice and compassion and sharing within the body, and the same gifts spread out to the wider community and the world around them. Nobody gets thrown away or shoved aside. Rather, the ones who might have landed on the scrap heap in the world’s economy are invited to the center in Christ’s body, where they stand, lead, pray, sing and proclaim right alongside the traditional power brokers.

The ones who’ve held privilege feel their hearts stretch, grow and fill, as they discover the joy of offering and receiving, transforming and being transformed. There’s a lively zing as people share the good news of Christ in their own language, and a deep resonance as together they all draw closer to the brightly burning fire of the living God. 

If this vision gives you a charge and a thrill, even if it scares you but you pray for hope and courage that’s bigger than your fear…then welcome. Welcome to Radical Welcome.

What is Radical Welcome?
Radical welcome is the spiritual practice that allows us to live into the compassionate, just, colorful, boundary-crossing dream of God. It’s a lot more than a warm welcome at the church door on Sunday morning, or a full platter of donuts and flavored coffees in the church hall.

A radically welcoming community seeks to welcome the voices, presence and power of all people — especially those who have been defined as The Other, pushed to the margins, cast out, silenced and closeted — so they can help to shape the congregation’s common life and fulfill the reconciling dream of God. 

This welcome is not afraid of reckoning with the nitty-gritty roots, the Jesus-level questions about power and fear and resurrection and surrender. It has the potential to touch every aspect of congregational life, making room for fresh voices and perspectives to join trusted traditions in shaping the church’s mission, identity, worship, ministries and leadership. That’s why it’s radical.

But it’s fundamentally about embrace, reconciliation, making room inside to truly receive one another, shaping communities where the love and Spirit of God dwell richly. That’s why it’s welcome.

Embrace The Other
To radically welcome The Other — that is, the stranger, the Christ in your midst — you must know who The Other is. The Other is the group of people who have been systemically, historically silenced, marginalized and oppressed in relation to your community. 

The Other is not just a group that feels marginalized or left out, though you should tend carefully to any experience of exclusion. But when we speak of radical welcome, we are digging deeper.   

  • First, look inside: What groups are present in your community? Primarily consider the major axes along which some groups experience systemic oppression and others receive privilege: race and culture, language, education and socioeconomic status, generation, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability. 
  • Then look around: What are the communities surrounding your congregation? Which groups are least likely to feel valued and embraced as part of your church? Which ones are present around you but not among you? 
  • Then look back: Even if you think your congregation is welcoming, your denominational heritage may not be. Whose story and culture rarely shows up in your tradition? Which groups are likely to see a sign for your church and to say, “Well, they don’t want me.” Honestly inquire and assess who doesn’t feel welcome, and realize there’s no shame in God’s house — we’ve all got growing to do. 

The Nitty-Gritty of Radical Welcome
Everyone wants a quick list of specific activities that will help them to immediately become more radically welcoming. Alas, just as The Other is different in every context, so the steps to radically welcome The Other will differ everywhere. After you’ve named The Other(s), a group of leaders should intentionally take up these activities: 

Identify the barriers blocking full embrace of The Other in your community. Consider the five elements of congregational life: your stated mission and vision, your identity, your ministries and relationships, your leadership and feedback structures, and your worship.

Identify the changes your institution would need to make to radically welcome The Other. In other words, what activities, images, messages and events would make it clear that you are making room for their voices, their presence, and their power, at the heart of your life together? 

Invite an existing group in the congregation already committed to part of the radical welcome vision — like the Newcomers’ Committee, Outreach or Anti-racism — to join the effort.

Identify and equip the “bridge people”: members of marginalized groups who can be nurtured and tapped as leaders; who can stir the community to develop competence in the marginalized group’s culture; and who can provide a touchstone and ease entry for others in their group.

You don’t have to demonize the dominant culture or attempt to erase everything and start from scratch. But you can examine the elements of your church life and determine where you could make room for another voice or practice to enrich, enhance, stand alongside and even transform the one generally privileged. You can stretch your arms, stretch your imagination, and know the joy of embracing and building community with The Other.

The Reverend Stephanie Spellers is the Cox Fellow and Minister for Radical Welcome at the Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston and the author of Radical Welcome: Embracing God,the Stranger and the Spirit of Transformation (Church Publishing). She is also the founder of The Crossing, an emergent worship gathering at the Cathedral.

This article is part of the September 2007 Vestry Papers issue on Christian Hospitality