November 2016
Tools for Evangelism

Strangers to Neighbors

From Strangers to Neighbors

A few years ago, if someone had told me that I’d be part of a bilingual house church movement, and that I’d spend the Advent season canvassing neighborhoods in a Southern state (North Carolina) where the mores of hospitality are held in high regard, looking for people willing to let strangers knock on their door, only to reject them, all in the name of Jesus Christ, I would have laughed. And yet, this practice, and the Las Posadas gatherings we’re preparing for as Christmas nears, has now deeply shaped the way we observe this holy season of Advent and live out our call to formation, evangelism, and communion outside the church’s walls the rest of the year. We are Comunidad Puerta Abierta (Open Door Community), and this is a little of our story of how God’s coming among us in the flesh has inspired us to boldness in embracing our neighbors, sharing our faith, and adapting traditions in our multicultural context.

What is Las Posadas?

As you may know, Las Posadas is an Advent tradition from Latin America as well as parts of the Southwestern U.S. In the nine days leading up to Christmas, people gather in homes and neighborhoods for candlelit processions, knocking on doors and being rejected entrance until they finally arrive at a welcoming household, “ the inn,” where all share in singing, prayers, food and reflection on Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging in Bethlehem before Christ’s birth. Here’s how this tradition made its way to Greensboro, North Carolina.

A few years ago, several Spanish-speaking families from the Episcopal Church in Central America showed up at the predominantly Anglo, English-speaking church where I was serving. No Episcopal churches in our area were offering services in Spanish, but the families were looking to connect with other Episcopalians, so they started attending regular Sunday services. Despite their limited English, the youth served as acolytes, and people started getting to know each other through offering rides to church and communicating through a combination of generous non-verbal gestures and translator apps on their phones.

Something I quickly noticed was that people really did want to hear from and connect with one another, and they were willing to bear the discomfort of language barriers to do so. So, we set up some Sunday morning bilingual storytelling sessions as the Pentecost season waned. More than anything, it was important to create a space for people to be together, to tell their stories of faith and learn to listen to each other across different cultures. Favorite liturgical year traditions was an early prompt, and what surfaced as we shared was Las Posadas.

Leaving the Church Walls Behind

Following the lead of our Latin American members, we decided to act and make Las Posadas happen in a way that allowed for the multiple languages and cultures present in our community to participate and contribute. That first year we considered offering just one Posada at the church to ease into the tradition, but the families invited us to be a little bolder and step outside the church and away from Sundays to make our porches and living rooms the sites of our Advent formation throughout the week.

That first year, over the nine days we did a Posada in four different homes in very different parts of town. But, we stuck to those home spaces, only singing the traditional Posadas song outside the host’s door. So the next year we worked ahead,starting in October, to identify the hosts in different neighborhoods and then find three or four neighbors who’d be willing to help us expand our celebration by letting a group knock on their door, seek sanctuary, but then turn us away.

Particularly in places where Las Posadas isn’t well known, and where neighbors don’t necessarily know each other, this knocking on doors isn’t just preparing the way for a community-based Advent Posadas celebration- it’s evangelism. It’s telling the story - to people we may or may not yet know - of our God who came among us in vulnerability, as the Other, in a season of mistrust, unrest, and upheaval, and then inviting people to enter that story with us. In walking our neighborhoods and knocking on doors and telling the story, well before the official Posadas gatherings even happen, we find ourselves walking with Mary and Joseph, sanctuary-seekers and bearers of Christ, uncertain about how we’ll be received but ever hopeful that God’s grace, and welcome, and new life will make themselves known to us and those who open the door for us.

Creating a More Open, Beloved Community

The families from Latin America with Las Posadas in their history found the scripture readings and prayers for us to use and taught the community the songs they knew from home. We found more on YouTube, and enjoyed swapping carols in various languages from our many beloved traditions. Immigrant grandparents delighted in sharing a Posadas with their U.S.-born grandchildren who had never experienced this custom. The host households hailed from Honduras, Cuba, Uruguay and the U.S., and we all got to appreciate the cultural variances among Posadas.. One Posada is not like another, and what a gift this is! In creating new community each night, we experienced the blessing of being honored guests at the nativity and encountered God’s generous presence among us as we turned from strangers into neighbors.

With all the contentious public debates going on about whether and how to welcome immigrants and refugees in our communities, people felt strongly that Las Posadas should not only be a time for intercultural sharing and hospitality for our church friends and neighbors, but also seek to answer a larger concern. The Posadas call us to be even more open to those in our wider community who are newcomers and most vulnerable. Hosts invited people to bring donations of diapers and food for emergency pantries at immigrant and refugee community centers, and we spent time during each Posada giving thanks for the work of different community partners and strategizing ways to become more involved in meaningful relationships.

The Las Posadas tradition really lends itself to leaving the church walls, and what extra work is entailed in preparing for liturgy in new places is well worth it for the spiritual vitality that it brings a community (and their neighbors). The resources created by and available through the Episcopal Church Foundation and the Episcopal Church’s Office for Latino/Hispanic Ministries are fantastic, and drawing on them allows our lay and clergy leaders to spend more time in the important work of walking neighborhoods, knocking on doors and inviting our wider community to be part of this season in which we experience the heartbreak of rejection, the hope of being radically welcomed in the name of Christ, and the expectation that our God is indeed pleased to pitch a tent among us and promises, in the midst of despair and fearful times, to make all things new.

A 2015 ECF Fellow, Audra Abt is a priest working in the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, serving as Area Missioner for Intercultural and Community-Based Ministries around Greensboro, NC, and is part of an emerging bilingual Spanish-English worshipping community there.


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This article is part of the November 2016 Vestry Papers issue on Tools for Evangelism