I am an ordained minster. Although I am ordained in two Christian denominations, I do not hold dual standing. That means that the two parts of the one holy and apostolic church do not recognize each other as being what they might recognize as Christian.
That is the first problem.
This writing has little to do with the differences within the Christian church and a opining about who is “right,” who is “wrong,” and who is trying to get it “right.” Rather, this writing has to do with something regularly heard at the opening of worship in many congregations within the United Church of Christ when the pastor (or lay leader) says, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” As an ordained minister within the United Church of Christ, I cannot say those words until they are true. Instead, I open my worship services with some direction when I say, “People of God, welcome home! Please turn to your neighbor, say, ‘Hi!’ and let the people know you’re glad they are here!”
I became motivated to share my thoughts on the welcoming portion of the church after reading a blog by a well respected colleague, Rev. Lawrence Richardson who reflected upon what the term “welcoming” means to the progressive Christian church. He shared at length about how we can approach the LGBTQi community and others who are marginalized, such as racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups in an effort to be servants to them and thereby include them in community, rather than demand that they come to us and conform to our standards. He closes his essay with a very important question, “To whom do you truly open your doors and your hearts? Through whom will you invite God to continue the sacred work of transformation in community?” This question gains its importance not by what is asked, but by the context in which it is asked: I do not feel welcome by my church because of the context in which they surround themselves. I am acceptable to the church because I am “tolerant” (even though I abhor the word, as it gives the understanding that I simply “put up with” those who are different than me), divorced, remarried, I have a gay brother, and a transgender son. All of this puts me on the plus side, but wait until you hear my negatives. I am shunned by the church because I am white, male, and (horror of all horrors) a retired cop. I am covered by the blanket that is thrown when we seek to point out the mistreatment of a marginalized population. In 20 years of policing, it was never acceptable to charge “those people,” rather, it was incumbent that we charge an individual and hold him/her/they responsible for his/her/their actions.
Imagine walking into a welcoming church and being asked how many African-American men you killed over the course of 20 years policing (none). Imagine walking into a church and being greeted with the comment, “You don’t seem racist.” (um, thanks, I think?) Imagine being an ordained minister, at a gathering of other non-judgmental Christian minsters and being told how another pastor in the area is happy that several families (related to police officers) left the congregation in the wake of the Ferguson incident because of the preaching of the pastor and blanket anti-police commentary of their church. That pastor stated he was pleased because the pastor knows “they’re all corrupt anyway.” (way to walk like Christ)
Nobody related to the church has ever asked me how I or my family (divorced) were impacted by the day I was a white cop, shot in the neck by a black man as he attempted to murder me simply because I was a police officer.
How’s that for welcoming? This is the church in which I serve. A church where I am judged everyday for being a cop, worse, being a white cop.
Judgment seems to be the way of the church, but it is not the job of the church.
When I struggled through the years long ordination process (a process that was hampered by my skin color, man parts, sexual orientation, and profession), I started to ask the question, “Am I really welcome here?” I’ve come to the answer that I am not welcome and the church would be happier if I was not one of their representatives, but I jumped through all their hoops and have stuck to my original message of wanting to be like Jesus and meeting people where they are, rather than expect them to come to where I am.
Which brings us back to Rev. Richardson’s essay: to be the church we preach, it is time to stop labeling, it is time to stop prejudice, it is time to stop assuming that everybody wants to go to a church building and worship as though we find ourselves in an episode of “Leave it to Beaver,” or “Father Knows Best.” There will always be differences between people, but continuously pointing out the differences does little to close the gap – rather, it builds further distrust and perpetuates prejudice. Instead, let’s open our arms in welcome and accept people, all people, and continuously work together to be Christ in the world, breaking bread together and raising our children together. This will go so much further to help my child understand that we love as Christ loves, than will telling my child that his father is a (fill in whatever prejudiced blanks you wish) simply because I was a cop.
So, in the words of Rev. Richardson, “To whom do you truly open your doors and your hearts? Through whom will you invite God to continue the sacred work of transformation in community?”
May the peace of Christ find those who proclaim his word, and dispel the anger/hatred from their hearts.