Understanding the Limits of Welcome

This past Sunday was one of the more bizarre worship experiences I’ve had during my relatively long tenure as pastor and teacher at Old South Church in Hallowell, Maine.

Let’s set the scene: The previous Sunday was Children’s Sunday and Music Sunday, so this past Sunday was a “Sunday after.”   In other words, it was a low energy Sunday. The gloomy, chilly weather didn’t help matters.

Not long into the start of worship, a young man wandered in, dressed in what looked like his pajamas. He went over to one side of the sanctuary, took off his coat and sat down. When someone got up to fetch him a bulletin, he refused to take it, put his coat back on and left.

And, then another stranger came along— this time a middle-aged man. He was dressed normally, but what was immediately disconcerting was that he didn’t sit down. He slowly walked along the back of the sanctuary. Then, he went into the vestry. The large doors between the vestry and sanctuary were open, so everyone could see him. He stood in one spot and then another. I had just started my sermon. I’ll admit that I was irritated by the fact that almost everyone was looking at him and not paying attention to the sermon that I had carefully crafted for the day. So, I motioned to the man and encouraged him to come into the sanctuary and take a seat. He didn’t at first.

Finally, as I continued on—trying very hard to keep my irritation at bay—he finally went to the back of the sanctuary and took a seat in one of the back pews.

Everyone seemed to settle down, at least enough to turn some of their attention to what I was saying. But, then the man took out a camera and started taking photos—of the ceiling, the windows, the architecture (presumably) and then the congregation.

I didn’t like it at all. It was all very unsettling, especially since the man’s countenance was rather severe. He didn’t smile or look friendly.

And, there I was preaching about the “new commandment,” to be known as a follower of Jesus by showing love for one another.  What should I do with this all too obvious “object lesson” right in front of me?

I kept an eye on our visitor, who stayed in the back pew and continued to periodically pull up his camera and take photos. He sat quietly, but didn’t participate. He didn’t sing hymns, etc.

As soon as I pronounced the benediction, I left the chancel and headed to the back of the sanctuary, where I waited for the postlude to finish. Then, I approached the man and introduced myself. I discovered that he was a visitor from a northern European country, an artist (I think that’s what he was trying to tell me) who takes photographs. He gave me his card and then left, declining the invitation to join us for coffee and snacks.

When I went into the vestry, I was descended upon by at least half of the congregation— “Oh, you did so well to keep your cool;” “Who was he, what was he doing here?”; “I was so worried. I thought he might pull out a gun!”; “What would we have done if he had pulled out a gun?”; and, “We need to have a protocol for this sort of thing.”

And, in the midst of the flurry, a few people observed the strange juxtaposition of such a stranger and my sermon about loving one another. Amid the running commentary, there was also a sense of how terrible it was to feel that way, to be so filled with suspicion and anxiety. But, how can we not, after everything that’s been going on in the world?

In our little congregation in the middle of Maine, up in the northeast corner of the U.S., it’s been all too easy to feel a bit cut off from the violence of our country and the world. But, on Sunday we felt that awful vulnerability and that terrible sense of dread of how quickly and violently our lives could be so completely and utterly altered. And, in the midst of that, the painful awareness of the limits of welcome. We might say “All are welcome,” but in reality, that welcome is not quite the beautifully radical invitation we would like or hope it to be.

Sure, the second visitor acted strangely, coming in late, wandering around and taking photos. Perhaps it’s okay to cut ourselves a little slack for thinking those terrible thoughts about what we would do if something horrific happened. Still, it is unsettling to have those feelings in a place where we would strongly prefer not to. We want church to feel safe. We want it to be “sanctuary.”

Last Sunday, worship was not sanctuary. Instead, it offered a moment in which we came face to face with the reality that our sense of vulnerability is just barely below the surface. It was also an unpleasant reminder that when we declare “no matter who you are, no matter where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here,” (slogan of the United Church of Christ) we don’t mean it unconditionally. There are limits to our welcome, in this age of anxiety in which we live. We may have good reason to be cautious, but it’s still a sad state of affairs to know how quickly our welcoming words are cast aside and our suspicious attitudes brought to the surface.

Jesus gave us a new commandment to love one another. That’s not an easy thing. We shouldn’t kid ourselves. And yet we are called to do just that, to love and to welcome. We will experience anxiety, but at the same time, we must exercise self-control in not allowing that anxiety to dictate who we are and how we express our sense of being church. We can be cautious, but we cannot allow that caution to be the ultimate guiding tool for how we gather and how we response to strangers. In the midst of this, we can be loving and welcoming, acknowledging our fears but not allowing those fears to get the best of us.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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