Hospitality and Welcoming the Stranger in Our Midst
I wanted to share a few stories of experiences I have had visiting other worshipping communities, both good and bad. Before I moved to my current parish but after I had finished serving at my last parish, my fiancé (now husband) and I worshipped with two other Episcopal churches. We decided to go without any indication that we were priests (incognito-no collars, etc.) so that we could just participate and worship without drawing extra attention. We chose the first church because they worshipped in a higher style than we usually did and thought it would be an interesting experience. The second church we chose because it was not far away from where we were and they had a service late enough for us to sleep in a little. Before we went I thought that we would experience people being too eager for us to become involved. We were on the surface what many churches said they were looking for- a young couple who obviously knew and loved the liturgy.
Boy was I wrong! At both parishes nobody spoke to us except for the priest! (One of them knew me because it was not far from the parish I had been serving.) The first service we sat through not knowing much of what was going on, but no one offered us help to understand. They worshipped in a very high church style and had extra special actions because a bishop was visiting that neither of us had seen before. The second church had worship similar to what we knew and we participated fully. The second one even had a time at the end for visitors to stand up and introduce themselves. The priest who knew me looked at me and I shook my head, “no.” My husband and I are both introverted and neither of us wanted to make a spectacle of ourselves. We just wanted to worship. So maybe nobody said hello there because we did not stand up in front of 100 people we did not know to introduce ourselves. At the second parish we then spent 15 minutes wandering around trying to find a bathroom and still no one said hello or asked if they could help. Leaving the second week in a row with the only hint of welcome coming from the priests, I couldn’t help but think that it’s no wonder the Episcopal Church is losing members. I would not have returned to either place to worship.
In direct contrast to that experience was a worship service I attended recently at a convent in Tiffin, OH. I was attending a retreat there and as part of our schedule we had the option to join the sisters for Vespers, an evening prayer service. I enjoy praying with others in new ways so I went. Two of us from the retreat stepped into the door of the chapel looking around trying to figure out what we should do. Within a minute two sisters who had been sitting at different places in the sanctuary came over and offered to sit with us and help us through the service. Though a little unsure of being approached and wanting to blend in the back (I was at a Roman Catholic convent and was not sure how they would greet me), I agreed. The sister handed us their prayer books and pointed to numbers on a wall. They were code to find the different parts of the service. She turned to me and the other retreatant at each turn of the page to make sure we knew where we were. I finally experienced how even a heart desiring to pray can have trouble navigating multiple pages throughout a book without a guide. After the service, the two sisters thanked us for praying with them and invited us to come to another service they had. It felt so good to be thanked for praying with them, especially because half the time I had no idea what was going on.
I share these experiences with you to help all of us to work together to be a church with genuine hospitality sharing God’s love with those who honor us by praying with us. What can you do to help someone who you do not recognize to feel welcome at your parish? How can we as a community make it so everyone feels like they can be included in prayer at our church? The first steps are introducing ourselves to our guests, wearing our name tags so those who have attended a few times don’t feel bad about not knowing people yet. How about our bulletin, our website, our building? Let’s work together to welcome the stranger as a guest who honors us with their presence when they come to pray with us.
Heather Hill is the rector of All Saints in Parma, Ohio. When not leading their churches, she and her husband enjoy spending time with their preschool aged twins.