It’s always interesting to read back things that you’ve written in a diary or a blog or just on a piece of paper somewhere that you run across and it starts to make you think. It seems that subjects seem to have a span of time in which they are talked about on an almost daily basis, while others fade away only to be resurrected weeks, months or even years later. The funny thing about topics of interest, especially topics that seem to be the talk of the town now, is to see how a viewpoint or train of thought can change with time, and how subjects seem to come around in cycles.
Think about hospitality for a moment. Several years ago, it was a great topic of conversation in Episcopal circles, particularly regarding how our churches and parishes exemplify Christian hospitality.
The first thing that happens when a person walks into a church is usually something that sticks with them even after they leave after the service. When they walk through the door, did someone offer to shake their hand? Did someone smile at them and hand them a bulletin or service booklet? Did someone engage them in conversation, ask if they were new and perhaps how they found this particular church? Those are different levels of hospitality.
Thinking about that brings me to the thought of the first time that I walked through the doors of the Episcopal Church of the Nativity in North Scottsdale. I was a person who’d been hurt by the church in general and who decided to visit this church where I knew a couple of people. The church had just moved into a new building, and so I set up my GPS to take me there. The sight that struck my eye as I drove towards it was that this was a slightly different looking church, something I’d call industrial Gothic. It had pointed windows that covered nearly the whole expanse. Lots and lots of bright light came in through the clear but lightly tinted windows that let in the light but would help keep the inside from being an oven or a foretaste of a place that we don’t mention too often except in the Creed. Anyway, I thought this was going to be an interesting experience.
I walked through the door and was greeted by this very personable lady and the biggest smile in the world. She introduced herself as Joy and asked if I was new. Yes, I said, but I knew the Rector, and one other lady who was a member of one of my Education for Ministry (EfM) groups. Joy drew me over to the visitor’s book, had me sign, gave me some information on the church, and welcomed me as warmly as I could have wished. This lady had an immense gift of not only joy to match her name but the gift of hospitality, making people feel welcome and a part of the congregation five minutes after they walked through the door for the first time. To me, Joy represented the perfect kind of hospitality ministry that every church should have. People who walked in with children were welcomed warmly and introduced to the people who cared for children in the nursery, Sunday school, and children’s chapel so that they would feel comfortable leaving their children in safety with good, kind people. Older people were welcomed and assisted, if necessary, to seats in the church where they could meet and greet others around them, not just shuffled away in the back of the church where they could be overlooked. They were asked if they needed assistance in going to communion, or if they would like communion brought to them. Note was taken of where they were sitting and identifiers that would allow the altar party to find them and make them a part of the Eucharist at the Lord’s table. There were other members of the hospitality ministry there, all doing many of the same things Joy was, it was just that I met Joy first. Imagine my surprise when I went back a couple of weeks later and she remembered my name! I loved Nativity the first time I went there, but the second time, in large part because of Joy, I felt like a member of the family.
I wish there were more Joys in the world, especially now that the shift in hospitality has gone from the world of the church to the national scene. It’s become a topic that is controversial and rather painful for many on both sides. There are those who feel their safety is being imperiled, as well as those whose safety is truly in danger. We talk of building walls to keep people out, and we exemplify that by the number of walled housing developments that we have now with gates that require passwords or special decals and membership cards that must be swiped to allow admittance. The hospitality door seems to have slammed shut. The same is now beginning to slam shut on our national borders, or at least, to the one to our southern border.
So now maybe this is time for the church to start teaching the country. Yes, we have a number of churches that put on their signs in the front that they are a welcoming and affirming congregation, or that all people are welcome and the ones that they love are welcome as well. We welcome people of color, those who are American-born and those who have fled horrendous regimes around the world. We are establishing congregations within congregations, the services of the Eucharist and various ministries aimed at other ethnicities other than Caucasians. We host groups like Integrity, scouting, various twelve-step groups, and services and classes in other languages. Now, more and more groups are finding ways to help those who have come to us as new brothers and sisters, people who can contribute to the church and the world, without fear of their status, orientation, or any other perceived difference. All we need are 1 million Joys at the doors of our churches and the fences and gates of our borders rather than 1 million AK-47s pointed across that short space between us and the rest of the world.
Joy still greets people, still smiles, and, with brightly-lit eyes, welcomes people to our little place in the Episcopal Church and our little corner of Christianity. This world needs a lot more like her. They need people who take joy in hospitality and extending hospitality. We need more who make us feel welcome rather than not.
Joy has found her gift and we at Nativity are the beneficiaries. I hope other congregations find their own Joy and share her enthusiasm that can lead to both church and kingdom growth. Just look for the little lady in the brimmed hat with streamers.
Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for two Education for Ministry groups, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and semi-retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She is also owned by three cats.