Meet People Where They Are
On Sunday, I spoke about God’s call to welcome all people without conditions. (If you missed the sermon, listen here.) In the story of the man at the Pool of Bethesda, Jesus stops, pays attention to, and helps a man who was judged and ignored by the rest of society. I asked us all to consider this question:
Will we follow Jesus and offer unconditional welcome, unconditional service, unconditional love, and unconditional grace to all people?
I want to answer this question with a resounding, “Yes!” And yet I know how easy it is to answer this question with words and how hard it can be to answer it with actions. The truth is, it can be very difficult to love, serve and welcome some people.
I spoke on Sunday about my friend and brother, Ray. Over the years it had been tough to welcome Ray unconditionally because of his actions, attitudes, and words. Yet one of the most beautiful places where I really saw folks welcome Ray without conditions was at our church.
Joanie and I never really solicited to our neighbors to come to church with us. The invitation was always there, but we were not pushy people. Inevitably folks would ask to come with us. Ray was one of the first and we, of course, took him with us.
Ray kept coming back with us, and soon enough he was a regular. He was invited by folks to a Sunday School class. He began helping out in the youth group. He would assist in various mission and ministry projects. And eventually he became an usher.
The church was always nice and polite to Ray. There were definitely times when I saw uncomfortable looks on the faces of some members because of Ray’s often unkempt and disheveled appearance. But overall folks offered the southern hospitality you would expect in North Carolina.
And yet none of that southern hospitality was what really welcomed Ray. What welcomed Ray was that church members made space for him. They opened their hearts to him. They helped him discover places where he could serve, places where he was a valuable member of the church community. And these were often places you would not expect.
Honestly, when you first see Ray, you would not think he would make a good greeter. Again, his appearance is often disheveled. He looked a bit scruffy, usually unshaven, missing a few teeth. Ray’s voice was deep, scratchy and raspy. In other words, Ray was not the prototypical usher/greeter that you would expect to see at a predominately white Methodist church.
But Ray is a great greeter. He is polite to new people. He knows how to make conversation. He laughs, jokes and makes you feel at home. And in these respects, Ray is the perfect person to have at the front door of your church to welcome folks as they enter.
Our church looked past Ray’s appearance suspended their judgement and made space for Ray to be the amazing greeter and usher that he was. And that is true, unconditional welcome. It is a welcome that makes people feel loved and valued. It is a welcome that I look for everywhere I go. And it is welcome I pray we can embody at Hood Memorial Christian Church.
Welcome will not always be easy. It will require us to suspend judgement, to be creative, to think outside the box. It will cause us to question our boundaries – sometimes bending them, sometimes keeping them in place, sometimes setting new boundaries. It will test what we think of as normal. It will call us to love deeply and be nurturing in ways that we may not be able to imagine today. For in the end, learning to welcome without conditions, especially when it is difficult, will lead us to meet people right where they are, just like Jesus at the Pool of Bethesda and just like God.