welcome vs. radical welcome

“We’re never the ones to say whether or not we are welcoming.”  I was struck by this comment, made by a parishioner this past Sunday morning.  It had been a busy and exciting day at St. Elisabeth’s.  The interfaith conversation held with Rabbi Ari Moffic, the Director of Interfaith Families in Chicago, was lively and engaging—the energy in the room was palpable.  Immediately following that session, the Mission Committee held lively discussion about who we are and where we are headed, articulating with passion why they believe our statement both reflects and inspires us.  And late in the day, this comment was made: we’re never the ones to say whether or not we are welcoming.  Deep wisdom.  And so easy for those of us on the inside to forget.

Stephanie Spellers, an Episcopal priest, author and speaker, served as the chaplain to the House of Bishops this past week and the keynoter for the Diocese of Chicago’s convention in 2011.  A person of color who came to the Episcopal church as a young adult, she found her way ‘in’ almost in spite of the unintentional barriers erected by the church.   She has a particular ability to see from both an insider and an outsider perspective.   The book Radical Hospitality: Embracing God, the Other and the Spirit of Transformation was written to help those within the church learn about the spiritual practice of radical welcome.

Stephanie reminds all of us that we who are already on the inside hold a lot of power—whether we recognize that fact or not.  We know how things work, we’re comfortable, for the most part, and we’ve decided this is where we want to be, for the time being at least.  By contrast, those who visit don’t know what it will be like or how things work or who is who.  They may even have been hurt by other church experiences or have preconceived notions about what they’ll find inside. It takes a lot of courage to approach a community of faith, even when you’re spiritually hungry.

Those of us on the inside, who have the power (even if we don’t feel like we do!), need to take the first step, and the second and maybe even the third.  And the way we take a step is to make room for the other—to willingly embrace being a little uncomfortable in order to make space for someone else’s taste, songs, customs and viewpoints.  Being welcoming means enjoying having people like us join ‘our’ church.  Being radically welcoming means embracing the Other and allowing ourselves to be changed, mutually transformed, in the process.

As you practice radical welcome, you join Jesus in stretching your arms and embracing The Other. You share the gifts of your tradition and culture, even as you allow your heart and your congregation’s life – its ministries, its identity, its worship, its relationships, its leadership – to be transformed by The Other’s presence, gifts and power among you.

Have you known what it is like to be on the outside looking in?    Have you ever not been welcomed or accepted?   Have you ever been radically welcomed?

I believe St. Elisabeth’s is taking a step from being very welcoming to embracing the spiritual practice of radical welcome.  The signs are everywhere, and the energy is indeed palpable.  The Spirit of transformation is at work, and it is delightful, even if a bit scary at times.   It is a blessing to be part of this community of faith.