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The Cost of Inclusion

The doors may be open, but is that really enough?

There is a hymn that is often sung in churches entitled “All Are Welcome,” and in the fourth verse there is a line that goes:

Here the outcast and the stranger

bear the image of God’s face;
let us bring an end to fear and danger.

All are welcome, all are welcome,
all are welcome in this place.[1]

I have heard this song at reconciliation workshops, Sunday worship, ordinations, and baptisms. Although it may not be the origin of the phrase, “all are welcome,” it certainly has been married to the movement of inclusion. This is especially true in a post-segregation society in which we claim to live and worship.

And why not? “All are welcome,” and its sister phrase, “all means all,” seem to cross the boundaries that society had set so firmly into place. But when we bring everyone into the space without the work of deconstruction to systems of oppression, we are asking the “least of these” in God’s creation to pay the price of their dignity and pain. Are all really welcome in a space that asks the oppressed to offer their hand to their oppressor?

This song gives us the space to explore what we are asking people to do when we say, “all are welcome.” The phrase, “Let us bring an end to fear and danger,” does not ask us to stop making others fearful, it asks the fearful to stop being afraid. Fear is the natural and appropriate response by the oppressed to the dangerous acts of oppressors. It is conjured into being by those who anticipate danger. Now, I understand that the song is talking more broadly about the human condition. We all experience fear at some point in our lives. We have all experienced loss, want, and the need to belong. But when we lack nuance in our work of reconciliation and inclusion, we privilege the oppressor and ask those who have been hurt to pay the price of our welcome.

So, the big question is…should all be welcome? Read more

Firsts: A Response to Showing Up

The author

I was a grown-up — and an ordained grown-up at that — before I really noticed that the line between sheep and goats in Matthew 25 isn’t based on responding to an altar call, praying the sinner’s prayer, refraining from bad behaviors or being baptized.

These are all fine responses to the Gospel, of course, but Jesus’ invitation into the Kingdom literally hinges on showing up with food for the hungry, drink for the thirsty, shelter for the stranger, clothes for the naked, tending for the sick and presence to the imprisoned. “Whatever you do for the least of these, you have done it to me.” These are not just fine responses, but, according to Jesus’ own teaching, our necessary and grateful responses to the grace we have received.

These responses to God’s grace are available to everyone, though perhaps not always in exactly the same way. My necessary and grateful response was made available to me by way of a Charlottesville consortium of faith communities inviting their clergy colleagues from around the country to bear witness, provide direct action, non-violent counter-protest, or offer physical, emotional, and spiritual support during a rally of white supremacists in their city on August 12, 2017. I showed up on Friday night, not knowing what to expect. And the resulting 20 hours were full of firsts for me: Read more

gravestones in a cemetery

Can You Ask Them If They’re Okay With a Woman?

gravestones in a cemetery

“Can you ask them if they’re okay with a woman?”

It was late morning on the Friday after Christmas.  It was one of what feels like only a small handful of days each year when I didn’t have anything really pressing on my to-do list, so I came into the church that morning determined to clean my office.  My time that day felt like a gift – it wasn’t claimed already by someone else, and so I pulled up some music and set about making my space feel, once again, like my own, which almost never takes priority for me.  It had occurred to me, as I walked in, that these are the kinds of days when disasters usually strike, but I dismissed that thought as quickly as it had arrived.

So when the call came in from the city office, it took me a minute to wrap my mind around what the woman on the other end was asking.  Someone needed a pastor, and they needed a funeral in less than two hours.  Wait, what?  Who buries the dead that quickly?  Or if it wasn’t so quick, why hadn’t they called yesterday, or the day before?  Oh, I see, their priest is suddenly unavailable, okay.  And they don’t speak much English.  And you say they’re African immigrants?  They attend the Orthodox Church.  Okay.  It’s for a 6-week-old baby?  Good God.  And just the burial.  Right, just some prayers.  Christian prayers.  They just need a Christian minister; any Christian minister.  Got it.  Okay.

I’m a Christian minister.  A Lutheran one, to be precise.  My church is the first one the city employee had called, and of course I said I was available.  To bury a baby on a moment’s notice for a grieving family on the worst day of their lives?  Can there be more holy work than this?

After I had taken down the few bits and pieces of information the city employee had about the family, I was about to hang up, when I remembered one last thing:

“Can you call the family back first?” I asked the city employee.  “Can you ask them if they’re okay with a woman?”

She scoffed.  I appreciated the guttural expression of support, and I knew what she meant – that this family was desperate for someone to meet this need, and I was both trained and willing to meet it – but still.  “It’s the worst day of their lives,” I said.  “I don’t know anything about their culture, and not enough about their religious beliefs.  Can you just call and make sure?”

She agreed.

She called back within three minutes, her voice sheepish and apologetic.  “You were right to ask,” she said.  “They said that they would much prefer a man.”

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