Post Author: Stephanie Kendell
This August, we are presenting a series of articles introducing our newest cohort of Writers in Residence. These young clergy women are gifted writers from a variety of backgrounds, denominations, and ministry settings, who will share their voices on Fidelia regularly over the next two years. We are so delighted to have the opportunity to share their work with you.
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.
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?
Assuming that there is an “all” to begin with, there are two working answers at this time in our world. The first is yes. Yes, all should be welcome. However, that open-door policy needs to come with thought, care, and conversation. “All are welcome” does not mean all are welcome and expected to share space at the same time. It is why intersectional dialogue is not only a vital tool in the academy but a necessary commitment from faith leaders as we move forward in times of injustice. If we claim we are an inclusive church and ministry, we have to plan for a sacred space for all who come through the door and desire to walk with us. To that end, faith leaders need to make sure that their churches are educated and ready to claim that reality.
I know of a person who shared that they were a same-gender-loving person with his church community. He felt that after years in the congregation, and hearing “all are welcome” each Sunday, they could finally share this part of themself with others in this space. After all, at Communion each week his congregation proclaimed Christ as the host of the table and declared without exception that, “all means all.” However, once he shared his truth, congregants made worship a hurtful space by saying unkind things, and even refusing to pass the peace with him.
This church used the language of “all” to be an exclusive code that meant you were welcome if you were similar in identity to the majority of the congregation. This person chose to attend that church and eventually chose to leave. The cost of his silence was too high a price. But what happens when you have not given consent but are required to pay the price?
With the alarming spread and vocalization of alt-right ideologies paired with systemic oppressive structures such as white supremacy, and hidden under the lens of the first amendment, our claim of universal welcome becomes even more complicated. When we say, “all are welcome” in a context of racial oppression and white supremacy, we may be asking our most marginalized and victimized congregants and communities to pay the price of their safety, without their consent.
Basically, when we invite someone’s oppressor into a space, mainly church, without involving the people who are oppressed in the conversation, we automatically take the side of the oppressor. For example, by saying “all are welcome,” we may unintentionally ask a woman who has suffered from abuse to worship alongside a person with a history of sexual assault. It is in that understanding of hospitality that we also ask people of color to worship with white supremacists, or people in the LGBTQIA+ community to share space with homophobes. Because we, as faith leaders, have in large part not addressed the systemic violence that has built our institutions.
When we say “all are welcome,” we at best deprioritize the safety of the most vulnerable and at worst cause more harm and perpetuate violence and oppression. Faith leaders who are silent on issues of white supremacy and other systems of injustice, yet claim an “all are welcome” policy, continue the understanding that it is the oppressed who must continue to pay with their safety for the chance to belong.
Of course, the other option is to say “all are not welcome here.” To most “progressive” Christians, that sounds awful. Churches are already facing a decline in membership, so it feels antithetical to the work of building church, to not open our doors wide enough for all people. However, what I am suggesting is actually pastoral. Telling someone that the congregation is not ready to accept them, is different than saying Christ does not accept them. Another church just may be a better partner for their journey. It sounds mean and honest because it is. But churches are meant to be honest places, and sometimes they can also be hurtful, but hopefully neither are done with malicious intent.
So, perhaps the question isn’t “should all be welcome?” but a more personal question for your congregation and faith leaders of, “can all be welcome here?”
There is a quote by poet Danez Smith in his poem “summer, somewhere” that says:
“…Please don’t call us dead, call us alive someplace better…”
Smith calls us to recognize that not all are welcome in the same place at the same time, but that all are in fact welcome in the kin-dom. It is the responsibility of faith leaders to hold with care, and pastorally journey with, each individual congregant, as we each come to understand the limits of our current commitment to hospitality, and share the vision of the kin-dom we aim for.
If we are to stretch ourselves open wide enough to encompass all, then we must also be brave enough to say, we are not there yet. Being a community that shares the struggles of its growth by honestly sharing its shortcomings and sending people to a space that they may be able to share themselves fully is closer to the vision of God’s kin-dom that we so long to build.
As faith leaders we are called to build a kin-dom that not only welcomes everyone, but is also built with everyone in mind. But that must mean that everyone pays the same price of acceptance and with the same cost of support. God’s love is big enough for all, but our churches are made by human hands and human hearts. We need to continue to ask ourselves, “Where are we now?” “Where do we want to be?” and “How do we get there?” When we seek to open our doors a little bit wider, we must be prepared to do the work. Because what we learn from Jesus is that the price of inclusion is life…but eternal life is also our greatest reward.
Marty Haugen, “All Are Welcome,” (GIA Publications, Inc., 1950), http://www.stjohns-lc.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/All-Are-Welcome.pdf
Danez Smith, Don’t Call Us Dead, Graywolf Press ,(Minneapolis, MN, 2017), 3.
The Rev. Stephanie Kendell is Executive Minister at Park Avenue Christian Church (The Park). She received her Master of Divinity with an additional certificate in History, Theology, and Ethics from Brite Divinity School. Ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Stephanie is passionate about justice-seeking ministries that aid in the value and understanding of intersectional perspectives.
Stephanie is a native of the San Francisco Bay Area where she continues to be an avid supporter of the San Francisco Giants. In 2005, she graduated with a degree in Musical Theater and Theater Arts from the University of Redlands. Before her call to ordained ministry, Stephanie was a Producer and Operations Manager for an international theatrical marketing agency based in Los Angeles.
Image by: Felicity_Kate11
Used with permission