Sunday, May 09, 2010

Lessons on being a welcoming community ...

Last Sunday, for the first time in over 18 months, I received and accepted an invitation to preach in the pulpit of a United Church Congregation - in this case, it was three services from 9:30 through to 1pm ... I realized as I drove home that for over a year I had the same departure and arrival schedule every Sunday Morning as I made the 120 km drive to Portage for services, then returned home. This week, it was three services, a lunch of muffins, apples, water and bananas as I drove between the three communities outside of Brandon ... Other than coming home at 3pm utterly and totally exhausted, it was good ... it was nice to come home after a three year absence ...

Since then the topic of my sermon (which is posted at Meditative Moments) has been rattling around in me as I've thought more and more about the gap between the perception of inclusivity that the United Church promotes, and the reality of that Inclusivity. Along the way I've been continuing my reading of J. Russell Hale and his book "The Unchurched: who they are and why they stay away."

Yesterday I read the following quotation from Hale:

"The pictures the Locked Out draw pose a challenge to the church's claim of inclusiveness, a universal tenant of the Christian faith. They also document the findings of numerous research studies that conclude that the churches tend to be stratified according to class and caste. These pictures, then, do not produce stories that are new. They do document the persistence of this pattern in American Communities and reveal the deep hurt and hostility that felt rejection by the churches produce. The dissonance between the outsiders' perception of what it means to be "out" and the church's self-understanding in official proclamation that ALL are invited "is" is marked. The stories also put flesh and blood on the bones of statistical findings. " (The Unchurched. P. 131)

As I read Hale's comments I reflected on the MANY judgmental comments - most of which are anonymous - that have been left here as I've spoken of my pain and my hurt from the rejection I've experienced, not just from the self-appointed leadership of Minnedosa United Church, but from their supporters, the people of Presbytery, my colleagues and members of This United Church of ours ... over and over, I've been told to 'move on' ... I've been told to 'let it go' ... I've been cast in the role of villan and I've been BLAMED for everything ... and yet, NO ONE within the United Church of Canada has stopped to ask me why I feel the way I do, or to honestly and openly listen to my story ... over and over I have been pushed out and pushed away and told in NO UNCERTAIN TERMS THAT I WAS THE PROBLEM.

As I've read Hale and others who dare to dance at the margins where those who are UN-churched linger, I have found a deep resonance with my journey in the Church over the last 20 some years ... I believe in the core of my being that being inclusive and welcoming is the ONLY option for the Church. However, in the Church too often that inclusive welcome is completely and utterly CONDITIONAL.

The proof of this came some years ago when the AGM of Conference was discussing their desire to be a AFFIRMING entity. (AFFIRM being the acceptance and welcoming of Lesbian, Gay, and Bi-sexual persons into full membership and activity of the life and ministry of the Church). Over and over speakers stood and talked about the struggle they had experienced and gave the assembly a collective pat on the back for a 'job well done.' Then one of the very prominent members of the order of ministry who has long been an advocate for the inclusion of Gays, Lesbians, and bi-sexuals in the life of the Church rose and shared his experience.

He spoke of feeling excluded ... he spoke of feeling outside ... he spoke of his personal experience and noted that he felt empowered to speak up but expressed a concern for friends and colleagues who do not feel comfortable or safe enough to speak out ... he ended his sharing by saying "we may not be as inclusive as we think we are ..."

The reply from the floor was speaker after speaker who rose to their feet and said that he was wrong ... "we are welcoming ..." they say ... "we are inclusive ... " they shouted ... "we are NOT what you present ..." they protested. And with each response the utter FAILURE to see that if even ONE person feels excluded and unwelcomed - we are NOT INCLUSIVE.

If there is ONE person who feels unsafe - we are not welcoming.
If there is ONE person who feels the disconnect between the words and ideas of the Church and their actual experience - there is work to do !!!

Being a welcoming and inclusive community is not easy. It's hard work and it requires constant vigilance to hear what is being said, what is being experienced and what people are thinking and feeling - not just the outsiders and the Un-Churched, but the people like me, and my colleague who have stood up and dared to share their experience.

When Father Chacour began his ministry in Ibillin, in the Galilean mountains not far from Nazareth, he engaged in actively bringing healing and reconciliation, not just to the Palestinians (of which he is), but within the Community of Ibillin between Christians and Muslims, and within his own Melikite Catholic Church as well.

Chacour's decision one Sunday to chain and lock the door was bold and courageous, but he was motivated by an understanding that a Church community that pretended that divisions and exclusions didn't exist was UNFAITHFUL. He locked the door and told those assembled that he would not unlock the door until reconciliation was achieved ... he trembled in fear as the first olive branches of healing were offered across the divide and the rends that tore families apart were healed ...

In time Abuna, as his village calls him, unlocked the door and the community left that day stronger and united and HEALED ... such is the power of the Holy Spirit at work when the community is HONEST enough to admit, name and OWN their short-comings.

In the United Church of Canada, the stratification by class and caste has become so entrenched that we fail to see how it excludes many and how by failing to even admit this stratification and this exclusionary behaviour exists, we are being profoundly unfaithful.

As one who has been locked out for over three years, I have begun moving back "home" with some trepidation and fear ... Mine is a prophetic voice that takes SERIOUSLY the words of Scriptures, and the examples of people like Elias Chacour, Jim Wallis, Martin Luther King, Mohandas Gandhi, and others who live their faith by acting boldly and pushing the envelope.

To me, the Church is a place where we MUST listen to the voices of those outside so we can reflect critically and accurately on who we are ... I learned a lot about myself by sitting with a circle of learned colleagues who shared their impressions and helped me see myself more accurately ... having them share their vision of me helped me understand myself much better, and helped me engage in the work of healing and wholeness I needed.

I have no problem acknowledging that my journey of healing and wholeness continues, and that I still have long way to go ... but along the way, I've learned that being able to hear the stinging critique of others is the ONLY WAY we will ever find wholeness. Like an alcoholic - my final healing will come when I pass from this life to the next, until then I keep moving forward and keep seeking healing, wholeness and wellness!

Today the United Church of Canada ignores the voices of those on the margins, those who have been pushed out and those who have been locked out at its peril ... The voices - and I am not ashamed to cite my experience as one of those voices - who share their experiences of pain and rejection and all the stuff that runs contrary to the welcome and inclusiveness that is supposed to be the heart of who we are, are voices we MUST have the COURAGE to hear even if they make us uncomfortable. Even if they make us squirm. Even if they hold up a very difficult mirror to gaze into ...

The Church is NOT ours. The Church belongs to God, and our job is to tear down the barriers and walls that keep people out, and welcome in ALL people without condition ... it is an easy statement to make ... it's a harder statement to live !!!

BUT it is fundamental to our calling of faith - to be an open, welcoming community !!

In the meantime ... check out my sermon over at Meditative Moments and stay tuned ... this notion of BEING a WELCOMING and INCLUSIVE community remains one that is near and dear to my heart, and undergirds ALL that I am and ALL that I do in ministry ... and as I draw closer to coming home, it will loom ever larger on the horizon ...


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