Today it hit me when my college roommate facetimed me. For a solid 45 seconds, neither of us had to say anything. Neither of us could say anything. I immediately knew by the tears welling up in both of our eyes that we’re both overwhelmed and we just needed to feel the comfort a dear friend’s face. In those 45 seconds (and the following hour of our conversation), I felt fully known and fully validated and fully loved. I knew that once again I could be 100% myself and it would be 100% okay. And yet, when our free time was over and we both had to return to our separate new lives, I was left questioning. What do you call that familiarity/that comfort? How do you build that? How do you extend that to others? Is there a way to establish it without significant risk or loss? For now, I’ve settled on calling this genuine and inviting welcome. Welcome to join; welcome to share; welcome to accept and contribute love and grace and just plain human connection. Whether we want to admit it or not, welcome is a vital part of our earthly lives and deserves more attention than I believe we typically give it.
I ask these questions about welcome on various levels. Level 1: I am still adjusting to a new place and trying to find my bearings. I’m looking for ways to discover welcome for myself. I don’t plan on being the new, quiet kid that no one really knows for all 3 years of seminary. Level 2: I am interested in being a source of welcome for others (an inclusive, ALL others) while not being overbearing, overwhelming, or flat out creepy. It’s a lot easier said than done. And most importantly, Level 3: I believe the Church is called to extend welcome. This welcome belongs to any member, visitor, leader, or person on the street too afraid to come in.
While I know better than to claim that I have answers for any of my questions on any of my levels, I have come to one conclusion. Welcome deserves, if not demands, attention. We find welcome for ourselves when we seek it (though it may take some time and some vulnerability). We extend welcome to others when we recognize and initiate the effort it requires. And we establish a culture of welcome in the church by building it into the core of the church structure. I might even go as far to say that the church has the potential to spark welcome in the other 2 levels, which adds to the responsibility of the welcome in the church. As I have been visiting churches in my new home, there have actually been a few times where I felt as if I was not fully welcomed. Not in that anyone ignored me or deliberately avoided giving me a bulletin. Rather, the liturgy left me feeling isolated or uneasy, or the disorganization distracted so greatly from the message that I couldn’t focus (and I’m sure that wasn’t reserved just for those of us with OCD), or because I don’t attend that specific church regularly I couldn’t keep up with the melody of the words on the screen, even as a music major. All of these moments of unfulfilled welcome could leave even the most confident person feeling hesitant. We are made for more than that.
I say all of that to prove that we must pay attention to welcome, for the sake of ourselves and the people around us. We are called to love God and love people. Welcome is the spark which ignites the fire of that love. Therefore, we should be overflowing with welcome for all because of the grace and acceptance and love we receive from the Lord our God to begin with. Once again, I preach to myself more than anything else. But think of the good we could do if we paid just a little more attention welcome. Amen.